Book Review: Preaching from Memory to Hope
Posted May 30, 2016on:
Preaching from Memory to Hope by Thomas G. Long, Westminster John Knox, 2009, 152 pp.
This book made me want to read more books about preaching. It’s something I do every week, and I read lots of books that give me ideas about what to say when I preach. This book, however, is more about what happens when we preach, not what we say in any given week.
Long begins with a critique of narrative preaching, the style of story-based preaching that has become dominant in the last 30 years. Narrative preaching arose in response to a culture that knew its way around Christian doctrine and dogma, but felt bored and stilted in its heart. Grasping on to the stories at the heart of the Gospel was a way to get to the heart of listeners and move them. Now, however, Long points out that our context has changed.
We no longer live in a sleeping Christendom waiting only to be aroused and delighted by evocative stories. The culture has shifted, and we need to take up with purpose Augustine’s two other terms: teaching and ethical speech. (18)
Quickly, Long goes on to point out that narrative is not irrelevant, but its purpose is targeted and specific:
Narrative is not a rhetorical device to titillate bored listeners What we are doing, first of all, is dress rehearsing in the pulpit a competence expected of every Christian, the capacity to make theological sense out of the events and experiences of our lives. (18)
He goes so far as to label overly simplistic, canned “preacher stories” as unethical in their response to the depth and complexity of faith in real life. (20)
In the second chapter, Long claims that preaching ought to model the complex conversation that happens between serious disciples and the world around them. Preaching becomes testimony, speaking to the places where God is alive and at work in the world around us. Too often, preachers today do not speak as though God really is alive and at work among them. Long tells the story of Martin Luther’s fear and trembling at the obligation to represent the gospel, and quotes Karl Barth:
What are you doing, you [human being], with the Word of God upon your lips? Upon what grounds do you assume the role of mediator between heaven and earthy? Who has authorized you to take your place there and to generate religious feeling? (35)
Preaching is not an explanation, it is an event. Something happens when we preach, and the Word is broken open and God is made present in the act of sharing it. “Preaching involves looking through the lenses of biblical texts to discover and then to announce present-tense manifestations of God in the experience of hearers.” (44)
The third chapter levels a striking, searing critique against a new form of Gnosticism arising today. Long identifies four traits of Gnosticism as 1) believing that knowledge saves; 2) antipathy toward incarnation and embodiment; 3) focus on inner divine spark; and 4) emphasis on present spiritual reality rather than God’s promised fulfillment. He sees this gnosticism holding a special appeal to intelligent people, and taking shape through both those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” and among those who ascribe to conspiracy theories about Christian history, such as those found in the books of Bart Ehrmann and Elaine Pagels. The fourth chapter turns this critique of gnosticism against one of the most beloved of the populist, critical scholars: Marcus Borg. His contention that Borg’s ideas are full of gnostic thought is thorough and convincing.
Long points the way forward, calling for “preaching in the future-perfect tense,” preaching that is centered in eschatalogical hope. He writes:
Like the risen Christ himself, preaching is a word from God’s future embarrassingly and disturbingly thrust into the present, announcing the freedom in a time of captivity, the gift of peace to a world of conflict, and joy even as the lamenting continues. (124)
I think Long is on the right track. He gave clarity and voice to many of the things I strive for in my own preaching, and questions that have lingered, unexpressed, in the back of my mind. I encourage all my fellow preachers to hear his concerns, even if you do not accept them.