“We need to recognize that art is art, the pulpit is the pulpit, and while the two might cross paths from time to time, they are completely different animals.” from What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking.
What makes a good sermon? To answer this question, take a look back to the 1700’s at Reformed preacher Jonathan Edwards, whose preaching helped spark the Great Awakening. As difficult as it is to believe, Edwards preaching was notably NOT entertaining, and yet thousands were impacted when he preached.
It was not due to theatrics. One observer wrote, “He scarcely gestured or even moved, and he made no attempt by the elegance of his style or the beauty of his pictures to gratify the taste and fascinate the imagination.” Instead he convinced “with overwhelming weight of argument and with such intenseness of feeling.
You see, a potentially powerful sermon preached needs to do one thing – communicate the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If it does so in an artistic, entertaining, or dramatic manner, that is fine, but the point should never be to simply be artistic, entertaining, or dramatic. If you are a pastor trying to figure out the next best way to entertain your congregation, you are making a big mistake. If you are a youth minister and you are thinking that you need to entertain the kids in your youth group, then you will probably end up with entertained kids who will remain unsaved. If you aren’t basing your sermons on the word of God, you’ll find that you’re no better than Dr. Harrison Everett Breen of New York City.
Again – the Message can be delivered in an entertaining way, but entertainment should never be the point.
On the flip side, the primary point of good art should never be the message. I quoted Frank Capra in my original post, and this quote has also been attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union”. Think about this very carefully. The best “message” art is the art that doesn’t clearly communicate the message, but it forces the viewer to hunt for it.
I will give some examples from different artists.
Homeless Jesus by Timothy Schmalz.
Musically, I am a big fan of David Wilcox, a singer/songwriter who sings songs with very deep and contemplative messages, but you often have to search for the messages.
One of the most powerful “message” films I’ve seen is Shawshank Redemption. A wonderfully challenging film, difficult to watch in parts, with one of the most stirring soundtracks ever. And the film delivers impacting, layered messages. (Be forewarned: there are a couple of swear words in this clip.)
Hopefully, these examples demonstrate effectively that if you are an artist – Christian or otherwise – and you want to clearly communicate a message to an audience who may not be receptive to that message, then it pays to avoid clearly communicating the message.
Isn’t this a method that Jesus employed frequently? When Jesus was with the masses who came to watch him hoping to see something fantastic, he would tell parables that were often not clear to the hearers, to the point that he had to explain the meaning to his closest friends when the crowds had dispersed. Eugene Peterson, calls this subversive spirituality in his book, “The Contemplative Pastor”, a book I would recommend to all pastors. Peterson compares Jesus’ parables to “time bombs that would explode in unprotected hearts…these word-story bombs would go off in the heart of the listener leaving an abyss at their very feet. He was talking about God; they had been invaded…”
Shouldn’t this also be the role of good art?
To sum up my unpacking:
• The greatest value in art is when it makes us look closer and ask questions.• The greatest value in preaching is when it points us to the answers.
• Art can have a message, but usually attracts us because it doesn’t blare that message.
• Preaching delivers a clear message directly from the word of God. That message may cause us to ask questions, but will ultimately point to the cross as the ultimate answer.
More unpacking to come. Meanwhile, make sure you’ve read my other two posts!
And also, please consider downloading my newly released novel, Thimblerig’s Ark.