Using “Sinner Man” in Song and in Dance to Enliven the Study of the Sermon, Enhance its Meaning, Demonstrate the Metaphorical Nature of Artistic Expression, and Foster Appreciation for the Arts

SUBJECTS — U.S. 1629 – 1750; ELA (American Literature, Metaphor); Music; Dance;

AGES; 15+; 10th – 12th Grades and College Level

Clip with the Song and the Dance: 3 minutes; played at least twice, once with the music only and once showing the dance.

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Billy Porter’s rendition of the song is strong and evocative. Alvin Ailey’s choreography, performed by an ensemble of three male dancers from his company, is breathtaking.


Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was a major influence in the Great Awakening c. 1730–1755. It expresses important concepts of Christian religious belief held by many American colonists. It is often taught as a foundational text in American Literature classes. However, the sermon is heavy reading, and many students have trouble relating to its stark view of the relationship between man and God. Noting that the sermon uses descriptions of primal human fears to terrify and convince the audience, gives students a reference point and makes the sermon more interesting.

This short clip from the television program “So You Think You Can Dance” provides relief from the dense reading required to comprehend the sermon and from the academic focus on rhetorical analysis. It demonstrates that concepts expressed in the sermon have found their way into the religion expressed in African-American spirituals and into the arts. It also enriches and enhances the meaning of the text, provides an example of metaphor in its broader meaning, and gives a striking demonstration of the concept that all artistic expression is metaphorical. Playing this rendering of “Sinner Man” will also stimulate student interest in the text.

Note: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is usually taught in U.S. high schools in the 11th Grade. Metaphor as a figure of speech is often the focus of curriculum in earlier years. However, it is an important concept and difficult for many students. Thus, a lesson which is designed to refresh and expand student understanding of metaphor will always be helpful.


Students will have some relief from the effort involved in the textual analysis of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” They will have an enhanced understanding of the ideas expressed in the sermon and realize that some of those beliefs spread beyond 18th century colonists. Students will understand that metaphor is a multifaceted concept that underlies all of the arts. Student appreciation for the arts will be enhanced.





Rubens’ portrait of Sussannah Fourment (1622)

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo (1940)

The Sermon, the Bible, and Primal Fears

Jonathan Edwards was a genius at manipulating the primal fears of his congregation. He exhorted them to faithful obedience with over-the-top descriptions of sinners falling into a chasm, being devoured by wild animals, and drowning in God’s wrath. While Edwards instinctively knew that these anxieties are hardwired into us; contemporary evolutionary biology — a discipline that would not have met with Edwards’ approval — tells us so. [Ask students: “How many of you have startled and jerked awake just as you were falling asleep?”] One theory is that fear of falling stems from the time when the common ancestor of humans and great apes slept in trees, and had to be vigilant, even while dozing, so as not to crash to the ground. This is called a “hypnic jerk.”  Some of us suffer from a residual terror of heights that goes beyond the rational into the phobic.

Large carnivorous mammals used to devour humans before mankind developed the brainpower and technology to turn the tables and to hunt the predators, and later on, to place their heads on a wall. As Edwards well knew, the Bible contains stories based on this fear. Think of Daniel in the lion’s den.

And then there’s the fear of drowning which resonates in the story of Noah and the Great Flood. The story of Jonah and the Whale conflates the fear of large wild animals with the fear of drowning: a man swallowed by a gigantic creature of the sea. These fearsome archetypal encounters informed Edwards’ sermons.

The Metaphorical Basis of Artistic Expression

In its broadest sense, the term “metaphor” means a method of description in which an object, activity, or idea is equated with something that is fundamentally dissimilar. This equation enriches our understanding of one thing by transferring or ascribing to it some of the qualities of another dissimilar thing.

Most of us are familiar with metaphor as a figure of speech that describes by using words that equate two dissimilar things. Two examples of figure-of-speech metaphors are Shakespeare’s “It is the East and Juliet is the Sun” and Homer’s “wine-dark sea.” Juliet is not the Sun at dawn nor is the sea made of wine. However, the image of Juliet’s beauty is enhanced when Shakespeare equates her with the radiance of the Sun in its first appearance of the day; the impression of the sea is stronger and more mysterious when Homer states that it is “wine-dark.”

Metaphor is not limited to figures of speech. The painting of a landscape uses a mixture of line, color, and texture on a canvas to represent what was present in nature. An image on a canvas is dissimilar to trees, rocks, hills, and lakes, but it adds to our appreciation and understanding of all those things. The same is true of a painting that portrays a person, such as Rubens’ portrait of Sussannah Fourment (1622) or the Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo (1940). While the image on the canvas is dissimilar to the person being painted, the picture adds to our understanding of the person by the way that line, color, and texture are formed and interact. Picasso’s painting Guernica is not the massacre that occurred when German and Italian warplanes bombed civilians in a village during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). Nor is the painting equivalent to the horror felt by those who witnessed the event or the empathic reaction felt by anyone  who heard about the massacre. The shapes and colors of the painting, images that are inherently different than the massacre or our reaction to it, enhance our appreciation and understanding of both. In the same way, the marble, bronze, or wood of a sculpture is different than its subject, but their use in description allows a rich and complex examination of what is being portrayed. For example, see the Discobolus of Myron, which appears to be just the faithfully repeated rendition of a discus thrower, but it is really much more.

The lyrics and music of the Spiritual “Sinner Man” describe concepts set out by Edwards in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The lyrics supplement the concept of the sermon with different imagery. The music contributes rhythm and melody, as well as the inflection of the singer’s voice. These amplify Edwards’ description of the concept that sinners cannot evade the power of an angry God and ultimately, when God’s supporting power is withdrawn, sinners will fall to Hell and into the fiery embrace of the Devil.

Choreographer Alvin Ailey and the dancers translate the ideas of the sermon and of the song into movement. By using the movement of their bodies to describe the flight, fear, pleading, despair, and ultimate fall of sinners, the dancers add a visceral dimension as well as additional layers of meaning. At one point, the three dancers, no longer supported by God’s grace, represent the fall into the fires of Hell.

The comparison of the sermon, the song, and the dance demonstrates that all artistic expression can be seen as metaphor, using dissimilar objects or activities to enhance the description of the subject of the work. Description through metaphor can enhance the portrayal of just about anything, even abstract concepts such as those found in Edwards’ sermon.

Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso


Discobolus of Myron


Before students start to read the sermon, tell them to look for the primal human fears that Edwards used to motivate his congregation. As an alternative, teachers can provide information on primal fears, specifically the fear of falling.  See information in the Helpful Background Section, above.
Another alternative, is to ask students to make a list of their primal fears.  In all of these alternatives the primal fear of falling should be stressed.   Teachers may want to also discuss with students “hypnic jerks” which 70% of people have when falling asleep.

If the sermon is being read in class, the film clip — first, sound only, and later, showing the dance,— can be used as relief from the tedium involved in reading the text. Alternatively, if the text is being read outside of class, the clip can be played before or after the sermon has been read.

In either case, the clip should be played for the class at least twice; the first time with just sound only.

The Song

To help students concentrate on the aural experience of listening to the song, consider telling them to shut their eyes while they listen.

After the class listens to the song, discuss how the imagery of the lyrics, the rhythm, the melody, and the intonation of the singer’s voice describe some of the concepts of the sermon. To complete this discussion it might be appropriate for teachers to play just the clip again (or even several times) with only the sound so that  students have a chance to thoroughly analyze all aspects of the song. Consider asking to students to focus on one or two aspects of the song each time the clip is played.

Below are excerpts from the Sermon that can be compared with the lyrics and music of the song.

All wicked Men’s Pains and Contrivance they use to escape Hell, while they continue to reject Christ, and so remain wicked Men, don’t secure ’em from Hell one Moment.

If you cry to God to pity you, he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful Case, or shewing you the least Regard or Favour,

God hath had it on his Heart to shew to Angels and Men, both how excellent his Love is, and also how terrible his Wrath is.

These concepts are put to music in the clip. Click here for the lyrics to the song as sung by Billy Porter.

Only then should teachers show the dance.

At an appropriate point in the lesson, teachers can discuss with students the meaning of metaphor in its broader sense. See, for example, the information contained in The Metaphorical Basis of Artistic Expression, above. One or all of the questions set out below might be helpful in this discussion.

1. How does the image of the melting rock [the boiling sea] contained in the song expand the images of Mr. Edwards’ Sermon?

Suggested Response:

Strong responses will refer to the fact that only extraordinary heat will melt rocks [cause the sea to boil]; only God or natural forces in his control and not under the control of mankind could make the rock melt [the sea to boil]; melting rock [boiling sea] are hostile to life and will kill the sinner.


2. How did the experience of listening to the music of the song enhance your understanding of [appreciation for] Mr. Edwards’ Sermon?

Suggested Response:

Strong responses will refer to melody, rhythm, pacing, or inflection.


3. Listen to the song again. How does rhythm, melody, and the inflection of the singer’s voice, things that are dissimilar to the concepts expressed in the sermon, add meaning to the concepts of the sermon?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response. Here is one example relating to rhythm: The rhythm builds tension, it is relentless like the coming of Judgment Day and at the same time alarming; it is like running as the sinner runs to and for trying unsuccessfully to hide from God’s wrath.


The Dance

If the sermon is being read in class, resume reading for a while and then play the clip again, this time showing the dance. If students are reading the sermon outside of class, show students the dance after the discussion of the song as metaphor. Follow the first showing of the dance with a discussion about how the movement of the dancer’s bodies enhances the concepts from the Sermon and the song. Again, it might be appropriate to play the clip a third or fourth time to allow students to fully analyze the metaphors in the dance.

Finish this part of the lesson with a discussion of the metaphorical nature of the dance performance. One or both of the questions set out below might be helpful in this discussion.


4. How did the movement of the dancers’ bodies, things that are dissimilar to the concepts expressed in the sermon, enhance your understanding of [appreciation for] Mr. Edwards’ Sermon?

Suggested Response:

Strong responses will refer to the relationship of the movement of the dancers to specific concepts of the sermon.


5. Watch the dance again and analyze the movement of the dancers. How does the movement of the dancers show the flight, fear, pleading, despair, and final fall of sinners?

Suggested Response:

Here are some examples. Students will undoubtedly think of others: running to the edge of the dance area is the effort to hide and to run; arms outstretched shows pleading; spinning with hands in front of face shows useless searching for a place to hide; falling to the floor in almost a cartwheel with arms outstretched is the descent to Hell; repetition of movements echoes the repetition of concepts in the sermon.


Additional Discussion Questions:

6. Compare what happens when you dance at a party to the artistic dance shown in the film clip. How would you describe those differences?

Suggested Response:

A good discussion will include the following: (1) the dances have different purposes: social dancing is primarily for enjoyment and the dance shown in the clip is primarily for artistic expression and communication; (2) however, it is also a valid observation to say that they are both forms of expression and communication because social dancing can also express emotions such as joy or sexual attraction, and social dancing can also interpret the music; although usually dance as an art form has a broader range of expression; and (3) there are obvious differences in the level of technique.


7. How is a painting of a landscape or a portrait a metaphor? [This can be repeated for any work of art, a song, a sculpture, or a dance],

Suggested Response:

It describes something using dissimilar terms; e.g. color, line, and shape is used in a painting to describe physical objects and persons.



1. Demonstrate, with or without music, the movements in the dance that show falling, pleading, fleeing, fear, and despair, or other concepts from the sermon.


2. In whatever artistic medium you choose, create a metaphorical expression for one or more concepts of the sermon.


3. Write a 1,500 word modern-day sermon making some of the core points from Edwards’ sermon using images tailored to modern culture.


This Snippet Lesson Plan was published on January 4, 2014, and written by James Frieden and Deborah Elliott.

Our thanks to Paula Ambagtsheer for suggestions for this Lesson Plan.

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