The use of imagination in preaching

An interview with Thomas H. Troeger

Thomas H. Troeger, S.T.D., is professor of preaching and communications at Illiff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.
Derek J. Morris, D.Min., is senior pastor at Forest Lake Church, Apopka, Florida, and author of Powerful Biblical Preaching: Practical Pointers From Master Preachers.

Derek Morris: In your book Imagining a Sermon, you state that "the imaginative process can be compared to the art of sailing a boat."2 How is that metaphor helpful in thinking about the use of imagination in preaching?

Thomas Troeger1: When you sail a boat, there are two different realities. You don't have control over one reality: the wind. You can't make the wind blow. But, with the other reality, your eyes, you can survey the water and see where the wind is blowing. Then you can set your sails to take maximum advantage of the wind.

As a preacher, you can take stock of your situation and set your sails so they are pre pared for the blowing of the wind, but it is not your prerogative to command the Spirit to blow. For me, the process of imagination is preparing for the wind of the Spirit to blow.

DM: You have spoken about three kinds of imagination: conventional, empathetic, and visionary. Could you define them?

TT: By conventional imagination, I mean the imagination that we have inherited from listening to other preachers and from being part of a particular church tradition. There are certain hymns, like Silent Night, Holy Night at Christmas and Christ the Lord is Risen Today at Easter they are part of the way that we imagine the faith. These are very precious things that have been given to us and they make it possible for us to worship together as a religious community.

Empathetic imagination is the ability to imagine ourselves in someone else's shoes. One of the hallmarks of effective preachers is that they have the ability not just to know their own experience but also to ask "What is the experience of my people?" If a minister has no empathetic imagination, he or she is not going to be able to connect with a congregation.

Visionary imagination involves the capacity to see and to respond to new things that God is doing in the world. I love that passage in Isaiah: "'Behold, I am doing a new thing, . . .do you not perceive it'" (Isa. 43:19, RSV). Visionary imagination helps the preacher to see that the church could be so much more than it is. There are so many possibilities for witness that we haven't even begun to claim.

DM: You suggest that a primary principle for developing the imagination is to be attentive to what is. Perhaps we could consider two aspects of being attentive to what is: being attentive with our eyes and being attentive with our ears. You have observed that "the untrained eye is not adept at seeing things accurately."3 How do we train our eyes to see things accurately?

TT: Margaret Miles suggests that we should take a picture that is particularly engaging and use it to meditate upon. What are the colors? How does one shape relate to another? What is the sweep of the lines? What is cast in shadow? How is light used? Thus we actually take time to analyze the picture.

There is a wonderful new book of poetry called In Quiet Light: Poems on Vermeer's Women by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre." The author has taken a collection of paintings of women by the artist Jan Vermeer and then imagined what those women were thinking. She calls her imaginings "the details of the pictures." It would be an excellent idea for a preacher to take one of her poems each day, look at the picture, and then see how the author imagines by looking at the picture with extreme care. That would be one way to train our eyes to see things accurately. It actually takes self-conscious work. Otherwise, we see but do not see.

DM: You also suggest that when we are being "attentive to what is," we need to be attentive with our ears. We need to listen to the music of speech. In your book, Imagining a Sermon you emphasize that "we need to discipline the ear as well so that we may become aware of the aural effect of speech. A preacher whose ear is alert to the sound of spoken language may produce a manuscript that 'preaches well,' that breathes and pulses with the rhythms of the best conversational speech."5 Apparently, effective preachers need to be attentive to the music of speech as well as the content of speech.

TT: Definitely! The physical properties of speech its rhythm, pitch, volume, and inflection are a kind of music that makes the imagination dance. What often happens to preachers is this: The anxiety level about the delivery of the sermon becomes so great that the music that is usually in their voices is lost. Rather than learning how to add music to our speech, we need to unlearn how not to do it! Music comes naturally!

If you started to drown and called for help, no one would have to give you elocution lessons about how to shout for help. It would come naturally! If you are falling in love, and you say to that special person "I love you," no one would have to teach you how to say that. If the thought is genuinely there, it will be expressed with a particular music to it. We can do it in regular everyday life, so when we are preaching we need to get in touch with that living reality. Then the music of our speech will make our sermons genuine and engaging.

DM: When reading a biblical story, you encourage preachers to use their imagination and to "assume there is more to the story."6 Can you unpack that for us?

TT: I share that concept in the context of Midrash, a form of preaching where the preacher expands upon the biblical story. Midrash developed particularly at the time of Jesus and shortly thereafter. There were certain rules which the rabbis suggested for Midrashim. You could add details, you could imagine it in any way, provided that you did not violate the basic integrity of the biblical story. In other words, your elaboration of the story must honor the spirit and truth of the story.

So, for example, in Ten Strategies for Preaching in a Multi-Media Culture, I have a sermon on the wedding at Cana and I imagine the couple when they are coining near the end of their life together.7 The sermon is a series of flashbacks, all related to the marriage at Cana. I don't think that I have in any way violated what that biblical story is about. I've just tried to look into what the meaning of that story might have been for the couple for the rest of their lives.

DM: You have done some creative work with modern parables. I'm thinking particularly of your book The Parable of Ten Preachers* and more recently in strategy #2 of your book Ten Strategies for Preaching in a Multi-Media Culture* Why do you think that modern parables are such an effective means of communicating the truth of God's Word?

TT: For the same reason that parables were effective with Jesus. He is my greatest inspiration when it comes to drawing parables from life. His stories reveal Someone who is attentive to what is, who closely observes common human experience. Parables invite the listeners to become engaged with the truth of God. We use our imagination to draw parables from life, from plain human stories that are marked by ambiguity, resolution, and further ambiguity.

When you tell a parable like the story of the prodigal son, people start projecting themselves into that story. It engages their own family dynamics. It engages their sense of human worthlessness. Once you've got people hooked like that, then God can really work with them. Preachers need to trust that God will work with people when they tell the parables, especially if they do so in the context of genuine worship and faith. I like parables for that reason.

DM: You have observed that "it is striking how secular most of Jesus' parables are. There is almost nothing explicitly religious about them." 10 I suppose that some hearers might listen to a preacher sharing a modern parable and discount it as not being a "real sermon" because it seems to have less of the actual word or text of the Bible.

TT: I think that's true. However, if you look at the parables that I have written, I deliberately designed them so people get hooked in terms of the theological dimension. And when we read them in worship, the context often helps people hear the theological message itself.

DM: You have observed that "imagination is not always a welcome guest in the household of faith."11 How would you respond to the critic who contends that the use of imagination is inappropriate in preaching?

TT: First of all, we need to realize that imagination can be abused. There's no question about it. But reason can also be abused. For example, there were people who used reason to very carefully justify slavery. But the very fact that we have imaginations, and we know that we have them, means that God built us with imaginations.

The question, as with every other gift God has given us, is this: How will we use it? There is no one with a more active imagination than God. Look at what God imagined billions of galaxies, each filled with billions of stars. And God imagined that there could be creatures like you and me! I think we are more Godlike when we use our imaginations for healthy, creative purposes.

DM: So you would agree with Henry Ward Beecher that imagination is "the most important prerequisite for effective preaching."12

TT: Yes! Beecher, in his famous Yale Lectures on Preaching (1872-1874), noted that many people have misunderstood imagination and have been told to suppress it. However, he suggests that they have not understood its glorious function. Many Protestant preachers have been influenced by Calvin who once called imagination "a perpetual factory of idolatry." Imagination can also be a factory of beauty, grace, and vivid faith.

DM: I was fascinated by your comment that, when preaching a sermon, you do not want to "cheat the congregation by handing them a souvenir from my trip on the river when I can take them along on the voyage and let them feel the current and the water for themselves."13 It seems that some times, when a preacher is preparing a sermon, he or she will study a passage, enter into it, and then step out of that imaginative process when the sermon is actually preached. I hear you saying that you want to actually bring your hearers into that imaginative process with you.

TT: Exactly. Too often we get excited in our study and then when we come to the moment of sermon delivery we only give people a sampling of the full experience. It would be much better to take our hearers with us on the journey.

For example, many preachers start out studying a passage and they say "Oh, I don't believe this!" or "How can the Bible possibly say such a thing?" However, that is in itself a wonderful place to begin! When you enact this process of discovery in your sermon, you are modeling to your people how to use the Scriptures not just to read them and say, "Oh yes, that's what's in the Bible," but to actually wrestle with it and struggle to find its meaning.

Shaping a sermon is a highly disciplined art. When I create a sermon, I probably get rid of about 90 percent of what I've gone through to come down to what really matters. Do I leave this in? Do I take it out? Do I leave it for another sermon? Those are hard decisions to make. That's the part of sailing the boat that takes real skill.

DM: You encourage preachers to use their imaginations and experiment with fresh, creative approaches to preaching. At the same time you caution that "new strategies for presenting the word of God could result in manipulative preaching, by reducing proclamation to what is attractive and entertaining."14 How does the preacher avoid that trap while still using imagination to be fresh and creative?

TT: That is a profound question. Allowing people their choices is very important. If you take certain assumptions and proclaim them strongly, you can intimidate people. Preaching is not about manipulation or intimidation. I'm very taken with the story of the rich young ruler. Jesus is sad that the rich young ruler doesn't respond to His invitation, but Jesus doesn't go after him and say, "You must do this."

Having said that, let me address the issue of entertainment. I do not think of myself as trying to entertain people. I do think of myself as trying to engage every gift that God has given. When that happens, when people get engaged at multiple levels with the multiple gifts that God has given, then people will be captured by the wonder of God. That's what I'm really interested in. If you're doing that, if you are trying to use every gift that God has given you to engage every gift that God has given your people, all kinds of things will happen.

I often say to people, "If you get people to God, sit down." I would like to be a vessel of the Spirit, through whom people feel the Spirit and the risen Christ, and come into the presence of the living God. If that happens, I must stand back so God can take it from there.

1 Thomas Troeger is also an accomplished musician, poet, and hymn writer. His most recent books of poetry are Above the Moon Earth Rises (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), and Borrowed Light (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). He has also published numerous Christian hymns.

2 Troeger, Imagining a Sermon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 14.

3 Ibid., 33.

4 Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, In Quiet Light: Poems on Vermeer's Women (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

5 Imagining a Sermon, 69.

6 Troeger, Ten Strategies for Preaching in a Multi Media Culture (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 22.

7 Ibid., 24-29.

8 Troeger, The Parable of Ten Preachers (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992).

9 Ten Strategies for Preaching in a Multi Media Culture, 30-38.

10 Imagining a Sermon, 92.

11 Ibid., 99.

12 Ibid., 114.

13 Ibid., 26.

14 Ten Strategies for Preaching in a Multi Media Culture, 19.

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Thomas H. Troeger, S.T.D., is professor of preaching and communications at Illiff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.
Derek J. Morris, D.Min., is senior pastor at Forest Lake Church, Apopka, Florida, and author of Powerful Biblical Preaching: Practical Pointers From Master Preachers.

July 2002

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