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‘La Bella Predica’: The Beautiful Sermon

What is the role of beauty in preaching?
‘La Bella Predica’: The Beautiful Sermon
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Ed Murphy was the father of my high school principal Ellis and father-in-law to Ellis’s wife Doris, who happened to be my high school art teacher. Ed was as faithful as the sunrise at the church we attended throughout my teen years—the church where I answered the call to preach and delivered some of my earliest sermons.

Ed listened graciously to more than his fair share of my meager homilies. (God bless him!) Every time afterwards on his way out the door, he paused long enough to thank me. With a hearty handshake, warm smile, and what I still recall as an unfeigned sincerity in his voice, he quoted the Scripture, “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace and bring glad tidings of good things!”

Looking back into the haze of the more than forty years that have since passed, I vaguely recall another occasion following a funeral when some dear lady thanked me for what the Italians call la bella predica, the beautiful sermon.

None of my professors back in Bible college or seminary ever told me that preaching should be beautiful. Biblical? Sure. But beautiful? Not that I remember. I wish they had.

An Eye and an Ear for Beauty

Did you catch what I said earlier about taking art classes in high school? I was no Rembrandt, but I won my fair share of ribbons in our school’s annual showings that were judged by a bona fide artist of some renown (in our neck of the woods anyways).

Watercolors and pencil were my favorite mediums. Drawing and painting always put me in a different headspace than any of my other classes. I enjoyed the work and possessed (note the past tense) some talent for it.

Now, the funny thing about it (and my reason for telling you all of that) is when one of my aunts heard that I planned on heading off to a Christian college to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree, she naïvely replied, “That’s good. He’ll be able to keep doing his art there.” She was wrong in more ways than she knew.

The Bible and theology department of my alma mater said little-to-nothing about either art or beauty. I’m sure the music majors talked about it often, but not us preachers. We were concerned about keeping it biblical.

Maybe it was the closeted artist in me, but even then, I felt that preaching should be more than biblical. Some of my favorite radio preachers consistently found a way of appealing to my aesthetic sensibilities.

Sometimes, when I was preparing a sermon for a class assignment or hoped-for engagement, I happily stumbled my way into a headspace like the one I had known in Mrs. Murphy’s classroom years earlier. The feelings of freedom, striving, grasping to capture, and (strange as it sounds) humble pride in accomplishment were all familiar to me.

I now realize that I felt all those things because God created me with an eye and an ear for beauty, just as he has you and your hearers. What you do with that innate appreciation for beauty will have a practical effect upon your preaching greater than you may think.

Beauty’s Irresistible Charm

When the curtain rises on Genesis 1, we observe God pausing at the end of each day to behold his creation and to delight in its goodness. From this divine act we infer that part of what it means for us to bear God’s image is to possess a natural appreciation for beauty and the impulse to celebrate it.

Anyone who questions that need only to visit the Mallory Square pier in Key West, Florida, around sunset. Tourists from the world over line the railing there each evening to watch in silent awe as the sun slowly slips into the blazing horizon beyond. In the day’s fading rays, a spontaneous response inevitably erupts—clapping!

Our innate appreciation for beauty is one of what N. T. Wright identifies in his book Simply Christian as four “echoes of a voice.” Each echo—our longing for justice, quest for spirituality, hunger for relationships, and delight in beauty—points beyond itself to some deeper reality, to “someone who cares very much about this present world and our present selves.”

Simple pleasures, like the sound of a baby’s chuckle or the sight of a rainbow, move us to joy, while life’s complexities fill us with awe and wonder. We prize the justice we see, spirituality we experience, relationships we enjoy, and beauty we discover. Yet, we are haunted by the feeling that there is more that we are missing. C. S. Lewis describes our experience in The Weight of Glory as sehnsucht, a feeling of “inconsolable longing.”

Beauty naturally appeals to our innermost being as God’s image bearers and calls us out of ourselves as God’s stewards. Our appreciation for beauty is simultaneously part and parcel of our humanity and a tool of divine persuasion—intended to move us to God and to act in his world. As such, beauty lay at the very heart of worship.

Out of all those things that make up God’s good creation, the ones that interest us personally are those whose beauty captivate us. When Pele described soccer as jogo bonito, meaning “the beautiful game,” millions of European football fans nodded in agreement. Baseball fans delight in the beauty of majestic home runs, perfectly pitched games, and lightning quick double plays.

Just as a young Haddon Robinson was once captivated by the mystifying beauty of a sermon by H. A. Ironside, I am infatuated with the Word well preached. None of us chose this object of our delight; it seems to have chosen us. Its beauty enthralls us, while at the same time driving us to become and reproduce better preachers. All of this we do in worship of our God.

The ancient rhetorician Cicero famously insisted that an eloquent person must speak to teach, to delight, and to persuade. “To teach is a necessity, to delight is a beauty, to persuade is a triumph,” he held. In Cicero’s ordering, beauty is central to eloquence—preceded by truth, followed by persuasion—linking the former to the latter. In short, beauty makes truth persuasive.

Beauty cannot replace truth, of course, nor can the two be equated. Truth must forever claim pride of place. And yet, they are inseparable. Singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson in his insightful little book Adorning the Darkness explains why. “Truth without beauty can be a weapon; beauty without truth can be spineless. The two together are lyric and melody ... Where we go wrong is when we tilt the scales away from grace, or beauty, or excellence, as if truth were all that mattered.”

In Pursuit of Beauty

So, this is where you’re probably expecting me to give you at least three steps for beautifying your preaching. Sorry to disappoint, but if that’s what you want (and more), you’ll have to read my academic paper on eloquence that I hope to present at the 2024 annual meeting of the Evangelical Homiletics Society in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Pardon the shameless plug for my beloved guild.)

For now, let me draw your attention back to Peterson’s book. Its subtitle is Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making. Composing a sermon, just like composing a song or story, is a mysterious thing. On the one hand, it’s a mundane process that starts with a vague idea of what you hope to say and a whole lot of hard work trying to find the right words to say it. On the other hand, it’s mysterious. You start out more like a potter trying to work the clay of your biblical text into something useful. You are the master.

But as you continue to squeeze and stretch the lopsided object forming in your hands and as you sprinkle it like water with your prayers, if not your tears, you soon find yourself in the role not of master but servant. You are serving the work, letting the clay dictate the shape it should take. You are no longer trying to control what emerges from the clay but rather opening a door to let out what’s locked inside.

That sounds simple enough. It’s not. And you should be prepared. The final product will rarely, if ever, seem to capture fully the beauty of the text and its vision that so enthralled you. Peterson describes the experience well.

The song [or sermon, in the preacher’s case] as it’s written [and delivered] is never as beautiful as it was in that fleeting, exhilarating moment of inspiration. The song’s potential is shimmering beyond the veil somewhere, while the song that you finally write is almost always haunted by a feeling of diminishment. You have a picture in your mind or a feeling in your heart that you’re trying to bring into space and time, but there’s just no way (yet) to deliver it in its fullness. The song in reality is as different from what you imagined as a portrait is from the painter’s subject. At some point (usually thanks to the mercy of a deadline), you have to put down the brush and give thanks for the chance to have made the attempt.


What is beauty? What is its place in preaching? Beauty is something we appreciate, something that charms us, but something that we rarely capture and never hold for long. Why should we even try? Here’s why. Because the attempt is a gift of grace. In it we experience God’s presence, and through our attempt to convey it we worship him who is the author of all beauty.

Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.

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