10 years ago I was putting the final touches on my dissertation for a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching degree through Chicago Theological Seminary: “The Flesh Becomes Word: Embodied Preaching and Congregational Response.” I’ve attached it below in case you’re interested. In the meantime, here are three stories about the writing process.
The first story has to do with a sense of family and place. My paternal grandparents met and fell in love at Chicago Theological Seminary in 1940. The school has since moved several blocks but in 2009 I loved walking around the stone hallways of CTS imagining my grandparents flirting with each other. He came from New England, she from Seattle. As the story goes, she never received her acceptance letter, but got on a train anyway. Arriving at the seminary she introduced herself. “Yes, Ms. Handy,” the administrator told her, “you were accepted, but we don’t have housing to offer you.” My grandmother replied, “Well, here I am.” It was a bad ass move. Need I point out the sexism she had to confront?
One afternoon I went to the seminary library and found my grandparents’ Masters theses. It did not surprise me that Charles’s thesis was heady and academic while Evelyn’s was embodied and practical. Charles was a scholar of the New Testament; Evelyn was a dancer and choreographer. In an attempt to fuse these two influences, I focused my dissertation on the embodied aspects of preaching. While the content of preaching is very important, I wanted to focus on the how of preaching as an act of performed communication. I suppose, in this sense, my grandmother’s influence was a little stronger than my grandfather’s. Which is why I mostly preach without notes, and sometimes take off my shoes.
Secondly, the quote at the center of my dissertation was by homiletician Charles Bartow: “With startling clarity T.S. Eliot indicated what is going on in all of this when he remarked that it is the purpose of literature to turn blood into ink. William Brower was no less vivid and on target when he said that the purpose of speaking literature is to turn the ink back into blood” (emphasis mine). When I read this line, it lit up something inside of me. Blood into ink and ink into blood. Yes! Writers turn the blood of lived experience into inked communication, the means of shared communion. For preachers, that is what scripture is – the blood of our ancestors turned into words that live and breathe. The calling of preachers, like actors, is to attempt to turn those inky living words back into blood, both in their own bodies and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the body of the congregation and the world.
In a recent article in The Christian Century, actor and playwright Tetsuro Shigematsu coaches preachers to be less prepared and more spontaneous so that their preaching might become an occasion for an “eruption of the real.” If I had had that phrase 10 years ago, I would have included it in my paper. That is what I was after, an eruption of the real in the act of preaching instead of a sermon as vocalized manuscript.
Finally, a story that doesn’t appear in “The Flesh Became Word,” but informed it throughout. When I was in sixth grade, my peers pointed out in a not very kind way that I blinked a lot. “Hey Ben,” they’d say, and I when I looked, they blinked furiously and laughed at their cleverness. Fast forward to my doctoral program in preaching. In the second year, we began the residency by preaching to the class for 10 minutes. It was videoed and we watched the video with an advisor. There was the blinking. It had never gone away. It was noticable and distracting. I was in sixth grade again.
Following the residency, we returned to our local settings and foisted a “preaching project” upon our congregations, 3 sermons over the next 6 months. These were videoed and sent to our advisors. I can’t remember the name of my advisor, but he was an Episcopal priest. I sent him the first video having watched it myself, realizing with horror that I blinked all the way through my sermon. I was so embarrassed. I dreaded getting his feedback several weeks later. When it arrived, I found some time alone and read it: “I noticed your blinking,” he wrote, “I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’ve determined that it is part of your unique embodiment and should be embraced.” I felt like somebody just handed me back part of myself that I had lost years ago. Ink into blood.