Posts Tagged ‘preaching’
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.
The Apostles’ Creed for Today by Justo L. Gonzalez, Westminster John Knox, 2007, 99 pp.
This is the first of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.
Justo Gonzalez always offers an accessible, straightforward, learned perspective on topics of Christian history and theology, while remaining attentive to the life of faith. His theology is fairly orthodox (he is United Methodist), but he does not ignore questions or controversies. His book on the Apostles’ Creed is no different. While it was among the shortest I read in this whole series, it still contained a great deal of insight and information I found nowhere else.
Gonzalez begins with a “fact or fiction” analysis of the origins of the creed, describing the fiction that the original disciples each authored one sentence of the creed while sitting around a table and the fact of the creed’s uncertain origins but precursor “R” (for Rome) widely known throughout the early Christian community in the early second century. He also traces the use of the creed in interrogatory form from early Christian baptism to its status as a personal statement of faith or even a test of faith in contemporary context.
The remainder of the book offers a short, 3-5 page commentary on each section of the creed, which Gonzalez divides into 13 sections. The commentaries he offers are brief, but insightful. Rather than the approach many authors take of seeking scriptural support for each creedal claim, Gonzalez mixes a bit of scripture, some early Christian context, and some history of the controversies that were implied by each creedal claim. The result was a helpful, interesting mixture of ideas for preaching.
For example, one of the observations I found only in Gonzalez’ work was a discussion of the Roman paterfamilias and Greek pantokrator as context for the creed’s opening lines. To the original ear, the image of “God the Father Almighty” likely conjured power and authority far more than tenderness and care. However, that same power and authority did point beyond the worldly powers of Rome and all systems of oppression toward a higher authority of redemption, especially when paired with addressing Jesus as Lord.
Gonzalez has a way of honing in on the key questions that are at stake in the creed, and naming them in such a way that we see how those same questions remain at stake for us as well. His brevity in this book summons the critical issues, adds relevant context, and leaves us with plenty to ponder. I recommend this slim volume to any preacher studying the creeds for its thought-provoking content, and to small groups looking for a study. Each chapter also contains a few questions for discussion.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 261 pp.
Oh, Marilynne Robinson, how you move me! I think she (and especially her character Rev. John Ames) has become one of my favorite theologians in recent years. I have treasured the first two volumes of this trilogy, Gilead and Home, and waited longingly for Lila to finally be available.
Lila completes the trilogy with the story of Lila Dahl, the late-in-life wife of Rev. John Ames, a wanderer with an unknown past. In the previous two stories, she is a mystery. Finally we hear her own voice, and Robinson reveals–in her careful, slow way–Lila’s complicated past. Like Ames and Boughton, hers is a story of loneliness and isolation. Unlike the men, who also had to cope with disappointment, Lila never had any expectations for her life, so her struggle is not so much with disappointment as with emptiness. Her loss is not of an imagined future, but of any comfort and companionship at all.
Everything that happens here between Lila and Rev. John Ames is familiar to readers of Gilead and Home. She comes to church and he baptizes her. They meet and talk in their stilted way. They are married, and soon she is pregnant with his child. What we learn in this book is Lila’s perspective on their relationship, and the intricate back story that leads Lila to Gilead and breaks her heart open to love. Her story begins in poverty and abandonment, grows into love and wandering and being an outlier with Doll, the woman who raised her. When she loses Doll, she loses herself and falls into the realm of violence and abuse. Yet she escapes, she finds redemption, and together with Ames finds a frail happiness she can hardly believe is real.
As always, Robinson offers a deep sense of poetry and theology, even though our main character is not a preacher. Below are a few gems I want to remember.
She saw him standing in the parlor with his beautiful old head bowed down on his beautiful old chest. She thought, He sure better be praying. And then she thought, Praying looks just like grief. Like shame. Like regret. (93-94)
The next four passages are words spoken by Rev. John Ames, and they sum up much of my own theology.
I really don’t think preachers ought to lie. Especially about religion. (99)
Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way. (101)
“If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I’m sure He is, then your Doll and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm, and very happy. And probably a little bit surprised. If there is no Lord, then things are just the way they look to us. Which is really much harder to accept. I mean, it doesn’t feel right. There has to be more to it all, I believe.”
“Well, but that’s what you want to believe, ain’t it?” (Lila)
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” (143-143)
‘Of course misfortunes have opened the way to blessings you would never have thought to hope for, that you would not have been ready to understand as blessings if they had come to you in your youth, when you were uninjured, innocent. The future always finds us changed.’ So then it is part of the providence of God, as I see it, that the blessing or happiness can have very different meanings from one time to another. ‘This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is. Sorrow is very real, and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don’t add up. They don’t even belong in the same calculation. Sometimes it is hard to believe they are all parts of one thing. Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not accumulate like money, or memory, or like years and frailties. Instead, it is presented to us by a God who is not under any obligation to the past except in His eternal, freely given constancy.’ (223)
I mean, just, wow. That’s how I feel the whole time I am reading these books. The aching beauty, the grim loneliness, the frail joy, the probing faith, the way she captures the contour of the soul moves me every time. If you haven’t yet read Robinson’s trilogy, get to the library now and get started. These books will stand among the great works of 21st century literature, I’m certain.
Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013, 133 pp.
My credentials as an avid reader are well established by the very substance of this blog. I love to read. I read a lot. I love to talk about books, to invest in them and dissect them and commit them to memory. Professionally, I am a preacher. When I read the title Reading for Preaching, I placed my book order without delay. I thought this book was written for me.
While I enjoyed Plantinga’s book, I quickly discovered it was not written for me. Plantinga makes a compelling case for why a preacher should endeavor to regularly read, especially novels, biographies, poetry and journalistic narratives. I am clearly already sold, and a quick skim through the long lists of reviews posted here will show that I most frequently turn to those precise genres (except poetry, which I should read more often). For example, Plantinga thinks it unrealistic for a preacher to read as many as six “classic novels” each year, and offers hope that preachers will read just one.(41-42) While all my fiction reading is not “classic novels,” I definitely read a lot more than that already.
However, Plantinga does offer great perspective and insight about why reading matters–for me and for other preachers. He begins with the obvious: reading is a source of illustrations for sermons. There is nothing worse to me than a tired, canned sermon illustration, and Plantinga urges preachers to “dig up your own stuff.” (22) He points out the ways that reading can make preachers more attentive not only to the possible illustrations in texts, but events in everyday life that might illuminate the gospel. Reading also serves to “attune the preacher’s ear,” to help a preacher register how best to speak to a given audience. Plantinga identifies a variety of dictions a preacher might use–from tuxedo formal to tank-top casual to upscale colloquial or business casual (49). Each one pitches the message to a particular setting, designed to speak appropriately and engagingly to the audience at hand. Reading a variety of dictions helps the preacher recognize and develop the right tone for his or her own congregation and message. He recommends children’s literature as an especially good tool.
The second half of Plantinga’s book talks about the importance of reading as a source of wisdom for the preacher. While scripture remains the preeminent source of wisdom, other literature also provides a great deal of wise insight into the human condition. He highlights the way literature can open us to a variety of worlds and life experiences beyond our own:
The preacher wants his program of reading to complicate some of his fixed ideas, to impress him with some of the mysteries of life, with its variousness, with its surprises, with the pushes and pulls within it. (95)
Plantinga also points to the ways that literature and journalism can help us explore good and evil, sin and grace with a more complex, nuanced understanding.
The whole book is rich with appreciation and encouragement for the life of preaching, and the importance of sermons in the life of Christian worship. For example, he remarks:
The unpredictability of the preaching event gives no one license to wing it. Faithful preachers work hard on their sermons, understanding that although a fruitful result may be God’s gift, hard work is the preacher’s calling. After all, it is audacious to speak for God. (43)
It is a bold and humble task we do as preachers, and I cannot imagine undertaking it without an army of words behind me from other authors. Plantinga’s argument for the importance of reading did not move me because I am already convinced, but this book did encourage me to see my indulgence in good fiction not as a rest from quality reading, but a different kind of endeavor at building my theological and emotional vocabulary for preaching.
I finished this book and felt much better about setting aside the latest book from a consultant on church leadership, returning instead to the public library, where I checked out nearly a dozen new books, a mixture of quality fiction, history and biography. Now, to read them all!
Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic by Reinhold Niebuhr, Westminster John Knox Press, 1929, 152 pp.
This book came to me like water in the desert, finding me when my soul was dry. I read it in 24 hours on a clergy retreat when my soul and my ministry longed for refreshment. Niebuhr’s reflections offered it.
Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic is a compilation of excerpts from Reinhold Niebuhr’s journals during his years of parish ministry in Detroit from 1915-1928. They are years of struggle and difficulty, when Niebuhr questions the value of the church and whether it can survive in to the future. He confronts the social ills of industrialization, economic stratification, and poor treatment of the working people that comprise his parish. He is unabashedly liberal in the face of rising fundamentalism. He gets discouraged, angry, frustrated and occasionally despairing. In short, he’s a pastor just like me, with a whole pile of doubts and discouragements about the work we share and whether it matters at all. It made me feel so much better to know that these problems are not new to me or to my era of ministry.
In his preface from 1956, he writes,
The modern ministry is in no easy position; for it is committed to the espousal of ideals (professionally, at that) which are in direct conflict with the dominant interests and prejudices of contemporary civilization. … It is no easy task to deal realistically with the moral confusion of our day, either in the pulpit or the pew, and avoid the appearance, and possibly the actual peril, of cynicism. (4-5)
That’s exactly how I had been feeling lately–that the Gospel I have vowed to preach is in direct conflict with all the common wisdom and desire of our day, and that I can either couch it gently enough to try and be heard or preach boldly and risk being dismissed as completely irrelevant.
The highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push but upon a pull. People must be charmed into righteousness. The language of aspiration rather than that of criticism and command is the proper pulpit language. (75)
So it must be gentle, but firm. Compelling by charm, not compulsion.
Niebuhr discovered in his first year long ago what I have as well: we can, we must, fall in love with the people.
“The people are a little discouraged. Some of them seem to doubt whether the church will survive. But there are a few who are the salt of the earth, and if I make a go of this they will be more responsible than they will ever know.” (11)
It is a deep love and appreciation for the faithful people of my parish that keeps me going, always. They are truly incredible and inspirational in their faith, and I would not let them down.
It is also companionship with other pastors that keeps me going. This book added a new companion to that list. To listen in on Niebuhr’s own struggles helped me feel less alone. He confesses to all the same faults I share: to walking past a home 2-3 times before having the courage to enter for a pastoral call, to wrangling inattentive youth in Sunday School, to preaching sermons that are tamer in delivery than in preparation, to frustration with the seeming impotence of the church, to tension with preaching economic justice, and to the failure to inspire people who call themselves Christians to step up and live into the teachings of Christ. I am not the only one to fail in these ways. Niebuhr was a great one, and he did too.
The book is full of short gems of observation about life in the ministry that also made me feel seen and known and understood. Here’s a sampling of things that I could, by shared sentiment, have written, though far less eloquently:
We liberal preachers … are too ready to attribute conventional opinions to cowardice. What we don’t realize is that the great majority of parsons simply don’t share our radical convictions. (141)
There must be something bogus about me. Here I have been preaching the gospel for thirteen years and crying, “Woe unto you if all men speak well of you,” and yet I leave without a serious controversy in the whole thirteen years. It is almost impossible to be sane and Christian at the same time, and on the whole I have been more sane than Christian. (151)
Then, as always, Niebuhr demands the most high standards of fidelity to the cross, and he speaks with the same tenor of theological compulsion that has always motivated me.
Liberalism has too little appreciation of the tragedy of life to understand the cross and orthodoxy insists too much upon the absolute uniqueness of the sacrifice of Christ to make the preaching of the cross effective. … It is because the cross of Christ symbolizes something in the very heart of reality, something in universal experience that it has its central place in history. … What makes this tragedy redemptive is that the foolishness of love is revealed as wisdom in the end and its futility becomes the occasion for new moral striving. (70)
This should be a classic on the shelf of every pastor, especially those of us who call ourselves “liberal” or, these days, “progressive.” It is a reminder of the high nature of our calling, and the low, doubt-filled and failure-ridden nature of our attempts to fulfill it. For me, receiving that reminder from Niebuhr in the context of his own ministry is both challenging and reassuring. I know I will return to this book again, and re-read it again when I feel discouraged.
Joan Chittister, The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis books, 2006, 152 pp.
This is the second in a series of four books about the Ten Commandments, which I purchased and read simultaneously, week by week, while I was preaching a sermon series on that topic. The sermons can be found here, June 22 through July 27. The rest of the book reviews will be posted sequentially here.
Joan Chittister’s subtitle to her book on the ten commandments suits her style and contribution. Chittister, as always, speaks to the issues of the heart and soul, looking at the commandments with an eye on the spiritual dimension and attention to the call for justice in the world.
In the introduction, she writes:
The Ten Commandments are laws of the heart, not laws of the commonwealth. They are laws that are intended to lead to the fullness of life, not simply to the well-ordered life. … The Ten Commandments are, then, an adventure in human growth. We are not so much convicted by them as we are to be transformed by them. (10-11)
Chapter by chapter, commandment by commandment, Chittister examines each in three ways: historically, examining what it meant in the context of early Judaism; in application, imagining how it applies to life today; and reflectively, proposing ways that we can reflect on what it means for each of us to follow the commandments today.
For example, in the first commandment, she explains that the ban on material images was a part of making God bigger than every before, because this Yahweh God was “more than matter, above matter, beyond matter.”(18) She then applies the commandment: “This is the commandment that decides the orientation of our whole lives. This one asks us who or what we are making God now.” (20) Finally, she provokes with a question:
Whatever it is that you give your life to is the shrine at which you adore. The question is, Is this a big enough god for anyone to spend a life on? (22)
I found this book among the most helpful I read in transforming the commandments from exhortative sermons of “Thou shalt not!” into probing questions about the depths of human relationships. Here are some examples:
The fourth commandment reminds us that we are not worlds unto ourselves. We all came from somebody somewhere and we owe them the gratitude that comes with those gifts, however limited they may at first sight be. It is the requirement of this commandment that saves us from the terminal disease of immediacy. This commandment demands we respect the past. (54-55)
“You shall not steal” has been reduced to mean no shoplifting, no pilfering, no pickpockets, no burglary, no petty theft. It has become the province of poor people, sick people, immature people. But the stealing the Decalogue really has in mind, is really concerned about, has actually become the sin of rich people, powerful people, people in a position to say, “take it or leave it” to those who seek a living wage or subsidized housing or medical benefits and pensions. (92)
If I had only one book of these four to recommend to preachers, Chittister’s would be the one. She helps unlock the fixed nature of the commandments and open them to new ways of illuminating our sins and our possibilities.
David J. Lose, Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World–and Our Preaching–is Changing, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013, 112 pp.
I have been a huge fan of David Lose’s regular column, Dear Working Preacher, for many years. It feels like he is writing a personalized letter to me, as a preacher sitting with the text in my community, urging me on and starting a productive conversation about how to bring the good news to my congregation. (Karoline Lewis has been writing for the last several months, perhaps due to a sabbatical, and she is also excellent.)
I was hoping for that same conversational style and collaborative tone in his reflections about the craft of preaching itself, and I found it. I have been pondering for the last several years (with many others) whether preaching itself is in danger, or how preaching must change and adapt to changing circumstances. I was eager to engage Lose as a wise conversation partner on that topic, and this book did just that.
Lose identifies three primary forces at work in our context that have major implications for preaching: postmodernism, secularism and pluralism. He devotes two chapters to each–one explaining how that epistemological reality impacts preachers and listeners, and another exploring strategies to respond in our sermon writing and delivery. One of the things I appreciated most, from the start, was his commentary on the last 50 years of “fixes” for preaching. There has been movement after movement that labels preaching as “broken,” and proposes a way to fix it–moving from lecture to narrative, moving from pulpit authority to conversational style, moving from verbal communication only to the use of images on a screen. He quotes theologian Joseph Sittler in his insistence that preaching can’t be fixed: “‘Of course preaching is in trouble. Whence did we ever manufacture the assumption it was ever to be anything but trouble’ if it is to be relevant to a changing world and faithful to the troubling gospel of Jesus Christ?” (3)
In the section on postmodernism, he identifies the core problem of preaching in a postmodern context as the constant skepticism and crisis of legitimacy. How can we claim to speak truth in a world that doubts all claims of truth? He replaces the modern equation of truth with provability with a faithful claim of truth modeled on confession. Legitimacy then proceeds not from provability, but from the integrity of the confession itself–from the confessor’s honesty and from the confession’s connection to lived experience. In practice, he proposes reinvigorating Sachkritik, or “content criticism,” where interpreters “understand discrete passages of Scripture in relation to the core testimony of the biblical witness.” (36) This makes room for both an hermeneutic of suspicion and a hermeneutic of trust, and invites engagement from listeners in a conversation.
Our primary question when approaching a passage is not “Where did it come from?” or “What did it mean?” but rather “What might it do to the community that gathers around it when next heard?” This postmodern focus on the ability of language not just to say something but to do something has important implications for preaching. (42)
Preaching, from this point of view, is meant to be provocative, eliciting conversation and questions, faith or disbelief, but always striving to make a claim worth responding to. (45)
Moving on to the reality of secularism, Lose identifies the primary problem with our secular culture as a crisis of hope. With the death of transcendence, “we, both inside the church and out, have lost hope–hope that there is something more than meets the eye, hope that some values exist beyond those we can construct, hope that our actions and lives are rooted in a larger framework of meaning.” (52) Our response as preachers, Lose argues, must be to draw people into the Christian story of resurrection hope, helping them to see their lives and vocations as part of a larger and more meaningful narrative.
If we can imagine the purpose of Sunday is not simply to have an encounter with God, but rather to have the encounter clarify our vision and increase our ability to see God in all dimensions of our lives, then we may also experience the centrifugal force of being propelled from worship on Sunday to lives of meaning, purpose, and faith in the world throughout the week. (77)
That is a tall order, to be sure, but it is indeed what we ought to strive for in our preaching and worship experiences.
The final theme Lose identifies is pluralism, specifically “digital pluralism,” a world in which multiple and competing realities are immediately available for easy access via digital means. (87) Our congregations no longer dwell securely in the biblical narrative worldview. They may get a glimpse of it for an hour on Sundays, but the rest of their lives is dominated by other metanarratives, like consumer capitalism or fearful nationalism.
Increasingly, if often unconsciously, we find ourselves offering interpretations of a narrative that few in the congregation know well enough to be able even to appreciate our interpretations, let alone apply them to life outside the congregation’s walls. Such effort can feel like swimming upstream: it is cold and exhausting, and it yields little progress. (101)
This gives voice to one of my deep apprehensions and frustrations with preaching these days. I get people to step into this worldview for one hour every week. Even if they are convinced and convicted by it, Fox News and CNN and the world of advertisement gets them for the other 167 hours of every week. I can be persuasive that the biblical narrative matters, that it impacts their persons and politics, but I can’t do it in isolation.
Lose urges us to move our congregations toward not just biblical literacy, but biblical fluency, “the ability to think–without thinking–in the target language.” In order to do this, we need to not just teach the biblical narrative, but engage people in a participatory way in contemplating how the story impacts their lives, so that they can do what we preachers do–interpret scripture for themselves. He urges participatory practices, visitation to parishioner’s workplaces, and online conversations to this end.
Preaching at the Crossroads sets forth a high standard and an enormous amount of work to do. Yet I end the book feeling both challenged and encouraged, as I always do when I read Lose’s work. I also feel much less alone. It is not just me and my preaching that are struggling with these issues–it is all of us who weekly strive to deliver the good news to those who come into our sanctuaries. I recommend this book to all who care about that endeavor.