Rock the pulpit

Rock the pulpit

November 30, 2003
Written by Staff Reports

New sermon anthology links gospel with U2 music

U2 lead singer Bono, performing in Cleveland during the 2001 "Elevation" tour.
Dan Hazard photo

When the Rev. Raewynne Whiteley first heard the U2 song "Beautiful Day," it didn't just move her to dance or sing. It inspired her to write a sermon.

The vicar of Trinity Episcopal "Old Swedes" Church in Swedesboro, N.J., also has preached about "The Simpsons," "The X-Files" and Frank Sinatra. "Part of my job preaching is to help people make connections between their daily lives and faith," Whiteley said with an Australian brogue.

The 37-year-old Episcopal priest from Melbourne, with a doctorate in homiletics from Princeton University, just finished her first year at the rural parish. Parishioners say Whiteley, who can often be seen around town wearing shorts and sandals with her clerical shirt, has endeared herself to the 140-member congregation and attracted new members with her vigor, unorthodox sermons and down-to-earth manner.

"She connects the Bible with today's doings," said Alma Howell, 74, who has been a church member for 56 years. "I've been to other churches, and they stick strictly to the Bible, and the Bible is very hard to understand for some people." Several parishioners said Whiteley's sermons made them think.

"I've never heard a boring sermon from her," said Bob Fred, 67, a retired bookkeeper for Sunoco. "When I was in the Methodist Church, I would always look at my watch and say, 'When is this guy going to be done?' "

Whiteley and another Episcopal priest are co-editors of "Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalogue," a collection of sermons that draws on the music of U2. Published by Cowley Publications, the book is scheduled to be released this month.

The book includes two sermons by UCC ministers—the Rev. Shawnthea Monroe-Mueller, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Moorhead, Minn., and the Rev. Stephen Butler Murray, associate director of the intercultural center at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

"The book is not that U2 said this or that, but what issues they raise and how those issues connect theologically," Whiteley said.

The book includes an essay in which Whiteley exhorts fellow clergy to familiarize themselves with the pop-culture universe.

"Listen prayerfully to the world around you," she wrote. "Saturate yourself in the articulations of our culture, whether in music, art, fi lm, or TV. ... Hunt out biblical allusions in the speeches of our politicians and military leaders. Read poetry, and look for the depths of the human experience. Turn on the radio or VH1, and hear what is heard by thousands of people. Pay attention to where God might be active."

Whiteley, who holds five academic degrees, confessed, "I have to make a concerted effort not to sit down in front of the TV."

She even acknowledged that she had watched "some dreadful programming," such as NBC-TV's "Meet My Folks." But the reality show gave her material for a wedding. In comparing it to the "Song of Solomon," Whiteley said, "I was able to talk about what are our modes of love and what it means to love."

She stressed, "I don't put these things in artificially. ... If when I'm preparing a sermon, something really sticks in my mind, I'm likely to talk about it."

In describing her preaching style, Whiteley invoked theologian Karl Barth, who famously advised his students to write their sermons with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

Said Whiteley, "In essence, we're updating that image—a Bible in one hand and CD in the other."

Used with permission of Knight Ridder Newspapers.


An excerpt from 'Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalogue'

By Raewynne J. Whiteley

In preaching, we have always had multiple influences. In the past, we have tended to label them as "illustrations" or "the use of experience in preaching," but anyone who has ever tried to write a sermon with an "illustration" already ringing in their ears knows how that illustration shapes our reading from the very beginning of our work. The Christmas gospels always come to us laden with Christmas carols; I cannot read the Easter gospels without thinking of a friend who died one Easter morning, her last words "Christ is risen indeed." Similarly, we cannot look at our legal code without hearing echoes of the Ten Commandments; we cannot hear Shakespeare without noticing allusions to Scripture.

From a theoretical perspective, this mutual influence is called "intertextuality." Broadly simplified, this is the idea that every human utterance (or "text") is drawn from numerous other texts. Nothing we say is entirely new, nor is it entirely objective: It is all the result of the collision and influence of everything we have ever heard, read and experienced. Every text is a mosaic or tissue of quotations. Some of these influences are subtle, barely noticeable; others are strong, demanding our attention.

In terms of preaching, what this means is that alongside the biblical text are a whole bunch of other texts vying for our attention. They come from our family histories, our reading, the media, the world around us. They spill over into the biblical text, shape how we read it, and the text in turn shapes how they are understood to be meaningful. And then the whole muddle somehow (though hard work and the intervention of the Holy Spirit) coalesces into a new text, the one we call a sermon.

So when it comes to preaching, to follow a simple interpretation-illustration-application model is to ignore the riches of this intertextual web, and to make instead relatively superficial connections between text and some hypothetical lived experience. By contrast, to preach intertextually is to draw into prominence particular dimensions of the already existing web, and to make explicit the meaning-making connections, enabling others to search their own lives to do the same. It is the difference between play-acting and actually living.

So how do we do it? What steps can a preacher take to prepare a sermon that is richly intertextual and draws appropriately on popular culture alongside scripture?

First, listen. Listen prayerfully to the world around you. Saturate yourself in the articulations of our culture, whether in music, art, film or TV. Be attentive to connections and allusions, both explicit and implicit. Wonder whether Tyne Daly's character cutting her hair at the end of an episode of "Judging Amy" has anything to do with biblical patterns of mourning. Find out what Martin Sheen's President Bartlet is saying in "The West Wing" when he rails at God in a darkened National Cathedral. Hunt out biblical allusions in the speeches of our politicians and military leaders. Read poetry, and look for the depths of human experience. Turn on the radio or VH-1, and hear what is heard by hundreds of thousands of people. Pay attention to where God might be active.

Listen prayerfully to your self. Allow your mind to wander, and keep track of its wanderings. Take note of the songs you just can't get out of your head, the images seared on your mind.

Listen prayerfully to the text. Read it, first, not for understanding but for God's word to you. Just as the body of a beloved one becomes a cadaver under the scalpel of a forensic pathologist, so too God's words can become devoid of life if we only approach them with an exegetical scalpel. When you approach the biblical text, bring your other listenings with you. Don't shut them out of the process of interpretation, but be aware of how they influence your reactions to the text, how they push you in one direction rather than another. In the beginning, this process of listening is something we need to do consciously. Over time, as the habit of listening becomes ingrained, it will occur naturally.

And then, as you begin your exegetical work, keep all those listenings in mind. Write down the connections, the obscure things which leap to mind as you read commentaries, as you struggle with the Greek and Hebrew. Don't worry if your page becomes filled with random jottings and lines cutting across each other. Just let it fi ll up with the intersections, the allusions, the bare threads of connection.

When it comes time to write the sermon, you will not need to hunt for illustrations on the Internet or conjure stories from thin air. It will all be there for you in that intertextual web. Pick up one thread, follow it carefully, and there you will find your sermon. And above all trust. Trust that your mind will do its work, and the Holy Spirit of God will do no less.

Does pop culture have anything to do with preaching? Absolutely! It expresses the longings, the doubts, the hopes, and the celebrations of the human spirit, the very same longings, doubts, hopes, and celebrations that are woven into Christian spirituality. Pop culture challenges religious practice, while simultaneously drawing upon the wealth of spiritual tradition. And it is a rich contributor to the incarnational "stuff" that sets preaching apart from learned lectures about abstract belief systems, that points us to a living, active God.

The Rev. Raewynne J. Whiteley is co-editor of "Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalogue," a collection of sermons inspired by the music of U2.

Used with permission.

GET UP OFF YOUR KNEES: Preaching the U2 Catalogue
Whiteley and Maynard, eds.
Cowley Publications, 2003
Available for $14.95 at
or by phone at 800/225-1534.

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