Wholesome Sweetness: The Canon of Style

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By more intentionally and consistently incorporating the concrete elements of story and metaphor into your preaching, you refresh your language, serve your people, and shed fresh light on the Gospel.

This is Part 5 of an occasional series about employing classical rhetoric in preaching. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

When most people hear “rhetoric” they undoubtedly think of the third Canon of Rhetoric, Elocutio, or Style. Cicero defines Style as “the fitting of the proper language to the invented matter.”[1] Style employs ornamentation and orchestration in language in order to engage not only the head but also the heart—and, ultimately, move the hands.

As I have written before, rhetoric generally—and Style in particular—is certainly susceptible to abuse. There is a reason Saint Paul decries the errors of sophistry in 1 Corinthians. But preachers should not, for that reason, attempt to eschew Style altogether; indeed, “plain” is its own sort of style. The goal is to wed Style with substance, form with content.

Even when it is not being abused, though, Style can cause preachers to find themselves, with Kristoff, lost in the woods. Turning a clever phrase is all fine and dandy but getting too granular with the content of your message is sure to throw sand in the gears of your preaching preparation. So, for our purposes here I want to recommend that, when it comes to your elocution, you avoid getting too fancy with your wordsmithing and instead focus in two areas: stories and metaphors.[2]

There are no shortages of resources on finding and using such material in sermons but let me offer a pair of approaches for employing each of these stylistic tools that may prove helpful for you.


Dixie Cups & Linguistic Lanterns

Preaching with metaphors does not mean you need to become a poet, much less start rhyming or, heaven help us, rapping your message. It is more a matter of recognizing how our language is unavoidably metaphorical, and leveraging that linguistic characteristic to your homiletic advantage.[3] In my own preaching I have identified and used two forms of metaphors—what we might call the “dixie cup” metaphor and the “lantern” metaphor.

The dixie cup metaphor is a one-time-use metaphor which serves its purpose in a single point or movement of the sermon and is then promptly cast aside. Think of Galatians 3:27, where baptism is compared to clothing: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment.” Paul does not push the metaphor throughout his letter to the Galatians or even for a chapter. It is a passing reference to help briefly elucidate the meaning of baptism. Dixie cup metaphors are helpful for grabbing attention, but perhaps not robust enough to warrant extended application.[4]

Lantern metaphors, on the other hand, are controlling metaphors which
cast light over the whole message and illuminate much more of what is said. Think of Jesus’ parable of The Sower (Luke 8:4-15) or Paul’s meditation on the Church as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Lantern metaphors are worth employing and exploring at greater length, teasing out deeper meaning in the message.


Parables & Synecdoche Stories

As with metaphors and poetry, when it comes to stories you do not need to become a star on the Moth Radio Hour to effectively incorporate storytelling into your preaching.[5] There are similarly two kinds of stories that most often make it into our preaching.

The first kind of story is the Parable, which is essentially an extended analogy. For example, the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” is analogous to the love of Christ, “Which does not find its beloved but creates it.”[6] Parables are easier to come by and are most useful in illustrating a point, especially a theological or doctrinal one.

The second kind of story is what I call a synecdoche story, or case-in-point story.[7] In my opinion, synecdoche stories are even more impactful than parables. They provide concrete examples of the matter under consideration. Saint Francis ministering to the leper on the road is a synecdoche story of Christian mercy. The priest who selflessly gave away his mask to help a COVID-19 patient is a synecdoche story of Christian sacrifice, and so on. Such stories not only illustrate the message, they instantiate it. For that reason, I find them most helpful for providing inspiration and direction for discipleship.


The thought of preaching with Style may prove daunting to you. When it comes to rhetorical rhapsodizing, you think, I am no Martin Luther King, Jr.—or even Martin Luther! Fair enough—few are. But by more intentionally and consistently incorporating the concrete elements of story and metaphor into your preaching, you refresh your language, serve your people, and shed fresh light on the Gospel.

As Augustine wrote, “We must often swallow wholesome bitters, so we must always avoid unwholesome sweets. But what is better than wholesome sweetness or sweet wholesomeness? For the sweeter we try to make such things, the easier it is to make their wholesomeness serviceable.”[8] This is the gift you give your people when you preach with Style.