Preaching as PoetryBy Paul Scott Wilson (Abingdom, 2014).

Paul Scott Wilson is professor of homiletics at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto, and a respected scholar, author, and teacher of preaching.

Wilson, in his Introduction, asserts that “[p]reaching needs to be artistic, creative, authentic, apologetic, and contextual, to find ways to speak to a culture whose basic values have changed, and to find fresh ways to speak of God” (xi). A remedy, Wilson suggests, is to accept the need for “theopoetic preaching, preaching that speaks of God in poetic ways” (xiv), and that “sings of the beauty, goodness, and truth of God in fresh ways for a changed world” (xiv). The author uses these three values to discuss preaching, each taking a section of the book.

On beauty, Wilson observes that “beauty is the experience of God and God’s purposes, the in-breaking of the future now. … Beauty is discovery of profound meaning beyond oneself, often in seeming contrast to the events of the day. Beauty is fruits [sic] of the Spirit” (7). So, Wilson wants preachers to focus upon “the beauty of creation, God’s actions and character, the person and works of Jesus Christ, the ongoing work of the Spirit, and the voice of God in the present” (22), all testifying to the beauty of the divine. Such preaching of beauty, “and theopoetics in general, is a reaction to preaching that is excessively addressed to reason” (31), i.e., dogmatic preaching that systematizes bits and bytes of theology in any passage. But Wilson was not very clear about how to go about this practically. Preachers, he advises, are to “choose a simple idea as the theme sentence” (32)—it was unclear how that aided the preaching of divine beauty. Then we are to “choose an idea that strikes you as beautiful to be the focus of your sermon” (34)—now I worry we are drifting from the thrust of the text, which ought to be the source of the Scripture’s (and its Author’s) beauty.

Then there is the section on goodness: “in theopoetic understanding, goodness is not separate from a relationship with God rooted in scripture and the church” (52). Wilson wants preachers and congregations to be open to “a more relational understanding of good” (54). Throughout this discussion I sensed a disconnect between “absolute good” and “good to me.” More often than not, Wilson focused on the latter, and so preachers are to “be invitational and open to other meanings and perspectives” and “honor differences”(61). He does refer to “goodness in relation to God” (62), but that turns out to be only only a naming of God “as the one who empowers that goodness” (63). Wilson proceeds to look at four key elements of homiletics relating to goodness: good news (the gospel), good grammar (understanding the theology of good news in every text, primarily working off the “theme sentence”), good form (crafting sermons are relevant and contemporary), and good actions (application) (67–89). Much of this is “good” stuff, but left me wondering, What exactly is “good”?

Finally, the section on truth: “Beautiful preaching deals in goodness, and it also needs to be true” (105). I wonder if all three—beauty, goodness, and truth—are integral parts of each other; without any two, the third cannot exist. Wilson is right about contemporary claims about truth: “Truth, like other values, is a social construct” and “Truth is fluid,” etc.. But his solutions for preachers are not a whole lot more solid than the fluid truth of postmodernism: “Speak about truth not primarily as abstract ideas, but in terms of tis effects, and what benefits it brings”; “the truth of a sermon cannot be reduced to one set of ideas”; “preachers and people bring meanings to the sermon”; etc. (107–109). The preacher is also “charged with making the text sound not like math, cut and dried, but real life, and that involves in effect making a movie of the text.” I like that, but not how Wilson suggests we should go about accomplishing it: “it is painting the picture with details authentic to the time and period, creating as much of the original lived context as possible.” As an example we are told that the wedding at Cana “is filled with smells of wine and cooking food, thought the text does not detail them” (117–18). But isn’t this merely a reconstruction of the world behind the text? How is this “true” (or “beautiful” or “good”)?

On the whole, we have here some decent but nascent ideas. They need more gestation, a complication-free labor-and-delivery and, above all, some careful upbringing. Until then, they remain merely twinkles in Wilson’s eye.

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 16.1 (2016): 88–90

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