Friday, July 31, 2009

The Annoyingly Artificial Application of Alliteration*

I heard a sermon the other day that moved me…to regurgitation, nearly. Ostensibly, the sermon was on the central text of the Gospel of Mark (central both strategically and theologically); namely, Mark 8:27-38. The preacher took as his theme “The Messiah's Mission.” That was okay in that that's a fair assessment of what this story in Mark is about. What bothered me about the sermon was where he went from there. Forcing his subject onto a procrustean bed of alliteration, he launched into a Scriptural scavenger hunt that led him to pillage all four Gospels meaning to mine them for the letter “M” - The Mission of the Messiah; The Method of the Messiah; The Mandate of the Messiah; The Murder of the Messiah; The Mastery of the Messiah. By the time he was through, I was mulling another “M” in my mind - the madness of the minister.

Those who defend this kind of slavish servitude to alliteration in preaching do so because, they insist, it helps the audience to remember what the preacher said. Yeah, right. You really want to ask your congregation what you said in your sermon on a Sunday? How about asking them the following Sunday? No? What about that same Sunday afternoon? No? Well then, what about on the way out the door following your sermon? I didn't think so.

Now to be sure the Scripture itself employs mnemonic devices on occasion. Of course, the Scripture was directed primarily to an oral culture where books were expensive and few could read. Hence, all sorts of “tricks” were used to help the audience (from the Latin meaning “those who hear”) make the intended connections. For example, there is a common literary device employed in the ancient world known as chiasmus (from the Greek letter “X,” pronounced “chi” with a long “i”). To facilitate memory and understanding, Greek authors would often arrange material (including collections of stories) in the form of an “X.” The Gospel of Mark contains an example. In Mark 2:1-3:6 there is a collection of five stories that, on the surface, appear to have little in common. They are, in order: (1) The Healing of a Paralytic (2) Eating with Sinners (3) Question about Fasting (4) Plucking Grain on the Sabbath (5) Healing a Man with a Withered Hand. But if you take the stories in the order in which they appear and arrange them chiastically, the pattern emerges: Healing, Eating, Fasting, Eating, Healing. Note: there are two healing stories (one first, one final); two eating stories (one second and one next to last); and in the middle one fasting story. The chiasmus is obvious. These five stories, which on the surface have nothing in common, are brought together as a single whole in a chiastic collection of stories around the theme of “conflict with Jesus." The chiasmus made the collection of controversy stories easier to remember in an oral culture and offered evidence that Jesus' ministry created conflict with the religious power structures of his day, and provided encouragement for later Christians whose commitments also brought them into conflict with the culture.

But notice: this pattern is indigenous to the text, not imposed on it. And therein lies my problem with the incessant use of alliteration in sermons. It misuses the Scripture at two points: (1) it imposes onto the Word of God the preacher's agenda rather than the biblical writer's agenda; (2) it reads the Bible horizontally rather than vertically.

I sometimes call this “horizontal” approach to interpreting the Bible the “playing card approach” to Scripture. It's as though every individual verse of the Bible can be written on a playing card producing, of course, a huge deck of Scriptural playing cards. Then, you shuffle the deck and deal them out however you see fit irrespective of the purpose and perspective of the particular biblical author.

There is a tendency on the part of both preachers and laypersons to read the Bible completely unaware that it is a collection of writings by multiple authors with different purposes and different perspectives. For example, John's pneumatology (understanding of the Holy Spirit) is quite different from Luke's. Whereas John emphasizes the presence of the Spirit in the life of the believer after the departure of Jesus, Luke emphasizes the power of the Spirit empowering the Church to fulfill its mission given it by the Risen Jesus immediately prior to his ascension. That's not to say that the two views are competitive, just different. However, to read the Bible horizontally, running from Luke to John to Matthew to Mark, with neither awareness of nor sensitivity to the individual writer's purpose, perspectives, and agendas, runs the risk of running roughshod over the biblical writer and misinterpreting and misusing the Word of God. It's far better (and more interesting!) to read the Bible vertically; that is, let John speak for John, Luke for Luke, Paul for Paul, etc. The Bible is a multi-voiced choir of inspired writings, each voice chosen by God for its contribution to the holy harmony. To reduce the choir to a solo is to deny inspiration in a functional, if not formal, way.

So spare us the alliteration when you preach. It's not that clever; it's not that interesting; and it's not that memorable.

*Yeah, Yeah, I know that this is assonance rather than alliteration, but you get the point.


Christopher said...

What was the preacher's response when you presented your critique to him/her?

R. Wayne Stacy said...

He said: "I have three things to say about that, and they all begin with the letter "M."

kevin ferrell said...

I find Chiasmus facinating, but I also have difficulty seeing the "obvious" because I have not been taught to read looking for it. I know that many modern commentaries identify chiasmus (but sometimes I wonder if they likewise force chiasmus where it may not really be found?)
I know that you have done extensive work in the gospel of Mark (doctoral dissertation) and wonder if you have ever "dissected" Mark according to pericope and reassembled it (redefined chapter/verse sections) according to chiasmus? Though it may not solve the alliteration problem of preachers (myself included--"I confess, my name is Kevin. I am a preacher and on more occasions than not [please insert tears here], I use alliteration"), it would aid in seeing the "real" picture (and emphasis) of Scripture and the writer's intent. Just a thought?

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Good comment, Kevin! While there have been some attempts to define entire biblical documents according to a chiastic pattern, I, like you, am unconvinced by them. They seem forced to me. I rather think that chiasmus was used for smaller collections or groups of material (such as the collection of five stories in Mark 2:1-3:6 where the chiasmus is both obvious and unambiguous) in order to facilitate memory and the re-telling of the stories in a predominantly oral culture (the stories would have been told in the Markan order: healing, eating, fasting, eating, healing). Once the Gospels were written down, the need for such mnemonic devices was thereby obviated.

I do indeed track and document some of these kinds of literary devices (chiasmus, inclusio, etc) in my doctoral dissertation on the Gospel of Mark, and I have a chapter in my dissertation on Markan structure, but I do not suggest in the dissertation that Mark composed his entire Gospel chiastically.

Again, thanks for your insightful comment.

dave said...

The use of such devices is not unique to the New Testament, either. Perhaps the place in the Old Testament one would most readily would be in Psalm 119. Note how translations have added the names of the Hebrew letters above the sections. Each sentence or phrase in that section began with that letter. In an oral society such use of the language would make the psalm, and it is quite a long psalm, more easily remembered.

On a smaller scale, but the same pattern, is Psalm 25. I once did a sermon using a portion of that psalm as my text where I began each paragraph with a letter of our alphabet. Realizing that going all the way through w,x,y and z might be forcing a bit, in good homiletical style I let the congregation in on what was going on, left the sermon "unfinished" at "T," and suggested they finish the sermon themselves.

Dave Hawes

Tito Tinajero said...

Good thoughts about annoying abuse of alliteration assailing some scary sermons on certain Sundays. (Sorry, could help myself) I think one of the problems is that we no longer teach rhetoric, leaving modern preachers little tools to communicate the Gospel, leaving them only then cheesy goo of word play, leaving them lost. Most of tools now come from the world of advertising, and many preachers are going for the cute sound bite rather than making thoughtful meditation on the text.

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Good point, Tito. Thanks for reading the blog!

Pax Christi,


realsarah said...

I heartily second what Tito said, and found myself chuckling while reading your post and wondering if the preacher you heard was a former colleague of mine, who made even marital counseling into a game of alliteration. He could barely say ANYTHING without alliterating!

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Sarah. Glad you enjoy the blog.

Pax Christi,