ice|berg theory & Acts 17
If there is one thing that I can learn from the preachers of the New Testament, it is the art of brevity.
I am often surprised by how short most of the apostles’ sermons were, especially when I compare them to the long-winded homilies of my own. Take, for instance, the famous Mars Hill Discourse in Acts 17:22-31. In approximately 400 words, the Apostle Paul engages the Athenian thinkers with a missing piece of their own history and then proceeds to build a logical argument for the sovereignty of God, all while debunking their carnal philosophies and rampant polytheism. It truly is an apologetic masterpiece. But one of the most astounding things about the Mars Hill Discourse is not what Paul said. It’s what he chose not say.
In his opening statement, Paul commends the religious diligence of his listeners (Acts 17:22). Next, he connects with his audience on a cultural level, using an altar to the Unknown God as the starting point for the rest of his sermon (17:23). From there, he introduces the Athenian philosophers to their unequaled Creator (17:24) and the Giver of All Life (17:29), a solitary God Who moves in opposition of both Stoical Fate and Epicurean Chance (17:26). As he speaks, the apostle Paul holds the minds of his listeners captive, and everything appears to be going surprisingly well. But then, Paul makes a sudden philosophical leap: having established the supremacy of God, the he chooses to abandon his rhetoric and jumps forward in his progression to the claim that Jesus had resurrected from the grave (17:31).
In an instant, Paul’s logical progression falls apart and the philosophers pounce on his message (17:32). The trained thinkers of Athens identify the gap in Paul’s narrative, and begin to mock the seemingly whimsical notion that he is proposing (17:32). From the mythology of Homer to the disciplines of Plato, the Greek tradition had unequivocally denied any sort of resurrection doctrine. But now, Paul proposes that centuries of religious philosophy were wrong – and he doesn’t even give a logical reason why. In the mind of almost every person assembled, Paul has claimed the downright preposterous.
To the evangelistically-minded believer, the Mars Hill Discourse may seem like a pretty lame sermon. After all, it omits the majority of the Gospel. There is no mention of the Crucifixion, no mention of sinful man in need of a Savior, and no mention of the name of Jesus. It’s almost as if we don’t get to read the second half of Paul’s presentation. But the truth of the matter is that the Apostle Paul (or rather, the Holy Spirit) knew something incredibly valuable about human communication: less is more.
Almost 1900 years after Paul stood up in the Areios Pagos to speak, Ernest Hemingway postulated his own “less is more” principle as it applied to storytelling. He called it the “iceberg theory,” an economical style of writing in which he omitted essential elements of the story that he felt the reader could deduce on his own. Instead, Hemingway relayed his narratives in skeletal sentences that were bereft of flowery prose, communicating the hard facts of the story while the significance of the events remained beneath the surface.
In a way, Ernest Hemingway was only mimicking a method of communication that the Apostle Paul had already achieved. The philosophers that gathered to hear Paul speak were notoriously curious (Acts 17:21), and Paul knew it. He gained their attention with a full-fledged assault on reason, and quickly abandoned it so that the Holy Spirit could work. His message was brief, but it was enough for God to stir the hearts of men like Dionysius (17:34). In other words, the apostle removed his own convincing logic from the equation, so that God alone could have all the glory.
Sometimes, my own verbosity stands in the way of an effective sermon. Rather than allowing God to work through a clear and concise presentation of truth, I feel the need to embellish the Word of God with my own homiletic ability. While I have been commanded to preach God’s Word efficiently, I have not been commanded to do it in my own power. The Lord does not need my winsome speech to reach the hearts of my listeners. He can do that all on His own.
So, the next time I am tempted to wax eloquent when simplicity would suffice, I would do well to remember a humbling truth: my homiletics could use a little more Hemingway.
© 2010 Jeremy Austin Watts, with thanks to Dan DeWitt for inspiring the title