Mind the Gap
You know how it is. We take a first look at the biblical text on which we’re to preach and usually discover a strange and unsettling text. We might too hastily search our memories for some story, illustration, or joke to bridge the gulf that has opened up. But the sense of distance from the text is not a cause of regret but an essential precondition for discerning the Word, rather than merely finding something to say. What exactly is the gap? Is it a credibility gap that results from the distance separating us from the biblical world or is it a theological gap that results from the ‘infinite qualitative difference’ between the Word and ourselves? If it’s the first, then we will legitimately set out to make the gospel appropriately intelligible, relevant and credible to our hearers. If, however, strangeness, discontinuity, surprise and shock is intrinsic to the gospel, that will be safeguarded and made evident in the shape and content of our preaching. Managing the gap, according to one great homiletic teacher, David Craddock, is the central task of the preacher. Facing it afresh each time we prepare to preach imparts energy and newness to our preaching.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Craddock is known for his ‘bridging paradigm’. He said preachers need to build a porch onto their sermons He meant, of course, that the interface between the word of the gospel and the fixed, familiar world outside has to be bridged. Preachers can agonise to make that bridge, to prepare and orientate their hearers, perhaps even at the risk of domesticating and defusing the gospel’s alien power to assail us. Connecting inductively with the felt needs, issues, questions and circumstances of the hearers serves as a ‘porch’ or airbridge between the airport terminal and the plane, to facilitate a two way interaction between the familiar world and the alien gospel outside. Craddock’s inductive approach liberated a whole generation of preachers who had been captive to a deductive, academic, proposition-centred style of preaching in which the 90% of the narrative content of Scripture was discarded. But, as Craddock acknowledged, human experience must not be allowed to set the parameters of the gospel. Eugene Lowry, too, recognised in revising his ‘Homiletic Plot’ that the gospel has first ‘to turn human experience upside down’. Without this recognition, preachers risk, in Buttrick’s vivid phrase, painting ‘the new creation on the wall of a condemned building’. That said, bridging the gap affirms the points of continuity between the gospel and ourselves.
MAINTAINING THE GAP
An alternative, post-liberal, approach to preaching developed by distinguished American scholars and is known in the UK largely, if at all, through the writing of Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann. The approach takes its cue from Karl Barth, who is best known to preachers for the oft quoted advice ‘Take your Bible and take your newspaper and read both’. What Barth went on to say is usually omitted: ‘But interpret newspapers from your Bible’. The world must be interpreted by the Bible and supremely by Jesus Christ. Barth wasn’t advocating preaching the Bible, but preaching ‘through’ the Bible, as the lens through which alone we can see and interpret the world aright. The prominence of the philosophy of language in recent decades has given extra credence to that perception. If we live physically in ‘one world’, we too live in different mental worlds, ‘worlds’ that are linguistically structured, constructs shaped largely by stories, images and symbols. We are the stories we inhabit. The biblical world is testimony to the efficacy of the word to create, transform interpret and remake the ‘world’. Experience is ambiguous until it is named and interpreted. Only Catholics dream about the Virgin Mary!, as Don Cupitt put it. Words enlarge or circumscribe our world. Karl Rahner drew attention to the difference between ‘experiencing grace and experiencing grace as grace’. Our ‘world’ is no more indubitable than our prevailing public discourse and it needs only a credible counter-story to be voiced for us to consider switching worlds. No stronger authorisation for this approach is necessary or more compelling than that the Gospel and Scripture has its source in God’s self-revelation.
Brueggemann argues that the Scriptures offer us a radical alternative construal of the ‘fixed, fated’ ‘world’ of power and empire. The irrational, contradictory, paradoxical, ironic and scandalous biblical material,’ ‘is a vehicle for the oddity of God.’ Texts do not need to be contextualised, interrelated or explained, he says, ‘They need only to be voiced’. Every biblical image, story or narrative contests the taken-for-granted world view and prefigures its demise. The counter narrative of Scripture, of grace, love, sacrifice, hope and faith subverts the catastrophic mental world to which we are otherwise held captive.
HOPE IN THE GAP
We live as a potentially cataclysmic time for the future of the world. Hope comes, if at all, beyond history and not merely within it. Preachers are gifted with the daring, bold, unrivalled, figurative speech that confronts our prose world, shatters hope-less, depressed contemporary reality and enables the people of God to inhabit a ‘world’ shaped by kingdom values. Scripture fuels and mandates the preacher to offer an artistic counter story, and fund an audacious, daring reconstruction of the ‘world’. We are custodians of the greatest language, apocalyptic, lament, praise, ecstasy. We have been commissioned to exercise the abrasive speech that, like the prophets, dares to remind God of his covenantal responsibilities and mobilise God to act as well as empowering human agency.
The typologies of wilderness, exodus, exile, captivity, and the great archetypical figures of biblical history equip us to reinterpret our world. Symbolic Christian language is efficacious because it draws out a response from the deeper level of our beings. No reasoned hope can be more compelling than the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are metaphorical, experiential, historical, transpersonal and explanatory dimensions to explore. But helping us to ‘see’ the presence of the raised Christ as a religious object in present experience, through nurturing some form of deepened spiritual perception, as Sarah Coakley argued, may be more fruitful than reigniting the wearisome debates on the historicity of the event. Meanwhile, regular worship is there to redefine us as the recipients of new life and hope and build up the congregations’ resistance to discern, expose and mock the expiring powers of the world.
On this view the preacher’s vocation is to offer hope for a transfigured earth, a world sanctioned by God for a world of grace and newness whose signs can be glimpsed in surprising places. How often, we might ask ourselves, have we heard, or expounded God’s entrancing, artistic alternative world view authorised by Scripture, whilst, at the same time, observing a scrupulous self-denying ordinance of avoiding all explanation and exhortation. Dare we trust these ancient texts to do their work without force feeding by the preacher?
Concern for relevance and accessibility can severely distort our preaching and put a moratorium on odd, dense and puzzling texts which have the potency to expand and blow open our conception of what is relevant to God. May not the collapse of human hope drive us to ‘place’ and immerse our hearers into the dense world of the gospel without concern for its immediate existential relevance to their lives. We, then, not so much fill the space as safeguard the space in which our hearers can make the texts their own and become transformed by their own engagement with the biblical material. Can we so create an artistic web out of the kingdom values of grace, freedom, forgiveness and hope, that will set in train a spontaneous response of wonder, praise and thankfulness in the hearts of our hearers?
MANAGING THE GAP
The two homiletic approaches are usually presented as logical alternatives but together they respond to the continuous and discontinuous aspects of the gospel and serve as a mutual corrective to the other. What is most clear is that there is a gap, a strangeness in the gospel and Scripture, which reflects the strange otherness of Jesus himself. The preacher will submit afresh to the gospel’s fresh interrogation of us before we can begin to attempt to preach to others. Recognising and identifying the gap is an appropriate starting point for study and preparation. Credibility is not achieved by closing the gap between the strange world of Scripture and our modern world. It comes through the person of the preacher, their perceived reasonableness, trustworthiness, and authenticity. And the preacher is reassured that through the Spirit their preaching can be continuous with the life and preaching of Jesus himself.
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