Harrell Beck

The Wisdom of Harrell Beck

The Preacher as Artist


I come primarily as an Old Testament teacher who these last couple of terms has been cornered by a Dean and Associate Dean to teach a course in expository preaching. Why I let it happen, I do not know! Save that I’ve enjoyed it. While I’m not going to this hour talk about preaching, I would like to say a word or two before I get into the subject. The word or two is about my view of preaching, which has historically, in almost all homiletics classrooms in this country, been kind of a mechanistic view of preaching: the number of points in the sermon, the number of hours you study for every moment you preach. Who’s got that kind of time? And is that all they did? And don’t some of your best moments come -- just like that! -- out of fifteen years of meditation? And who dares say to a colleague, “This is the point at which you gesture,” “this is the point at which you step forward with your right foot,” “this is the point at which you be sure your voice is mellifluous.”  Good heavens, Hal Luccock didn’t have any idea what the word mellifluous meant -- most gravelly voice in the history of the pulpit -- and a brilliant preacher. I’m sorry. I think a mechanistic view of preaching relates to what happens to kids when they go to grade school. Did you ever see a first grader who couldn’t dance?  Or draw? Or color? Or sing?  By the time they have been there for three or four years, the casualty list is incredibly high. A mechanistic view.

I wonder whether we shouldn’t think much more of a preacher as an artist. I wonder whether we should take much more serious the fact that, off the hills of Montana and out of the deserts of the west and in from the South come diamonds in the rough -- and who dares try to remake them in the image of a teacher of homiletics? Tell them they are artists, and if their gestures get so outlandish that they start wrecking the pulpit, then you might want to mention gestures. Can you hear what I want to say?

Tell me the rules of homiletics that will comprehend my heroes: Harry Emerson Fosdick or Paul Scherer or Jim Muilenburg or Theodore Parker Ferris or Billy Graham or Peter Gomes or Howard Thurman. Why, the first day in a homiletics classroom when Howard Thurman stood up and looked at his watch and said, “Fifteen minutes... for a forty minute sermon!”  The homiletics professor would have knocked him right out of the pulpit and lost one of the great preachers.

Leontine Kelly, Jim Armstrong, Fred Craddock. Can you reduce them to a mechanistic view of homiletics?  Oh, please. Be gentle with me. This is only a footnote at the beginning. Surely rules are utterly secondary to letting the artist out -- the genius.

There came to my town north of Omaha when I was fourteen, a man who had never been to college or seminary. He had been a fireman on the Union Pacific, converted in the YMCA in North Platt, Nebraska. He took the Conference course of study. He is, beyond my parents, the major reason for my being in the ministry of Jesus Christ. He was an artist! Well, I don’t have to draw it out too much farther do I?

In the 1940s there were three great preachers in England: Soper, Sangster and Weatherhead. They said of Sangster, “He loved Jesus. You could tell the way he pronounced his name.” They say of Weatherhead, “He loved people. You could tell the way they flocked around the church for two hours after the service.” They said of Lord Soper, “He loved an argument.” Tell me the rules that cover all of them? Each of them was in his own way a genius in the pulpit, an artist, a skilled person – and maybe that’s why you know these days on our Homiletical “lists of books that ought to be read,” there are not very many good introductions to preaching. But everybody’s reading Fred Buechner and Tolkien and C.S. Lewis  and Henri Nouwen -- the artists. And maybe that’s why Tom Long, the professor of Homiletics at Princeton, includes modern novelists and dramatists in his course’s bibliography.

I’m sorry to be so noisy. I guess there is something these birds have in common; and that is that they can honestly say, “I believe that the Holy Scriptures contain the word of God sufficient unto salvation.” And I believe that they are also able to say, “I said one day I will not mention God, nor speak anymore in God’s name, but God’s word was in my heart a living fire, shut-up in my bones. I was weary with holding it in, and I could not!”*  And if that fits at all – please -- will you hear me today?

*Jeremiah 20.9

The Heart of Biblical Faith – Being a Biblical People May 13, 1986 [Preaching Conference, Arrowhead Springs]

Leontine Kelly photo credit: www.somethingwithin.com