Preaching as Spell-Casting (by Jonathan Storment)

Preaching as Spell-Casting (by Jonathan Storment) September 23, 2015

Jonathan SC.S. Lewis opened his tenure in Oxford with a lecture that was really a sermon, or maybe it is more appropriately described as Lewis casting a spell.  Right in the middle of his sermon “The Weight of Glory” after critiquing what 19th century culture had done to our ability for true joy and desire, Lewis said to the audience:

Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.

C.S. Lewis, in one of the most quoted sermons ever preached, concludes by admitting that he is trying to cast a spell, but not a spell meant to hypnotize the neutral bystanders.  It was a spell designed to break the illusions of those who were already enchanted by a deep spell of disenchantment and worldliness.  He was trying to break the spell of secular modern culture that most of us reading this are already under.

You may not agree with that assessment of Western modern culture, but I do.  I have thought for sometime that the people who are under the deepest spell are those of us who have come to believe that magic is only something found in Disney movies.

And that brings me to this final blog post on Keller’s new book on Preaching.  In the closing section of his book, Keller talks about preaching holistically, to both the head and the heart.  Here is how he describes it:

Whatever captures the heart’s trust and love also controls the feelings and behavior. What the heart most wants the mind finds reasonable, the emotions find valuable, and the will finds doable. It is all-important, then, that preaching move the heart to stop trusting and loving other things more than God. What makes people into what they are is the order of their loves-what they love most, more, less and least. That is more fundamental to who you are than even the beliefs to which you mentally subscribe. Your loves show what you actually believe in, not what you say you do. People therefore, change not by merely changing their thinking but change what they love most. Such a shift requires nothing less than changing your thinking, but it entails much more. -159

Over the past few years, I have come to believe this basic Augustinian view of the human condition is right.  The real problem we have is that our loves are out of order.  We love the wrong things or people to the wrong degrees and in the wrong order of priority.  The Biblical word for that is idolatry, and Keller notes that in preaching in Manhattan in the late-modern era, he has found very little resistance to people by preaching against idolatry.  Because we all know that this is a problem.  Even people who don’t believe in God know that when you worship your beauty, you will always feel ugly, when you worship your intelligence you will always feel like you aren’t smart enough etc.  And Keller’s solution to this, for both Christians and non-Christians is to experience in a tangible way the love of God.

For example, Keller points out that in Ephesians 3, Paul’s prayer is for Christians to come to know the fullness of God’s love, to be strengthened in their inner being, rooted and established in love, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.  What a great idea…to know that which is bigger than what we know.  But Keller, points out, Paul already assumes that Christians have Christ living inside them, and know about God’s love, but in his words:

But what is objectively true of Christians isn’t automatically subjectively true. That’s why [Paul] prays that they would be strengthened by the Spirit in their inner being -their hearts- to “grasp” the love of God (Eph 3:18) Paul is praying for the very thing that you’re supposed to be aiming at every time you preach. There are many things Christians know but they don’t really know.

Did you catch that? There are many things that Christians know but they really don’t know.  I am not sure about your ministry, but I see this all the time, both in church work and in my own heart.  The breathtaking realities of the Gospel are a great idea, but often they remain just that – ideas.  Paul’s vision, and Keller’s point is that we must preach in a way that helps Christians to really know what they may already know.

The great JRR Tolkien saw this as something he was attempting when he wrote The Lord of the Rings.  He believed that whether people believed in God or not, they would resonate with stories that communicated the Gospel imaginatively.  He believed that was because somehow that these kinds of stories characterized life as it was and should be and eventually will be again.  We are so deeply interested in these stories because we have some kind of intuition for a creation/fall/redemption/restoration plotline.

And so to preach well is to tap into the story of the Bible, but also into the deepest intuitions of the human heart.  It is to connect to that deep ache that we all have, to be a part of a story larger than ourselves, but also large enough to belong.

Keller says toward the end of his book that it is important to remember that we are at odds with a system of beliefs far more than we are at war with a group of people. Contemporary people are the victims of the late-modern mind far more than they are its perpetrators.  Seen in this light the Christian Gospel is more of a prison-break than a battle.  So we are called to break them out of captivity, or maybe to just break the spell.

I think it is interesting that in the original Old English, to tell a story was “to cast a spell”  I think that it is interesting that the English Word “gospel” actually comes from the Middle English word “God-spell” combining those two Old English words: good and spell (story).  Because to preach, really is to tell a good story, and it really is to cast a spell.

So back to C.S. Lewis and his opening sermon that day at Oxford.

Keller’s basic premise for much of his book is that the late-modern world is under a spell unaware.  We are disenchanted, disconnected, constantly restless, and consistently losing our joy.  We are more certain than ever, while we are taking larger leaps of faith, that are seen as anything but.  Even (especially?!) Christians have fallen under the spell of Western modernity.  But to tell the Gospel is to tell a story that can break the spell by casting another one.  It can awaken the senses to God and remind us of hope.

So take heart all you preachers, you are doing war against some strong magic, but I believe we have the best spell.


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  • I’m not a preacher, and I’ve never heard Jonathan preach … just to acknowledge that this comment is not personal.

    I’ve heard some excellent preaching in my life. Several of the best preachers I’ve heard, I know Jonathan has heard as well … Landon Saunders, Mike Cope, Lynn Anderson and others.

    But most preachers do not deliver great preaching. And, for the most part, even great preaching only momentarily inspires.

    There is an old cliche: The mind can absorb only what the butt can endure.
    Another: Leave them wanting more

    I wish more preachers would take these to heart. Rarely does preaching persuade. It does best when it inspires.

    Just as each of us did, the people who listen to preaching are on a journey, that only they can direct. We can turn on a light here, or there, and hope the hearer doesn’t turn the light off.

    The best preaching recognizes it’s place in the universe. And most preachers should do less of it … but nothing personal!

  • Ted Johnson

    Excellent piece! I would just add one more element into the mix above: preaching and those who preach also war against very real demonic powers and the kingdom of darkness, which also seek to blind, deceive, hypnotize, and which is also highlighted in the Book of Ephesians. Of course the cultural/worldly and demonic are greatly intermixed, hard to know where one ends and the other begins, but wise to be aware and engaged against both. Thanks you for the great blog post!

  • Stephen Williams

    Thanks Jonathan.
    Was Paul also talking of something like this when warning the Colossians 2:8 about the possibility of being “taken captive” and again in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 about “taking captive” every thought to bring them into obedience to Christ and I wouldn’t read this too cognitively either as if thoughts only happen in the mind and not the heart.

  • Leila

    I’m not sure we are supposed to mesmerized by pastors/teachers – perhaps by the actual Word of God, in as far as they teach it. But I seem to recall that the Bereans were called noble because they didn’t “fall under” Paul’s teaching immediately, but being intrigued, searched out the scripture to see if what he said was true. Of course, Paul wasn’t, according to his own testimony, particularly impressive to see or hear in person.

  • Stephen Williams

    Hi Leila, you are highlighting a necessary contrast between two disparately different kinds of rhetoric, neither of which are referenced in this conversation. One is that which puts the listeners critical faculties to sleep and is the worst kind of indoctrination whereas the other is more biblical rhetoric which engages and awakens the listeners critical faculties such as the Bereans modeled.
    I understood Jonathon’s use of the the phrase “under a spell” in this conversation to be a metaphor referring to nothing more than “being influenced by” rather than a thought controlling mesmerizing influence.
    What do you think?

  • Mark

    James K.A. Smith is great on some of this. He speaks quite a bit on rival gospels and disordered loves. You can find him on Youtube.