Book Review: Speak to Me that I May Speak
Posted November 14, 2014on:
Speak to Me That I May Speak: A Spirituality of Preaching by W. Dow Edgerton, Pilgrim Press, 2006, 205 pp.
I’ve been contemplating the ways in which my life as a preacher impacts my personal walk with God. Preaching demands each and every week that I set aside time to have a meaningful encounter with God through a particular scriptural text, and to think about how God is speaking through that text to the lives of the people in this time and place. It is a spirituality, a discipline, a holy walk. It was these contemplations that finally made this the right book at the right time, even though I’ve owned it since 2011.
Speak to Me That I May Speak was not what I expected at all. I expected something similar to what I wrote above–an account of the ways in which the work of preaching shapes the preacher’s own spiritual life, along with some techniques or disciplines that can engage that spiritual work more deeply. I anticipated stories from Edgerton’s own experience, mixed with reflection and straightforward suggestions for the spiritual development for all of us who live the preaching life.
Instead, what I discovered is hard to describe. The image in my mind is of Dumbledore standing over the Pensieve, a magical tool for storing one’s memories. When he stands before the Pensieve, wand in hand, the memories come like long threads of a cloudy, stringy, vapors into this holy vessel. The memories can then be stored and viewed in third person, as though one is watching things happen. This offers the opportunity to stand back and reflect, even if it is on your own life–all within the wispy cloud of things remembered. Edgerton’s use of the second person throughout the book makes it feel as though you are watching yourself, or watching someone else. His writing style is like spinning out vapors, laying out clouds of words which come together to make you see a picture, but dimly–and yet somehow that is what makes it beautiful. There is great depth of analysis and interpretation of every ingredient behind the preacher’s task.
Rather than describing it as a spirituality of preaching, Edgerton’s book is more like a phenomenology, a rendering of the phenomenon of creating a sermonic event. He covers the areas of scriptural study, study of one’s own context and community, encounters with the Holy, the power of language to create worlds, and interpretation between preacher and congregation, all with an eye toward what really transpires in the sermon and its preparation.
A few gems about the way preaching must be situated in experience:
In ministry we are rarely permitted simply to experience, but are called upon in the midst of experience to interpret. (44)
Preaching must speak of ultimate things in immediate terms. The cafe, the meeting, the hospital: ordinary life regarded as the place where ultimacy is to be met, the place where the scandal of the gospel is to be understood or not at all. Whatever else preaching must do, it must speak to, of, and within the life we share. (46)
One of my favorite chapters was about the power and mystery of language. I often feel as though I stand in the world, as both pastor and preacher, bringing nothing but words. Sometimes, that feels like a small, meaningless contribution. Other times, it feels like the most important one. Here’s why:
The words you can say make the world you can imagine; the world you can imagine shows you what lives you can lead. (75)
A different possibility must become speakable before it can become real to us, even if only as a hope. … Through making audible a different possibility, a different future becomes thinkable. When a different future becomes thinkable, a present bondage becomes breakable. When a present bondage becomes breakable, there is pronounced upon it a judgement that it is not the boundary of “the way it must be” but of the “way things have always been told.” There is more possibility to tell than this. (77)
The chapter on “Scripture as Scripture” was the most practically helpful to me, although that is not a judgment on the value of the rest of the book. Edgerton identifies the genres of speech in the Bible (i.e., parables, narrative, laws and commandments) as different ways of knowing and kinds of knowing. For example, parables are knowing by subverting expectations. Laws and commandments are knowing by doing. Narratives are knowing by story. Especially powerful was his section on the Psalms, which he observes addresses not just everyone, but each one.
It (Psalms) implicates the reader. … One often hears the words as being one’s own. … The reader takes them up as his or her own, and through them acts and speaks on the reader’s own behalf before God. The Psalms give the reader confidence to bring himself or herself before God in speech. … The words of the Psalm do not simply express the reader, they disclose the reader. (150-151)
This has always been my experience of the Psalms–that they give voice to my inner self, and consequently enable me to stand before God, revealed. This is also why I use the word phenomenology for Edgerton’s work–he describes how the Psalms are experienced in the journey of faith.
Reading this book sometimes felt like staring at an ink blot–it didn’t reveal nearly as much about Edgerton’s thoughts and conclusions as it did my own. Yet, as you can see above, his writing is rich and provocative. My preferred style is much more straightforward and clarifying, but I enjoyed this excursion.