The use of language is a life-skill that opens doors of communication, wisdom and relationship. Preachers believe in the God who speaks, seek to pay attention to that language and reflect it in the way that they speak.
I spend a lot of time thinking, reading and speaking about preaching. One of the best books
I have read recently is God be in my Mouth by Doug Gay. He writes:
“We learn how to use language from others — from novelists, playwrights, poets, liturgists, the translators of The King James Bible, journalists, rappers, songwriters.”
I have noticed recently that a few guests on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, who are promised the Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, a book of their choice and a luxury item on their desert island, have declined the Bible.
In the past week The Times celebrated the beauty of language used by the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which is now available via voice activated services like Alexa. Phrases from the Book of Common Prayer and the KJB have trickled into the bloodstream of our language, shaping the way we use words.
There is something very precarious about sitting on the branches of a great tree after we have hacked away the roots.
Preachers can learn from other users of language, including songwriters, who often have roots in some kind of spiritual upbringing. The 20th century novelist Flannery O’Connor famously remarked that, “while the (American) South is hardly Christ-centred, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”
The lingering memories of Christ can certainly be seen in the back catalogues of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and more recently in the work of Lucinda Williams.
The Irish band U2 have also recorded many “Christ-haunted” songs. Writing in a preface to the Book of Psalms, Bono describes King David, the author of many of the biblical psalms, as “God’s blues singer.”
Songs are very important in the Bible: from the redemption songs of Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 32 to the Hallelujah Chorus in the book of Revelation.
The biblical writers recognised that sometimes more can be said in one song than in many chapters of prose. How something is said is part of its its overall message. Songs provide memorable turns of phrase, tunes that get into the soul, and ideas that often have a surplus of meaning that stimulate our thinking.
A reporter once asked Bob Dylan what his songs were about. Dylan replied that some were about 3 minutes, some 4 minutes and some more than 6 minutes.
It is possible to over analyse songwriters and their songs, sometimes we need to experience and enjoy the songs and take them at face value.
In two weeks of quarantine in Latvia I have had one particular songwriter as a soundtrack for my ‘solitary confinement’: Emily Barker, whose album A Dark Murmuration of Words was released this month.
I guess an award should be given for weaving the word murmuration into an album title. ‘Murmuration’ is the noun used to describe the swirling clustering of roosting starlings. In some ways such an image is reflected in this album by the range and possibilities of the human voice as a beautiful instrument. The voice can swerve and soar as it communicates meaning and emotion.
Preachers could learn something from this. Take care not to speak of glorious things with a dead-pan expression and a dull voice. Much can be communicated by variation of pitch, tone and volume.
Emily Barker first came to public attention through her song Nostalgia being chosen to be the theme tune for the TV series Wallander. Her new album also explores nostalgia for home, friends and the quality of life on Planet Earth that seem to be trickling away.
“There is so much I could tell you
Can I walk you through the past?
To all the beautiful places
We thought would always last.”
Emily offers in ten songs lessons on how to tell a story in a few minutes. Sometimes a story is told in one sentence: “Home is where the heart lines meet”.
In the song Machines, a song about slavery, she communicates the mechanical effect of slavery through a chain-gang like rhythm. The injustice of a situation that has changed but yet not changed is captured in one word: complimentary.
“Since 1865 everyone is free
But I still get my labour complimentary…”
Perhaps ideas like this are the reason for the word “dark” in the title?
I like honesty in song writing; I like honesty in life; I also like it in the preacher.
Everyone also needs a sense of hope, especially in dark times.
We all need: “To see beauty in things ordinary.”
If we are to use language in a compelling way, we do need to learn how to see.