Preaching with Sanctified Imagination

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They called him the golden voice.  He was tall and dressed to impress in his patent leather shoes and swanky tailored made suit.  He carried a well-worn bible and displayed a formidable stride when he walked that seemed to be in concert with his serious demeanor.  After the choir finished their selection he stood up to the podium to address the capacity crowd that had gathered to hear him preach.  With skill and precision he moved from introductory remarks and pleasantries into a masterful exposition of scripture in a sermon he titled “What a little chicken saw.”

The point of the sermon was the simple message that we need to embrace life and not run from it.  But what made this sermon special was the smooth and creative way that this preacher told the story.  I shall never forget sitting there that night listening to his booming voice tell the story of the prodigal son.  It was as though he had the whole congregation waiting with bated breath to hear what was going to happen next in a story that many of them had heard countless times before. 

The high point for me was when he paused after telling the biblical story of the prodigal son and then said with a touch of dramatic flair “…and I tell you my friends, as I look through my sanctified imagination I can see a little chicken in an egg.”  From this he went on to tell a story about a chicken hiding in its egg as a metaphor for showing how humanity is hiding in the world today.  It was simply masterful.

Listening to the Reverend Jasper Williams that night was first time I’d ever heard a preacher call upon their “sanctified imagination” but since then I’ve heard be called upon many times in pulpits across the land.               

Admittedly in my earlier years when I would hear a preacher beckon their “sanctified imagination” I would say to myself, “oh here comes the part where they start lying on God and adding to the Bible.”  But as I’ve gotten older and become more informed and preached my fair share of sermons as a pastor and itinerant preacher, I have a very different view of the sanctified imagination.

Now I understand that the sanctified imagination is not the act of simply making things up that sound good but rather it is a preacher’s way of using a moment of creative license to help better tell the gospel story and make sense out of what the Bible says.  Just as Reverend Williams used the story of a chicken hiding in an egg to help make clear the biblical message of the prodigal son, all preachers in their own way should seek to use the manifold resources of their imagination to help make the gospel plain to those whom they preach.         

I think this is without question one of the key ingredients of great preaching.  In fact, I would argue that preaching with sanctified imagination is what separates memorable preaching from mere preaching.  It’s what separates sermons that become a part of us from sermons that bounce off of us.  Simply put, it is the thing that makes preaching impactful. 

But what really is preaching with sanctified imagination?

For me preaching with sanctified imagination is the art of preaching with theologically inspired creativity. It is the process of the preacher’s mind being aroused by the possibilities of the Living word.  It is how a preacher attempts to rhetorically and visually paint a picture of the gospel that is clear for all to see. 

Practically speaking, in my practice of preaching I employ sanctified imagination mostly after I have finished an extended period of reading and meditating on the words of a biblical text.  At this point my imagination is ready to explore the possibilities within the world of the text and it is also ready to consider how the world of the text intersects with my lived reality.  In my experience this point in sermon preparation process is the most fertile ground for preaching creativity. 

For most preachers, the sanctified imagination manifests in the practice of storytelling.  However, when I say storytelling, I don’t mean storytelling for storytelling sake.  There are few things more problematic in preaching than haphazardly putting stories in sermons where they don’t belong.  In contrast, storytelling with sanctified imagination is about creatively identifying narratives that will connect the living Word of the text with the living world of the sermon hearer.  It is the process of discerning what stories from our own experience and the experiences of others help the preacher tell the grander story of the Divine.

Another element of the sanctified imagination is visualization. This is the process of the preacher using imagination to provide a visual image of the sermon’s primary message.  Typically this manifests in the use of props or maybe a video that illustrates a main point.  Sometimes it even means preaching in full costume as a bible character or allowing a visual artist to paint a relevant image while the sermon is being delivered.  

Whatever the method, finding ways to creatively provide images that make the point of the sermon is vital to preaching with sanctified imagination.   Moreover, statistics say over half of the population is made up of visual learners which means in most settings sermons without visualization will have difficulty being memorable much less impactful. 

Lastly, it’s important to understand that sanctified imagination in preaching isn’t just about creativity it also about courage.  It’s about finding the courage to use our imaginations to develop a new vision for the communities we serve and then preaching that vision with creativity and conviction.  It’s about having the courage to imagine the world without many of the social issues that continually plague it and then having the homiletical imagination to help others see what you see.  It’s about having the courage to do as Jesus did and use our sanctified imaginations to preach messages that inspire the weak to become strong, the poor to become rich and the lowly to be exalted.  This is our creative mission as contemporary preachers, should we choose to accept it.                                                   

Waiting for the Woke White Church to Show Up

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Earlier this year I viewed Raoul Peck’s new film “I Am Not Your Negro” which is essentially a radical narration about race in America, featuring the social commentary of James Baldwin.  I came away from this film with many thoughts and emotions; not least of which was the profound reality that if white supremacy is ever going to be curtailed and derailed__those who created it will have to do it. 

As Baldwin classically asserts “If I’m a nigga, you invented me.”  This point cannot be underemphasized.  Though many white Americans constantly bemoan the divisive state of race relations in the United States of America and feel that race is constantly placed in conversations where it doesn’t belong, they forget that this is a conundrum of their creation.  Whiteness created race.  Thus giving birth to racism and creating the context for centuries of conflict between so-called whites, blacks and others.

Given this reality, one wonders why more Whites don’t see it as their responsibility to tear down the racial tower of terror they created.  Moreover, it is really sad and shameful that more White Christians have not stood up in the name of their loving God to oppose the evil that is white supremacy.  

The Rise of White Christian Resistance

The fight to combat white supremacy in the US has, by and large, been led by Black Churches that came into existence in response to Christian based racial discrimination.  But the time has come for White Christians to step up and take the lead in terminating the nagging racial pest that their heritage of privilege has unleashed in our shared social home.  

For years, blacks have led in this cause for the sake of our own humanity and equality.  And though, we, black Christians, are happy to share from the wisdom of our many years in the struggle against racial injustice, we cannot continue to be responsible for this fight. 

To be sure, there have always been white Christian abolitionist and freedom fighters who have courageously supported the cause of equality.  However, there has never been a major coordinated Christian based movement for racial justice led and sustained by whites in this country.  But this reality must change. And I dare say that it is changing. 

With the rise of the Trump presidential administration with its neo-fascist, white nationalist and draconian sensibilities, it seems like a new diverse coalition of justice seekers is forming.

Learning from the Black Christian Freedom Struggle

If I’m correct that a new coalition of White Christian justice seekers are rising up, they would do well to learn from the church that White supremacy created i.e. the black church.  Without a doubt Black Christians have a long and productive legacy of engaging in communal combat against white supremacy. 

Here are a few things that I think White Christians can learn from the black Christian freedom struggle.  

The liberation struggle requires theological imagination. 
Historically, most white scholars and theologians have not made the pursuit of justice and/or combating racism central or even marginal to their work.  Instead they have chosen to put forward so-called Christian ways of being that either ignore white supremacy or cutely divert by talking about the more palatable topic of racial reconciliation.  In order to rise above this justice seeking white Christians will have to use their theological imagination to construct their own theologies of resistance and liberation. 

They will have to write books, construct sermons and give talks that tell the ugly truth about the rages of white supremacy and why it’s a divine necessity to deconstruct whiteness.  This is what some the enslaved Africans did when they constructed the spirituals and what Benjamin Mays, James Cone, Jacqueline Grant and others did when they wrote about black liberation theology.  In similar fashion, we need white liberation theology focused on liberating whites from the bondage of their conscious and unconscious white supremacy.          

The liberation struggle requires institutions animated by freedom.
No real movement can be sustained long-term without forming institutions that extend the liberation moment into a lasting cause.  Black Christians demonstrated this by building schools, churches and civic organizations rooted in the pursuit of freedom, justice and equality for all.  White justice seeking Christians need to do the same.  They need to build new educational institutions devoted to unlearning white supremacy and colonial mentality.  They need new churches rooted in the radical gospel of subversive love and Holy Ghost filled truth telling. They need to form civic organizations invested in the liberation of modern society from the perils of racial injustice and systemic inequality.  In short, they need to turn the historic trend of pro-white institution building into pro-human rights institution building.     

The liberation struggle requires moral resilience.
Because the work of justice seeking and equality is often difficult and full of setbacks and disappointments moral resilience is necessary for this journey.  If the Black Christian church knows anything it’s that the freedom march is a marathon not a sprint.  It took 400 plus years to get equal protection under the law for African Americans in the US and the fight still continues today.  In like manner, I’m quite sure white supremacy and systemic inequality will not die tomorrow or the day after.  Therefore, white Christians seeking justice must pack their bags with resilience and prepare for a long ride down the road of freedom.                         

 

Cornel West 25 Years After Race Matter: Less celebrated, still courageous

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I remember the first time I read Race Matters.  I was a high school senior who was bored with my course work and searching for a something different to stimulate my intellect and developing worldview.  As I perused the shelves of a local used bookstores I eventually came across a copy of Race Matters and was immediately taken by the now iconic picture of the dapper and studios looking Cornel West that graced the book’s cover.  Instantly I began reading the text and found myself so captivated that I read the entire book in one sitting. 

There were many things that I found intriguing about Race Matters as I journeyed through it.  Not least of which was the feeling that I’d found someone in West that was able to speak about the world in the way that I was coming to know it.  I also found in West’s writing a passion for justice, scholarly courage and a command of language that sparked something within me which I only vaguely knew was there before.  In real sense, I encountered on that day, like many others who’ve read Race Matters, the genius that is Cornel West.

Race Matters and West’s Rise to Fame

When Cornel West released Race Matters in 1993 it skyrocketed him into intellectual stardom.  Prior to its release West was already a celebrity academic of sorts but he was certainly not known to most of the general public.  He had published several critically acclaimed books including a two volume work that won him the American Book award but to that point didn’t have a bestselling book to boast of. 

This all changed when Deborah Chasman of Beacon press suggested that West pull together a collection of his previously written essays into one book about race with the intention to reach a more popular audience.  West agreed to pursue the project but admittedly had low expectations for the book and its commercial success.  He, of course, was wrong about this as the book, eventually titled Race Matters, would go on to become a huge success both commercially and culturally.

From the beginning Race Matters was a hit.  In the first several months after its release it sold more copies than anyone could have predicted and more importantly helped changed the dialogue about race and racial reasoning in the US.  Its success also resulted in many college courses making it required reading and a considerable number of mainstream and progressive media outlets making it the topic of public conversation and debate.  Even Bill Clinton, the President at the time, was so impressed with Race Matters that he invited West to the White house for a private one on one meeting of the minds.

Much of Race Matters’ initial success was due to the fact that it was the right book for the right time.  Keep in mind that it was released on the heels of the Rodney King beating and the racially charged events that followed; so in many ways the culture was primed and ready for a fresh high quality reflection on the state of race which West effectively offered in Race Matters

The Perils of Fame and West 25 years after

It’s safe to say that West was unprepared for the success of Race Matters.  He has publically shared how challenging it was to gain such fame while at the same time trying to navigate the turmoil that categorized some of his private life.  And anyone who has followed West closely over the years knows how much he bemoaned becoming the darling of White liberals during the years immediately following the release of Race Matters.  In fact, West professed to be so ambivalent about his newfound fame back then that he was actually more interested in celebrating the success of Toni Morrison and her 1993 Pulitzer prize in literature than he was in celebrating his own success from Race Matters.

25 years later West’s fame has continued to rise.  Over these many years he has maintained his place as one of the most visible Black intellectuals in the world and continued to occupy a privileged teaching post at some of the most prestigious universities and theological institutions in the US.  He’s also maintained a frantically busy itinerary lecturing and dropping knowledge in colleges, faith communities, civic organizations etc. across the globe.  He’s also managed to publish a prodigious amount of articles and essays and make a countless number of media appearances.  And of course he’s released several book projects, a few of which are notable, but none on par with the success or originality of Race Matters as critics like Michael Eric Dyson (West’s former mentee turned jaded antagonist) have noted. 

In recognition of the book that made him a household name West has re-released Race Matters with a new introduction that connects the iconic text with the current moment which seems very fitting, even necessary, given the state of the world and West’s current public posture in it. 

To be sure, race is still as intractable an issue today as it was in the early 1990’s.  And the central message of Race Matters, that there are serious flaws in American society which largely contribute to black suffering, is still relevant in our time.  As for West himself, he is still celebrated but not as he once was.  Like some who’ve come before him, West appears to be enduring the consequences of having such an extended season in American public life.  Many of those who once lauded West now readily lambaste him and some who were his committed celebrants have become his fiercest critics, while at the same time a generation of younger people less familiar with West question his relevance today.

Yet, despite these realities West is still every bit as courageous and committed to the freedom struggle as ever.  He is still willing to jump in a good fight for justice no matter where it may be.  He’s still willing to be an intellectual activist and raw truth-teller no matter the backlash.  And he’s still willing to courageously declare that race matters in a society that is often hostile to such a message.  Simply put, 25 years later, he is still, the genius that is Cornel West.