Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for PreachingBy Leonard Sweet (Zondervan, 2014).

Sweet is the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Drew Theological School, and author of a number of trail-blazing works on ecclesiology. This is his most comprehensive take on preaching.

When Sweet declared, “[t]raditional textual exegesis is based on mining the ore of words to excavate the gems of ‘biblical principles,’ a biblical panning for nuggets of wisdom in one massive stream of words” (23), I gave it a hearty “Amen!” Sweet is a good diagnostician of the homiletical ills of the present day: Modern homileticians “can be found approaching the text in an attack mode: ‘unlock’ the passage; barrage the Bible with a variety of hermeneutical and exegetical strategies. We analyze texts, dissect passages, take apart words, construe points, principle-ize concepts. … [And we] randomly shoot our points at unsuspecting parishioners, hoping for some bull’s-eye hits. The problem is, for all our attempted impact, the next day most parishioners couldn’t repeat any one of those sermons, or the points and/or principles, for the life of them” (105). Nice! But the prescription Sweet offers for these sermonic afflictions are far from therapeutic.

He doubts if words are the best conveyors of the divine; instead, he is for “experiences, intuitions, emotions, images, and stories,” because they are “more reliable and memorable” (23). So “we need to train ourselves and others not to exegete more words but to exegete images” (28), for “the power of the Word isn’t in the words—it’s in the images, the stories, the music of the text” (53). Jesus’ parables are, for Sweet, a case in point. “Jesus … was best known as a master of metaphor, a legendary storyteller, and a powerful healer who communicated in signs, images, and gestures” (28). This is a specious argument. Did Jesus never use other means of public address? Do we have all the sermons and teachings of Jesus? At any event, Sweet recommends that preachers, therefore, create their own images, employing “a multitude of sensory experiences,” including music, video, drama, drawings, liturgical dance, placards, poetry, posters, puppets, quizzes, Twitter feed, etc. (214, 222).

When I came to Chapter 4, “Blood Stream: Scriptures,” I was hopeful: finally a focus on the inspired text. But here’s how Sweet approaches the Book of Jonah, in his “right-brain reading,” “the revelational encounter or transductive reading” (125). “When Jonah flees to Tarshish, we can feel his frustration and anger, his desire to be a ‘free agent,’ and his fear of his neediness. Like Jonah, we want a God who meets all our needs, who takes away our neediness, especially our need for God” (126). From Jonah’s experience on the boat, “we find that God is showing us that we cannot save ourselves. The tempest on the sea may well reflect Jonah’s (and our own) anger, the struggle and panic that he takes out on everyone around him.” (127). And more in that vein. None of the intricacies of the text was discerned and exposited for what the author of Jonah was doing with what he was saying. For instance, the commission of Jonah (“arise,” “go,” and “cry,” in 1:2 and 3:2) is distorted in the prophet’s execution of that commission: he only “arises,” and “goes” (3:3), as he delivers a five-word (in Hebrew) oracle that, quite unusually for such declamations, has no reason given, no repentance recommended, no hope offered, and no remnant promised. In fact, God’s subsequent grace is labeled by the prophet as “evil, great evil” (4:1). These—and other—signs of the inherent power of the text are overlooked in Sweet’s “transductive reading,” which is essentially a gaze through the text, at something behind it, followed by a psychological analysis of every character, all in the service of a rush to relevance. Sweet rather arbitrarily calls his reading “the Holy Spirit reading,” which, if neglected, “is to bypass life” (129)!

On Mark 6:14–29 (the murder of John the Baptist by Herod), Sweet advises us to look for: “images of Word or words (telling, listened, swore, oaths) and body (danced, head)”; “metaphors of righteous and holy (… covenant, promise, Word, kingdom, lawful, Jewish, God) as opposed to secular kingdom and law metaphors”; “bodily metaphors (head, dance, body, beheaded)” (216). In short Sweet does everything, but undertake a patient privileging of the text, with attention to context (the sandwich of Jesus sending disciples, 6:7–13, 30–31). The text, it seems, is mere putty—you can mold it any way you want.

Scattered throughout the book one spots Sweet’s tendency to link preachers with musicians: the Mozart of homileticians—Charles Haddon Spurgeon (64); the Thelonious Monk of homileticians—Eugene Lowry (69–70); George Gershwin— Clovis Chappell (194), apparently forgetting that he had already labeled Bryan Chapell as Gershwin (139); the Louis Armstrong of homileticians—Henry Mitchell (192); Miles Davis—Louie Giglio (213); Palestrina—John Piper (228); and so on. I suggest that Sweet himself is the John Cage of homileticians, one who was well known for his composition, “4’33″” (“Four minutes, thirty-three seconds”), a three-movement piece that has only silence for its entire duration!

Nice cover. Catchy title. Well-known author. But the book, I do not recommend, because Sweet’s idea of preaching is, well, anemic!

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 15.1 (2015): 96–98

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