“Metaphors are used to turn the ear into an eye.” So quoted my Professor in Psalms class (from Peter Marshall). I have never considered language to have such a function. Yes, it taps into our imagination and may conjure up an image but could words become more than just words? Could they actually function and essentially be images?
I have sat through enough sermons (and perhaps you have too) to realize the reality. In the words of Kyle, the pastor of City Church, “The difference between a good message and a great message you can’t get out of your mind? Stories.” I do not think stories stick so well simply because they entertain or act as the most interesting content. Rather, stories stick because they access and allow us to play in a unique area of our mind – the imagination, the image creator.
I have difficulty imagining a command from the pulpit to “love my neighbor” but when I hear about Joe (who I picture as a middle-aged white male) caring for a homeless man named Gary, suddenly the story comes to life. The story forces me to create an image, simply in order to follow along. The words become a picture, and as I listen, I see.
However, stories also have shortfalls – they require exposition and can often “take over” the truths being communicated. But stories exist as only one means of creating an image. Images have the uncanny ability to stay with us, to remain in the mind’s eye and to give us content to meditate on.
Perhaps it is for this reason that the Catholic and Orthodox churches place an emphasis on artistic portrayals of the Biblical story. A stained-glass window acts in complement to a theological message rather than potentially distracting from it.
What the Evangelical church needs to recapture is its own art. In some capacity, yes, this means endorsing Evangelical artists however I think it starts on a more fundamental level. The pastor must, himself, become an artist. Not with the brush or the guitar, but with the sermon. As Eugene Peterson fondly believes, the pastor must become a poet. And, might I add, we need poets sitting in the pews as well.
The gospel is beautiful. It holds within it an image of redemption so powerful that if we can truly see it, our lives are changed. The challenge we face is to communicate that image. Too often Christians are dismissed as having plenty of words – hateful words, naive words, overly hopeful words. Or they are dismissed for having superficial media – films, music, etc. This dismissal may be closely related to the fact that the way we communicate (particularly in church and relationships) lends itself to hearing, but not seeing.
It is time for Christians to present the image of the gospel, Christ himself, and open the eyes of others. Yet we will do this, as it has always been done through words. As we share the Word himself, may we paint such a picture that those around us, and ourselves, encounter the visible glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.