Preaching with Humanity: A practical guide for today’s Church
by Geoffrey Stevenson and Stephen Wright
Church House Publishing, 2008
ISBN 978 0 7151 4136 6
Review by Christopher P Burkett
Canon Residentiary Chester Cathedral, sociologist and member of the College of Preachers’ executive
Praise God for another book from a British publisher that takes preaching seriously! Thankfully Preaching with Humanity joins a steadily growing stream of preaching literature written on this side of the Atlantic. Only a few years ago, it was beginning to look as if that stream was about to run dry. Now, through the efforts of David Day, Susan Durber, Roger Standing, Jolyon Mitchell and Richard Littledale, amongst others, preaching in English without an American accent has a twenty-first century band of thoughtful advocates. Geoffrey Stevenson and Stephen Wright’s book is a highly readable and immensely practical addition to that company of texts. Exactly as the subtitle indicates, this is a work firmly rooted in Sunday-by-Sunday realities, yet without ignoring hard theological and methodological issues.
In less than 130 pages of text, the authors range across a huge number of pertinent contemporary concerns, including: preaching styles and sermon types; the ‘parties’ that work together in the act of preaching; the humanity of the preacher; how sermons are generated; the importance of preparation and structure; how sermons are most effectively delivered; preaching as an action of the congregation; and what the contemporary Church’s mission-consciousness means for preaching. The author of each chapter is identifi ed and the voice of his co-author utilised as interlocutor: a style of joint authorship I found particularly engaging since it draws the reader into a lively conversation.
Chapters I found exceptionally insightful in terms of practice were Wright on deciding what to say and Stevenson on the sheer physicality of preaching. When I feel absolutely stumped by a Scripture passage about which everything seems to have been said before, Wright’s assertion that ‘no one has yet tried to make sense of this part of it for these people, on this occasion’ comes as an exciting fillip to my jaded imagination. And Stevenson’s insistence on the embodied nature of preaching (and all personal communication) relieves the worry about just how tiring it can sometimes be. Alongside easing the mental burden, his practical tips offer ways of managing the physical stress of it. These are things this preacher was glad to receive as a spur to the unlearning of bad habits all too easily constantly repeated.
The authors’ clear appreciation of how much the social science methods of the relatively new formal study of congregations can assist the preacher is also heartening. Leonora Tubbs Tisdale’s ground-breaking Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art is rightly commended in the text and in the resource section, though she doesn’t make it into the index! That said, there is plenty here to work from for any preacher wishing to pursue this avenue. The particularity of preaching – its rootedness in time and place – is a recurrent theme of the book and is well developed as the positive force it can properly be.
Inevitably that focus on particularity brings to light the problem posed by so many influential texts coming from the United States: if preaching ‘is the fresh and faithful re-statement of the Christian gospel for each place and each generation, through which churches are sustained, renewed and reinvigorated (page 5),’ and I believe it is, how can preaching theory developed from an American religious experience, so very different from the European experience, inform authentic practice here? Stevenson and Wright work hard at offering a distinctively British perspective. Nevertheless, around half of the resource works suggested are American, without any direct discussion of how very different social circumstances might require their adaptation. Inevitably, Phillips Brooks’ Lectures on Preaching delivered at Yale in 1877 are mentioned because of his famous aphorism about preaching bringing ‘truth through personality’ (though, confusingly, editions of the same lectures published with different titles are cited in the notes). It is truly remarkable that Brooks remains in print 132 years later, but arguably his lectures were the beginning of what became an American hegemony in the literature of preaching that obscures the particularity so vital to the task itself.
Of home-grown texts that might usefully have added to the discussion, it is disappointing that the distinctive and prescient book The Ministry of the Word by a 1950s Manchester vicar, R.E.C. Browne, gets only the briefest of mentions. The prominence of American voices reinforces, of course, the point this review began with about the need for more thoroughly contemporary British books on preaching. This book certainly strives to meet that challenge, so it is perhaps unfair of me in present circumstances to ask for more.
Paradoxically, several tantalising points about tradition and how preaching has a key place in the maintenance of the Christian memory suggested by Wright might have been helpfully expanded by greater discussion of American works. In particular Walter Brueggemann, who only gets two brief asides, has written profoundly on the preacher’s responsibilities in what he terms ‘traditioning’ – that ongoing memory work that makes faith possible. Perhaps that also is to ask too much of what is a deliberately brief book directed to busy preachers. On at least four occasions the reader is encouraged to pursue things further her or his-self if the bait provided is, as it were, enticing.
Preaching with Humanity often directly offers the reader advice. That is not to say, however, that this is a work only for those who are fairly new preachers. On the contrary there is much wisdom here that even the most experienced of preachers will find both provoking and practical.
Speaking Conflict: Stories of a Controversial Jesus
by David Buttrick
Westminster John Knox Press
ISBN 978 0664 23089 0
Review by Barry Overend
Vicar of St. Chad’s, Far Headingly, Leeds and member of the College of Preachers’ executive
My granny was firmly convinced that troubles always come in threes. Similarly, chapter two of this book is headed: ‘Problems, Problems, Problems’. All three revolve around the author’s primary concern, namely, the conflicts into which Jesus was drawn. The problem trio is identified as, Authenticity, Anti-Judaism and (more surprisingly) ‘the Son of Humanity texts’ – how are we to understand and, crucially, preach the ‘Son of Man’ sayings of the Synoptic Gospels? The problem of preaching applies to all the conflict material, and Buttrick (Professor of Homiletics and Liturgics at Vanderbilt Divinity School) sets out to assist us in that difficult task.
The conflict stories with accompanying ‘pronouncements’, for example, ‘The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath’, ‘I didn’t come to recruit the upright, but sinners’, are subdivided into ‘Controversies over Healing’, ‘Controversies over Conduct’ (for example, eating with sinners, plucking grain) and ‘Controversies over Issues’ (for example, divorce, children, tribute money, resurrection). A fourth, more tentative category, appended as ‘Possible Controversies’, is confined to four examples – John the Baptist, Syrophoenician woman, Coin in the fish and Cursing a fig tree.
Buttrick’s method is to explore the controversies in their original context and varying versions before pointing up their contemporary relevance. He works with the assumption that the New Testament controversies are of more than historical interest. They continue to bite. This, for example, on ‘Plucking Grain on the Sabbath’ – ‘The passage is contrived to portray Pharisees as sneaky, hypocritical people. We must not take the bait. Instead we must move immediately into our century and our own Lord’s Day problems.’ In this way the preaching potential of the stories is unlocked and sample sermons presented. A consideration of Jesus’ conflict with his own family, for example, leads to a sermon arising from the text: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ The claim is made: ‘Families that live for themselves cease to be families; they become a form of organised selfishness, which is exactly what has happened in our generation.’
Sermons which were originally preached by the author several years ago are reproduced and then self-critiqued in terms of structure and content. The intention is that contemporary preachers may learn from both their plus points and their pitfalls. The sermon on the Tribute money is self-assessed as not sustaining its promising start: ‘The sermon starts out powerfully but then flunks its final section. I don’t know if the idea got conveyed.’ Know the feeling? There are some helpful comments here on humour, transitions and illustrations.
This is a book which successfully combines academic biblical scholarship with hands-on preaching instruction. How to read leads on to how to do. There are no doubt simpler manuals than this, but preaching on the conflict narratives necessitates a degree of complexity. There are, after all, no easy solutions, solutions, solutions to those problems, problems, problems.
Scandal of Grace: The Danger of Following Jesus
by Nick Baines
Saint Andrew Press
ISBN 978 0 7152 0866 3
Review by Barry Overend
Vicar of St. Chad’s, Far Headingly, Leeds and member of the College of Preachers’ executive
Whilst acknowledging that ‘Journey’ is possibly an over-used metaphor in contemporary theology, Nick Baines (Bishop of Croydon) concedes its enduring appropriateness. The particular journey here is that of Jesus to Jerusalem – the city to which he had ‘set his face’. Those who walked with him, and those whom he encountered en route, are presented as ‘people like us’, subsequently dubbed, ‘messed-up people’. Peter – ‘the rock who melted when the heat was on’ – is one. Others include the ambitious James and John, Mary Magdalene of ill-repute, the mis-matched Mary and Martha, and Judas the betrayer, who possibly felt himself betrayed.
It is Jesus kneeling to wash the feet, even of Judas, which prompts the phrase which serves as the book’s title. The author’s core concern is with the implication of this ‘scandalous grace’ both for the individual Christian and for the Church as an institution, which has its Peters and Judases ‘probably in equal measure’. Peter’s post-Resurrection, self-awareness of forgiveness and reconciliation is of more than passing interest. It is a model for both our treatment of others and also for our own self-regard. Baines’ description of the ‘sheer loveliness of Jesus’ meetings with these devastated and humiliated people’ brought to my mind Samuel Crossman’s inspired and insightful hymn lines: ‘Love to the loveless shown, That they might lovely be.’ Such was the love that Peter and the others encountered on the road with Jesus.
The journey to Jerusalem was a journey to the cross, and there is sharp criticism here for those churches which fast-forward from Good Friday to Easter Day. The general liturgical neglect of the intervening Saturday is deemed to be symptomatic of this unseemly haste. The cross, and the tortuous dying which it supported, demand our lingering and full frontal attention. This is especially so in ‘the squeamishness of a culture gone soft’, and in a Church which sometimes sings silly and sentimental songs about a ‘place of total shame’. There is lament, too, over the Church’s tendency to treat the cross primarily as a ‘theological construct’, and its inability to explain its theology in accessible language. It’s therefore somewhat ironic that Baines’ very next sentence includes the word ‘semiotic’. I had to look it up.
‘This book’, we are told in the Introduction, ‘is not an academic treatise on the nature of the cross and resurrection.’ Nevertheless, it is not devoid of scholarship. In particular, there is an insistence that the resurrection is not to be reduced to resuscitation. Jesus did not ‘come back to life’, rather, God resurrected him. However, even if highlighting this distinction helps to render the Easter event of more significance to Christians, I doubt if it makes it any more credible to the doubting Thomases. But that doubt does not dent my confidence in this book’s profoundly hopeful message for the messed-up me.
The Folly of Preaching: Models and Methods
by Michael P. Knowles (ed.)
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007
Review by Stephen I. Wright
Tutor in Biblical Studies and Practical Theology, Spurgeon’s College, London
This is a fresh and stimulating collection of essays and sermons by a range of distinguished Protestant preachers, women and men, black and white. All were originally delivered as addresses at the annual Gladstone Festival of Preaching at McMaster Divinity College, Hamilton, Ontario, at some point over the last 15 years.
One of the attractive features of the book is that since all of it started out in oral form, the essays read nearly as easily as the sermons. Yet they are often profound in their message. Here we have some well-known names from the US preaching scene (two essays each from David Buttrick and Thomas Long) and a fine contribution from the Canadian Stephen Farris (essays on Preaching for a Church in Conflict and A Wise Sort of Foolishness, based on 1 Corinthians 1). The UK is represented by two interestingly contrasting figures. John Stott, doyen of Evangelicalism, has a sermon and two essays, including one that is ‘vintage’ in its clarity and sanity, a penetrating warning against power-seeking preaching. John Bell, radical Church of Scotland minister, has a searing sermon on Not Peace but a Sword, needling us again with the disturbing nature of the gospel.
Other contributions worth singling out are the superb essay by Tony Campolo on Preaching to the Culture of Narcissim, the sermon by Cleophus LaRue on Paul’s preaching in Athens, humorously and persuasively pricking the bubble of our obsession with ‘success’, and the subtle, careful sermon by Haddon Robinson on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, rich in wit, biblical wisdom and contemporary resonance.
One essay which fell short of the overall standard was that by Martin Marty on Preaching Rhetorically. It seeks to bring together valuable lessons from Aristotle with Paul’s warnings against dependence on fine rhetoric, but as the editor admits, Marty was unable to take part in the editing process. While one can imagine the lecture having been very engaging, there are too many rough edges for the printed essay (taken from a transcription) to be satisfactory.
The phrase ‘the folly of preaching’ gives a loose unity to the book; certainly, most contributors seem alert to the paradoxes of the preaching business, the strangeness and yet necessity of the calling in the contemporary world. Several refer to the Corinthian correspondence where the phrase has its Scriptural home: it is taken from John Wycliffe’s translation of 1 Corinthians 1:21. It is perhaps a shame that the dispute over the translation of this verse was not given some head-on treatment. It does matter whether it is primarily the act of preaching that is folly, or its content. If the latter (as I suspect), preachers might be inclined to glory a little less in the oddities of a particular, monological method – indeed be open to a wider variety of methods – and rejoice a little more in the wonderful oddity of the gospel itself. But that is not to deny the rich and gospel-centred nourishment offered in this book.
Visit www.albanbooks.com to make your selection. Alban Books is the UK/European distributor for seven publishing companies: Ave Maria Press, Convivium Press, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Hendrickson Publishers, Kregel Publications, Mosaic Press and Orbis Books.