Recently I stumbled on a passage from Acts that I had not read before. Acts 20:7-12 tells of a time Paul is preaching a lengthy sermon in a crowded upper room. As the sermon drones on and on one of the congregation who was perched precariously in a in a window falls asleep and tumbles to apparent death in the street below.
I was struck by this story in a “Whoa, I didn’t see that coming kind of way.” I decided to sketch an image of it. I have been sketching biblical passages for about five years and find it useful to explore a text visually. As I sketched I thought about being sleepy in church and wondered how the author or subsequent church leaders wanted this passage to be read(*see footnote below). Was it a cautionary tale? Regardless of how others wanted this to be read, to me what I took from it was that boring preaching was deadly. I began to think about how the church might learn to move beyond overreliance on the spoken word. There are multiple ways to connect with God. However more often than not the church is still stuck in this mode of preaching long winded sermons. One can see evidence in church payrolls where the preacher takes the lion’s share and the roles of youth minister, music director and organist follow far behind. To the extent that they exist at all, roles such as liturgical dance director or visual art coordinator tend to be volunteer positions.
So how can the church move beyond being a church where spoken word is the primary means of encountering God? I wish I had an easy answer. Things have not changed too much since Paul. The image of a preacher putting his congregation to sleep is sadly familiar. It is probably not a coincidence that I have not encountered this passage over the years. Who can expect a pastor to share such an unflattering passage. However I do remember an artist who was willing to broach this topic. When I was growing up the artwork of Robert O. Hodgell was widely collected by churches and faithful in our region. Hodgell depicts this theme in his print “Words, Words Words.”
Before you damn me all to hell, I should clarify my stance. I would not go so far as to advocate a ban preaching or anything like that. The bible is an amazing text that is worth reading and preaching about. And of course I have read the gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.“ My point is that the church has some very old and unproductive habits that bear scrutiny.
Even as I outline my concerns, I hope that the arts might be a way for Christianity to find a new vitality in the future. A church that empowers sculptors, singers, filmmakers, dancers, painters and poets could bring out the best of us. It might be possible that a new paradigm could be forged to awaken people, but so far the most interesting developments in this area seem to be happening at the fringes. One might point to contemporary music services as a push to shake things up, but in my view contemporary music services are not the answer. The contemporary formats I have encountered embraced rather old fashioned theology and did not have a lot to offer musically. In other settings I have seen church art committees make an effort to make art a part of the church. These committees often seem to encounter brick walls and are encouraged only to the extent that they do not get in the way of what has always been done.
The story of the congregant that Paul put to sleep concludes on a happy note as miraculously the sleeper is resurrected. I would hope the health of the arts in the church could come alive in a similarly miraculous manner. I fear that I will take a lot of effort, but in God all things are possible. Lets pray for the best.
*In researching this blog entry, I came upon another interesting interpretation of the origin of this story, which predicates that Luke used a literary strategy called hypertextual transvaluation to base this on an episode from Homer. The full essay by Dennis R. MacDonald is posted here: http://www.depts.drew.edu/jhc/mcdonald.html
Doug Haynes is a painter, writer and the spouse of a pastor.