Preaching Is an Incarnational Event
Richard Ward brings to the study of preaching a rich background in performance studies and practices. He is particularly interested in the arts of storytelling and oral interpretation of Scripture as they inform and enrich the ministry of preaching. Dr. Ward is the author of Speaking from the Heart: Preaching with Passion and a number of contributions and articles for the disciplines of homiletics, performance theory and communication studies. His latest book, Speaking of the Holy: The Art of Communication Preaching, was published in May 2002. He is also the co-editor of Craddock Stories with Mike Graves and Fred Craddock, also published in 2002. At present, Dr. Ward serves on the Editorial Board for the Lectionary Commentary Series for Westminster John Knox Press.
Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Dr. Ward holds memberships in the Academy of Homiletics, where he serves as facilitator for the Performance Studies Group. He has also held memberships in the National Communication Association, the Religious Communication Association, and the International Network of Biblical Storytellers.
Dr. Ward was the first occupant of the Clement-Muehl Chair in Communication Arts at Yale Divinity School and has served on the faculty of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. We met with him in his office during the summer session at Iliff.
HOMILETICS: The subtitle of your book Speaking of the Holy is: The Art of Communication in Preaching. Do many people, after they’ve listened to a sermon, say, “Wow, that was a thing of beauty!”? When I stand in front of a Picasso I might go away totally confused. “What in the world is he trying to do?” Preaching as art?
WARD: I don’t think that people walk away very often from a sermon and say, “Wow, that was really artful!” They might say something like, “That was really effective” or, “I got a lot out of that” or, “That really spoke to me,” and they often use images of emptiness.
HOMILETICS: So when they stop you at the door and say, “Pastor, that was a good sermon,” they mean, “That really spoke to me.”
WARD: They could be operating out of a sense of “I’m obliged” to say something like that. Or they could be very sincere and they’re saying, “There was something of substance there that I don’t quite know how to name.”
The question is, What goes into those moments where a listener or a community or a church would say, “I got a lot out of that.” One of the ways of thinking about that is to realize that there was, in fact, artful communication. By that I mean, it went beyond simply giving information. There was something present in the sermon that was mysterious but at the same time accessible.
HOMILETICS: So the art is on the side of the one who is offering it in that moment in time. But the artistic process is also involved in what we might call the pre-preaching event?
WARD: Absolutely. It’s helpful to think of preaching as an art form because it links us to the creativity of God. To think of the sermon as a creative act. It offers a creative interpretation, a fresh interpretation, something that comes out of the preacher’s own experience. And if the preacher has not yet experienced it, but it’s a sermon that’s pointing to an experience of the people of God, in a way that the preacher finds compelling, then the preacher wants to find the appropriate vehicle, in this case a sermon, to lead the listener to the same kind of discovery as the preacher has had. “Could this be the case?” “Could that be true?” This is what a preacher wants to lead a listener to. And the hope is that that experience is congruent with, in some way, the received tradition in which the preacher is standing, but at the same time, something that interrogates that tradition or traditions. Something that pushes on those traditions.
I think that’s the function of good art, whatever the medium. It reflects the human experience, in this case the human experience before God, and in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. You don’t want someone coming out of the preaching event saying, “I admire that as a thing of beauty.”
I think of the woman who brought the bottle of nard and broke it open. If the sermon is in fact an artfully created event, the point is to bring it in —
HOMILETICS: — And break it open.
WARD: And break it open so the Spirit can be released. Not that we come in to admire the beauty of the box, a box that is never broken, opened.
HOMILETICS: The title of the book we’re talking about — you have a number of them — is Speaking of the Holy. You’re suggesting that when we preach, we’re speaking of the Holy, so we better do a good job of it.
WARD: I think preaching deserves our best effort. We do it as an offering. When I preach, for example, it’s helpful to realize that I’m making my best effort at bringing an offering into the sacred place where we encounter the Holy, or where there’s a good possibility that the Holy will meet us there.
And I say “the Holy” because I like to think of it that way because “Holy” seems to reach farther and cast a broader net than specific theological language. However, I don’t back off from using traditional Christian theology, talking about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. “Holy” for me, seems to evoke God beyond God, something we’re always reaching for, which the language or grammar of Christian theology only catches a glimpse of.
HOMILETICS: So the preacher is dealing with that which is “Holy,” yet preaching often becomes a chore. How come?
WARD: I think every art has aspects of chore. It’s hard to distinguish the artful part from the crafting part, in any art form. There’s a certain amount of discipline. This feels like a chore today. This feels like a craft today. This feels like simply “showing up.”
HOMILETICS: The paint has to be mixed.
WARD: The notes have to be put down on the staff! There’s just that part of it. I think that’s one of the things that makes preaching incarnational. It comes out of this very human, tedious effort. So when I say I give it my best effort, it doesn’t mean that every moment is charged with inspiration. I like to think of it as creating a vessel. Creating a vessel or a jar, it’s going to have a crack in it, it’s going to have a flaw. It is by its very imperfection that which God chooses to enter.
HOMILETICS: You come right out and say that preaching is a performance.
HOMILETICS: Don’t you get some resistance when you say that?
WARD: Absolutely! [laughs] In the book I do some exegesis of the term. The reason I talk about it as performance is that it’s more descriptive than the word “delivery.”
HOMILETICS: Is there a difference between the two?
WARD: It’s a nuanced difference. Performance, for me, is a richer, fuller term than delivery. I use the term out of cultural anthropology more than anything. Certainly there is a reference to the aesthetic and the theatrical arts, but the sense in which I use it comes out of Victor Turner’s work with ritual theory in which he used performance as a way of understanding how the ritual identities of individuals change through say, for example, rites of initiation.
I think something like that is happening in preaching. The nature of a sermon is transformed through the act of speaking and enacting and embodying it. It becomes something inscribed on paper — perhaps — or maybe a thought that is fully formed in the mind then becomes changed in the act of speaking it in the context of worship.
HOMILETICS: It does become changed. Most sermons are not easy to read. So you talk about the “performance” as an embodied witness.
WARD: To me there is a fullness, a quality of fullness when it is embodied — it’s going to be embodied one way or the other, and it’s going to be embodied according to certain conventions that guide in the shaping of the sermon. I think Tom Troeger is one of those who say that in certain cultures bodies are used very differently in worship. Bodies are involved differently in the Pentecostal Church than in the Episcopal Church. But bodies are involved. Preaching is going to reflect that embodiment that’s in that particular tradition.
HOMILETICS: But you can’t use the word “performance” and not link that to an understanding that the body is going to be active.
WARD: So the question that comes out of that is: “How is the body involved and how does the body fit the spirit, the attitude, the thought, the effect of the sermon as it is in fact coming through the voice and gesture of the preacher?” So the question is not whether or not I’m going to use my body, or whether or not the sermon is “performed” but the question is “how?” Then, according to what the preacher hopes for or aims for in the sermon and in the preaching moment, the preacher can then consider what she or he wants to do differently with that insight, with the idea that your body can be involved differently, your body can be more expressive of what you’re accomplishing, of what you want to do.
Perhaps the word would be “aware.” Your body becomes aware of what you’re doing, rather than simply wondering whether you’ve raised your hands in a certain way or established eye contact. It’s a matter of what you want to do in the preaching moment that will make the body alert to what’s happening in the sermon.
And alertness and aliveness don’t have to mean movement. A person can be absolutely alive and alert to what is happening in the sermon.
HOMILETICS: You use the bow and arrow model of communication.
WARD: That’s an old Aristotelian model. The Shannon-Weaver model was in the textbooks of the 40s and 50s when radio and television were emerging, and they were trying to describe ancient communication theory as a bow and arrow. James Carey worked with that as being descriptive of a North American culture, for example, of how communication happened, and that communication model was being shaped by its experience in radio and television: senders, messages and receivers. The metaphor of the bow and arrow seemed to be descriptive of what happened in, say, a radio transmission: Shoot your message and aim for the target. Old as Aristotle, really.
But then as we began to look at how communication was happening as television, digital technology and other forms of media were being developed, that seemed too simplistic.
But any communication theory has to account for senders, receivers and messages. They’re just more multiform. The question is: “In what sense are listeners senders of messages?” Or, “How can one locate a message in one particular thing?” Messages are being communicated; so in any given church service, sites for communication abound.
So when we’re talking about the preaching moment, we’re talking about a particular site for analysis, trying to understand what’s going on in that transaction.
And for me, it’s helpful to think about that in performance terminology, as a way of saying, “What is happening in the preaching moment?” Form is coming through. Something is coming through. Something is being enacted and embodied that we associate with thought.
Thought is being enacted, displayed, demonstrated. Thought is taking shape as flesh and sound. Pierre Babin calls it “truth in modulation.” It’s a wonderful expression.
It all boils down to this: “What is going to assist the church in having a vital preaching ministry?” We can speculate all we want about it “ought to be this, or it ought to be that.” If we’re going to be faithful to the gospel, particularly in the Protestant church, then faithfulness to the gospel means having a vitality in the ministry of the pulpit, or if there’s not a pulpit, a ministry of proclamation.
HOMILETICS: Good preachers used to be called good pulpiteers! [laughter all around] You talk about the R’s of preaching: Reading, Reciting and Retelling, and you spend some time discussing how preaching as performance includes the actual reading of Scripture.
WARD: We’re coming out of a time — at least in my context, which is the only thing I can speak from — in which the whole idea of reading is being transformed. It includes sitting down and decoding inscribed marks on pages in solitary silence. That whole phenomenon is fairly recent in human history. It was made possible by a highly literate culture such as we have, that has given way to another way of reading, a dominant way of reading the Bible, for example. We’re not part of a generation where a lot of people sit down and read the Bible. What I can no longer assume, if I am preaching in many Protestant churches — perhaps this isn’t true in many evangelical churches — is that the person to whom I am preaching has read or had much experience at all with the Scripture through reading.
So I go with a sort of bottom line. What if this is the only time during the week that something like sacred writing such as we find in Scripture is going to be heard? And if I have not taken that into account and I read as if it is something that everyone has been reading all week, and I can be casual and not very attentive to it, then that’s going to make preaching all the more difficult.
But if I’m reading it as though “This is important and has something to say, and I’m going to expound on this in my sermon” then I have a better shot at making some kind of claim that I see as congruent with Scripture.
So it doesn’t mean that I want to call attention to my reading, but I want to read in such a way that calls attention to the strangeness of the text.
HOMILETICS: But that involves some dramatic technique.
WARD: It involves attentiveness. It’s more than a question of dramatics. What’s dramatic? Bottom line, what’s dramatic is that we’re bringing another voice into the assembly and the voice seems to belong to Isaiah, or Mark, or John of Patmos. These other voices from these other places are being brought into the assembly and we’re calling these voices authoritative voices. That’s dramatic in and of itself.
Given that, how do I awaken my own voice and my body to the presence of these words and to the history that’s behind them and to the generations of interpretation? But you can’t do that in a single reading. But I can bring the quality of intentionality, or responsiveness or some sense of “This text has affected me as a reader in some way” and the way that I’m going to communicate that effect is that I’m going to use my voice and body in such a way that responds to this text. The sermon becomes the place where I expound upon that, elaborate on that. The text then becomes the prompt for some further reflection. When I, as the preacher bound to a textual tradition, am expounding on this text, I am actually giving the text a new future, opening up new possibilities for the text to do its work.
And I do that because that’s part of the task to which I am ordained as a minister of word and sacrament.
So I’ve made a whole lot in my writing and career out of the question “What does inattentive reading — reading that does not respond or is not alive to the possibilities of the text — what does that suggest about the way we view Scripture?” Too often we view the reading of Scripture as disposal, as something we can read as a shopping list so that we can get on with the good stuff which is our sermon [laughter all around]. Yet if we are in fact attentive to the text we’re preaching from, all week long we have a relationship with it. We keep coming back to it, we question it, it questions us, we interpret it. Why not find a way to communicate what that text has meant to us this week?
HOMILETICS: What’s the difference between reading the Scripture and what you call “reciting” the Scripture?
WARD: Reciting Scripture means that I internalize it. I take the text as I find it and take the extra step of engaging in the discipline of internalizing that text and telling it. I do that for a number of reasons. For me, personally, I hope that it’s not to show off that I can memorize this. For me, it’s an act of devotion, it’s a way of reverencing the text. It gets the text inside of me. When it’s inside of me, I find that I have a different relationship to it. It speaks in a different way. It becomes more like prayerful attention.
And then, historically, in the history of interpretation, there was a time when these texts were experienced primarily through recitation. To my mind, something was in the traditions of communication that are described as recitations or oral reading, oral interpretation, that the early church found vital.
HOMILETICS: Go back farther. Ezra stood and read the Scriptures and people flocked to hear him do so.
WARD: That’s right.
HOMILETICS: And there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.
WARD: [laughs] Exactly! And what is the point of that? Is the point of it to call attention to the person reading or reciting? No. Here is this voice or voices that come from our ancestry in faith. For some, the texts become overly familiar and perhaps our experience of them has exhausted the possibility of their speaking to us. For others they’re coming to them fresh and for the first time.
In my experience, people respond when biblical texts are treated devotionally, treated with honor and humility. Sometimes in the more difficult texts, when they are read or spoken aloud, they become open for interrogation. I’m talking about the hard and difficult ones, the ones that apparently don’t have much to say to us now. They become a voice in the community that’s ready to be interrogated through preaching.
So I just see the “reciting” of Scripture as a way of paying attention to the values of communication that we have now. People who are sitting in the congregations now can hardly stand it if someone is standing up in front of them and is reading without any expression, without any energy, without any knowledge of what they’re reading. It’s not the case anywhere else. They just won’t stand for it. It doesn’t compute.
HOMILETICS: Some preachers resist the notion of “performance” because they see themselves as teachers. So they trot out Greek lexicons and do word studies, seeing their primary task as giving the congregation something to take away about the text itself. So our goal as preachers, or what we conceive to be the purpose of our preaching really affects how that sermon is going to be delivered.
WARD: When you think of “performance” there are a couple of things you can do. You can get into an esoteric argument in which you say, “Well, was that a performance, or not?” Bottom line: All human communication is performance. At any given moment I’m performing a sense of myself, of my identity. That’s what’s coming to fullness, to fruition. Performance theory has become quite complex. The question of any theory is: “How does it illuminate our experience of being human?” As a theory, it has its limits.
But I think the really better question is the one you’re asking: “As a preacher, is it clear to me what the purpose of preaching is in my congregation? Is it clear to me what I am attempting to do, what my hope is, what my aim, purpose and prayer are for the preaching event?” I think that in any communication event, all the participants in the communication event (whether speaker or listeners) want something to happen and something to change. So they come into the communication event anticipating change.
HOMILETICS: This is often very discouraging for preachers because, truth be told, we’re not sure our preaching makes a difference. I was talking to Brian McLaren about this, and he agreed on this point, but said that there’s also a sense on the part of the listeners that the preaching event is something that is expected to take place, and there is the expectation that the preacher should do it reasonably well. And if she or he has done it reasonably well, the listeners feel as though the worship experience has been whole and complete even if they aren’t taking anything specific away from it, yet the pieces have all come together in that worship experience of which the sermon was but one piece, one part. And that’s okay.
WARD: Yes, and I have paid attention to those who understand preaching as cumulative. I am not sure I could answer the question “How did that change my life?” after listening to one sermon or the other. But as someone who has been blessed by listening to sincere, authentic Christian preaching throughout my life, it has had a formative influence on me. It’s not because I listen to one preacher, but I listen to many preachers. And that’s why I keep going back.
HOMILETICS: You talk about “drawing the listener close.”
WARD: This comes out of understanding communication as relational. Certainly in every sermon there’s a persuasive element but I think that sometimes persuasion happens through identification. If I as the preacher can in fact signal that I am a human being just like you, and that somewhere in me there is that voice that prays, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief,” and if I am able to demonstrate that sort of humility — and I do think that’s a virtue of preaching — that is one of the things that draws a listener close.
And in my own “performances” of the sermon, as I am speaking the sermon, enacting the sermon, embodying the sermon, am I demonstrating my awareness that I am talking to this particular group of people on this occasion, and what is it that I’m doing that demonstrates that awareness? Am I a trustworthy guide, to the best of my ability, to the things that I consider to be true? Sure, it’s persuasive. But I don’t think preaching has much of a chance of being heard these days if I’m stuck in some role as some sort of person separate from others, set apart from you.
Yet, at the same time, there is that understanding that the preacher is fulfilling a designated task to speak to us on our behalf on this day. So there is a sense, “You’re not like us on this occasion.”
HOMILETICS: You cite Sandy Livener, who says, “Every listener is asking the question ‘Why should I listen?’” The preacher has to be able to answer that!
WARD: Right. Sometimes it’s an appeal to authority. “Because the Bible says so.” Or, “I’m the pastor and what I say goes!” I think the highest source of authority for good or ill is experience. “Does that seem to be true? What does that have to do with me?” I think this is a critique of our self-centeredness and radical subjectivity. Sometimes, quite often actually, we do need to point beyond our experience, to bring our experience in conformity with what the church in all times and places has found to be true. Just because I don’t think it’s true, doesn’t mean I can’t relate to it. Sometimes true statements or claims stretch me beyond my subjectivity.
But I do think for good or ill, that I can’t expect to gain a hearing simply by stepping into the pulpit and — just because I am the one who is ordained — saying “The Bible says so,” or “The church teaches this.”
HOMILETICS: So as part of the performance piece of this, what we say, or whatever happens in those opening moments, we’ve got to make it impossible for that listener not to listen. Somehow.
WARD: Well, I think it’s always possible for the listeners not to, but what we want to do is wager that they will make the choice to listen! [laughter all around]
HOMILETICS: Should we practice?
WARD: Yes, and there are a number of ways to practice. As I’m shaping the sermon itself, I read the text aloud and maybe read it into a tape recorder. I’m reading the text with some oral component. I’m hearing this. Often I will catch myself falling into a “preacher voice” or a tone that doesn’t seem to fit.
But more often when I am reading the text, I will hear something differently. Perhaps a new set of questions arises. Perhaps I’m stuck. If I am someone who writes a sermon, I do as some writers, poets, novelists do: I step back and read it. And I find, “Oh, that’s the way it should be said.” And then when I come into the pulpit, the sermon is not a stranger to me. I don’t memorize it exactly, but I am familiar with it. The question of what to do with the manuscript always comes up and what I say is: “Preaching that serves the manuscript is not as effective as writing that serves the preaching moment.” Is it my understanding that what I have on the paper be a prompt for oral communication, or, is the point of my being in the pulpit to read something to you that I wrote three days ago?
A sermon that is read to listeners is really rare these days, it has lost its ability to communicate. It doesn’t mean that I don’t write. Writing helps me find out what I want to say. But the manuscript must serve the preaching moment rather than the other way around.
HOMILETICS: In another book you talk about the passion of preaching. How can someone recover his or her joy or passion for preaching?
WARD: Well, there’s no easy answer. If I’m burnt out, I just have to admit that I’m burnt out. If I’m tired, I have to realize that I need some rest. I need to not preach for a while. I need to do what I need to do for a while: exercise, pray, retreat, go listen to other people. Whatever.
I would remember as best I can what it was about preaching that awakened faith in me, and think about the kind of preaching that did that. I guess the next move would be, “What is keeping me from doing that now?” And the answer to that question will vary. Perhaps it’s a crisis of belief. Perhaps it’s fatigue.
HOMILETICS: Why would you suggest that preachers keep a journal?
WARD: I don’t know of any preacher whom I’ve taught who hasn’t said at one point in his or her life, “I want to find out what my voice is for preaching.” And that can mean a lot of things. I prefer to think of it as something like, “deep calling to deep.” Finding my own voice is a question of authenticity. Freedom. A style. But I do think part of it is finding my way with words. And journaling for me is practice in finding my own voice. I know that when I’m writing in my journal — when I am writing just for the sake of writing — that I find myself doing something, “There it is; I’m doing that again,” and I can catch myself and I can go in a different direction. Very rarely will I go back and read what I wrote. But the point is the practice of working with words and the connection of those words with experience and authenticity. Perhaps I can think of it as writing in the presence of God. In the preaching ministry, we’re often our own best counsel and we have to trust our own instincts.
HOMILETICS: And when you’re writing, all sorts of thoughts, ideas and structures begin to appear which at the beginning were never in your mind before.
WARD: Yes! It’s practicing a firing off of the imagination where “that thing is leading to this thing.” Preaching engages in something similar. We’re not all over the map; we have to give it a shape, of course. But we realize that “this is connected to that,” and we would not have experienced it had we not started to give it some focus and write about it. I find myself responsive to what I’m seeing.
Sometimes it’s good to be your own best friend. I can have my own pity parties in a journal. I can give myself advice and counsel. I can pray. I can write out my prayers. I can find myself being addressed by the spirit of Christ, a character in a play.
I think it also validates and honors my experience of being alive, being an attentive observer and participant in the world. And I think God takes delight in that.
HOMILETICS: You and I are both preachers’ kids. Is there any way in which you think your father was influential in your preaching.
WARD: Absolutely. It’s a hard thing to separate out being a preacher’s kid, and the danger is that you never do. You spend the rest of your time trying to preach like your father — or your mother. But many of the people I have known who are preachers’ kids, they saw where their fathers’ passion was. They heard week after week from the pulpit something coming from their fathers’ deepest core of belief. My father preaches with passion. Still preaches. And my dad backed it up with a life of integrity and faithfulness and is known as much for his pastoral presence as he is for his preaching.
HOMILETICS: Right, Aristotle. Logos, pathos, ethos. Today, preachers are in the news a lot for the wrong reasons, so ethos becomes an issue. Do people have a sense that, “Well, our pastor isn’t like the rest of those?”
WARD: It goes to the nature of authority. I remember Harry Adams at Yale used to talk about this a lot. He’d say, “You know, you’re going to have people in your congregation who are going to disagree with you on a lot of things, but if you show up at the bedside of a loved one in the hospital or in hospice care and you establish that kind of bond that comes out of your genuine love for that person, then you’ve got a better shot at taking on the tough issues, because they will trust you. They may disagree with you, but they will trust you.
And then you’ve got to say, “Yeah, there are all those disreputable preachers out there, but that’s not me. Those people and those actions are not going to define who I am.” People want to feel that you’re saying things that help me think about my life and my relationship with God. And are you saying things that help me think about myself and my relationship with my church? Are you coming out of your place of belief, or are you describing a life that you don’t live?
And part of ethos is that “I do expect you to have some answers. I do expect you to have a witness and a confession. I do expect your life to reflect that.” We want to be everyone’s buddy; we want to be like everyone else. We don’t want to feel that we’re anyone special. Well, there is a part of you that is designated as the priest, the person who is going to take one’s concerns to God.
HOMILETICS: What’s your favorite text to preach on?
WARD: Jacob wrestling with the angel. It’s so much of a favorite I tend to back away from it now. In fact, there’s a book by Kenneth Gibble called The Preacher as Jacob. I think that’s one of the most powerful metaphors for preaching that I’ve heard.
There is a sense that “I have wrestled with God but I’ve walked away from it.” But it has not been without its marks on me. There is a sense in my experience that after a sermon you’re always kind of walking with a limp.