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Preaching as art

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 14 December 2005

The admirable Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, delivered the 2005 Clark lectures at the University of Cambridge on the relationship between Christian thought and the arts. From these lectures came a lovely little book entitled Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and love. (Morehouse 2005) Williams begins with a discussion of the ideas of Jacques Maritain, a French Catholic of the early 20th century, followed by an investigation into the work of the English poet and artist David Jones and the Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor.

In summary, Williams decries the Renaissance understanding of the artist as a creative genius who imposes his will on his artistic material. Rather, the artist is more a midwife than a craftsman, discovering what is already there but unseen. This is based on Maritain’s idea that there is an excess in the world that the artist reveals.

You have to find what you must obey, artistically; and finding it is finding that which exists in relation to more than your will and purpose – finding the depth of alternative embodiment in the seen landscape, the dept of gratuitous capacity in the imagined character (when what you want to imagine will not come) and so on.


Just as the visual artist re-presents the world so that it is seen for more than it is at first glance, and discovers a truthful vision, the novelist searches for the characters that she must obey. This is in opposition to the motivational gurus of our time who insist on goal setting and planning and the exercise of will. It is also opposed to the false anthropology of will and right. There is a connection here with the Christian understanding of the world as the creation of God, he alone creates out of nothing. Given this, the creative work of the artist is never the creation of a genuinely new thing, the obsession that has driven contemporary art to its present parlous state. Artistic work must therefore be more a discovery of an already existing reality, the revelation of what is given. It is only the hubris of modernity that would have it otherwise.

Making art is necessarily a kind of withdrawal.  This is why the modern liberal ideology of the self-created individual, who creates himself from an effort of will, is the absolute enemy of art. Such a self-created person will never distance himself in order to receive the excess that the world holds. His art will always be tied to ego and will be sterile, repetitious and a dead end. It will hold none of the difference of the sacred because it will be tied only to the human.

This withdrawal is similar to the withdrawal, or the objectivity, of the scientist who may be passionate about his subject but must guard against that passion distorting his vision. The problem with romanticism is that this distance is not present, there is too much of the artist present in the art. Thus art can never be self-expression, it is the making of something that is “other”, that may be strange even to the artist. The artist may begin with the thread of an idea but must obediently follow where that thread will lead him.

This is why art can never be propaganda, because if the end is in sight before the work has begun and there is no journey of discovery, there is only an imposition of an already formed idea. Flannery O’Connor did not write polemics, she did not write in order to present a moral universe. What she did was to observe people in the world and try to be as truthful to that as she could, without the intervention of sentimentality or a pre-existing morality. At times, her characters play out their roles in grotesque ways but it is only in their integrity, as true characters, that they reveal what is true about humanity. Thus moral vision does not take precedence: it is discovered on the way, only after the artist has distanced herself from it. What does take precedence is a clear eyed view of reality cleansed of our projections.

While reading Williams’ book I could not shake the idea that his analysis applies also to preaching. To assert that preaching is an art is to counter notions that preaching is about the transmission of a message, as in “the Christian message”. This would equate preaching with photography in its relation to the visual arts. It is just a reproduction, a copy, a direct transcribing of a message. The reason that all visual arts are not reducible to photography is the same reason that preaching is not reducible to the simple transmission of a message.

There is a magic that happens between the object and the art; between the observation of people and the character; and between the text and the sermon. In each case that magic consists in revealing what has to be, a truth that lies submerged. The skill of the artist and the preacher is to reveal this truth. It is this skill that reveals a blaze of light in a haystack in a field or new depths in a familiar biblical passage. This is surely the criterion that must be used to judge all works of art, a criterion we lost when Duchamp exhibited a urinal and we came to the conclusion, falsely, that everything can be art. For what does the urinal reveal?


If the novelist must obey her characters and the artist must obey the excess found in the object, the preacher must obey the hidden depths of the scripture. It is the scripture that will lead him into strange territory. The sermon is the “other” that springs forth, not as the product of the creative genius, but as the result of obedient engagement. Just as the artist is tempted to impose an external agenda onto his art, the preacher is even more tempted. When he thinks he already knows what the texts says, or when he imposes a moral message or uses the text to promote church growth or to make the congregation feel better, he does not produce a sermon that is “other”, he produces a dull thing that says nothing and is bad preaching and bad art.

Propaganda is the enemy of good preaching. Rather the preacher must trust that the scripture will lead him to a strange place. This is how preaching can and must be a dangerous occupation, particularly when the preacher is dependent upon the good will of the congregation. Art is dangerous, not when it erases all of the boundaries, as has occurred in modern art, but when it exposes the truth. Preaching is dangerous when it exposes our shallow attachment to religion.

The aim of the artist is to produce art that will produce delight. This is true even when the object re-presented is ugly, as in Picasso’s Guernica or Goya’s depiction of the events of the peninsula war. The delight is the delight in the truthful insight, even if that insight is a horror. This is certainly true of O’Connor’s often grotesque characters. Preaching should also be a delight, both for the preacher and the hearer. This does not mean that difficult things may not be said and that our comfortable moralising may not be confronted. Delight may come when the whole basis of our lives lies in pieces around us. That is why the encounter with God is a dangerous event, if we are lucky we will lose our lives.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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