I just finished reading John Piper’s most recent book, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C. S. Lewis (Crossway, 158 pp.). In my opinion, this is the best volume yet in his The Swans are not Silent series and I highly recommend you get it. Continue reading . . .
I just finished reading John Piper’s most recent book, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C. S. Lewis (Crossway, 158 pp.). In my opinion, this is the best volume yet in his The Swans are not Silent series and I highly recommend you get it.
I hope later to write considerably more on this book, but here I only wish to draw your attention to one thing he says about Whitefield. George Whitefield may have been the most eloquent and articulate preacher who ever lived. In any case, he was undeniably dramatic and artistic and captivating in his delivery. Piper describes this at some length and cites several testimonies by those who heard Whitefield preach on numerous occasions.
But my focus is on Piper’s defense of Whitefield against the cynical judgment of someone like Harry Stout in his book, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Stout claims that Whitefield was “plying a religious trade,” pursuing “spiritual fame,” craving “respect and power,” was driven by “egotism,” and was devoted to putting on “performances” and “integrating religious discourse into the emerging language of consumption” (cited by Piper, 93).
Piper responds by pointing to something Whitefield himself said about acting in a sermon in London. Said Whitefield:
“I’ll tell you a story. The Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 1675 was acquainted with Mr. Butterton the [actor]. One day the Archbishop . . . said to Butterton . . . ‘Pray inform me Mr. Butterton, what is the reason your actors on stage can affect your congregations with speaking of things imaginary, as if they were real, while we in church speak of things real, which our congregations only receive as if they were imaginary?’ ‘Why my Lord,’ says Butterton, ‘the reason is very plain. We actors on stage speak of things imaginary, as if they were real and you in the pulpit speak of things real as if they were imaginary’” (93-94).
Piper concludes from this that there are three ways to speak:
“First, you can speak of an unreal, imaginary world as if it were real – that is what actors do in a play. Second, you can speak about a real world as if it were unreal – that is what half-hearted pastors do when they preach about glorious things in a way that implies they are not as terrifying or as wonderful as they are. And third, you can speak about a real spiritual world as if it were wonderfully, terrifyingly, magnificently real, because it is” (94).
The conclusion Piper draws from Whitefield’s convictions, life, and ministry is that he “is not a repressed actor, driven by egotistical love of attention. Rather, he is consciously committed to out-acting the actors because he has seen what is ultimately real” (94; italics his). In other words, “it was imaginative acting in the service of reality. This was not rendering the imaginary as real. It was rendering the realness of the real as awesomely, breathtakingly real. This was not affectation. This was passionate re-presentation – replication – of reality. This was not the mighty microscope using all its powers to make the small look impressively big. This was the desperately inadequate telescope turning every power to give some small sense of the majesty of what too many preachers saw as tiresome and unreal” (95).
All preachers . . . take note!