Jesus opened art galleries for a living
Jesus’ vocation seemed quite clear to me when I started in ministry 35 years ago. He disseminated insights about God. He taught people religious truth. Jesus clarified heavenly mysteries by bringing them down to earth. On Sunday mornings I’d stand behind a lectern called a pulpit. Donning a black Geneva robe that Christian scholars who identify with John Calvin wear, I preached. Calvin was a 16th-century theologian-teacher who headed the second wave of the Protestant revival that split from the Roman Catholic Church. With a carefully prepared manuscript that professors at Princeton Theological Seminary taught me to craft, I proclaimed what Jesus taught, as if I were a lecturer before students.Is this what Jesus did for a living? Was he a religious teacher who supplied inquirers with handy facts about God? Perhaps one of my speech professors, who at heart wrote poetry, best described me. He complained about hearing too many budding preachers who sounded like “a stack of books with a head on top.”Then I began to read what George Buttrick, once a preacher at Manhattan’s Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, wrote about Jesus’ livelihood. Buttrick described Jesus as if he were an artist. Christ used imaginative words as brushes. His palette consisted of adventurous stories, timeless tales that arrested listerners’ minds, tested their preconceived notions about God and excited their curiosity. Jesus loved to tell a good story, claimed Buttrick. Traveling on a verbal road show, he often spun yarns with a godly twist. The ancient Greeks believed truth couched in images leaped beyond mere explanation. They pictured life as a journey. Read the “Iliad.” Master the “Odyssey.” Jesus told stories patterned after these legends.Buttrick begins his classic study of how Jesus taught with parables, reminding readers of the Lord’s famous road stories. “Let the word ‘parable’ be spoken, and certain well-loved pictures crowd in upon the mind,” Buttrick wrote. “We see a rocky pass where a man fell among thieves, a shepherd searching through mountains at night, a bend in the road where a prodigal boy caught sight of home. The pictures which instinctively appear are Jesus’ art; the kingdom of parable pays willing fee to him.”What I began to understand is how Jesus made his living. He cashed in big-time when opening art galleries, not religious fact factories. The art galleries God designs are our minds. Jesus hung pictures on curious minds. Then he let his listeners fill in landscapes with bright colors and subtle hues shading their own experiences.No wonder the Bible reports Jesus habitually “did not speak a word” to his disciples “without a parable,” Mark 4:34.I had read statistics about communication that sticks with us. This information settled only at the top of my head for several years when I preached behind a conventional pulpit dressed like an Oxford don. Those who hear a lecture retain 55 percent from what the speaker’s body and face suggest. Tone of voice makes an impact. Thirty-eight percent of the message a speaker relates travels to listeners through the tone and timber of the voice. In his famous 1985 study of what really counts when we communicate, Albert Mehrabian of Stanford University discovered in face-to-face communication that merely 7 percent of the message is derived from the speaker’s words. When I returned to former pulpits in churches I had served, parishioners asked if I still portrayed Thomas Jefferson and Jonathan Edwards. Few of these Christians seemed to remember much of any of my conventional sermons, refined with carefully chosen words and reasonably honed arguments making the case for orthodox Christianity. What these parishioners alluded to were my first-person sermons, the ones in which a Christmas angel led worship or one of the disciples who denied Jesus bounded into the sanctuary during Lent. They remembered when a wise man thundered into the sanctuary, slamming shut the church’s main doors so parishioners wouldn’t pinch their noses because a camel stunk up the place. Others didn’t forget the Sunday an innkeeper at Bethlehem, dressed like a porter from a swank Hyatt Regency Hotel, tripped on the sacristy steps spilling his load of luggage. Still more laughed about angel Gabriel, who appeared at a proper Presbyterian church in the 1970s wearing a gossamer robe so short it rivaled a miniskirt. A church matron whispered to me, “Nice gams!” People ask where the church is I now serve. They want to find my pulpit. They wonder why I don’t preach more often. My church is the stage called life. My pulpit is a prison, a classroom, or a sanctuary – wherever there’s theater in the round. I proclaim more sermons now than I ever did behind pulpits. They are mini-dramas re-creating the adventures of Jonathan Edwards, the greatest of the colonial Puritan preachers, and Thomas Jefferson. Finding God’s way along their ways excites my passions. Sometimes listeners lose themselves in the lives of Jefferson and Edwards. Poor actors sound as if they are reading scripts. But when a thespian opens intimacies to the human heart, imparting courage, exciting fear and stirring hope, audiences don’t differentiate the actor from his character. Anthony Hopkins doesn’t merely play Hannibal Lecter. Anthony Hopkins is Hannibal Lecter. When listeners start speaking to me as if I am Jefferson or Edwards, they don’t forget the parables of life these men lived. Jesus opened art galleries of the mind so clearly his listeners said they heard God speak. The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.