Teaching Preaching as a Christian Practice: A New Approach to Homiletical Pedagogy Edited by Thomas G. Long, Leonora Tubbs Tisdale (Westminster John Knox, 2008).

This is a collection of essays by members of the Academy of Homiletics, the product of a two-year consultation on the teaching of preaching. The following review surveys the key articles focusing upon preaching as a Christian practice; despite the title, most of the other contributions concern themselves with elements of preaching in general.

Thomas Long takes us on an informative historical jaunt, howbeit only through the last two centuries. After surveying the trajectory that has taken homileticians from Phillips Brooks’s “truth poured out through personality,” through Karl Barth’s view of the sermon being God’s own voice speaking, back full circle to an emphasis on the person of the preacher in Fred Craddock’s shift to narrative preaching (7–10), Long asks, “Where should homiletics go next?” (11). He declares, that homiletics should no longer be teacher-centered (recognizing the teacher as the fount of knowledge) or learner-centered (attending to the student’s internal development), but rather learning-centered (focusing upon the practice of preaching itself). “A practice is a constellation of actions that people have performed over time [historical focus] that are common [community focus], meaningful [theological focus], strategic, and purposeful [teleological focus]” (12). The emphasis on preaching as a “constellation of actions” rather than as a single act is helpful; it reminds the preacher (and the teacher of preaching) of the “identifiable core of actions” that not only constitutes preaching but also makes up the preacher (15). Thus a moral dimension is integral to the very nature of preaching (28).

James Nieman takes it further, presenting the teaching of preaching, itself, as a practice. “Effective, compelling pedagogy surely utilizes common, meaningful, strategic, purposive actions, like any practice” (35). He is right, but therein also lies a problem—in the phrase “like any practice.” What then is distinct about a Christian practice? For Nieman, preaching is a “Christian practice” because it “deploys actions that Christians have traditionalized in familiar patterns … in order to express God’s ways for the world known chiefly in Christ Jesus”—a constellation of actions “governed by and contributing to the aims of Christians” (31). It appears that tradition and historicity alone make the practice of preaching Christian. More about the biblical distinctives and the mandate of proclamation that permeates the Scriptures, expressly rendering that activity Christian, would have been welcome.

Touching on John 20:31–31 and Luke 24:13–35, David Lose asserts that the “telos” of preaching cannot be “mere instruction, exhortation, or even kerygmatic announcement, but must always seek to prompt an encounter with the living Christ” (54). Such metaphorical exhortations that are less than lucid about specifics—frequently encountered in such discussions—are not particularly helpful. Here’s another from Lose: Preaching is the “primary means by which to witness, confess, proclaim, and pronounce in such a way as to confront hearers with God’s ongoing and immediate work in the resurrected Christ present in the world” (55). Worthy sentiment, but not any more clear, unfortunately.

James Thompson laments that “few homiletics textbooks actually offer guidelines for students in the art of biblical interpretation” (62). He favors a Ricoeurian model: embarking on the “first naïveté” in reading Scripture—the initial hearing of the ancient voice without prejudice or judgment—followed by a disciplined study of the text. Then comes the Ricoeurian “second naïveté”—asking questions of the text that relate it to the rest of the canon and to the grid of systematic theology before relating it to the readers’ circumstances (65–72). While Ricoeur scholars may carp at this simplification, the basic thrust of approaching the text with charity rather than suspicion is sound.

Anna Florence urges preachers to develop “a peculiarly Christian form of imagination” (118; italics removed). “It probably looks like an invitation to go and live somewhere. It probably looks like a person (the preacher) who has agreed, for a few transparent moments, to show us what it might look like to actually accept that invitation. … It has possibility. It has a place where we fit, each one of us. In those moments, the preacher disappears. The focus is on another realm, another place; we leave that sort of sermon saying, ‘I saw something completely new today!’” (122). In a sense, then, imaginative preaching is the portrayal of a world that runs by God’s demands—a world that could be, were God’s people to live by those requirements. Also stimulating was Florence’s suggestion: “Go for the subjunctive.” This is to ask: “How is it to live as if this text were true, both for me and my community?” for by such an exercise of faithful imagination “[w]e may happen upon new lands of meaning” (126). The concept of preaching as a projection of such an “eschatological” world is worth investigating further.

Not unexpectedly for a multi-author enterprise, the essays in this book exhibit a measure of unevenness, particularly as each relates to the theme of preaching as a Christian practice. For this reviewer, the book served to spur some thought in that direction. Teachers of preaching will, no doubt, find a library copy worth glancing through. 

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 9: (2009): 128–130

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