Wineskins Archive

January 29, 2014

New Wineskins Interview With Calvin Miller (Jan-Feb 2007)

Filed under: — @ 12:26 pm and

by Greg Taylor
January – February, 2007

Calvin Miller: in his new book, Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition does something dramatic for the aspiring student preacher all the way to the experienced veteran: he throws out and secures a rope bridge across the canyon for those on the side of dry, life-and-story-less propositional sermons. The canyon and the struggle to cross the rope bridge is that baring of the soul of the preacher and dealing with the silence of God and wrestling with and having an affair with the text of Scripture that brings heart and soul together into what Miller calls “Narrative Exposition.” The new book, with it’s mix of fatherly practical advice with theological reflection is perhaps Miller’s magnum opus on preaching that likely will be tapped for two decades as a textbook in seminary preaching courses.

Miller is part poet, part prophet, part novelist, part preacher and just beginning to try on the old coat of the curmudgeon for Evangelicals who would put us to sleep with their proposition packaged sermons via jumbo-tron. He has served as a senior pastor in Omaha and writer in residence at Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary and is a prolific writer, with more than forty books. He is currently a professor of divinity in preaching and pastoral ministry at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.

An interview with Greg Taylor, managing editor of and contributor to Christianity Today and Leadership Journal.

Wineskins: Your book is full of superlatives. On one page you’re saying, “exegeting the prophet’s own soul is the hardest work” and on another you say, “the hardest work is exegeting the audience.” Preaching is hard work (laughs).

Calvin Miller:: (laughs) I think it’s hard work, I do. Probably a little bit antithetical there, sorry about that.

Wineskins: No, not really, it just struck me . . .

Calvin Miller:: I think I tend to speak in superlatives. Maybe it’s something I pick up from Evangelicals. They tend to do that. Everything’s always the brightest and the best or the worst (laughs).

Wineskins: Well, it does emphasize that it’s not to be taken lightly.

Calvin Miller:: Right. You know what I really notice when I do a novel: it’s about five times harder than doing an ordinary book. I enjoy writing it. I particularly enjoy them when I’m through and editing and thinking and when I’m working through them a second time. The first time, to me, is just a killer to think up fiction and stories and make them be good stories, and I don’t even know if I’m doing a good job. Never will know that, I guess. But it’s hard work. It’s hard to be creative in any kind of narrative sense, I think.

Wineskins: Well, talk about that because some people might be surprised that it’s hard work for Calvin Miller to come up with stories.

Calvin Miller:: Well it is. I don’t even know what to say about it. I think it was even hard way, way back there, when I did The Singer <> . At that time I didn’t have much going in the way of writing so I could focus on it, and I had a very small church and more time and I wasn’t going anywhere to speak in those days. I was just in my house working when I wasn’t out visiting or being the pastor. But it was a very small church too. But now that things are fuller and my life is much fuller, teaching everyday, and writing a lot of different kinds of things—textbooks and novels, that kind of thing—you know, it gets full, and I sit down, in spite of the fact that I try to see a lot of movies, read a lot of the best kinds of novels that I can, I still think that when I sit down and start the grunt work of ‘Once upon a time’ it’s tough. I try to build people who are real and circumstances that seem real enough that the reader would—or even reasonable enough and human enough that they would get into them.

Wineskins: Well, you quote Barbara Brown Taylor and she says in her book, When God is Silent <> , “The best stories and images are those which have the most recognized life in them, which means that they are rarely simple or neat. I worry so much that what people hear in church is a cartoon version of real life—sermons populated with one-dimensional characters who work out their problems without ever using language that might threaten their ratings. Meanwhile, many of our listeners are the same people who pay good money to see movies such as Slingblade or The Company of Men, which—for all their rawness—have provoked more moral discourse among people than any sermon I can think of at the moment.” You feel strongly about this as well.

Calvin Miller:: I do, and characters to me in a novel or a sermon illustration need to seem real. I do a lot of conferences on preaching, and preachers who use sermon illustrations as stories tend to be kind of one-dimensional because they’re working only against a plot: what does this story say. And it’s much easier to do that than to develop characters.

Wineskins: So sermon illustrations aren’t a good substitution for good stories?

Calvin Miller:: Not generally. Occasionally I will hear a pastor who draws a picture—I think Fred Craddock is good at this. He draws a picture of a person and the person becomes real and then the plot counts more. But often if the person is real enough the plot can become secondary. That’s when I really like a preacher or a novelist, is when someone like Falstaff comes alive in the Prince Hal plays. He’s so glorious we forget the plot. We don’t care so much about it. There isn’t too much of a plot there, even in Shakespeare sometimes. (laughs)

Wineskins: That character development . . .

Calvin Miller:: That character is just so beautiful, you get all lost. I think Thorton Wilder did that with people with Dolly Levi who became a Broadway star in Hello Dolly. But in his book, The Matchmaker, she’s still (portrayed) as a unique and creative and flamboyant and wonderful person. I wish we could do a little bit more of that. Unfortunately a lot of the biblical narratives major a whole lot more on plot. Of Jesus seventeen stories that are fully or fairly fully developed, they’re almost totally plot. We don’t know if the Good Samaritan was a wife beater, growled in the mornings, incomprehensible when he spoke, whether he muttered or had freckles. We know nothing about him, except he picked up a needy guy. And that’s why I say, when people ask me, Can everybody be a storyteller? I’m not sure everybody can be a storyteller from the standpoint of creating great characters. But I think everybody can be a great storyteller from the standpoint of developing a plot. Which is for the most point what gigs our attention and keeps us held to the sermon until it’s finished.

Wineskins: Is the reason you have written novels, extending our imaginations, for instance what the Good Samaritan might have been like . . . is it because there seem to be gaps of character development in Scripture?

Calvin Miller:: I don’t think there’s enough of it. We catch the nature of Jeremiah as a weeper or Elijah as a firey adversary and we get those pictures and then when we read you almost pick up the character . . . I like a novel when I’m clued into one of the novel’s characters through a gradual understanding of who he is, as he exists within the plot that I’ve cooked up. I think that’s a great way to keep it subtle. I do think that preaching suffers—you know I preach at a lot of churches—generally I’m between Sundays when the regular preaching pastor is out or maybe he’s there and maybe his pastoral style may be putting outlines on the jumbotron and having people fill in the blanks. So we have this kind of academic thing going. He may tell the story, but his whole staff—the audio visual staff, his own secretary—spent the week typing out the powerpoint stuff so it fills in on the screen and gives a consistent left brained study. It’s bookish, academic, and virtually every church I go to. In some ways it seems a little odd to me, because often the praise bands which replaced choirs are usually more energetic. I mean they plan their work too and there are usually things on the jumbotron with waterfalls and springing daisies while we sing the choruses, but the point is I think we have lost that thing of the sermon as kerygma. We’ve got it down as didache but we don’t have it down as kerygma anymore. We’re not motivating people. We’re not persuading people. We’re just telling people stuff. We’re orienting them to facts rather than challenging them to be more and having altar calls that are meaningful—we’ve actually looked them in the eye when they didn’t have a pencil in their hand or writing down something on a paper. Life ceases to be very story-oriented. I think the church has become plainer at least the contemporary church in many cases.

Wineskins: You quote Neil Simon who wrote, “writing a play is like walking through a dark wood; you are never sure what you are going to meet next.” Have all the bright lights and jumbotrons and outlines taken away mystery?

Calvin Miller:: I think we have taken away mystery. Generally speaking what happens, the walk in the dark wood . . . I first did this at the Rom lectures on preaching: I made this little box. One of the most powerful things is a box or bag unopened. As long as it’s unopened, there’s a sense of mystery about the sermon. So I took this ark—this box I made—I unscrewed it, put it in my suitcase, got to school and put it back together. They didn’t know what was in it, but I left it sitting there for two days. Wrote across the front of the box, eron, which is Hebrew for ark, which [comes from] Latin, which is box. And it’s out of this box that God holds sway over his people. And I asked the question, and I think it’s a really valid question: “Does Judaism begin when Moses comes down with the Ten Precepts in Exodus 20, or does it begin in Exodus 37 when he says to Bezalel, “Make a box.” And nobody will see this box. It will sit in darkness while the camp of Israel stretches away in the night. All around this thing. Nobody will see the box except the high priest once a year. Everybody will assume the box is there, that God sits on the Keporah, the lid of the box. But the box remains a mystery. God is hidden. Our desire to know him, and the mystery to struggle to know him is what gives vitality to faith, the interest in knowing him. And that’s the thing I find just not very set forward in the church. Evangelicals have developed this empire-wide madness really—it exists in the little books I pick up at the bookstore, fill in the blank books. Little blanks. Little blanks. Probably when we get involved in filling in blanks, really the mystery is gone. The work gets to be the blanks. The real thing that God wants to happen is a movement of the Spirit who is always the great mystery of godliness.

Wineskins: You talk about the preacher in different roles as a pastor, shepherd, a mystic. Are you primarily one of those, perhaps a mystic?

Calvin Miller:: You know what I think? I think everybody who has a decent walk with Christ is a mystic. And I don’t think wholesome people, they’re not psychotic—they don’t try to be mystics . . . they just keep hungering for things that are not easily answered, and pretty soon their hungers define them, and they still don’t have the answers but they create questions all over the place and the questions are so wonderful. And as I probably say in the book, because I believe with all my heart, people go to churches which don’t put on the jumbotron, can’t put on jumbotrons—you can’t do it . . . because it’s bigger than jumbotrons, it’s pervasive, it’s God and his world, it’s tongues of fire and wind, and things that don’t go well with jumbotrons. Most of the time jumbotrons—at least the church I attend—comes with alliterated sermon points where we fill in the P words or the G words or D words, whatever they are. Each week we fill them in and go home. We have an altar call. Altar calls well done challenge us in another area. I don’t think you can be cerebral for forty minutes then expect people to shift into something more pneumatic. The Pneuma (Spirit) is missing.

Wineskins: So there’s something of the messenger, where it starts with an encounter with God . . .

Calvin Miller:: I think so and when you ask whether I’m a mystic, I never see myself that way, but I know immediately—I pray with a lot of people when they come to my office or if we’re in a car or restaurant and there are needs, I often just pray with them on the spot. I don’t do this to be showy, I think I do this because I feel inadequate and at least the counsel of God should be sought. But I have a feeling that’s not customary, is what people tell me. I’m not trying to be a radical conservative of some kind or showy. I’m just trying to experience God.

Wineskins: And when you stop to pray with somebody, are you acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers?

Calvin Miller:: I sure don’t, and I think that might be it. I’d like them to seek higher. I met with a young man this morning. He’s been married eleven years; his marriage is in trouble. He said, “I think if we could just talk to you or to Jesus, we could fix it.” I said, “No, it isn’t like that. You don’t fix things, you work on them all your life. I’ve been married forty-seven years.” I tried to say that to him. There exists an idea in Evangelicalism that if you get the right book or copy a plan down and practice a principle, you’re going to be OK, but that’s not the case. Life is a constant amendment. We’re going through re-phrasing it, putting it back together. That’s why we need the sermon. They should help us do that, once a week. We can’t ever get it finished. Sermons are not ever done. They help us in the moment. We think it through and come back to do it next week.

Wineskins: And you quote E.N. Pitt Watson, “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. And in some sense this worldview has to come through. And what is your worldview? You called on readers to articulate their own worldview, so it’s not accidental.

Calvin Miller:: The center part of my world view is Cristos Sola, Christ Alone. We talk a lot about Solo Scriptura, but to me the center of my worldview is Christ alone. What I’m saying by that is, I stand him up as the totem of my quiet village. People fear the witchdoctor, he seems mystical, otherworldly. I’m not suggesting that we make a habit about being otherworldly, because I like being involved in this world, but I sure like the notion that here’s Jesus, he’s my village totem, I go in with all my questions unanswered and I bring every philosophy against Jesus. He’s not afraid of Bertand Russell, who was an earlier fascination of mine, almost to my detriment sometimes—in fact often . . . and making Jesus reply to everything, to the R-rated films I talk myself into seeing or the R-rated film I couldn’t talk myself out of seeing. You follow me?

Wineskins: Yes, well, Jesus as a chaman? Don’t think my African Christian friends would follow you but go ahead.

Calvin Miller:: Well—I think it has to reply to Jesus—every facet of my life. Things that are pleasant to talk about, things that are edgy to talk about. All these things come in and lay their case before Jesus. And he kicks them out or receives them in or affirms them or denies them or at least he’s my best chance of answering them. I like Brian Chaffey’s book, Preaching Christ; it’s awfully bookish in some ways, but I go on using it because I don’t find enough of Jesus in the center of most academic, contemporary jumbotron sermons anymore. I want to. But I don’t find—and yet, his book reminds me . . . and I say to my students, if you can’t think of anything else to say, just stand up there and say the word Jesus. It’ll be refreshing. I don’t hear his name in sermons much anymore. Hear a lot of how-to sermons. Maybe he gets honorable mention toward the invitation or altar call if it’s one of those kinds of churches.

Wineskins: You speak about bragging about Jesus, what that does to people . . .

Calvin Miller:: I think my early years—I was born again in a Pentecostal tent revival, and I think those early six or seven years, maybe I will never get away from them . . . I never could speak in the unknown tongue and found myself on the outside of our little fellowship because of that, but at least they had some things down that I did understand. They celebrated the mystery of God—they weren’t educated people, they just held their hands up. My first pastor, Sister Close, would look up into the ceiling, looked like she was seeing through it to me, and she would raise her hands and look up and somehow that image has never left me. I like that notion that somehow Jesus really is alive. Maybe he’s not up, maybe that’s a crazy way and still a little bit three storied universe kind of thing. But I like people who believe enough to convince me there’s another world out there.

Wineskins: You said in your early childhood in rural Oklahoma, in that Pentecostal church, a Harvard-trained preacher said, “You must be born again!” Sort of an Augustine moment for you? You were gripped by the Spirit at an early age it seems.

Calvin Miller:: I was and I am still, particularly when I see him portrayed in a sermon or just a testimony or a moment of prayer.

Wineskins: Tell me, one of my favorite sermons is the one where you tell about bucking hay bales in Oklahoma heat with the dogs of hell on your skin . . .

Calvin Miller:: (laughs) “I want to get washed.”

Wineskins: Yes, can you tell me the background of that sermon?

Calvin Miller:: Well, I do think experience, for one thing, our personal experience with anything—God notwithstanding—is incontrovertible. I didn’t see an angel, but if I had, it belongs to my experience and no one is free to contest it. I like that about my own experience with Jesus. The very special moment—that out of six billion people—I try not to put the mathematics, it’s a little heavier, and I don’t feel as comfortable with it. Why in the name of grace, out of six billion people, should I find that God is so centered on me and I would want to get washed. You know, I listen to the people who hurt. I spoke last night at a fairly blue collar church. I absolutely love those people. I mean, I speak in all kinds of deals, but I like that kind of church. [They can be] naïve, but there’s an incredible amount of faith, the way they believe and the way they look, and their weathered faces that come from hard years of construction. Something pretty powerful about this whole human thing that God invades, and I guess I look at those experiences . . . I think, especially when I find someone who combines them with the arts in any sense: like the Cotton Patch Gospel <> , that’s what I think when I go to a blue collar church.

That naïve little thing that makes God real within my own limited vocabulary, world experiences and lack of study and reading. Something beautiful happens. I can think this must be why Jesus spent all the time with poor people, common people: they’re highly credulous. They believe and you walk out of there and somehow you believe. But I think if you combine it with the arts, like Clarence Jordan [author of Cotton Patch Gospel], but maybe even more . . . like the first time I saw Godspell—that’s where I got that little phrase, “I want to get washed,” one of the characters pulls on the light chain over his head, he smiles from ear to ear and says, “I want to get washed.” It suddenly hit me, Why am I not finding that eagerness to run with joy into the presence of Christ and experience this washing? Those things all kind of come together for me. I truly believe a preacher will not preach great sermons without some acquaintance with great books, great art, great literature, great painting, because the world just kind of comes together around it.

I teach in my preaching class what I call paralleling, where you bring some secular novel together with some story in the Bible. I had a student who did this with Mephibosheth: we’ve all heard sermons on Mephibosheth, being rounded up the last of the house of Saul, moving into a grace situation, eating at the king’s table. It’s a beautiful illustration of grace. But at the end his sermon he switched from this little crippled boy, a man who became David’s table partner, to Quasimodo, the bell ropes of Notre Dame, and he’s got this thing worked out where two crippled people pass close enough, and he swings Quasimodo out on the bell ropes over the city of Paris, and he learns to fly because of the bell ropes of grace, and he applies that so beautifully to Mephibosheth, it was hard for me to tell which one he was talking about when.

Wineskins: The paralleling literature and movies with the biblical story is strong for today’s audiences . . . there’s a different kind of moment, you call it the paralax moment. How do you bring that in the example of Mephibosheth and Quasimodo?

Calvin Miller:: Parlaxing is to superimpose the figure of Mephibosheth and Quasimodo on the communicant, this is how you are like him. We pull the two visions together, when they move one on top of each other, we sing “Just as I am” or something like this, we at least have an altar moment. When the two are finally paralaxed, the listener, the pulpit listener, and this figure from Scripture of literature . . . I think that’s parlaxing. I often think about R.G. Lee’s great sermon, Payday Someday, how well he preached that, the parlaxing that occurs when we see Jezebel with her phony and almost criminal behavior cranked over on top of our hugely wrong viewpoints and selfishness, How are we like her? is the parlax moment.

Wineskins: It’s a surprise moment when we get hit in the eyes that we are like Jezebel. You talk about the sermon and the altar. You say people like sermons but don’t often like to respond to them, and we shouldn’t play into their hands, to not give them something to respond to.

Calvin Miller:: I think this has been one thing that my preaching books have said that none other have said that I’ve read. There is an altar moment. The sermon begins with a text and ends as an altar. Whether it’s an Episocopal altar where there is no “Just as I am” or a Pentecostal altar where there’s two hours of “Just as I am.” The effect is still the same. Altar is the place of application: common soil on which God and the communicant meet at the end of the exhortation. They meet together. And I wish we could regain that. To be honest, I often think Episcopalians, Methodists, and especially in the more mystical branches of those, prayer in those denominations doing better than evangelicals are. We’ve opted more for success. It’s really hard in most of the growing churches where I speak, or many of them, to see if they really know what they are doing. They talk about succeeding and succeeding. And what they worship. I’m not sure it’s Jesus. They say it is. But what they really worship is, “Last week we had 1,010 and this week we had 1,120. And we’re putting up this building and raising this money.” And our own success is probably what brings the average Dow Jones seeker to our services, and we play into their hands, we give them something to feel good about—I’m not saying that’s wrong and I’m not sure you can help all of it, but I wish we could keep Jesus at the center of our worship.

Wineskins: How do we do that? How do we keep filling buildings from becoming idol . . .

Calvin Miller:: I don’t know exactly how we do it, but I know where it starts. It starts with the local pastor.

Wineskins: And in your personal experience you’ve had times when you felt perhaps depressed at a low crowd . . . how have you dealt with that?

Calvin Miller:: I know we’re all just exactly alike at that point. Rick Warren, in spite of all the hype of his big church, does, amazingly, say the right things. I was thinking of that last TIME magazine article, “Does God want us to be rich?” I was thinking about how good he came across there. Then something on the internet about his wife, Kay, about how she has cancer, and what he has to say about that was absolutely wonderful, how he faced it. And his dream for Africa is absolutely wonderful. I used to say to myself, why do we not have someone like Mother Teresa; why don’t Evangelicals have someone like that. But when I read what he says and he thinks about Africa, he’s going about it a whole lot differently, but he seems to me to give all this money away, and now he wants to go to Africa, and if he manages to do anything in Darfur, I imagine God would smile on that.

Wineskins: You call yourself a middle reader. Are you a middle ground between the scholar and the preacher?

Calvin Miller:: Some scholars may be conservative but it’s a discussion between themselves, they read each other’s footnotes, to see who they quoted, what their last monograph was about, finally they’re in these little towers way high above the people shouting from tower to tower what new thing they’ve learned or some little nuance of some Sanskrit verb that someone else hasn’t heard about. Meanwhile, down where the people are dying, often there are Pentecostals uneducated, uninformed drawing great crowds with not nearly the biblical excellence of the people in the towers, but they are doing it, they’re saying it. And what I really like—I’m not blindly a C.S. Lewis fan, I see lots of weaknesses, particularly in his poetry, and even in his apologetics sometimes; it’s awfully logic-driven without much . . . like his book, Miracles, I think it’s all true, but the book on miracles is somewhat, it’s very philosophical, nobody gets healed in Lewis’s books, and that’s all Jesus did. Nobody raises the dead in his book,Miracles. So I think I would like to be a middle of the road scholar that’s about halfway between where the people in towers are so that people in towers can say here’s a guy who can say some things that we ought to be saying in towers and the people at the bottom finally begin to notice, for all their naivete, can see, here are some ideas that are a little more exalted.

Wineskins: You quote Edward Markquart, calling him a brilliant homilist, who wrote this: “People want their preachers to be authentic human beings . . . who experience the same feelings and struggles as the laity, who do not hide behind the role of reverend so and so.” Can a pastor hide behind the pastorate or scholarship?

Calvin Miller:: I do believe confessional preaching is really important. I think what you’ve hit on here . . . I live in a really academic world—and I rarely hear these people talk about their own experience: here’s what Jesus showed me on Thursday. I love Alister McGrath, but I’ve never heard him say that. And I think preachers who live with the people absolutely have to talk about what Jesus showed them on Tuesday or Thursday, or they become irrelevant.

Wineskins: That’s the affair with the text that you spoke about.

Calvin Miller:: Exactly.

Wineskins: What kind of affair are you talking about? Illicit or Elicit? (laughs)

Calvin Miller:: (laughs) I do think for one thing, it’s not illicit, it’s at least romantic. I think that’s a real good way to think about it. That’s what’s missing: the divine romance with Jesus, the Bible. It’s missing in a lot of contemporary churches that get into jumbotron sermons. It’s missing among the scholars who are looking for the Sanskrit word. It exists for those people who live in the middle.

Wineskins: I don’t see you talking a lot about family in your new book, and perhaps you’ve spoken more about this in one of your other forty books . . .

Calvin Miller:: (laughs)

Wineskins: Do you have a word for a preacher in relationship with his family.

Calvin Miller:: I do believe this. A family. A settled and supportive family is a perfect match-mate with a good mystical, warm, homiletic lifestyle. My wife—I’m her hero. I have been before we were married. I feel it all the time. I feel it when she stays up all night working on a commentary, or when we’re doing work on Bible translations.

Wineskins: Do you want her to tell you the truth when you mess up?

Calvin Miller:: I tell you what, Barbara is the kind of person that when she tells the truth, it’s for my good, and she would not be mean ever. And there is a certain sense in which our romance has blinded her from any real objective opinion anyway. People who do not see my brilliance are right away on her hate list. (laughs)

Listen the ZOE | New Wineskins “Life of Worship” Podcast.

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