A Word That Can’t Be Captured in Words

Each sermon is a fragment of a mosaic preachers can never complete.
August 8, 2016

The language of faithful preaching is tensive language—unsettled language, language at the breaking point. For it is language that seeks to speak of God, but cannot fully speak of God. It is the destabilizing language of story and metaphor, paradox and poetry, which gestures toward the space created when language reaches its limits and words collide with each other. The language of preaching, as theologian Karl Barth has put it, is always a “provisional attempt,” never the final word, never controlled by the preacher. Preachers seek to speak of the divine, but always speak humanly, ever aware that our words cannot be equated with the Word of God.        

Preachers are like the “madman” in Dostoevsky’s short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.” The man has a vision in a dream, and he must share it; he must preach, as at least one translation puts it. But there is a problem:  “I do not know how to put it into words,” he says. “After my dream I lost the knack of putting things into words. At least, into the most necessary and important words. But never mind. I shall go on and I shall keep on talking, for I have indeed beheld it with my own eyes, though I cannot describe what I saw.” Like the ridiculous man, faithful preachers seek to bear witness to a message that simultaneously claims us and confounds us. 

The language of preaching is unfinished language. Preachers seek to form into words a Word that can never be captured in words. So preaching is an ongoing, never-ending provisional attempt. There is a reason preachers step into the pulpit week after week. The repetition is a form of confession: We haven’t gotten it right yet; we need to try again, to “keep on talking.” As Swedish homiletician Carina Sundberg has noted, each week we seek to place another small linguistic fragment into a mosaic that is never complete. Because preachers can only speak humanly, we keep on speaking.   

At the same time preachers must also, paradoxically, speak boldly, which, as my students repeatedly remind me, can be dangerous and scary. Though always a provisional attempt, preaching nevertheless calls us to speak truth—to risk, to dare, to testify.

At the top of almost all my course syllabi I include a quotation from the classical pianist Hélène Grimaud: “A wrong note that is played out of élan, you hear it differently than one that is played out of fear.” Here is the deep tension within the language of preaching, whether it takes the form of poetry or parable or prophecy: Preaching involves both speaking humbly and speaking with élan. It involves speaking without fear of the wrong note, while confessing there will always be wrong notes. It is thus language that finally gestures beyond itself, relying not only on human rhetoric, but also on the grace and promise of the living God to inspire and create anew.

Campbell is professor of homiletics in the divinity school and a former president of the Academy of Homiletics. His most recent book, coauthored with Johan Cilliers, is Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly.