From Silkworms to Songbirds
Why We No Longer Preach Like Jonathan Edwards
Flannery O’Connor understood the challenge of telling stories in a modern world. The task of the Catholic fiction writer, O’Connor argued in her book Mystery and Manners, was to describe “the presence of grace as it appears in nature.” But the prevalence of a worldview that separated grace from nature made what O’Connor called the “average Catholic reader” into “something of a Manichean.” “By separating grace and nature as much as possible,” O’Connor wrote, “he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene.”
Obscene stories, in O’Connor’s view, described nature without grace. Sentimental stories, on the other hand, described a perfected grace that did not include the slow, difficult process of participation in Christ’s death. Only through that participation, O’Connor argued, was the “concrete reality” of a fallen nature redeemed. The endpoint of sentimental fiction was not redemption, O’Connor wrote, but “a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.” Seemingly pious, sentimental stories were all the more obscene.
The Catholic fiction writer had to leave such pious, sentimental obscenities behind, in O’Connor’s view. Instead she should work within the conventions of fiction as a form, trusting that the will of God might be realized there. That meant attending first of all to the specific details of the world as it actually existed. The Catholic writer would discern an “added dimension” to this world. But the test of that dimension would be its fidelity to “the truthfulness and wholeness of the literal level of the natural events presented.” The Catholic writer had to discern the work of a grace that did not occlude or supersede nature but rather illumined and redeemed it.
O’Connor was writing about the particular challenges faced by a Catholic author trying to write fiction in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century. But her call to tell stories of grace at work in nature has a perennial quality for Christians of many traditions. And her analysis of the Manichean forces that distort modern attempts to tell such stories extends far beyond the writing of fiction. The same forces shape conventions for the stories told by journalists, historians, scientists, and other writers of non-fiction. They even shape the stories told by preachers.
Christian preachers have told stories in a huge variety of ways over the centuries. They have told narratives of signs and wonders, tales from antiquity, lives of the saints, testimonies of the work of grace in their lives, fables, and more. This pluralism of storytelling styles is an enduring fact of Christian proclamation that is all the more pronounced in the United States. Generalizations about sermon stories, then, are always risky. They are perhaps more illuminating in their failures than in their success. But I would argue that preaching in the United States has seen a significant shift from typology to illustration as the prevailing mode in which preachers tell stories. The shift from typology to illustration has been especially pronounced among white Protestants. But it was present in many traditions, and O’Connor was discerning related effects in what she called the average Catholic reader in 1957. Remembering the story of this shift from typology to illustration can help bring into sharper focus the modern Manicheanism that O’Connor described.
Of course remembering this shift is itself a kind of storytelling. And I would not want to reproduce the modern Manichean worldview in telling the story of its emergence. That is, I would not want to tell the story of the shift from typology to illustration as a sentimental narrative of progress or an obscene narrative of decline. Instead I hope (in O’Connor’s words) to describe the presence of grace as it appears in nature.
TYPOLOGICAL STORIES HAVE been told by Jews and Christians for centuries. Preachers working in this mode pair a “type”—some thing, person, or event—with an “antitype” that represents its fulfillment. In his letter to the church in Rome, for example, the Apostle Paul called Adam a “type” of Christ (5:14). Adam the type prefigures Christ the antitype. Later generations of Christian interpreters seized on the Gospels’ talk of a “sign of Jonah” to read Jonah as another type of Christ: Jonah’s three days in the belly of the whale anticipated Jesus’ own three-day journey through death to new life. Still other interpreters expanded typology beyond Scripture to all history. Persons or events in this age could be read as types that would be fulfilled in the age to come.
Typological stories have flourished in multiple preaching traditions in North America. Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, and Protestant preachers have all made use of typology. Typological narratives have played an especially important role in African-American preaching. And it is impossible to imagine Puritan preaching without them.
Typological ways of seeing the world had already lost their luster for many Puritan preachers when Jonathan Edwards was born in 1703. But Edwards displayed a typological vision as rich as any that we know. For much of his life he kept a volume he called “Images of Divine Things” in which he recorded observations of a natural world full of types that pointed to the sovereign grace of God. Theology had to work in this way, Edwards thought, because of the nature of language. Edwards believed that the origin of every word was in the experience of some sensible quality. I touch an ice cube; I have an experience; I need a word for what I experience; and so I say “cold.” But if words came from empirical experience, how could we ever talk about things that we did not touch, taste, see, hear, or feel—things like theology, or morality? We could talk about morality and theology, Edwards wrote, only because God had created analogies that allowed things we could see, touch, taste, hear, and feel to “shadow forth, picture or image” things beyond our senses. “The works of God are but a kind of voice or language of God,” Edwards wrote, “to instruct intelligent beings in things pertaining to himself.” The very possibility of talking about God or goodness depended upon this typological connection between sensible events and theological truths.
This mode of revelation was not a grudging accommodation of human frailty, in Edwards’s eyes. On the contrary, it was, he wrote, “very fit and becoming of God.” For God established typological connections—God made the things of this age an alphabet of glory—not just because fallen humans needed them, but because it delighted God to work in this way.
WITH THIS VISION, the whole world came alive to Edwards as shadows of divine love. Natural phenomena did not serve, he wrote, “merely…as illustrations of [God’s] meaning, but as illustrations and evidences of the truth of what he says.” They functioned not as illustrative examples of general truths but as typological images of particular promises. Edwards saw these typological connections everywhere. He saw shadows of divine things in the way a snake caught its prey, what it is like to climb a hill, the waves of a stormy sea, flaxen clothing, cornmeal, the stench of a corpse, milk, and the habit of taking off one’s clothes before sleeping. Even the silkworm, in Edwards’s eyes, was “a remarkable type of Christ.” It spends its life weaving something beautiful in which we can clothe ourselves. It dies as a worm, as Christ died in the state of his humiliation, but then rises to new life as a more glorious creature in the butterfly. And it leaves behind a web that becomes for us beautiful clothing, just as Christ’s death weaves for us the glorious clothing in which we stand justified before God. Edwards’s silkworm did not merely illustrate an abstract claim about imputed grace. It revealed the nature of grace in the way that it pleased God to make God’s ways known. And because God chose to communicate in this way, even the smallest empirical details of the story mattered.
Edwards the preacher and mystic saw the world typologically, but Edwards the pastor and college president knew that few people in his day would agree with him. If typology was shaky in the parish in Northampton it was practically impossible on the campus in Princeton. Anticipating the skeptical reactions of the people around him, Edwards wrote that he expected “by very ridicule and contempt to be called a man of a very fruitful brain and copious fancy.” He kept his typological thoughts to himself. The notebooks were not published until they became interesting as historical artifacts more than two hundred years after he wrote them.
As Edwards anticipated, typological thinking became less and less plausible over the course of the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, some white Protestant preachers and politicians still told typological jeremiads about church or national identity. A few virtuosi like Herman Melville gathered the embers of typological consciousness to light new kinds of fires. Most Catholic and African-American preachers continued to use at least some typology. In the early twentieth century Pentecostals would revive it again. But for most of the people and institutions who were Edwards’s most immediate descendents, typology stopped making sense.
PREACHERS IN THE revivals that rolled across the country in the first decades of the nineteenth century found that typological stories did not move their listeners to conversion. Revival preachers often turned instead to stories illustrating theological propositions that were the real point and purpose of the stories. And they met with great success. Illustrations rang true for listeners in an increasingly modern world. Over time the practice of telling stories to illustrate points expanded, sprawling across lines of race, class, and tradition. Today almost every handbook for preachers includes some discussion of the form. Books and websites collect stories that can be used to illustrate a whole catalogue of theological points. The illustration has become one of the signature practices of preaching in our time.
At first glance the illustration seems to replicate the Manichean structure that O’Connor denounced. The illustration positions grace somewhere above the narrative in a theological proposition that never quite enters the story. And nature has no meaning apart from its ability to add a little rhetorical punch to some theological point. The story need not be accurate in its description of concrete reality; it need not even be true.
Consider, for example, a story told about a hundred years ago by Warren Akin Candler, the Methodist bishop for whom the school where I teach is named. Candler was one of the most influential preachers of his time. But the story he told matters not because it was uniquely excellent, but because it was utterly typical. “Do you remember the story of Columbus starting out to discover a new world in little frail Spanish caravels?” Candler began.
Without a chart he sailed the seas, as thoroughly derided as skeptical men deride the future life. On and on and on he sailed until the sailors with him grew doubtful and mutinous and were ready to throw him overboard and retrace their way back to Spain. But as the old mariner walked the deck in anxiety, the land birds came soaring about the sails, and the fruits of the land were floating on the waters while yet the shore line could not be discerned; and he raised the jubilant cry, “This is land ahead!” And every sailor was out of his hammock, and joyous chorus broke over those silent seas, “land ahead!” And there was land ahead! So our mutinous souls, often despondent and anxious for the Church, are sailing over uncharted waters through months and days and years. And we grow fearful and disquieted. But betimes the fruits of the Spirit come floating on the bosom of the deep, and the great birds of the kingdom come singing in the sails, and we begin to cry out, “Land ahead!” And, blessed be God, there is land ahead! “Christ in you the hope of glory.”
Candler used the story of the land birds to illustrate the point that God sends signs of hope when we need them. Truth resided in this point, which took the form of a general claim that stood above history and applied equally to every moment in history: God sends signs of hope. The story of the birds illustrated this proposition. And it illustrated the proposition because Candler decided to use it in this way. There was nothing in the story itself that was integrally connected to this claim before Candler made the connection for his hearers. Because all the theological significance resided in the point, and because the story connected to the point only as Candler made the connection, Candler preached as if the events of the story had no theological significance in themselves.
Because the events did not carry theological significance in themselves, Candler did not attend to what O’Connor called the “concrete reality” of the situation. It did not matter to Candler if things happened exactly the way he said they did on the decks of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María. Candler could feel free—even obliged—to make up the details that made the story come to life: Columbus pacing the deck, the sailors in their hammocks, the scraps of dialogue. Within the conventions of this kind of sermon story, Candler did nothing wrong in presenting these inventions as if they described the way things actually happened. For the truth of the story depended not on the details of the narrative, but on the proposition which it illustrated. It did not matter if there were no hammocks on the Santa María (and, in fact, there weren’t—Columbus and his crew “discovered” hammocks when they saw them being used by the people they called Indians). The empirical accuracy of such details is irrelevant in this kind of story. The story could be fiction, or even fiction presented as if it were fact, as these stories often were and are. For the measure that this kind of sermon story sets for itself is not its correspondence to what happened in 1492, but its effectiveness in illustrating a theological claim that applies equally to every time and place.
This practice of telling stories as illustrations reflected and contributed to a worldview in which a kind of secularity flourished. Whatever the conscious intentions of the preacher—and Candler certainly did not intend to advance any kind of secularity—the practice of telling stories as illustrations projected a world in which theological truths existed on a different order from historical narratives. The truth of God was not in the story, not in history. Any connections between nature and grace were created, not found, by the preacher. If the sensible world acquired theological significance, it was because of the actions of an individual person. And the chief criterion for evaluating a person’s work in making that connection was its usefulness for persuading other people of a truth above history.
The assumptions embedded in this practice are shared by the modern Manicheanism Flannery O’Connor attributed to twentieth-century readers. They fit closely with what Charles Taylor has called the “background beliefs” of a secular age. They reinforce a way of seeing in which individual subjects make whatever meaning there is in the world. They also fit with a centuries-long expansion of instrumental reason that values usefulness more than qualities like beauty or accuracy. They reflect a vision in which knowledge is divided between an idealist theology that never quite touches the ground and an empiricist account of the world that operates entirely within an immanent network of causes and effects. The story of the journey from Edwards’s typological silkworm to Candler’s illustrative birds is the story of a kind of disenchantment.
IT IS TEMPTING for those of us who care about the church to tell this story of disenchantment as a narrative of decline. American churches are full of such stories today. I want to resist that temptation, though, and for three reasons. First, it suggests a remedy that does not take seriously our lives as finite creatues in time. A narrative of decline can stir in us the desire to restore what we think we have lost, to spin again stories in which the world just comes to us full of signs and wonders. But we cannot restore that kind of imagination by fiat, rhetorical excellence, or social reform, even if we want to. We cannot undo the deep shifts of many centuries simply by changing the way we tell sermon stories. There is something self-defeating in the effort. For if the problem is our knowledge of our role in making meaning, we cannot solve that problem through our efforts to make the world a more meaningful sort of place. We can’t pull ourselves to a fully theological vision by our own bootstraps. A truthful theological vision depends on the grace of givenness.
Second, a simple narrative of decline would leave out the real gains that came with the rise of sermon illustrations. These include not just the fruits of a scientific worldview, which are real enough, however mixed the uses to which we turn them, but also an ethos of equality that arose hand-in-hand with the prevalence of illustrative narratives in sermons. In my book The New Measures, I argued that Alexis de Tocqueville saw this connection clearly. Tocqueville visited the United States just at the time when revival preachers were casting off typological stories for illustrations of general points. He saw the fit between an emphasis on equality and the tendency to reason with general principles. People who live in aristocratic societies, Tocqueville wrote, tend to avoid general categories for interpreting the world and the place of people in it. A category like “citizen” has little purchase. The world is understood instead through particular names, like Louis XIV. But the person who lives in a democracy “cannot consider any part whatsoever of the human species without having his thought enlarge and dilate to embrace the sun. All truths applicable to himself appear to him to apply equally and in the same manner to each of his fellow citizens and to those like him.” Typological stories fit with an old world in which some were elect and others were not and in which some were noble and others were not. But stories that illustrated general truths fit with a church that offered salvation to whosoever would accept it and with a polity that promised equal rights to every citizen. If the promises of American democracy have not been perfectly kept, the vision of universal rights applying to every individual person has still done much to create greater equality. The logic of the illustrative story grows out of and helps create the worldview in which this expansion of equality makes sense. It is no coincidence that the same early national revival preachers who led the way from types to illustrations were also in the vanguard of movements for the abolition of slavery, the equal rights of women, and a Gospel that offered salvation to all on equal terms. A simple narrative of decline would miss the ways that the rise of the illustrative story fit with those reforms in the name of equality for all.
A third reason to resist telling the story of the rise of illustrations as a narrative of decline is that it would miss the goodness of the critical consciousness that recognizes a human role in crafting stories about the work of God in the world. While we humans do not establish the ties between nature and grace, we do help make the connections in the stories we tell about those ties. Telling the truth about our role in this process breaks with past generations of Christians in some ways. But in others ways it carries forward one of the most important strands that runs through both the Old and New Testaments—and right into Flannery O’Connor’s wondrous, critical combinations of the sacramental and the grotesque. That strand of faithful iconoclasm refuses to conflate our work with God’s work. It refuses to treat our ideas about God as if they were identical to God. And so this kind of consciousness opens our theological understandings of the world to new kinds of critique. Those openings to critique have had great political significance, but they are not merely useful. They also carry forward the long tradition of refusing to worship idols. Their iconoclasm embodies a severe piety that is needed now every bit as much as it was needed in centuries past. A simple narrative of decline would miss the goodness of this ability to acknowledge the works of our hands for what they are.
The complexities I have tried to sketch here would seem to suggest a trade-off: we might have gained goods like a stronger ethos of equality and a sharper critical consciousness, but they have cost us the gift of a meaningful world. The price of enlightenment is disenchantment. The terms of this bargain structure many accounts of the rise of modernity.
There is one level at which these accounts are true. The rise of the practice of telling stories to illustrate theological claims does come with a greater awareness of our role in making meaning. It arises with a loss of confidence in the givenness of the meanings we experience. But to take the loss of the experience of givenness as a sign that there is no givenness is to engage in exactly the idealism that this perspective criticizes in mythological thinking. Such a conflation confuses our experience of the world with the world itself. O’Connor’s near contemporary Saul Bellow named this dynamic precisely. “The educated speak of the disenchanted (a boring) world,” he wrote. “But it is not the world, it is my own head that is disenchanted. The world cannot be disenchanted.”
The world cannot be disenchanted. Christians affirm that because of God’s gracious choice, the world was, is, and will yet be the theater of the glory of God. If we live by this basic trust, then we have reason to believe that God just might find ways to speak through secularized sermon illustrations like the one that Candler used and like the ones we can’t help telling today. For if we trust that the world cannot be disenchanted, then we can trust that stories about this world have meaning not because we tell them in a particular way, but because the world itself—which includes those who tell stories about it—is part of a much larger story, one that we do not write and that gives meaning and direction to history even when we do not recognize it. We can trust that the stones themselves will cry out, not only when we are silent, but in and in spite of the stories that we tell about them.
As Flannery O’Connor saw, that kind of trust gives us new reasons to pay attention to concrete reality. Our trust in the theological significance of this world should lead us to tell stories that cling to the world all the more tightly. Our trust that God delights in speaking through the world gives us reason to believe that the diameter of the silkworm’s thread matters, and matters theologically. The presence or absence of hammocks matters. What the sailors said on the deck of the Santa María matters. The wingspan of the land birds in the sails matters. It all matters, for the world lives as the language of God. That we cannot always be certain of our understandings of that language does not change this reality. Nor does our awareness of our role in making the meaning that we attribute to these things. On the contrary, that awareness gives us even more reason to attend to the things of this world, for it is the world itself—not our thoughts about it—that cannot be disenchanted.
THE GREAT DANGER of trusting in the revelatory quality of the world is that we will mistake the way things are for the way things are supposed to be. In assuming the theological significance of the world we can slip into what Theodor Adorno called “magical positivism.” This “wide-eyed presentation of mere facts” can only be performed if we suspend the critical consciousness that we have gained at such cost. Even more, it mistakes the ways things end in this age for their final endings, and so gives those who have the power to shape those earthly endings the power to define the meaning of history. It gives death the last word.
Insisting on the theological significance of the empirical world while refusing to let the powers of this age define that significance commits us to proposing different endings for the stories we tell about the world. One way to do this is to tell stories that illustrate theological claims, just like Warren Candler did. The first significance of these claims is negative. Proposing a point as the real meaning of a story refuses the natural and final qualities of the meanings offered by the powers and principalities of this age. Points of stories, even if we make them, declare our hope for something more. They declare our trust in a deeper story with a better ending. They pledge our resolve to live in the shape of that story.
The declaration of such hope can survive the realization that we have had a hand in making the meanings that we propose. Because we fashion these theological claims, they are fallible. They remain open to revision. But they are no less hopeful for that. For we fashion these meanings to refuse the closure whereby the way the story ends in this age defines its ultimate meaning. We fashion these meanings to serve as signs that we and all that we perceive are part of a larger story than we can tell. Our consciousness that we have a hand in making the meaning that we experience does not rob the world of meaning. The negation of the ending supplied by this age, coupled with a recognition of the made quality of the ending we supply, reveals the world to be yearning for a meaning to the story that is better than any we could make. When we perceive the world yearning in this way, we find ourselves yearning with it. For we are reminded that we do not know how to pray as we ought, and so we find ourselves groaning with the Holy Spirit, and with all creation, in sighs too deep for words. Those sighs are the most truthful testimony we have to offer. It is the great hymn of the church that waits: Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! In and in spite of our intentions, that faithful hymn sings through the stories preachers tell to illustrate their points.
Heard in this way, Warren Candler’s story about the land birds comes to us as good news. Like every preacher, Candler proclaimed a Gospel that outran his intentions. His story did more than illustrate a general point about doctrine. It declared that the birds were a sign of something greater than the fact that Columbus and his crew were drawing near to land. The sermon therefore suggested that the real meaning of the story of the landing of those ships was not any of the empirical endpoints that we already know for this story. The real meaning of this event—the point of this story—was not the founding of colonies in North America. It was not the enrichment of the nations of Europe. It was not the enslavement and death of the people who greeted Columbus and his crew and taught them how to make hammocks. Candler’s story about the birds insisted that none of these moments was the real end of the story.
The real end of the story, as Candler told it, was the arrival of the Reign of God. He described the birds singing in the sails as heralds of this Reign. Thus Candler’s story refused the power of anything less than this Reign to define the meaning of that moment in 1492. Even if Candler fashioned the ending himself, it could still break the hold of the powers of this age to define the meaning of this age. And it could reveal this age to be a time of yearning for a fulfillment so lovely that we desire it even when we do not have words to describe it. The fragile, fallible point of the story reveals that moment in 1492 to be groaning for a time when—just as Candler said, even as he said more than he could intend—“the fruits of the Spirit come floating on the bosom of the deep, and the great birds of the kingdom come singing in the sails, and we begin to cry out, ‘Land ahead!’ And, blessed be God, there is land ahead! ‘Christ in you the hope of glory.’”
Source: Ted Smith, Commonweal: A Review of Religion, Politics and Culture.