Saturday, June 24, 2006

William Cowper on pretentious, primping preachers

Over the last few years I have given some attention to William Cowper and his poetry. I eventually tracked down a fairly inexpensive 19th century copy of his complete poems. I have enjoyed various parts in various ways, but had not worked my way through his long poem, The Task. However, guided by another I looked further along in the poem and found Cowper discussing some errors found in pastors of his day. I was struck by the portion I reproduce here. Wow! What a timely and stinging indictment of arrogance and pretentiousness in preachers. It reminds me a bit of George Truett’s statement about ‘dandy’ preachers. There is still too much of this grandstanding and we dare not imitate it. The language is older and the quote is long, but I found it helpful.

In man or woman, but far most in man,
And most of all in man that ministers
And serves the altar, in my soul I loathe
All affectation.
'Tis my perfect scorn;
Object of my implacable disgust.
What!--will a man play tricks, will he indulge
A silly fond conceit of his fair form
And just proportion, fashionable mien,
And pretty face, in presence of his God?
Or will he seek to dazzle me with tropes,
As with the diamond on his lily hand,
And play his brilliant parts before my eyes,
When I am hungry for the Bread of Life?
He mocks his Maker, prostitutes and shames
His noble office, and, instead of truth,
Displaying his own beauty, starves his flock!
Therefore, avaunt [away], all attitude and stare
And start theatric, practised at the glass.
I seek divine simplicity in him
Who handles things divine; and all beside,
Though learned with labour, and though much admired
By curious eyes and judgments ill-informed,
To me is odious as the nasal twang
Heard at conventicle, where worthy men,
Misled by custom, strain celestial themes
Through the prest nostril, spectacle-bestrid.
Some, decent in demeanour while they preach,
That task performed, relapse into themselves,
And having spoken wisely, at the close
Grow wanton, and give proof to every eye--
Whoe'er was edified themselves were not
Forth comes the pocket mirror. First we stroke
An eyebrow; next compose a straggling lock;
Then with an air, most gracefully performed,
Fall back into our seat; extend an arm,
And lay it at its ease with gentle care,
With handkerchief in hand, depending low:

And thus it is. The pastor, either vain
By nature, or by flattery made so, taught
To gaze at his own splendour, and to exalt
Absurdly, not his office, but himself
Or unenlightened, and too proud to learn,
Or vicious, and not therefore apt to teach,
Perverting often, by the stress of lewd
And loose example, whom he should instruct,
Exposes and holds up to broad disgrace
The noblest function, and discredits much
The brightest truths that man has ever seen.
For ghostly counsel, if it either fall
Below the exigence, or be not backed
With show of love, at least with hopeful proof
Of some sincerity on the giver's part;
Or be dishonoured in the exterior form
And mode of its conveyance, by such tricks
As move derision, or by foppish airs
And histrionic mummery, that let down
The pulpit to the level of the stage;

Drops from the lips a disregarded thing.
The weak perhaps are moved, but are not taught,
While prejudice in men of stronger minds
Takes deeper root, confirmed by what they see.
A relaxation of religion's hold
Upon the roving and untutored heart
Soon follows, and the curb of conscience snapt,
The laity run wild.--But do they now?
Note their extravagance, and be convinced.

Is this not a problem today? Isn’t showiness and display, gimmick-laden performance more appropriate to the theatre common? Indeed it is encouraged in many circles to ‘draw them in.’ This sort of performance will garner attention and be welcomed on the bigger stage. And yet, just as Cowper says, the crowds may be moved (i.e., they may be impressed, they may shout, they may turn out to see this), but they are not taught, i.e. they do not come to know more of the Word of Christ and as a result are not changed into His image. (Is this part of why church attendance is up but the impact of the church is less?) Further, as Cowper notes, this sort of action actually turns off many who see through the self-centeredness.


Nathan Finn said...

What a convicting post, and quite saddening. I wonder what Mr. Cowper would say about (some) of today's television preachers.

Jeff Richard Young said...

Dear Dr. Van Neste,

I am an actor by background and a ham by natural inclination, but I try very hard not to put on a show in preaching, so as not to be phony and so detract from the message.

Once, however, before an evening worship service, I was feeling a big goofy, and for the comic entertainment of about three early-arriving members, did my best "phony fundamentalist Bible-thumping preacher" imitation. One of the women watching, a sweet-hearted Christian, said, with great sincerity, "O Brother Jeff, that is the kind of preaching we need here!"

So badly have our fathers in the ministry mis-shapen the members' view of preaching, that they embrace the charicature and reject the authentic.

Love in Christ,


Ray Van Neste said...