Privilege the Text!: A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching
Moody Publishers, 2013
336 pp., 35.99
Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons
Richard H. Cox
182 pp., 16.00
Missional Preaching: Engage Embrace Transform
Judson Pr, 2012
164 pp., 16.99
Scott A. Wenig
Insights for Preachers
One of the more curious expressions of American church life in the 1960s was a movement to downplay preaching in order to give greater emphasis to relationships and community. In many congregations the sermon evolved—or devolved—into a sermonette or even less while personal sharing and small group interaction became the focus of Sunday morning worship. Yet after a time, many of these same parishes and their members came to view the experiment a failure and subsequently restored preaching to the primacy that it had traditionally held in Protestant churches since the 16th century.
In the 1970s the rise of the "New Homiletic," most clearly articulated by Fred Craddock in his book By What Authority, likewise elevated the ministry of the pulpit. One of Craddock's main arguments was that most preaching was uninspiring and irrelevant because it lacked connection to the congregation. His prescription was to promote narrative preaching of the Bible, a method of communicating the Scriptures that kept the audience involved by retaining tension throughout the sermon. A few years later Eugene Lowry creatively built upon Craddock's inductive approach in his work, The Homiletical Plot.
By the 1980s the study and practice of preaching was on the ascent, especially within the burgeoning evangelical movement. Innumerable books were published on the topic, most notably Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson; a popular magazine for pastors, Preaching, was growing its circulation; and in 1997 The Evangelical Homiletical Society was birthed with its own journal and annual conferences devoted to the study of homiletics. Now, more than a decade into the 21st century, preaching continues to stir the hearts and minds of many pastors and professors, resulting in an outpouring of new books. Privilege the Text!, Rewiring Your Preaching, and Missional Preaching focus on different aspects of the preaching task and, in their own ways, contribute valuable insights to this growing genre of literature.
Privilege the Text!, by Abraham Kuruvilla of Dallas Seminary, is designed to help preachers bridge the hermeneutical gap between the ancient text of the Bible and its application for contemporary Christians. Kuruvilla begins by providing a useful overview of both general and special hermeneutics in order to arrive at the focal point of his work: the biblical pericope (a distinct section of Scripture) and its theological importance for preaching. Some prominent Old Testament narratives are then used as case studies to show how the theology of a pericope should drive the preacher's understanding of the text and its relevance to the hearers. This is all well and good, but what's even better is Kuruvilla's explanation of how the Law in all its parts—civil, moral and ceremonial—can be an integral part of Christian preaching in the 21st century.
While this book is a multi-layered and sophisticated treatment of the relationship between exegesis, hermeneutics, and homiletics, its greatest accomplishment may be Kuruvilla's emphasis on the intention of biblical authors to "project a world in front of the text." This "world" is a trans-historical/trans-cultural way of thinking, relating, and living that shows God's people how to honor Him, love others, and live holy lives irrespective of their time, place, or social context. As Kuruvilla regularly says, preaching is not an end in itself but a means of spiritual formation whereby God's people are inspired to obey the divine demands of Scripture.
Privilege the Text! also confronts two of the worst habits in contemporary preaching: systematizing every passage of Scripture to fit a pre-conceived theological framework or atomizing every tidbit of the text for application. These approaches supposedly honor Scripture's infallibility but in actuality undermine its authority by making texts say what their authors never intended! Thus, over time, both the systematic and atomistic approaches create a theological mythology that fails to reflect either who God truly is or what He desires for His people. Kuruvilla is to be lauded for directing our attention to the biblical author's theology by first privileging the written text.
Most pastors believe that preaching should start with the Bible, but there's a prior question for pastors: does preaching really make any difference, and if so, how? This is where Richard Cox's Rewiring Your Preaching weighs in. As a practicing psychologist, pastor, and physician, Cox has not only preached more than his share of sermons over the years but in the last four decades he's also taught in various university and medical school contexts. His primary argument is that neuroscience illuminates how our brains make sense of sermons—or fail to—and how preachers can leverage this new information to enhance the spiritual development of their listeners.
According to Cox, a variety of external elements and brain functions conspire to either facilitate or retard the process of sermon retention. For retention to happen the brain must "tie back" to something it has heard before. By repeatedly attending to sermons, the brain begins to construct new neurological pathways and think new thoughts. And over time, this habit of "sermonic continuation" can lead to significant behavioral change.
If all this sounds like Paul's command in Romans 12:2 to be transformed by the renewing of our minds in order to live in a God-pleasing way, Cox would shout "Amen!" Both theology and neuroscience reflect that God designed our brains to influence our behavior, making preaching a non-negotiable task of pastoral ministry and an integral part of worship. In fact, Cox goes on to argue that the spoken word has the power to influence a person's whole well-being, including personal healing, and that preaching, rightly done, can move an entire community towards relational and emotional health.
While not everyone will be drawn to this book, I found it valuable for three reasons. First, Cox demonstrates the developing synthesis between good science and theology, a process of great significance in a society dominated by scientism. Second, he raises some interesting questions about the brain's receptivity in the context of corporate worship. Cox strongly believes that the use of Christian symbols such as the cross and the altar contain untapped power to open the brain's gates to receive truth. Contrarily, this means that the overuse of Power Point, rock music, and videos in place of traditional styles and symbols may actually hinder the brain's reception of the sermon. This is a debatable point, to be sure, but one worth serious consideration when the retention of Scripture is at stake. Third, Cox enunciates the value of preaching on almost every page, functioning as a cheerleader for pastors and preachers to communicate the Word "in season and out."
Al Tizon likewise values preaching but wants to move it beyond the usual pale of "Christians helping other Christians become better Christians." He tries to show us how in Missional Preaching, a book that will certainly challenge and perhaps even offend some readers along the way. For starters, the word "missional" has been under-defined and over-used in recent years, creating confusion and rendering it suspect to the charge of faddishness within the Christian sub-culture. Yet Tizon, a professor at Palmer Seminary, states clearly what he means:
To be Missional means to join God's mission to transform the world, as the church strives in the Spirit to be authentically relational, intellectually and theologically grounded, culturally and socio-economically diverse and radically committed to both God and neighbor, especially the poor.
He then uses three chapters to lay a solid biblical and theological foundation for preaching based on an ecclesiastical expression of the Missio Dei. In Tizon's view, since the story of Scripture is one of God expanding His rule and reign, this theme must be the driving ethos of genuine biblical preaching. He then explicates seven themes of mission to the world ranging from inculturation to the scandal of Jesus. Each of these is accompanied by a sample sermon on that topic, including some by such luminaries as Greg Boyd, Brenda Salter McNeil, and Ron Sider.
While I appreciate the stated intention of this book, it's at this latter point that it seems to go astray. What we're given under the guise of missional preaching is an egalitarian, pacifistic, anti-consumerist, and somewhat self-righteous take on the nature of the American church from the perspective of the left wing of evangelicalism. Certainly there is truth to be had here, but the focal point of Christian mission is calling people to faith in the Sovereign Savior. Unfortunately, this portion of the book de-emphasizes that in favor of a particular brand of social justice rooted in segments of the liberal tradition. If the last seventy years of American church history reveal anything at all, it's that such an approach ultimately leads to ecclesiastical oblivion. Moreover, given the enormous evangelistic and social impact of churches like Willow Creek, Redeemer Presbyterian, and The Village Church in Texas, why not include some sermons from Bill Hybels, Tim Keller, or Matt Chandler in a volume dedicated to preaching the Missio Dei?
Nonetheless Missional Preaching, along with Rewiring Your Preaching and Privilege the Text!, can be a valuable aid to all those interested in expanding the scope and impact of their preaching. As more attention is given to the oh-so-important task of proclaiming God's Word, we may in time enter an age of homiletical brilliance.
Scott A. Wenig is Haddon Robinson Chair of Biblical Preaching at Denver Seminary.
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