Prophet of Their Own: Literature and the Sermon

Clyde Fant  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 10 - Spring 1968

In 1523 Martin Luther wrote a letter which showed his opinion of the importance of literature for Christianity: 

I am persuaded that without knowledge of literature pure theology cannot at all endure, just as heretofore, when letters have declined and lain prostrate, theology, too, has wretchedly fallen and lain prostrate; nay, I see that there has never been a great revelation of the Word of God unless He has first prepared the way by the rise and prosperity of languages and letters, as though they were John the Baptists… Certainly it is my desire that there shall be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible, because I see that by these studies, as by no other means, people are wonderfully fitted for the grasping of sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and happily . . . Therefore I beg of you that at my request (if that has any weight) you will urge your young people to be diligent in the study of poetry and rhetoric.[1]Martin Luther, “Letter to Eoban Hess, March 29, 1953,” Vol. II of Luther’s Correspondence, trans, and ed. Preserved Smith and Charles M. Jacobs (United Lutheran Publication House, 1918), pp. 176-77.

That may be surprising to some people. We hardly expect to find such a high estimate of the worth of literature for Christianity as early as four centuries ago—and by Brother Martin, at that. 

Furthermore, look at his reasoning: a study of literature, “as by no other means,” wonderfully fits people to grasp and deal with sacred truth. It would be hard to improve upon that evaluation; but we can ask what that means to us, if it is true, and perhaps expand upon it somewhat. 

Frankly, after years of sermon-listening, it is obvious to me that many preachers do not have such an opinion of the worth of literature—or at least their sermons do not reflect it. Nor is that so hard to understand: after all, why bother with it? Isn’t it the preacher’s job to proclaim divine truth, share special revelation, not quote Shakespeare or Faulkner? Has the preacher been called to sacred proclamation or secular bookreviewing? Is he supposed to instruct men in the ways of God or impress them with knowledge of obscure by-ways in literature? Why bother with it?  

That’s a fair question, and honestly put. It deserves a fair answer. 

To begin with, literature is worth bothering with because it helps the preacher understand: the times he lives in, trouble he’s never had, people he’s never met, emotions he’s never felt— and some he has. Luccock says that “literature is of first concern for religion… in that it shows the symptoms of a time, its needs, its voids, its sore spots, its hopes, its despairs. The competent novelist of any period is an indispensable diagnostician for anyone who would heal the hurt of humanity.”[2]Halford Luccock, Contemporary American Literature and Religion (Chicago: Willet, Clark & Co., 1934), p. 14. 

Mueller agrees: “Those of us who somehow suspect that all is not well, and who know that we are ill without knowing the temper of our disease, will find our condition nowhere more expertly diagnosed than in the pages of the most perceptive novelists of our time.”[3]William R. Mueller, The Prophetic Voice in Modern Fiction (New York: Association Press, 1959), pp. 13-14. Literature reveals the dilemma of man. 

It reveals it, someone says, but can it cure it? Can it point man to the way out? Isn’t that precisely its failure? 

Yes and no. Yes, in a sense, John Killinger would say: modern literature scarcely reflects the mighty facts that are central to the Christian faith, or even the essential mood of it.[4]John Killinger, The Failure of Theology in Modern Literature (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1963), pp. 16-17. No, Merrill Abbey would say, because that isn’t the purpose of literature: 

“To demand that the novelist preach the gospel is to misunderstand his task. As an artist he is called to see life sensitively, enter deeply into its characters, and honestly report what he sees.” [5]Merrill R. Abbey, “Religious Implications of the Contemporary Novel,” Adult Student (January, 1963), p. 12.

This is a fascinating question, but unfortunately one too big to really examine in this article. At least this can be said: regardless of what the novelist should do, he has not conveyed much of the Christian message; you will only waste your time and that of men in search of redemption if you merely relay to them the message of modern literature.[6]Killinger, p. 15.   On the other hand, the preacher who knows literature will know the world he must speak to, his own world, God’s world in this day. And that’s worth bothering with. 

Nor is that all literature can do for the preacher. Literature, just because it is not altogether Christian, can speak to men who aren’t either. That is, literature can be a tool to communicate with; it can be interpreted to speak truth in language acceptable to secular men. 

I am not ashamed to say that good sermon illustrations come from literature: that is a practical and useful thing, and I will say more about that in a moment. But I want it plainly understood that you don’t start there—that is, you don’t pick up a book to go beach-combing through magnificent literature looking for pretty shells to decorate your homiletic shelves. Literature, in all of its infinite richness and variety and depth, first helps the preacher to understand. Then, if properly used, it can help others to understand. 

By its nature, literature is perfectly equipped to do that. As a tool for communication—and we’ve got to use all we can legitimately get—literature is scarcely without equal. It talks about real things, vigorous, emotional, thought-provoking things, and it does it in street language. Sure, some of it is raw. You’ve got to show taste and good judgment in its use. But properly used, literature can be a gap-bridger between unredeemed man and sacred truth. 

Just because they are in need, men do not prize divine revelation as they ought: so they may sooner believe that man is in desperate shape when they are shown it in The Dark at the Top of the Sairs or Long Day’s Journey into Night than in the first chapter of Romans. Perhaps they shouldn’t; the fact is, they do. 

So the preacher can help men believe the truth by showing them that their own prophets (the novelists, the poets) speak the same things—not in the same language, nor with the same conclusions—but inescapably seeing the same calamities and wistfully seeking the same goals. (Paul knew that. Remember? “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, has said… ” Titus 1:12) 

Using contemporary literature, it is no trick to show modern man that his own prophets agree with the Christian estimate of man: that he is desperately, even fatally ill. To show that the Christian answer to this ailment is reasonable takes more skill, but it can be done if you first understand that the difference Christianity has with these prophets is in method; there is agreement as to goal.  

For it is true, you see: Jesus came to bring life. Not anything else. And that is what men are seeking. The novelists and dramatists and poets all describe that search. They record the agonies and the majesties of it, the deadends and senseless eddies of it. Sometimes they preach, too, and say which passage in the labyrinth they would choose, and it is the blind leading the blind all over again: but that’s not the point. The point is, they are seeking life—life, in all its fulness and richness and completeness. 

They may praise pain, or rhapsodize over death, or congratulate inconclusiveness, or glorify the anodyne of drink, or sex, or power; no matter. They are seeking life as it ought to be, and they don’t know how to find it, nor even what it is. Their methods are wrong, and their conclusions are wrong, but they want what Jesus brought: life and that more abundantly. 

From there on, revelation must speak and the Gospel must be heard; you will not find much of it in literature (just as you do not make your way to the “fulness of the God-head” through nature, or other religions, or humanistic sciences or reasonings). 

For Camus will call God the “Death-Bringer,” and his Fall goes the wrong way; and Sarte says “hell is other people,” and there is NO EXIT; and Hemingway’s heroes resemble him, tragically enough—luminous and earthy and jaded, ending it all with his big toe in the trigger of a shotgun; and the bleak despair of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is precisely that because there is no incarnation and therefore no abundant life; and for Swinburne, “dead men rise up never,” and “even the weariest river winds somewhere to the sea.”[7]“Garden of Proserpine” 

Beyond all of this—and perhaps even more crucial—Shaw and Twain and a cast of thousands can admire the Christfigure while ridiculing any idea of taking seriously what he said; while H. G. Wells, William Cowper and company never seem to decide about it at all. 

I could, of course, easily show a list of writers where the Christian tradition, consciously or unconsciously, is more clearly reflected: ranging all the way from Browning to T. S. Eliot, with Dostoevski, Auden, Fry, et al, added for good measure. And even in such an unlikely source as Sallinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the dream of the boy is redemptive: to stand in the ryefield and catch all of the people who blindly seek to leap from the cliff. 

But to do so would be to pit the “good guys” against the “bad guys,” which is to miss the whole idea. We must not go through literature looking for people to agree with us, or to present an apologetic for the faith. We may agree more with one writer but learn more from another with whom we do not agree at all. 

Quickly, then—for it is obvious we are crossing a land far broader than we can explore thoroughly—what have we learned about the relation of literature to the sermon? 

Literature can help. It can help the preacher to understand—himself, others, his world. That is its first function. Then, if properly used, it can also help others to understand and accept truths beyond them; for literature plainly reveals the human dilemma, and if it fails in finding answers, at least it is serious about looking. For even the emptiest and barest world of the novel can cause the most complacent of souls to stir uneasily; the cruelest, flatest ending can make a man say, “it shouldn’t end that way”—which, in a way, is exactly what Jesus came to tell us, wasn’t it? 

But in this secondary role as a communication tool—for I firmly believe that the primary value of literature is in itself, whether it is “used” or not—how do we use it “properly”? Can it be usefully cited in a sermon? 

Obviously, I think, yes. It would be abnormal to expect a preacher to know literature thoroughly, for its own sake, and then demand that he never refer to it. Why shouldn’t he? If his eyes see color, beauty, suffering, we do not forbid his sharing it; we expect his sermons to be touched with life everywhere else—why not in the world of his reading? 

Nevertheless, there are some warnings and suggestions that need to be heard if we are to use literature to the best advantage. 

In the first place, you must keep clearly in mind your purpose in citing a passage of literature in a sermon: to help others understand truth whether it be a truth for the mind to ponder, or a true emotion for the will to act upon. Literature must not be used for anything less. If it is ever used to window-dress the sermon, to display your eminent good taste or intellect, then you have abused both literature and the sermon. This one fault has properly infuriated more lovers of literature and lovers of the Gospel than any other in the relationship between literature and the sermon. 

Another warning may be in order. The sermon does not preach literature. It preaches the Gospel. Even if an entire sermon should be devoted to one work of literature—and there is some question about the general usefulness of that—such as Buttrick’s Harvard sermon[8]“Expiation,” Sermons Preached in a University Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1959), pp. 179-86.   on The Fall by Camus and Gordon’s Princeton sermon[9]“The Winter of Our Discontent,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin, XV (January, 1962), pp. 44-47. on The Winter of Our Discontent by Steinbeck, the sermon is still the Gospel as seen and not seen by those works. 

In short, the tail must not wag the dog—an unflattering analogy for all concerned, but unfortunately I don’t think of a better one. Literature can be a part of the sermon, and a useful parts; but it must not become the authority of the proclamation. The Gospel must not “renounce completely its own nature ... if it is confident of its own authority, then it cannot willingly surrender its hegemony to painting or literature or music or anything else, regardless of how diagnostic of the human situation, or how therapeutic, or even how salutory that particular form of the fine arts may be.”[10]Killinger, p. 15.

Furthermore, the literature cited must be aptly chosen. If it does not illumine the issue in question, the sermon would be better off without it. Stewart warns against this use of an illustration which does not illustrate the subject but is thrown in as a brilliant story: “No matter how vivid it might be in itself, if it does not immediately light up the particular truth under discussion, exclude it ruthlessly.”[11]James Stewart, Heralds of God (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946) p. 143.

That suggests also another warning: either your hearers must be familiar with the material quoted, or else the passage cited must make sense apart from its context. Passing allusions to unfamiliar material may gratify your ego, but they will hardly help anybody to understand anything.  

For example, there are groups that would understand a reference to Banquo’s ghost[12]Macbeth   as an allusion to guilt; others would not get the point at all; and I have preached in some rural churches where they would lock up anybody who talked about ghosts, Banquo’s or anybody else’s. 

If, however, a brief description of the scene were given, or if enough of the passage itself could be quoted to convey the meaning or the mood you wanted, the reference might have telling effect. Assuming too much knowledge of a given piece of literature is a sure way to alienate much of your audience; whereas a simple explanation can make meaningful the most esoteric selection, whatever the source. Again, Paul said it long ago: “It is better to speak one word with understanding …” 

It is also useful to remember the place of the literature in the hierarchy of symbols and act accordingly. 

That is, all verbal symbols stand for pictures of objects. But some stand closer to pictures than others: some words immediately call to mind the picture they represent (like “dog,” “bird,” etc. ), others stand one step away ( like “canine,” which equals “dog,” or “avis,” which equals “bird”). Combinations of these abstract words stand yet one step farther removed from the picture you want your audience to see. 

The hierarchy of symbols, then, descends from the real object to pictures of the object; to concrete words; to abstract words; to simple combinations of concrete words; to complex combinations of abstract words. Consequently, it is wise in preaching to use words which are as vivid and concrete as possible. 

There are concepts, of course, that are abstract in themselves and removed from common picture-language. These concepts cannot be avoided entirely, nor should they be. But if the preacher uses abstract language very long, the listener soon stops listening. What can be done about it? 

One remedy is to alternate picture language with abstract idea-language. The preacher that does not talk too long in an abstract, dense, compact way before interspersing bright, vivid, clear pictures will find his audience listening more continuously and understanding more readily. 

Literature is one of our finest sources for these vivid pictures. Many stories, poems, and dialogues fit into the most immediate category of picture-language. Such illustrations from literature communicate to people the mood or thoughts of abstract idea-language in a more direct and understandable way.  

Using illustrations in this way may be termed “alternative repetition.” That is, the story or poem says the same thing as the harder-to-understand, abstract idea, only it says it in more immediate picture-language. The illustration repeats the same idea in an alternative fashion. The entire procedure capitalizes upon repetition, so essential for clarity in communication. 

So much for suggestions on technique. As for sources of rich insights in literature, the whole library of the world stretches before you. Specifically, the authors I have already named are worth anybody’s time. Your own taste will add sources. 

If you have not thoroughly examined the field, I might suggest a few others. Among the action writers read Kipling, Jack London, Robert Service; among the nineteenth century poets, Tennyson, Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, Francis Thompson; among the later poets, John Masefield, Vachael Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Louise MacNiece, Dylan Thomas. 

What a world to choose from: Charles Williams and Tennessee Williams; Norman Mailer and Graham Greene; Kafka and Kierkegaard; Thomas Wolfe, by all means, and Thomas Mann. Nor should anyone miss the experience of reading Herman Melville or John Steinbeck, Tolstoi or Faulkner. There is no end to such a list; but these, with those already mentioned, will hold you for a while—and profitably. 

But where in the world do you start? Personally, I follow and recommend a six-fold reading plan. One half-day per week, at least, should be set aside for reading in non-biblical materials. And rather than reading from one book during one week and one another, you will read wider and more satisfactorily ιif you read from six sources simultaneously. 

Here’s how it works. Select six books from six different categories of literature. Read a while from each book every week. Bracket in pencil those passages you want typed out. Drop in a note card at that page, and keep on reading. Type out these excerpts, or give the books to your secretary to type, once each week. Put the cards in a drawer, and scan through the stack when sermon writing. Many appropriate uses will suggest themselves. (I like this method better than indexing, since one illustration can fit many topics. File or index these cards after preaching, either by topic or with the sermon itself.) 

What are the six categories? They are arbitrary. Suit yourself. I would include the novel; historical material (fiction and non-fiction); biography (such as Baruch; The Public Years; From Pagen to Christian, Lin Yutang); diaries and journals (Markings, Dag Hammerskjold; Notebooks, Camus; Whitefield and Wesley’s Journals); poetry (separate volumes and anthologies; One Hundred Modern Poems; A Treasure of Christian Verse). The sixth I leave open for any miscellaneous work that comes to my attention. You may fill it with a special interest field, such as drama or science. 

When I finish a book in any category, I replace it with one of the same category. In that way my reading can be comprehensive and planned, yet varied. I read in any book I like, as long as I like. 

A program of this sort will prove to be one of the most rewarding things a preacher can do. It will provide a practical way for the preacher to get the help literature can provide: aiding his understanding of life, in and of itself; and serving as a communication tool to help others understand the Christian message. 

If you have further interest in the broad area of the relation of literature to the sermon, I suggest you read Killinger, The Failure of Theology in Modern Literature; Nathan Scott, Modern Literature and the Religious Frontier; Steward Randall, American Literature and Christian Doctrine; Ronald Sleeth, Proclaiming the Word; Amos Wilder, Modern Poetry and the Christian Tradition 

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