Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.
I have seen them in an art deco style, boxes with fronts that come to obtuse points: forward, forward, as the engines of history turn, forward with the Lord of hosts and right angles. I have seen others plain and polished, austere and iconoclastic, self-effacing even, as though they would be secretly embarrassed to distract from the speaker. Way up in the north woods, I have seen still others that look as though they have just sprouted out of the ground: narrow trunks of white birch trees lashed with twine into ragged, ribbed stands.
Beyond the decorative level, each of these pulpits hides its true purpose, which is to bear the weight of the universe upon a slanted shelf. This is where the Bible sits, inches above a styrofoam cup of water.
From a height of six feet the functionality is apparent, but for earthbound toddlers a normal pulpit rises like a wooden rampart under the distant vault of the sanctuary ceiling. Climbing up the pastor’s side to peer out across empty pews is like ascending a watchtower to survey the site of an approaching battle, the affixed microphone below your gaze an oratory trebuchet.
I have watched aged hands grip the sides of a pulpit enough times to know that the rampart imagery is not inapt. Consider what must be overcome in the act of preaching. While standing in front of dozens or hundreds you must, by some grace, gather what greased words you can and attempt to bundle them into sentences and paragraphs, and this in the absurd hope of conveying eternal verities to a crowd that has never been much impressed by verities, let alone the eternal ones.
Wordless opposition is aloft in every zone of your visual field. What can save you? What can shelter you from this body of death?
Material afflictions call for material relief. When the flesh is weak to a point of threatening collapse, the pulpit stands fast. Grasping those panels that enclose the plane upon which your Bible sits will even recollect you to your original homiletic purpose. Against these teeming, impatient masses, the trebuchet is again armed, and the words go back out.
As your confidence grows, perhaps you will find yourself walking in a slow circuit around the pulpit. If the atmosphere in the sanctuary has thickened into something like openness, you might not feel the need to interpose the wooden box between you and your listeners. But having stepped into the adjacent clearing, you hear the wind rustle in the carpet strands, and you rotate your wedding band around your ring finger for reassurance.
The crowd may not notice the ways in which the pulpit lends you gravitas, as though you stand in front of the sturdy furniture of God’s own mind, but the benefit is still yours. As a soldier salutes the rank when the ranking officer hasn’t earned a salute of his own, so a congregation may attend to the words of a preacher who preaches from behind the pulpit, even if his greased words resist his attempts at bundling. That podium symbolizes the monolithic Church that guards the deposit entrusted to it, and more basically, the idea of the logos at all: a foundation for thought, life, and being; a principle of order that bestows itself; a single unmoving point; a coat hook for the cosmos.
This may be part of why I favor the simple pulpit to the ornate: clean lines and darkness bring to mind an Archimedean geometry that is invoked in the pulpit’s holding up the point at which the universe turns on its hinge, which the preacher extrapolates into living proofs.
History falls open on either side, and the pulpit remains steadfastly beneath.