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Jason Byassee

Preaching Is Hard

Always has been, always will be.

Preaching is hard. Anyone who has ever sat with the Bible open, surrounded by commentaries, with a date circled on the calendar, knows what I mean. Words don't jump to life by themselves. When it happens, it's hard to explain how it happened. When it doesn't, it's just depressing.

This set of books about preaching tells us something about the difficulty of preaching. To read great preaching is to open oneself to homiletical despair. Sure I can see that Will Willimon is hilarious, Barbara Brown Taylor gentle, Marilyn McCord Adams brilliant—but how's that make me any more likely to be hilarious, gentle, or brilliant on some upcoming Sunday morning at 11?

Adams will seem like the one who doesn't belong among these homiletical greats. She's better known as a philosophical theologian whose work on such difficult late-medieval thinkers as John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham has bailed out many a graduate student facing exams. In the best Anglican tradition she is also a priest, and has spent her teaching years at UCLA, Yale, and now Oxford, stepping in at local churches with charming names like St. Augustine's-By-The-Sea.

For a philosopher with a penchant for nominalism, Adams is a surprisingly accessible preacher. A dandy sermon on Trinity Sunday starts with the throat-catching premise from Bernard of Clairvaux that his Cistercians shouldn't preach that day. What words do we have adequate to the mystery of the triune life? Even the seraphim can only stammer, "holy, holy, holy." But this is not holiness as exclusivity, the three persons as "gated community," since we only know this God in personal, ecstatic form among us in Jesus and the Spirit. Adams concludes, "The funny thing is, Divine Being can't be literally holy. God's very nature explodes the meaning of that word. Who God is makes it impossible for God or any of us to be separate or isolated, ever. And that, my friends, is a good joke!" Parishioners poised for dry "philosophy" that morning were pleasantly disappointed! ...

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