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Volume 15, Issue 2: Presbyterion

Preach to the Chest

Douglas Wilson

In his great book The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis prophetically wrote of what has become one of the defining sins of our age. We veer erratically between two extremes—rationalism is arid and dry, and ultimately unsatisfying, and this provokes a reaction into swamp-like mysticism and emotionalism. Neo-classicism begets the rebellious child romanticism, and romanticism begets the rebellious child of a can-do technopoly. As we swing from one extreme to another, we miss the point of balance, which is that of having our affections under the authority of the God who made the world the way He did.

Lewis' words are both blunt and revealing. He says we laugh at honor but then are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. The end result is what Lewis called "men without chests." This has come about because an arrogant rationalism has dismissed all notions of sentiment, loyalty, and affection as "nothing but" mere sensation, without any objective connection to the outside world. This in turn provokes a revolt of the emotions, a revolt that wallows in those sensations, but does so in a way as to prove the point of the rationalists.
One of the chief culprits in allowing this state of affairs to develop has been the delinquency of the pulpit. While the dichotomy between head and heart is problematic in many ways, it does illustrate our problem. One style of sermon preaches to the heart—meaning that the sermons are low in content, high in heart-warming anecdotes, and meant to "touch" or "bless." But being touched or blessed is not the same thing as being edified or built up.
Another kind of sermon, common among die-hard Reformed types, is a sermon aimed straight at the head. In many ways such sermons are indistinguishable from lectures, and in the worst case scenario, lectures that might be found in a Unitarian lecture hall. The sermons consist of doctrines, propositions, axioms, proofs, and more, and all of it designed, as Grace Slick once exhorted us, to "feed your head."
What follows is a metaphor and is not a schematic diagram of the human psyche. But with all important disqualifiers noted and arranged, it is necessary for pastors to learn how to preach to the chest. Part of our problem is that such an analogy baffles us; we do not know what could be meant by it. We know that warm feelings are not literally located in our blood pump, and yet "I love you with all my heart" still communicates. We know that propositions are not a fuel that makes the brain go, and yet we still understand something like "I can get my mind around that." But what is meant by "preach to the chest"? What problem does it address? What question does it answer?
Preaching to the chest means preaching to a sense of honor, loyalty, and conscience. It necessarily addresses what the people are doing and calls them to live in a certain way, in the light of certain truths. Preaching to the head is content with getting people to think certain truths. Preaching to the heart is content with getting them to feel a certain way, and with a competent band and a good light-and-sound tech, the thing is as good as done. But preaching to the chest addresses the whole man. It does not exclude the truths he must affirm, and it does not exclude how he feels about them. It is the place where everything intersects.
Philosophic rationalism wants to subordinate the emotions to reason. Dionysian revelers want to subordinate reason to the emotions. Both are pagan pseudo-solutions to the problem of fragmented and fallen man. Both the emotions and the mind must submit to what God has given us in Scripture. When God tells the mind to accept the fact that the eternal Word took on human flesh and became a baby, the mind has a duty to shut up and accept it. When God tells the heart that eternal punishment for certain individuals is fitting and proper, the heart has a responsibility to acknowledge that the Judge of the whole earth will do right. The mind and heart answer to God, and not to one another.
When they do so, the result is nobility. The heart loves what is pure, and so does the mind. The heart embraces what is lovely, and so does the mind. But there is no way to do this without accepting life, and all that it entails. The task of the preacher is to declare the whole counsel of God, and to do so in a way that closes off all avenues of escape. One of the most common means of escape is to blunt the sermon so it pierces nothing. Unfortunately, many preachers connive at this, and deliberately aim away from the chest.
The Word of God preached is designed to accomplish this wonderful grace. That is the point of it. When we as preachers drift into muttering like the scribes, or schmoozing like the therapists, we are trying to avoid what God has commanded us to face. Men are to meet with God when the Word of God is declared. When they do so, they must do so as men and not as partial men. They must not send their brains on ahead to see if it is safe. They must not offer up just their hearts to check out how it makes them feel. Rather they should unbutton the shirt and ask God to be merciful.

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