I AM a vegetarian, which makes me a bit of a pain to have to dinner. Some people find the concept of vegetarianism difficult, and offer me fish. I resist explaining that a fish is not a vegetable, as it sounds rather patronising. If people are kind enough to invite me for a meal, I make a joke of being a vegetarian and give them a rule of thumb: “If it has a face, I don’t eat it.” Like most rules of thumb, it does not cover everything. (Do shellfish have faces?) A similar rule of thumb applies to preaching: “If you can’t give it a body, don’t preach it.”
The word “body” covers anything that can be known through our bodily senses in some way, not necessarily a human body. Once again, it is only a rule of thumb, it probably does not cover everything. Embodiment is giving something a “body”, a physical form that can be sensed. Embodiment is a crucial element of preaching; for it stops sermons flying off into abstractions.
Spiritual insights are embodied in the Bible; when God wanted to show his love for humanity, he sent his Son who took on flesh (John 3.16). God’s love was embodied in Jesus. When God speaks, it is through the words and lives of the prophets, poets, and writers of the Bible, who lived in specific places and experienced particular situations through their bodies.
The Bible is not a collection of disembodied messages: it is the story of a people and their relationship with God, and it is the story of Jesus Christ and the spread of his redeeming gospel across communities in the first-century world.
The four binaries
Four binaries lie at the heart of embodiment: material/spiritual, concrete/abstract, specific/general, particular/universal.
I have separated these for clarity, but in practice they overlap. These binaries operate in every type of sermon, but preaching styles differ according to what they emphasise.
A revelatory approach, and a showing style, tends to emphasise the first part of each pair, and that becomes a way of revealing the second.
Material is matter, the physical, the stuff that makes up the world. Embodiment is the revealing of the spiritual through the physical and the material things of this world.
Embodiment is when biblical characters are presented as people with bodies as well as souls; they are people who live in a material world, and it is often through the world and their bodies that people learn of God.
Matter and spirit are not separated; the spiritual needs the material world to manifest itself. This can be expressed in preaching. Instead of talking about Jesus submitting to the will of God — a very spiritual statement — preachers can document how that submission was expressed physically.
From the moment he said,
‘Thy will be done,’
Jesus changes from subject to object.
Before he did things,
now people do things to him.
Before he spoke,
now he is largely silent.
Judas betrays him,
guards bind him,
he is led away to trial.
Peter denies him,
the High Priest condemns him
and hands him over to Pilate.
Pilate questions him,
passes him to Herod
who mocks Jesus and sends him back.
Pilate tries to release him,
washes his hands of him,
gives him to soldiers who mock and beat him.
We learn through our bodies and we live out our faith through our bodies in the material world. Barbara Brown Taylor states this explicitly: she speaks of the human body being a source of revelation because we are enfleshed people who learn through our bodies.
Embodiment is a feature of all narrative preaching, but it is particularly important in revelatory preaching. It is endorsed by the former professor of preaching at St Paul School of Theology, Kansas City, the Revd Dr Eugene Lowry throughout his writings; and the preacher, hymn-writer, theologian, and musician Thomas Troeger literally gets physical: he advocates feeling “the bodily weight of the truth”, physically rehearsing some of the actions in the text such as kneeling and bowing.
Concrete is something that is solid, real, definite, and tangible. It is the opposite of vague, theoretical, and abstract. It is easy for preachers to drift into abstract religious language and forget that their congregations live out their faith in the office and factory, the home and the farm. The congregation has to translate abstract statements into a way of life.
David Day (in Embodying the Word, SPCK, 2005) notes how preachers can help congregations do this by making a deliberate choice for concrete situations: images and examples rather than abstract language. He asks if preachers can work backwards to the sense experiences and concrete situations that evoked the texts, which is an integral part of a revelatory approach.
Jesus spoke in concrete terms, using images and examples from everyday life to communicate the message of the Kingdom. Following Jesus’s example means that language used in preaching can root religious concepts in concrete situations without being seen as “dumbing down”.
Language that uses images from everyday life is not the poor cousin of abstract language. In Embodied Knowing, Embodied Theology: What happened to the body?, Bonnie Miller-McLemore notes that being able to think abstractly is often held up as a sign of maturity, particularly in developmental schemes that categorise stages of faith; but this attitude embodiment and the language of earth marginalises the way many people learn.
The following extract takes Paul’s words to the Ephesians concerning being enslaved to “the ruler of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2.2) and makes this abstract statement concrete, particularly as this was preached during the Covid-19 pandemic.
When the spirit of “I’m all right, Jack” is at work — leading to a vaccine grab, or stockpiling loo rolls and resources — the ruler of the power of the air is being worshipped.
This may seem a bit too down to earth for some people: shouldn’t the sermon be more spiritual? I think the answer is, no. Using abstract language may sound more spiritual to some people, but spiritual is not rising above the things of this world: it is practising our faith in this world. The way we behave concerning toilet rolls in a shortage can be an expression of our faith. This is a concrete example of showing who we worship by our behaviour.
Specific is about being clearly defined, precise, and detailed. General is being broad, generic, and comprehensive. Painkiller is a general term; Aspirin, Paracetamol, and Ibuprofen are specific painkillers. The Bible is often specific: Paul gives specific attributes of the general term “love” (1 Corinthians 13.4-8). The laws of the Old Testament cover all aspects of life, and are very specific.
Specific rather than general language is part of a showing style. Words easily drift into broad generalisations, and a conscious move is needed to make language specific, as in the examples that follow.
General: Compassion sometimes needs to get tough.
Specific: Compassion getting tough includes us. We can nurture compassionate attitudes in ourselves and be tough on ourselves if we find hard-hearted attitudes within. As Christians, we can get tough by refusing to purchase newspapers that foster hatred, whatever their source. We can be fair and just in our dealings with others, and support organisations that help people out of debt. We can pray; for prayer changes things, and we can gossip compassion and not join in with callous views when in conversation with others.
General language can be translated into specific language by asking questions concerning what is involved in the general statement.
General statement: From this point onwards (Luke 9.51), Jesus’s ministry was a journey towards Jerusalem.
What is involved? Walking
The choosing of a particular direction.
The constant choice of that direction over a period of time, even though there were many events and encounters on the way: healings, teaching, conflicts.
This becomes: Day after day he walks,
every step takes him closer to Jerusalem.
But his course is not direct: there was no Google map showing the shortest route.
The path to Jerusalem winds through Palestine taking in people in need of healing, men and women hungry for teaching, conflicts to be faced.
Day after day he sets the compass, and the needle always points one way:
A revelatory approach is specific in its presentation of the biblical narrative. Keying into a specific situation to understand a larger and more general one is a well-known technique used in the media and the arts. An example of this is the girl in the red coat in the film Schindler’s List (1993).
Understanding the horrors of what happened to the Jewish people is initiated through focusing on one specific child. This is an approach that journalists sometimes use: they may tell the story of one family, to help people relate to a distant situation, rather than talk in general terms. . .
Art is a form of visual language that is specific. Artists communicate via the specifics of their art form: the people, the setting, the gestures, the objects, and the expressions. Preachers can learn from artists how to communicate the general through the specific.
Although preaching language needs to get specific, the specifics of a narrative need to be generalised at some point so that they relate to the hearer’s lives and different situations. The general, however, needs to be approached via the specific. . .
The difference between general and specific in terms of practice is something we encounter in daily life. General statements such as “lose weight” are imprecise and are easy to evade, but a specific statement such as “refuse the biscuits at coffee break” stands more chance of being practised. The same is true of sermons.
Specific language can resonate with a congregation, as it gives enough detail to build a picture of an event or person, and enough detail to give people pointers concerning how something may be lived. General statements that are exhortations, such as “love more”, are difficult to practise and may be ignored, or they may engender a vague sense of guilt — we know we ought to love more, but are not sure how to do it.
If we find ourselves making general exhortations such as “love more”, “pray more”, it helps to add the word “how”. If we cannot add any specifics or pointers, should we be preaching it?
That does not mean that we have to have all the answers, but it does mean that we have to give some clues concerning how a general statement or principle may be practised. Furthermore, it needs to be borne in mind that practice includes feeling, thinking, and being, as well as action.
Jane Austen opens her novel Pride and Prejudice with the famous words: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Unfortunately, Austen’s statement does not qualify as a universal truth; for universal truths apply to all people, for all time, in all places, and not every single, rich male needs or wants a wife.
Universal truths are not always universally acknowledged. For example, “God is holy” is a universal truth held by Christians, but it is not universally acknowledged. Universal truths are big truths, and they are too big for us to understand except in particular instances. We may experience the holiness of God in the particulars of worship.
Christians hold “God is love” to be a universal truth, but we know it only in the particular, when we experience that love. When preaching universal truths, preachers can root them in particular experiences; they can also be grounded in the particulars of storytelling so that people see a universal truth lived out in the details of a narrative when a slice of narrative life is presented.
David Day suggests imaginative ways of presenting the particulars of a story. He suggests entering the story by envisioning it as a film, or using Ignatian methods, where the reader imagines themselves as part of a biblical story, or as an observer. Both methods involve “seeing” the situation and people in a biblical narrative, and that can be shown in a sermon.
The emphasis on universal truths’ being expressed in the particulars of storytelling means that the doctrines of Christianity can be preached in a narrative way; for real situations underlie many doctrines. The slave market underlies redemption, and a goat being driven into the wilderness is the basis for the concept of atonement. Day points out that, before Paul wrote about justification, Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18.9-14). The truths of doctrine can be preached in an embodied form.
The language of faith
The language of faith is something we learn. Over the years, we get to know how to handle religious words such as “salvation”, “redemption”, and “faith”, and we have a rough working knowledge of what these religious words mean. As preachers, we may say that Abraham was a man of faith, and the congregation may nod in agreement, as most people will know what is meant by that statement at a basic definition level (Abraham trusted God). The level of understanding may remain superficial, however, because people know roughly what the word “faith” means.
If a word is completely new, we stop and try to think through its meaning; not so with familiar words. Embodiment is what is needed to pierce the film of familiarity, and to begin to work through what religious words mean and their implications. This is part of building relevance throughout a sermon. . .
The language of faith, and the language of any of the doctrines, can be a problem unless doctrine is embodied and the implications are worked through. People may get used to using key words such as “salvation”, “redemption”, and “justification” without understanding their import. There is nothing wrong with learning the language of faith, but such language left unexplored can act as little more than a shibboleth, a password, signalling that we belong in the Christian community.
Embodied language: the language of earth
Embodied preaching is about speaking the language of earth. . . Embodied language gets physical, and it has a this-world quality, not an otherworldly one. In The Embodied Word (Fortress Press 1991), Charles Rice comments on how down-to-earth Jesus’s language was; he referred to the ordinary realities of earthly existence. Jesus’s parables are about cooking and landlords, muggings and family life. Jesus’s stories and images are about helping people to see God as present in the material world and in human lives. Jesus had confidence in the stuff of everyday life to be the way in which we come to know God, and the way in which God reveals his presence.
Living a Christian life is not rising above the things of this world or earthly existence: it is throwing ourselves into life, into the world God made; it is what Jesus did. . .
If sermons are to connect with people, they need to include the language of earth, words like “sweat”, “dribble”, “exhaustion”, and “mud” — whatever earthy words are appropriate for the narrative. The Bible is not shy about human physicality, it is happy to mix laws on worship and religious festivals with laws concerning toilets, food, and sex (Deuteronomy 12.1-32; 14.1-21; 16.1-16; 22.13-30; 23.12-14).
Dr Margaret Cooling is an author has been preaching in a lay capacity for 30 years. She trained at London School of Theology, Spurgeons, and St John’s Durham. This is an edited extract from her book Preaching That Shows: Revealing relevance, is published by SCM Press at £25 (Church Times Bookshop £20); 978-0-33406-184-7.