The old, by today very old, cliché about preaching was: three points and a poem. I haven’t researched it, I’m too lazy to really establish it, but having read a lot of old sermons it strikes me as gaining its form in the late 19th century – a time when poets were still an important part of life. And not just to egg-heads like me or emo-theater-kids, but the Psalms from the King James, and the Romantics (Byron and Shelley), and the occasional line from Virgil or Homer (or if you were more naughty from Martial’s epigrams) would be part of the common man’s existence. They didn’t have TV to distract or the NFL to take away the day the church used to own. Those 19th Century divines, mostly Anglican, the Lutherans were still in German which I can’t read, would preach for an hour and wrap it up with a poem. The form became the cliché in the mid-20th century. By which time the preachers no longer had as much poetry memorized at their predecessors nor did they have a willing hour in the pulpit. That and the demands of the parish itself were changing. Even if they were given an hour, the study necessary for that was no longer available. The reasons are numerous, and we live after the deluge.
Personally I can’t imagine trying to create three points. As a homiletics prof said in an unguarded moment, “all we can handle is one.” And my stock of poetry is even less than my mid-century peers. I was only forced to memorize two poems in all my schooling plus the scattered verse I’ve assinged myself. But I do have this stack of poems that I’ve saved along the way. Saved dreaming of putting together a collection. But making no claim to being from a wide choice. Most poetry, like most creative works, has meaning to you, your mother and maybe your wife. Editors of lit mags have favorites and favors to repay and sinecures to grasp hold of. And my taste and desires are decidedly not the current lit mag editor’s taste. But a Dana Gioia, or a Mary Karr, or especially an A. E. Stallings occasionally passes through the filter simply on the power of their verse.
And what is that power? I’d say the same as the power of Scripture, capital T Truth. Luther in his Heidelberg theses posits, “A Theologian of the Cross says what a thing is.” He contrasts that theologian of the cross with a “theologian of glory” and the defining trait of the theologian of glory is to “call the bad good and the good bad.” Why did poets fade from importance? I’d say the same reason as pastoral theologians. They stopped being vessels of truth. They became masters of a colloquial phrase: polishing a…oops, I almost didn’t receive the call over things like that. They put forward very pretty lies, because their faith in the Cross, and their faith in their audience to hear it, wavered.
A cry of the reformation was “Ad Fontes” – to the sources. To Luther and the boys that meant scripture and the original languages which they felt had been obscured by the pretty words of Philosophers and Scholastics and Prelates more concerned with paying for St. Peter’s than preaching the gospel. I’ve spent more time than I’d like to say pondering what we’d say stands in our modern way. What pretty lies do we tell ourselves? And are we willing to grasp our cross, and call a thing what it is? Or does the recently departed Christine McVie still have the anthem of the age, “Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.” Or as an old poet said, “humankind cannot bear very much reality.”