I recently picked up Bruce Springsteen’s 510 page memoir, “Born To Run.” While Springsteen is not my absolute favorite rocker, I DID live in New Jersey for seven years and once won a contest that gave us front row center seats for one of his concerts. I count “Brilliant Disguise” and “Badlands” as my top Springsteen tracks.
As I read the memoir, I was stunned by the quality of writing. I suppose I shouldn’t have been, for Springsteen has long had a knack for turning phrases and crafting characters.
In Born To Run, however, Springsteen’s ability to describe ambiguity stands out. How is that you can love something and hate it at the same time? How do memories that scar us also save us? How is a villain also a victim? Here’s how he describes his childhood fiefdom in his grandparents’ home, “the greatest and saddest sanctuary” Springsteen has ever known:
A timid little tyrant, I soon felt like the rules were for the rest of the world, at least until my dad came home. He would lord sullenly over the kitchen, a monarch dethroned by his own firstborn son at his mother’s insistence. Our ruin of a house and my own eccentricities and power at such a young age shamed and embarrassed me. I could see the rest of the world was running on a different clock and I was teased for my habits pretty thoroughly by my neighborhood pals. I loved my entitlement, but I knew it wasn’t right (p. 10).
Springsteen later amps up the ambiguity quotient in describing his signature song, “Born To Run.” He talks about the song’s genius in a way that could sound arrogant, but instead comes across as merely realistic. It IS a great song, one that ages extraordinarily well, and here’s why:
Wherever it came from it held the essential ingredients of a hit record, familiarity and newness, inspiring in the listener surprise and recognition. A smash feels like it was always there and as if you’ve never heard anything like it before (p. 208).
Now that’s ambiguity, paradox, juxtaposition … however you want to phrase it. Surprise AND recognition. Familiarity AND newness. Always there AND never been heard before. Compelling, insightful stuff, making me think of the anguished father in Mark 9:24: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Well, if ambiguity makes for a good autobiography and a better rock anthem, what role does it have in preaching? Like any good song, a sermon needs to appeal to all the senses while connecting the heart and the head. But … does it have to provide any solution to the dilemmas it creates? Does it need resolution in the midst of the questions it raises?
I recently read a post with the provocative title of “Should Sermons Give Answers Or Offer Better Questions?” As you might surmise, the answer is embedded in that particular question and the preacher/blogger opts for the latter: better questions, please. You can read his post here.
Now: that blogger and I are theological opposites, but that’s another blog post for another time … though some of our differences will be apparent in where my post today goes.
How does Scripture weigh in on the task of preaching and whether or not preachers should provide smarter answers or offer better questions?
Well, there’s Jesus’ first recorded words: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 4:15)
Jesus’ parables are often more open-ended than that particular sermon highlight, though he does of course go to the trouble of explaining them in great detail to his disciples, who in turn explain them to us.
How does Peter conclude his first spoken address after receiving the fullness of the Holy Spirit? Like someone who took his cue from Jesus: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38).
How does Paul respond to the ultimate act of religious ambiguity, the altar TO AN UNKNOWN GOD (Acts 17:23, an inscription that was really just a forerunner of today’s Coexist bumper stickers)? With purpose, confidence, and clarity: “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).
What is the nature of Paul’s clarifying proclamation? I love how the apostle himself words it: “[B]ut we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Corinthians 1:23).
Not Christ muddled. Not Christ compromised. Not Christ and maybe something you discover on your own.
Christ and him crucified.
Add in the resurrection – which Paul invariably does, especially in his defense of the faith in Acts 17 – and the result is Christ clarified.
And that, friends, is the goal of preaching. It is to end with a dash of boldness and on a note of confidence; as I have said elsewhere, what a privilege it is in a sermon’s conclusion to cease preaching TO PEOPLE and start preaching ABOUT JESUS. Glory.
So what’s the role of ambiguity and why did I devote so many hours of my life to that Springsteen memoir (and to this post)? Ah, what a great way to begin many a sermon: by acknowledging life’s absurdities, embracing its ambiguities, and understanding the often confused lives of your congregants, many of whom are simultaneously villains and victims. Who knows, you may even have an emotionally conflicted yet uber-talented budding rock star in your midst.
If that’s the case – or even if it’s not – please make sure your sermon adventure ends up solidly at faith’s center: Jesus who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.