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Light in the Gallery

How to overcome ambivalence and keep our hearers attention in our preaching.
Light in the Gallery
Image: Thomas Barwick / Getty

In a corner gallery on the second floor of the Art Institute of Chicago, one is met with brilliant examples of European realism from the middle and later 19th century. On the walls are paintings by masters like Gustave Courbet, Jean François Millet, Camille Pissarro, and Édouard Manet. Most of them depict quiet rural life—you can almost hear the axe of the wood chopper or the soft bleat of a sheep. You can feel the weariness of the peasant girl who, as the orange sun is setting behind her has spent her whole day with a sickle grasped tightly in her hand. Nothing exciting to see here: just life.

But one painting stands out. It’s the only canvas in this gallery with a religious theme. It’s a Manet entitled Jesus Mocked by Soldiers. Manet, who painted this piece in 1865, isn’t known for religious subjects. “Avant-garde artists in France did not pursue religious themes,” notes the museum in describing the curious piece.

Manet painted no background details in the scene so he could draw the viewer’s attention to the four figures that compose the painting: a seated, weary, and very human Jesus freshly adorned with the crown of thorns being mocked by three soldiers. Two of the soldiers look at Jesus; the third looks out at us, drawing us into the scene, implicating us in its action. Rather than being overly hostile, however, the soldiers appear only mildly interested in their victim, ambivalent both toward him and what they’re doing at the moment—more interested perhaps in whatever’s coming next than whatever is in front of them now.

Many today who pass in front of the painting will take the same course, giving it little attention, anticipating that there may be a greater payoff for their efforts in the next gallery, where brighter colors and more energetic images can assault their senses. Such is the plight of art in a distracted society. And such is the plight of distracted children of God today.

Ferris Bueller visited the Art Institute of Chicago on his famous day off in 1986. My (Matt) family made the same pilgrimage on Spring Break 2019. We reached the corner gallery that displayed Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers late in the afternoon . We were happy to see the benches. We were tired and thinking about supper. Our kids were interested in their phones. I did not notice Jesus myself until we reviewed the day’s photos. We were distracted. He was in our midst and we missed him.

Distraction is a universal reality for us all in the 21st century. Inattention today is as common as table salt and we all liberally season our days with it. The calendar app is constantly reminding us of our next four commitments, reassuring us of our centrality in the lives of others. Every moment, we receive invitations to look elsewhere—anywhere other than at the table being set for us here and now.

Ambivalence, whether in Manet’s soldiers or in those who sit in today’s pews, is a primary symptom of distraction—it’s not the other way around. When we’re ambivalent to that which is before us, it’s because our minds have already moved on to something else. We’ve forgotten the wonder of the moment, the possibilities in the present. All we respond to is the unknown promise of what’s behind the next click. Anyone who preaches has run headlong up against this. To make a connection in a congregation requires reaching individuals whose minds are being constantly pulled elsewhere. How do we compete?

It turns out that the key to cutting through ambivalence is not flash, not technology, and not seasoning a message with the familiar garish trappings of distraction. The key to cutting through ambivalence is affection. To convey a deep affection for what is here, right before you, can awaken other hearts and make all other distractions become unwanted and unwelcome.

Affection Draws Attention

Affection for the universality of the message being presented is the key element to awakening a similar affection in the heart of the listeners. Whether the presentation is coming from behind a pulpit or a lectern, awakening an affection in the hearts of the listeners is dependent on affection first being present in the heart of the speaker.

Do you wish your audience to be attentive? Make them feel affection for what you’re setting out for them by modeling it, showing it, and then inviting others into it. Ambivalence can engender ambivalence, but just as surely love is the response to love. The antidote for ambivalence is love, and in its presence, distraction withers. Love is human, so to find it we must be open to the entirety of the human experience: not only to the divine, but also to art, to music, to poetry—all the forms of human creativity through which we reflect the image of God.

Paying attention in a world of ambivalence is an act of genuine love. In her brilliant essay, “Reflections On The Right Use Of School Studies With A View To The Love Of God,” Simone Weil said, “Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of the same substance.” Preachers cut through ambivalence by attending to God’s Word in God’s world. This is our life and work.

The Preacher’s Affection for God

The primary focus of our attention as preachers should be God’s Word. God has turned to us in love and revelation. We know God because he has revealed himself in Christ. Christ’s Word needs our first attention because seeing all manner of things is dependent upon it. Theologian John Webster said, “… by the Word the church is generated and preserved, and by the Spirit the church sets forth the clear Word of God in traditions of holy attentiveness.” Holy attentiveness to the Word and Spirit requires time and deep affection.

Attentiveness to God and God’s world is made of the same loving substance. Our preaching is enriched when our hearts and minds are alert to the grace that is around us. Outside reading and lived experiences shape our affection for God and challenge the reign of ambivalence.

Outside Reading

Theology – Eugene Peterson was fond of saying, “Every pastor needs a theologian.” Attention to theology kindles love for God. It also helps us think in careful and orderly ways. Peterson’s theologian was Barth. I have begun reading a portion of Barth’s Church Dogmatics every day. I have also benefited from Kimlyn J. Bender’s Reading Karl Barth For The Church: A Guide And Companion. Bender is a fine preacher and top shelf theologian. He is a worthy guide for pastors. If Church Dogmatics seems too daunting, then another well to draw from is Fleming Rutledge’s remarkable work The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. I have read this book twice in two years and have wept each time. This work of pastoral theology will make you want to preach.

Biblical Studies – Commentaries and articles give insight and context. Careful exegesis can be an act of love. When I get discouraged or need inspiration, I regularly turn to commentaries written by David E. Garland and Gordon Fee. I read Garland’s 1 Corinthians commentary from the Baker Exegetical Commentary series devotionally. Good biblical studies can accomplish far more than we often assume. They do help us figure out technical, historical questions, like sorting through the various opinions of what happened to the Hittites. They also help us go deeply into the soil of sacred Scripture to bring out the life.

History – Reading history gives us a sense of humility and hope. Biographies often inspire as we see women and men who made much of life. I recently read Reggie L. Williams’s Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and An Ethic or Resistance. This work was informative and inspirational. Watching Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Bonhoeffer live out the gospel in their day was like hearing cheers from the cloud of witnesses. A good example of a more secular yet beneficial history is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership In Turbulent Times. In this work she sketches the crucible experiences of four US presidents. Reading history often breaks the narcissism of the present moment and gives us helpful perspective—perhaps even hope.

Philosophy – I have a growing conviction that every preacher needs to read Charles Taylor’s masterful work A Secular Age. It provides a helpful framework for the season we are in, although it can be an intimidating work to begin. James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor and Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth In A Distracted Age are both excellent companions. They make this important work accessible and useful for pastors.

News and Long Form Journalism – Karl Barth famously said, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” We must make a serious effort to understand the ideas, perspectives, and experiences of our neighbors. Journalism is still a valid source for this endeavor. A long piece like David Brooks’s “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” published in The Atlantic, can stimulate the preacher’s desire to connect with his or her hearers.

Novels – Reading fiction makes us more empathetic. It trains our minds to pay attention. Good fiction helps us feel the human experience. The ending of Matthew Guinn’s gritty novel The Resurrectionist recently moved me deeply. It was something of a guerilla sermon. Novels are wonderful places to practice looking for God.

Sermons – Reading a sermon by Alexander Maclaren or Gardner C. Taylor can shake the dust off your soul. This is best done when you are bone tired and discouraged. The old voices still ring down the halls of time. They say, “Wake up!

Lived Experience

Nature – Jesus admonished us to consider the birds. This is still good counsel. Paying attention to nature is a wonderful way to awaken love for God. John Stott once published a book titled The Birds Our Teachers: Biblical Lessons From A Lifelong Bird-Watcher. Stott’s time with birds was time with God. He had a holy attentiveness to the Word and Spirit and consequently saw grace among the ravens. Sermon illustrations from nature quite often connect across the generations.

Friends – This article is a conversation between two friends. Talking with friends is a life experience we must nurture. It is unlikely we will attend to God if we do not take time to listen to others.

Sport – Paul related sport to the ways of God. Sport is often a way to connect across canyons of class. Sport directly challenges the power of ambivalence.

Film – Common grace is often evident in a good film. Movies tell human stories. God is wild about people.

Music – Songs with lyrics are two forms of art intertwined. Music helps us see and feel.

Travel – You do not need a large budget. A trip to a grocery store in another neighborhood is often far enough to jar you awake to the world around you.

Art – Preachers can train their minds to attend to life by focusing on a painting, sculpture, or a time-tested piece of architecture. When creativity droops, art renews it. Grace can be found in the corner gallery.

Mutual Care and Love

In a darkened room, the light of a single candle is hard to ignore. Every detail that its flickering flame reveals reminds us of the life that’s around us in the present moment, even if we may not usually take notice. We can’t help now but pay attention.

In a gallery thousands of miles away from the Manet in the Art Institute of Chicago there is a painting that is, in a critical way, its opposite. In the grand Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg hangs Childhood of Christ, painted almost 250 years before Manet’s brush illuminated the ambivalent mocking soldiers.

Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst shows us a very different moment in the life of the Savior. Here he is a young boy in the workshop of his father Joseph. Like Manet, van Honthorst made the background dark interrupted only by two faint angels who attentively watch the scene with us. Night has fallen but Joseph is still working. Jesus stands near, holding a candle, paying close attention not to the board being shaped by the chisel, but to the face of his earthly father. In that careworn face we see focus and care for the moment at hand. One slip, one moment of distraction, and the piece could be damaged beyond repair.

It is a scene not of ambivalence but of mutual care and love. It is a glimpse of a moment of which two very different people are partaking fully. Nothing crowds in from the future, no distractions are coming just around the corner. This moment has their full and complete attention. In the clarity with which the artist renders their two faces, he invites us to imagine the next moment in which Joseph sets down his hammer and chisel and smiles up at his son who has made his work possible tonight. Their affection for each other is palpable. Here Honthorst is showing us a world where ambivalence has no place. That is the world we should seek to show others.

I (Matt) often tell stories in sermons about doing carpentry with my father when I was a boy. It is not hard for me to imagine the biblical Joseph. He was a good man, just like my dad. A couple from our church once traveled to the Hermitage in Russia. They had heard my sawdust and Savior stories and loved their pastor so they sent a stunning postcard of Hornthorst’s Childhood of Christ. It sits on my desk. I look at it week after week as I gather together the words that hopefully turn into a word from God.

This painting has become a portal into the preaching life. The preacher is Joseph. He loves Jesus more than anything in the scene. He is aware Jesus is present, but that is not all he is aware of. Joseph’s eyes are focused on the work. His hands build. Jesus holds the light. Joseph pays attention. Jesus pays attention to Joseph, and his light makes things possible.

Love for God and the world are made of the same substance—attention. Attention is the affection that overcomes ambivalence. As preachers and teachers, we need to hear deep in our souls, “Awake, you who sleep, Arise from the dead, And Christ will give you light” (Eph. 5:14). He is in our midst. Will we see him this time?

Matt Snowden is the pastor of First Baptist Church Waco, Texas.

David A. Smith is a senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University and the host of David & Art on KWBU-FM.

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