My Imagination – A personal reading of Thomas H. Troeger’s “Imagining a Sermon”
I often find myself stuck in my own circle of thoughts. I see the world in my specific way, a way I am reluctant to change. Troeger asks a question inspired by The Book of Amos, “Preacher, what do you see?” as an open door to new perceptions (16). I unenthusiastically read his suggestion that watching television is a possible way to open this door and wrinkle my nose. I find television very polluting and would have difficulty connecting with God’s Holy Spirit after watching five commercials. And so does Troeger, apparently (21ff). He manages to turn it to his advantage though, and being inspired by the commercials, writes sermons that I would consider good ones rhetorically if I heard them in church. So what can I, personally, learn from him?
As Troeger says, imagination, being in a sense a connection with the Holy Spirit through observant vision and inspiration (27), does not come all the time but one can study what stimulates it (14). Usually, when I sit down to think or talk about a subject images and parables to it arises that are real-life-like. But I must learn to express those so that others can understand them. So my problem is not so much what to say, but how to say it. And for that I find quite a few remedies in Troeger’s book. I confess I do need the alert awareness he is talking about (16) in order to grasp what is going on around me. While refusing to resort to watching television commercials to gain a worldly attentiveness, I still need to ground my sermons so that they are not theoretical clouds billowing above the heads of the audience. After all, preaching is all about transforming the world (34) and as such, requires an understanding of and connection to it. Troeger writes that theology can, and should, be expressed through the rhythm and tone of the voice (69f) and the language of the body. He points out that God is not a God only of the mind but of the whole world, breath, pulse beat, muscle and bone included (59). He asks that the message of God be firmly implanted in the bodies of the receivers so that they can feel the weight of the truth (55). “Preaching to oneself” (50) is a saying I have heard quite destructively used, but Troeger turns it around and writes that as long as it doesn’t mean “preaching about oneself” it is the best way to interest the audience. He founds this on the notion that most human frailty being universal the preacher probably has the same problems as everybody else. I must beg to disagree slightly. I would say this only applies to very general topics, and thus, as the audience most probably consists of a varied mixture of listeners in completely different stages of life, should be used sparingly as to not turn the sermons to generalizing bits and pieces which some persons can absorb sometimes and at other times let pass. While warning against modern people’s biblical illiteracy (41f), Troeger suggests that sermons, while having the Bible as an ultimate source, should be grounded in modern everyday life. Having heard too many boring sermons circling around daily routines, I once again somewhat disagree. However, when Troeger writes a sermon in a style borrowed from moviemakers he has my attention (44ff). It turned out a success with Troeger’s then largely young audience, probably much more so than the traditional Cicero-structured one he had first planned. Of course, the more old-fashioned style would probably leave a greater impression on an older audience. A tip that Troeger touched upon rather tangentially is the habit of keeping an inspiration bank with a diverse content to look through while praying, when topics and substance seem scarce (96). Another, which he spends some more time discussing, is basing a sermon on a picture or an image in the mind that comes forth from a Bible verse or contemporary story and unfolding it as an epic tale (61ff). As a last, but not least, thing I can learn from Troeger is his suggestion that one should go back and analyse old sermons one has given, not just from the last weeks but further back, to learn and be inspired (65).
Towards the end of his book Troeger questions why Christianity in general has been and is still so much averse to imagination. I recognise the phenomenon from my own encounters with Christians through art. Agreeing with Troeger that life without imagination would be dull, and even impossible (113) since we cannot think of a life without imagination without using our imagination, I also agree with the point he presents that “divorced from grace and truth” (107), imagination can be a seducer employed by the dark side. This was the reason that the Reformers in the early modern times punished imagination as heresy. However, Troeger traces imagination as an idea as far back as to the early church father Augustine. And this morning, hearing some of my schoolmates reading one of David’s Psalms, I found great imaginations there. Regrettably, over the years imagination was buried deeper and deeper beneath dogma and it would take until the Enlightenment to surface, sadly mostly only among atheists and agnostics (104ff). But as Troeger points out, imagination, when properly used under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is a great asset in reaching modern people with God’s Holy Word. Sunniva Further reading: Troeger, Thomas H. (1990). Imagining a Sermon. Nashville: Abingdon Press Pictures link to their source, the naturephotographs are taken by me (more of those at http://flowingdesign.wordpress.com/)