The Four Pages: Trouble in the Bible

Update: Well, I'd hoped to finish this stuff last week for Sunday, but writing the actual sermon kinda had to take priority, for obvious reasons. Based on the reactions I got after preaching, with some in-depth discussion with the folks, I can say that Wilson's method of four pages works. I should send that guy a card.

Anyway, the first of the four figurative pages is, according to Wilson, 'trouble in the Bible'.

For Wilson's method, it is important to start with 'trouble in the Bible' - that is, uncovering what one particular aspect of the world is wrong in the passage from the Bible for the sermon - because, Wilson observes, '[a]s Christians, we seek to be instructed by God, thus from a theological perspective we do not presume already to know or to understand what is wrong. Even the knowledge of sin and evil is often a matter of revelation. [pp. 73-4]'

Suspicious as this idea may seem to some at first, a similar idea of uncovering or unveiling what is wrong occurs is discussed, or can be inferred, from none other than Aristotle's definitions of recognition and reversal:

A reversal is a change to the opposite in the actions being performed, as stated - and this, as we have been saying, in accordance with probability or necessity. For example, in the Oedipus someone came to give Oedipus good news and free him from his fear with regard to his mother, but by disclosing Oedipus' identity he brought about the opposite result ... . Recognition, as in fact the term indicates, is a change from igorance to knowledge, disclosing either a close relationship or enmity, on the part of people marked out for good or bad fortune. [Poetics; Penguin; ed. Malcolm Heath; pp. 18-9; 52a23-28, 32-34; italics ed.'s]
The best kind of recognition, for Aristotle, is that which occurs simultaneously with reversal (52a34-36). In the terms of Aristotelean tragedy, revelation is akin to a reversal of fortune brought about by recognition. Since we are dealing with 'trouble' (in Wilson's broad sense), 'the knowledge of sin and evil [p. 74]' revealed by the text is akin, as it were, to a change to bad fortune from good (or at least the illusion of good fortune) brought about by the disclosure that we are, in some respects, at enmity with God.

One function of beginning with 'trouble' in the Biblical passage, then, is to authorise its naming in the world ('trouble in the world' is the second of the four pages); even if the trouble named can be obviously seen in our contemporary situation, it helps to name it in the text first.

Wilson gives a description of what 'Page One' is all about worth quoting at length:
Page One is about one idea and one idea only - a theological idea about trouble in the Bible. This biblical trouble will lead to trouble in our world on Page Two, and must prepare for God's action on Pages Three and Four. Page One thus must provide the occasion or reason for God's action. Every page serves the theme statement, yet has its own discrete theological focus. ... Whatever the sentence [for the individual page], it should be short and sharp. The preacher on Page One should focus only on it and develop it biblically and theologically, deepening the congregation's understanding and helping the listener to see the biblical text from this perspective. [p. 75]
So we know what the first page is about and on what it should focus. But how do we go about crafting it? Wilson provides some guidelines (on pp. 80-2). He also refers back to the important notion of writing a sermon like making a movie, developing that metaphor with respect to Page One at length (pp. 82-8). I will return to what I believe is the guideline easiest to communicate in a blog post such as mine shortly. Regarding the movie-making metaphor, suffice it to say that what Wilson writes has to do with presenting the text and the trouble arising from it as if it were being filmed, yet remembering that although the sermon must evoke visual imagery in its hearers' minds, they are hearing the sermon and this must be accounted for. So, for instance, one should not leap from scene to scene without pausing to let people visualise it (even watching such a thing can be irritating; I think every movie critic I've ever read complains when movie directors do this sort of thing).

Let us return to Wilson's guidelines; namely, the most germane of them, which has to do with unifying the trouble we find on Page One with the theme statement (see my discussion of the theme statement in my previous post). The theme statement, remember, is supposed to derive naturally from the Biblical text, so the trouble ought to do so as well.

Wilson writes:
Although we will not fully focus upon and develop the theme sentence until midway in the sermon, on Page Three, for the sake of sermon unity we are best advised not to begin Page One without it. ... If we are unsure how to connect Page One with the theme sentence, we could try a focus for Page One that is the inverse or flip side of the theme statement. ... We should be able to identify the focus of every page in a short sentence. ... In order for each page to be devoted to its topic sentence, preachers are wise to discuss that sentence early on the page, rather than getting to it at the end of the page, where it will be hard for listeners to hear it as an organizing principle. For example, with the woman at the well (John 4), we choose as the theme sentence or God-action statement for the sermon, "Jesus gave the woman living water." For Page One we want some focus on trouble in the text that will lead to that statement and serve it as directly as possible. Thus Page One might focus on "The woman needed water" or, stronger from a theological perspective, "The woman needed more than water." This would allow the preacher on Page One to speak of the woman's various needs and troubles. [p. 81]
So, the focus of Page One, the 'trouble in the Bible', is the human sinfulness or brokenness, or some need (all categorised by Wilson as 'trouble') identified by the text to which the action of God on Page Three (about which more later), which is what the theme sentence of the sermon is, is the response.

You will recall that my theme sentence was, Jesus makes us his people. This needs to be revised, since Page Three is about 'grace in the Bible'. So the action of God needs to refer to the people in trouble in the Biblical text. Given our passage (Matthew 3.1-12), the people in trouble are the people of Israel (which I am using as a collective term rather than referring to the political entity, ancient or modern). Thus, the theme statement needs to be revised to God chose the people of Israel to be his people. From this, the 'trouble' identified for the first page, the 'trouble in the Bible', is the people of Israel had to repent to be God's people. It is 'trouble' because it is an expectation, a burden to take action, placed on humanity.

So, in addition to the tasks of picturing the sermon as a movie, of tuning it, as it were, to the ear and not the eye, and of keeping it a unified whole, the preacher must also use each page to spell out the theme sentence (of the page). The theme statements for Pages One, Two, and Four must derive from that for Page Three, which is itself, as we have seen, the theme statement for the whole sermon. And stories must be chosen that make the theme come to life, as it were. Obviously on Pages One and Three, the story is the Biblical text. The task is easier (though by no means a cakewalk) if the chosen text is narrative; more difficult if it is prophetic speech, psalmistry, or epistolatory.

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