November 26th, 2019

lindisfarne gospels

The Tree of Life? Take a right, just past the boiled peanut stand

Since retiring, I have heard a lot more of others’ preaching than I did while I was living under the Sunday deadline myself. And I’ve noticed something about the way some preachers* approach descriptions of heaven in the Bible. They have no feel for poetry, for symbolism. For instance, many of the images in the Book of Revelation convey the splendor of the court of heaven, or of the New Jerusalem. But when you think about it, Scrooge McDuck’s Money Bin is also an image of splendor; it’s just a vulgar image.

Listening to some preachers describe what awaits us in heaven is like listening to a tour guide extolling the wonders of the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota. “But this one’s even bigger, and it’s made of gold!” As if the desire of my soul were to finally get to see some oversized tourist prop and get my picture taken beside it: heaven as the Vegas Strip.

In a vision (as in Revelation), the appearance of a thing is its meaning. We are not seeing the denizens of heaven as they appear to themselves, at home with their feet up (so to speak). The measurements given of things are not translatable into miles or feet. The images are supposed to speak to our minds, and below our minds to the depths of our souls. The preacher’s task is not only to explain what the images mean, but to address the thing within us that responds to the image.

The preacher must address the desire of our souls, which we struggle to articulate for ourselves; once it is said, of course, it seems obvious, but we’d never thought about it that way until the preacher said it like that. That is the preacher’s task. He or she is a preacher precisely because he or she can say what we cannot say, unaided: to reveal ourselves to ourselves, and the answer to the riddle of ourselves in Jesus Christ. To chatter, with ever greater hyperbole, about the surfaces of things without addressing the depths is the trade of the carnival barker. Preachers should aspire to do better than that.


*The same obtuseness is evident in a lot of evangelical publishing.