Archive for the ‘Book and Article Reviews’ Category

I was asked to provide a list of resources I have found helpful in thinking and shaping issues concerning racism and privilege. I’ve added resources that also deal with contextual theology because we all read from a place, a position, a framework. Privilege is often assumed and is typically hidden from our eyes, especially when we benefit from those systems. As such, it is helpful to be made aware of our position and its underlying assumptions.

Many of these titles have been very formative for me. Some of the ones I will list have been good to read just to hear dissenting voices from my own. I don’t necessarily agree with every position taken in every book, but I have learned something from each one and therefore offer them as helpful starting points to further conversation and learning. I will also try to categorize each book so that they can be held together with other books that approach privilege, racism, and contextual theology through a particular lens (i.e., preaching, community development, etc.). Some of these resources do not deal with privilege directly, but I certainly see application and overlap. I hope these are helpful!

Preaching

Dem Dry Bones: Preaching, Death, and Hope by Luke Powery

Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance: Radical Responses to Radical Evil by Christine M. Smith

Toward a Womanist Homiletic: Katie Canon, Alice Walker, and Emancipatory Proclamation by Donna E. Allen

They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching by Frank A. Thomas

Listening to Listeners: Homiletical Case Studies by John McClure

Decolonizing Preaching: The Pulpit as Postcolonial Space by Sarah Travis

Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World by Otis Moss III

The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence by Richard Lischer

The Liberating Pulpit by Justo Gonzalez

The Word Before the Powers by Charles Campbell

Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World – And Our Preaching – Is Changing by David Lose

Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art by Leonora Tubbs Tisdale

(There’s plenty more resources in the preaching section, but I don’t want it to be more overwhelming than it already is. I can add more for a preaching section, if anyone is interested.)

Hermeneutics/Interpretation

Reading from this Place, Vol. 1 by Fernando F. Segovia (collection of essays)

Soundings in Cultural Criticism: Perspectives and Methods in Culture, Power, and Identity in the New Testament by Francisco Lozada, Jr.

Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning by Paul Riceour

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith

Community Development/Parish Ministry

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself by Steve Corbett

Making Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development by Wayne Gordon

The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Paul Spark

Theology/Ethics/Memoirs

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Night by Elie Wiesel

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. (https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html)

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone

The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings

Naming the Powers by Walter Wink

Unmasking the Powers by Walter Wink

Engaging the Powers by Walter Wink

Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics by Willard M. Swartley

Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church by William Cavanaugh

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William Cavanaugh

Theopolitical Imagination: Christian Practices of Space and Time by William Cavanaugh

The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender, and the Quest for God by Sarah Coakley

The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics by Stanley Hauerwas (collected essays)

Missions

Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem Revisited by Jonathan Bonk

Cross-cultural Partnerships: Navigating the Complexities of Money and Mission by Mary T. Lederleitner

Going Global: A Congregation’s Introduction to Mission Beyond Our Borders by Gary Nelson

Serving With Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-term Missions with Cultural Intelligence by David Livermore

Ministering Cross-culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships by Sherwood Lingenfelter

Fiction

Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Pop Culture

Decoded by Jay-Z (preachers should read this)

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz

Documentaries/Films

“13”

“Schindler’s List”

“Le Chambon: La Colline Aux Mille Enfants”

“Of Gods and Men”

“Roots”

“The Mission”

“Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom”

“Selma”

“Mississippi Burning”

Sermons

(start around 30:38 mark)

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My family once had a potbelly pig for a pet.  Yes, we literally bought a pig for a pet.  It was the runt of the litter, rather small.  We named it “Wilbur.”  It wasn’t long before Wilbur needed a bath.  FYI, pigs tend to become dirty and smelly in a short amount of time.  If Wilbur was to stay in the house, he needed to be cleaned.  So, bath day came.  We prepared the bathtub and set Wilbur down in the water to begin scrubbing.  Wilbur had a different idea.  He didn’t care for the bathtub.  Maybe it was the water.  Maybe it was the slippery porcelain floor of the tub.  Whatever it was, Wilbur wasn’t having anything to do with the bath.  He began to freak out, squealing and squirming.  Suddenly, Wilbur began to fly in the air as he used the slick porcelain bathtub like a snowboarder using a half-pipe – flying up one side, back down the side, and then shooting up higher on the other side.  It was a disaster.  Water was everywhere.  Wilbur was a piglet of chaos and no closer to being clean.  Wilbur eventually worked himself out of a home with us because he refused to be cleaned.

Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming.”  It is a time for preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ in the Incarnation, that is, Jesus’ birth, and also Jesus’ coming again to complete the union of heaven and earth.  The season of Advent lodges us between these two events.  As the early Church used to say, “Christ has come; Christ will come again.”  As Christ came as the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, now we wait in joyful anticipation of Christ’s return to reconcile and redeem the world to God.  The time is coming, says Jesus.  Prepare.  The time is drawing near, says Jesus.  Be ready.  The day is on the doorstep.  Be prepared – “wash your robes.”

If we are totally honest with ourselves, we could all write up a lengthy laundry list of grievous sins, poor decisions, lapsed judgment, and painful brokenness.  Imagine yourself robed where everything that you are and everything that you have done was written in permanent marker for everyone to see.  What would it say?  If we came to the gates of the City of God wearing those robes, would we expect entrance into the wedding party?  No, we’d expect to be outside with the dogs.  But, we’re not always sure we want to go through the tedious work of preparation – of washing.  We’d rather toss it in the laundry heap and forget about it.  Advent reminds us that the time for Jesus’ return is drawing near and we need some clean clothes for the party.

Like Wilbur, we desperately need to be washed, made clean.  Our robes are dirty, tattered, and torn.  Our lives are soiled rags, frayed threads, and filthy garments.  Some stains are so deep that Clorox can’t touch ‘em.  We look worse for the wear.  The mud of lust cakes the sleeves.  The dirt of gossip smudges the collar.  Broken relationships fray the cuffs’ hems.  Anger tears apart the seams.  The buttons of love are chipped or dangling by a thread.  Wrinkles of dejection and anxiety mangle the fabric.  Distrust leaves the bottom edges thin with strings dragging in the dust.  Our robes are rags, hardly suitable to wear at the coronation of Creation’s King.  “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me… Blessed are those who wash their robes.”[1]

Do you know the key for clean clothing?  Two things: Clean water and agitation.  Stale, stagnant water only increases the filth and stench in our clothes.  Using the water of this world, with its empty promises for new life and purpose, leaves us wreaking of death.  We have soaked too long in the stagnant pools of our world and culture so that our robes have taken on their flavor.  We have washed ours clothes with the disease-ridden waters of arrogance, deception, racism, sexism, idol worship, addictions, greed, and any other number of things.  Our robes, our lives, are covered in sludge, slime, and slander.

Jesus, the Living Water, calls us out of the filth-filled floodwaters of our world into the stream of life flowing from the very throne of God.  These waters of purest crystal, fragranced with milk and honey are God’s free gift to all.  Jesus offers us Living Water to drink for our parched and thirsty souls.  Jesus invites us to bathe, to soak, to dive deep into this life-giving current, which is the very Life and Way of God.  In these waters we find healing for every disease, every malady, every infirmity, and every seeping wound.  This Water can bring even life to the Dead Sea… surely it can bring life to my dusty rags.  To drink of this Living Water is to also be swept up in its current, its Way, and its movements.

Water isn’t the only necessary ingredient for clean clothes.  Soil, soot, stains, and sweat are dislodged from clothing when water is combined with agitation.  People used to wash their clothes in rivers and then beat them on rocks.  Or, they used washboards to agitate the stains out of the material.  Today, we use machines that turn barrels with paddles that toss the clothes to-and-fro and then sift out the dirty water through high-velocity spinning.  Removal of stubborn stains requires adequate agitation.  Our sin-stained robes… our broken lives could use some agitation.  If you’re in need of some good old-fashioned agitation, like I am, Advent is a wonderful place to start.

Advent places us firmly in what theologians call “the now-and-not-yet” Kingdom.  Christ has initiated the Kingdom of God here on earth, but it hasn’t come yet in its fullness.  We’re still waiting for the final unveiling.  Christ’s first coming unveiled the brokenness of the world and marked out a different pattern of living.  Jesus demonstrated what it means to be both fully human and a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  His birth, life, death, and resurrection both initiated God’s Kingdom on earth and pointed toward its future consummation and completion.

And that’s agitating… because Jesus wakens us to a new, truer reality that calls all of our previous ways of life into question.  Everything is thrown into question: politics, economics, family relationships, marriage, divorce, education, personal rights, private property and land, nations, power, parenting, community and neighborliness, poverty, violence, hope, success.  EVERYTHING!  The shabby robes with which we have clothed ourselves and our world is put under the black-light of Jesus… and the robes we wore and which we imagined to be clean and whole are shown to be disgusting, disheveled rags clinging to our bodies.

Jesus’ way calls for peace and unmasks our love of violence.  Jesus’ way calls for mercy, but we are bent on retribution.  Jesus’ way calls for love, but anger has its claws in our flesh.  Jesus’ way calls for justice, but we enjoy the benefits of injustice too much.  Jesus’ way calls for hope, but we are entrenched in fear.  Jesus’ way calls for truth, but we are committed to our collective lies.  Jesus’ way calls for sharing resources, but we’re just not sure there’s enough to go around.  Advent agitates us, stirs us, and disturbs us because we are confronted with the reality that our lives, both communally and personally, don’t yet fully reflect Jesus or his Kingdom.

Waiting and preparing for Jesus often tumbles us, throwing our world upside-down.  Yet, when we encounter God’s grace in Jesus the Living Water who washes us and the Spirit of God that agitates us from places of complacency, something life-giving stirs in us that we would have never anticipated.  We begin to change – little by little.  The stain of discontent begins to fade.  Neighborliness sews together the seams frayed by enemy-making and violence.  The stench of anger and bitterness are replaced with the fragrant aroma of Christ’s mercy and grace.  Greed is washed out with self-giving love.  Humility and service bleach out vanity and pride.  The more we are washed by God’s presence and stirred up by Christ’s life, the more we realize that our robes are being repaired and made clean and that we’d rather not wear those old, dirty rags of our former lives.  So…

The Spirit and the bride (that is, the Church) say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.[2]

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne[3]

 

 
[1] Revelation 22:12a, 14a.

[2] Revelation 22:17, 20-21

[3] Charles Wesley, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

I was a freshman in high school when I first heard Jay-Z’s music.  My earliest impression of his music came in the form of the song “It’s a Hard Knock Life.”  It is a playful tune that conjures the image of Orphan Annie describing the difficult life without parents, living as an orphan, and trying to survive without any supportive social network.  Alone and forgotten.  Jay-Z tapped into a cultural image of another culture and then applied that image to the struggle of African Americans living in violent and depressed areas of America.  Somehow, although I had never experienced living in such a situation, I identified with the pain and struggle of living on the margins, trying to survive, trying to escape the cycles of poverty and violence.  That was the power of Jay-Z’s imagery and imagination that crossed over socio-economic and racial divides.  I was drawn into his world and identified, in some small way, with his struggle.

Preaching can have the same impact through the use of imagery and story.  Emotive identification immerses a hearer into the story-world of the narrator/preacher.  Dr. Thomas often says that “if you go deep enough, experiences become universal.”  Jay-Z embodies that capacity to push his experiences to universal levels.  There is something basic about human experience that is accessible even when it is describing something that we have not personally experienced.  Yet, through analogy and comparison, we can find (through imagination) contact points where we can experience the isolation, pain, fear, joy, comfort, and other feelings and attitudes woven through the variety of human experiences.  Good preaching brings people into contact with those experiences in such a way that they can personally experience those situations as happening in the present to them here and now.  Experiential language, which Jay-Z masterfully weaves throughout his songs, grips us in those experiences.

Good preaching, like good art (including Hip-Hop/ Rap), must truthfully engage life and all of its experience.  Truth is not reductive, but paints an honest picture, both positive and negative.  Jay-Z writes, “To tell the story of the kid with the gun without telling the story of why he has it is to tell a kind of life.  To tell the story of the pain without telling the story of the rewards – the money, the girls, the excitement – is a different kind of evasion” (p. 17).  In other words, art must paint a full picture of life’s joys and woes.  And, it must deal with the systematic and systemic framework that shapes life and lives to operate and interact in particular ways.  The analysis of life must go beyond scratching the surface of actions to digging into the cultural and social realities that undergird our actions and way of life.  We might call this the cognitive element of preaching, which allows for a kind of “objective” reflection on life in our world.  Dr. Thomas points out that emotive and cognitive elements of preaching are like dancing partners, both work together in the preaching event to engage and evoke response.

Jay-Z also talks about the way that Rap music has the potential to keep people digging into the lyrics long after the first time they hear a song.  He states, “But great rap retains mystery” (p. 54).  In other words, it doesn’t explain everything.  It employs double meanings, entendre, metaphor, and analogy to evoke, surprise, hint, tease, and bewilder.  I think preaching has a similar potential, if done well.  The preaching moment isn’t meant to explain everything, but to evoke interest and connection – mystery.  It continues to challenge us long after the finals words are uttered.  It reminds me of a sermon I heard preached several years ago.  The preacher intentionally did not resolve the sermon.  He left us hanging and unsettled about the content of the sermon, leading us to be part of the resolution – even though a solution was never prescribed for us.  Mystery can have that lingering effect.

The backstory was also a powerful aspect to Decoded.  The backstory unveiled the way that the words and lyrics became possible.  It helped us not only identify with the lyrics but with the lyricist.  For instance, Jay-Z comments, “The churches really were the flakiest, whether they were storefronts or big old-school churches with vaulted ceilings and steeples.  They were kept alive with the donations of poor folks and hadn’t seen a paint job in a minute.  But more than that, they were full of fake prophets and money-snatching preachers” (p. 213).  Here, Jay-Z’s backstory to the lyrics gives us a deeper understanding that he isn’t merely saying churches have no place, but critiquing churches and pastors that prey on the poor and vulnerable and which further create systems of violence and oppression.  Rather than being part of the solution, churches are sometimes perpetrators of further systemic marginalization, which leads to a practical atheism when the result is seeming silence from God.

As preachers, we must not only be aware of our own backstory (which shapes our language), we must also be aware of the backstory of our people.  What is and has shaped their words.  This is the digging deeper aspect to preaching.  It begins with listening, which is the beginning of preaching.  Preaching without listening becomes another form of violence, which runs roughshod over those that we intend to serve.

One of the things that I appreciated about this book is the rhythm of the words.  There is a sing-song beat that accompanies Hip-Hop and Rap.  Even the percussion of the words becomes another means by which to evoke emotions and experience.  The African-American tradition is particularly well-versed in this methodology.  It is something that I admire and love to incorporate in my own preaching (although, perhaps, not as well).  Preaching is rhythmic and harmonic.  There is a pace and pulse to the sermon, which the congregation joins.  “Riding a beat” is a rapper’s way of allowing words and music to create something new, an event, an experience in the present moment.  Preaching is a similar task.  Although we may have heard similar sermons before (maybe even many of the same words), we gather together to experience a new way of arranging the words and to dance together to that new arrangement.  Jay-Z was helpful in pointing out the musicality of words and their structure through which to immerse people in an experience, but also to help them reflect on life at its deepest resonance in our collective experiences.

The Choice is the unfolding of Dr. Thomas’ discernment process in making important choices.  But, it is also more than that; it is also a demonstration of his preaching as decision process.  The book wrestles with the idea about making wise choices that emerge from a life lived “inside-out” rather than “outside-in.”  In other words, living out of our God-given passions.  Making choices out of our deepest, God-given passions allows us to be “victors rather than victims” to our circumstances.  Every situation (usually) offers us some kind of choice.  Inability to see options, to see choices, renders us prisoner to those various circumstances.

The recognition of choice does not solve the dilemma that faces us, however.  Rather, this is where the difficult work begins.  “How do we make a wise and good decision?” must then be asked.  We may be able to communicate what we think we want, but are we deeply aware of “what we want, really?”  In other words, the choices that we make reveal our deepest convictions about life, about ourselves, and about God.  Do these choices line up with the things that we say we believe?  Or, are we fractured people whose choices run counter to those beliefs we say we hold?  Our choices say a great deal about our implicit convictions.

Another hindrance or barrier to making wise choices that come from our deepest passions is fear.  Fear of the new and unknown future, fear of the risk of failure, fear of our own inadequacy, and fear that rationalizes other options can bind and arrest us from progressing toward the future to which God is calling us.  Forging new patterns of life is difficult; it is even more difficult when “success” is not guaranteed.  Dr. Thomas suggests that defining our choice helps us move past fear.  We are called to serve and to “renew our yes” to that calling.  It is at the intersection of service and our deepest passions where we find our vocational lives, our calling.  God continues to draw us to those places, if we would only say, “Here I am, send me.”

The final sections move us toward “executing the choice” and “releasing the choice.”  One of the most powerful things that I have found to be true is that I cannot do this journey without community.  Dr. Thomas asks if we have a “teachable spirit.”  In other words, are there those that walk alongside us providing accountability, challenge, encouragement, and wisdom?  The Christian community is called to do this for one another.  Of course, engaging in community can also be painful, even in the Church.  Yet, it is through sharing our brokenness that we are shaped for God’s new future.

In “releasing the choice,” we are reminded of the integral foundation of prayer in making wise choices.  Relying on our own strength and power to accomplish God’s future for us may very well land us in more difficulty.  To inquire of the Lord, to listen and wait, is the work of discipleship.  We follow where Jesus leads and the same is true in discerning the various choices set before us.  We cannot discern God’s voice if we do not inquire of God and listen carefully in each situation that present itself.

The role of backstory in preaching is that it is the contextual soil from which sermonic flora germinates.  Every sermon, interpretation, hermeneutic is contextual.  We are not a tabula resa when it comes to engaging in these activities.  We cannot interpret in a theological or experiential vacuum.  Instead, we bring these experiences to bear on both life and text.  The backstory in The Choice demonstrates the place from which these particular sermons to this particular community at this particular time arose (although it has been somewhat de-contextualized by virtue of being written).

I noticed several connections in the book to the lectures for class.  First, the power of human agency in choosing was evident.  Sermons are trying to get to “core belief,” which is also the center from which we intuitively make choices.  Sermons begin and end in an act of listening.  Wise choices begin there as well.  Also, the sermon is intended to end in celebration; there is a similar celebration that emerges when we begin to live out of our deepest passions that come from “core belief.”

“We are all aware that in countless courts of opinion the verdict on preaching has been rendered and the sentence passed… It is the sober opinion of many concerned Christians, some who give the sermon and some who hear it, that preaching is an anachronism.”[1]  Fred Craddock penned these words in 1970, nearly 45 years ago!  Yet, this statement resonates with similar sentiment concerning preaching today.

Whereas Craddock was dealing with preaching’s struggle in the shift from Modernism to Post-modernism, I believe preaching is wrestling with a slightly different aspect of that same shift.  Simply put, preaching is wrestling to find its place in a technological and media-driven society.  Craddock’s dilemma has similar roots to our own preaching dilemma.  He struggled to shift from deductive methods of preaching to inductive methods.  Our situation is also a matter of language, but resides in the culture’s sense that language no longer has any meaning or value.  The problem facing preaching is like a hydra’s multiple heads connected to a common body.  Perhaps in lopping off one head, others have sprouted with which we must now contend.

Where we might break from a technology’s grip on our lives, more “heads” spring up.  In the face of such seemingly overwhelming barriers to preaching, despair or surrender may appeal as the logical options from which to choose.  In such a culture, does the sermon still have a place in worship?  Is preaching nothing more than an antiquated vestige of an institutional Church writhing in its own death throes?

These are legitimate questions.  Craddock notes, “To explain this general reaction, perhaps one need not look for reasons profound; it may be simply that these critics have heard us preach!”[2]  This may be the very thing that is most difficult to admit and the most damning.  The surrounding culture stands puzzled asking us why they should listen to our preaching.  What is gained or offered in such moments?  I am convinced that would not remain the sentiment about preaching if it proclaimed the power of the Gospel through which the Spirit transforms lives, including the preacher’s life!

Here is where the tension manifests itself.  Does fault lie with preacher or hearer?  There is no simple, clear-cut answer.  There are so many factors that have paved the way for where we find ourselves now.  In truth, it is quite possible, if not probable, that fault lies with both preachers and hearers.  We now turn to assess some of those hindrances and possible ways to navigate those choppy waters.

THE METHOD IS THE MESSAGE: METAPHOR AND EPISTEMOLOGY

Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, provides insightful commentary about entertainment and technology: “Our conversations about nature and about ourselves are conducted in whatever ‘languages’ we find it possible and convenient to employ.  We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as ‘it’ is but only as our languages are.  And our languages are our media.  Our media are our metaphors.  Our metaphors create the content of our culture.”[3]

Television, computers, social media, and the internet are the modern metaphors shaping our language, and thus our culture.[4]  The influence of these metaphors on the Church is easily observed by the extent of their utilization in its ministries.  Few churches are not employing the methods of communication of the culture in order to reach that culture.  In using these technologies we might gain something (i.e., accessibility) but we might also lose something.

For instance, technology connects us globally with intense speed.  We have a constant barrage of images, stories, weather forecasts, tweets, status updates, tragedies, war, business and other news whose origin is not connected with our own context.  The news continuously flashes isolated stories that lack narrative flow and connectivity.  Each story is a self-contained whole, needing no further analysis.  If the news is de-contextualized, then it has no real bearing on our lives.  It’s not real.  It only occupies our minds for a moment and vaporizes as a new story appears to take its place.

If this is true, it is certainly concerning for a congregation’s capacity to perceive sermons as pertinent and relevant to their contexts, their lives.  If a sermon is merely another de-contextualized “story” with no connection with what happens before or after it, then we quickly delete it from our memory.  It has no lasting import; it is simply another news story blurb. [5]  Add to this the overwhelming mass of messages available to us continuously, it is easy to see why language is flippantly dismissed as meaningless, even by those who should be language’s greatest stewards!

Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, “…to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.”[6]  The language forms that we receive in our visual and technological age undoubtedly shape our manner of life, it orients us to itself.  For instance, in referring to forgetting a memory in our minds, we might say, “I deleted it from my hard drive.”  The language of technology has replaced the language of biology.  The larger implication is that humanity’s perception of itself is centered in the computer.  Obviously, this is an issue from a theological anthropology perspective.

Postman’s critique of entertainment culture deals primarily with the cognitive aspects of technology’s instruction.  This does not give attention to fuller issues of our embodiment by which we are formed kinesthetically via technology and social media.  These technologies order our day-to-day living.  Alarms wake us up, much of our job is managed through technological gadgets, cellphones render us always available.  Technology shapes us, not merely through information, through its formational practices.

We are shaped by those practices that incorporate our bodies in the metaphor’s message.  James K. A. Smith writes, “Insofar as our being-in-the-world is navigated metaphorically, we can appreciate why Johnson posits a fundamental aesthetics of human understanding.  Even more strongly, Johnson will argue that our higher order ‘conceptual’ thinking is nonetheless indebted to – and dependent upon – primary metaphors that are linked to the bodily basis of meaning.”[7]  Technology exercises its power primarily because it integrates the whole body in its use.

Another way we might talk about the metaphor’s capacity to shape our lives is through the dual dimensions of desire and imagination.  That is essentially what we mean by the kinesthetic and aesthetic arena of our creatureliness.  The various metaphors that we employ, not simply the messages we hear, create a vision of what we want in life and what that looks like.  It is through what we imagine the “good life” to be that our desires are pointed toward a telos.  Out of this imagination and desire arises our action, our response.  Thus, no metaphor is a tabula resa.  Every metaphor communicates an assumption about the purpose for which we were created.

Because we are fully embodied creatures, preaching must also take this into account when seeking to shape a community of faith.  Too often, our preaching has been aimed primarily at the cognitive dimension of people.  That is not unimportant, merely deficient if we hope to allow preaching to be as formative as technology (which is difficult given the disproportionate time technology claims of us!).  It is necessary that the language, content, and form of preaching connect with the aesthetic, kinesthetic qualities of “human being-in-the-world.”[8]

Preaching, too, is a metaphor.  It shapes our collective imaginations, which further shapes our perceptions of reality.  Preaching uses language, which entails a form of life.  This life is then embodied in the various other practices, symbols, signs, and metaphors of Christian life.  We communicate messages, but we must also be mindful of methods.  The content of our preaching has not always meshed with the form of our preaching.  As mentioned earlier, so much of our preaching has been geared toward the intellect.  We are reduced to brains rather than fully embodied people.  This neglects the powerful influence of our bodies, emotions and senses to the Church’s detriment.

Our language, which is rooted in embodied life, cannot stop at only explaining the world but must also evoke a world.  So much of our interaction with our environment comes as second nature.  If, as James K. A. Smith suggests, we are creatures that engage the world in intuitive kinds of ways, not simply cognitively, then preaching must also engage this aspect of personhood in our communication.  By evoking the primary experiences of a congregation, the preacher has moved into that realm of the affective.  In other words, preaching must engage both the mind and heart of the listener.

THE ICONOGRAPHY OF PREACHING

Jacques Ellul suggests that images, which deal with reality (not truth), enables media to appeal to the aesthetic, kinesthetic elements of life.  Ellul finds a problem in the fact that images are decontextualized metaphors that necessitate explanation.  They, in his opinion, do not correlate with truth – only words can do that.  Images deny words their power and place and rob people of necessary community for discerning truth.  With the proliferation of images, the Word and its vitality are diminished and finally discarded.  This is the essence of the Decalogue’s prohibition against images, according to Ellul.  They necessarily, due to the fallen nature of the world, become idols.[9]

Yet, language cannot be entirely separated from images, especially due to language’s earthiness embedded in every life.  Although Ellul defends his position against dualism, his categories separate matter and spirit, truth and reality in a total bifurcation.  If the redemption of reality is part of the work of Christ, which the Church carries forward, then it seems appropriate that images might also be employed in our preaching and worship in faithful ways.

Jennifer Lord follows this thought:

“Our goal is to work with the textual words and images and to find our own words and images for each sermon.  This is faithful work because to shape appropriate new words in order to expand on textual words and imagery is incarnational work: we are tethered by the biblical text but work to show its gospel meanings for our lives now”[10].

The work of preaching is allowing the power of the Word to infiltrate our reality.  Obviously, we still await the fulfillment of the day when God shall be “all in all.”  However, we also recognize the privilege that we are invited to participate in the life of God even here and now!  Thus, the prayer that “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is not simply a future hope but an invitation for us to embody the Kingdom now!

Fred Craddock observes the dissonance in iconoclastic thinking and the implications for preaching:

Even the angry preacher, deliberately iconoclastic and anticlerical, preaches relevant sermons in a way no longer relevant.  The preacher is still saddled with the traditional image of preaching with its clearly discernible authoritarianism being communicated nonverbally not only in intonation and manner but also in the form and movement of the sermon.[11]

Even those trying to avoid images have an image that informs their methodologies and metaphors.  Moreover, the images are inherent in the metaphors themselves.

Carol Meyers, in the New Cambridge Bible Commentary on Exodus, comments on the Decalogue’s iconoclasm:

Its basic intent is aniconic; that is, it forbids the construction and worship of images meant to represent a deity.  There is some ambiguity in the wording: it may be forbidding people to make sculptured images, probably meaning metal ones, of any aspect of creation; or it may be forbidding the making of such images to represent a god.  Given the fact that representations of flora and fauna are part of the specifications for the tabernacle and temple, the latter reading of the text seems more likely.[12]

Throughout the Scriptures, imagery is employed as a sign or symbol of God’s presence in the midst of God’s people.  The Tabernacle, Temple, Ark of the Covenant, Eucharist, the Church, Jesus (who also becomes Temple, Priest, and Sacrifice), all signify in vivid imagery God’s presence.  With the exception of Jesus, do they contain the whole of the mystery of God?  Certainly not.  But, that does not mean that images are prohibited.  Rather, images cannot pretend to be God.  Ellul’s poor incarnational, iconoclastic, and anti-ontological theology skims for proof texts that speak against images.  Yet, his assertion of the Word’s power does not seem capable of conquering his certainty that images can only degrade the Word.  In this sense, it seems that Ellul is unable to finally affirm the Word’s power of redemption (at least until the Second Coming).  But, one might question why the humiliation of the Word matters now if there is nothing that can be done until Christ returns.

Ellul posits that the Incarnation was a particular historical event.  It is not cosmic in its nature.  However, this, in my assessment, falls far short of an appropriate pneumatology that follows the Spirit of Christ at work in and through the Church!  Yes, we continue to wait for the eschatological consummation, but that does not mean that we as those that partake in the imago Dei are incapable, by God’s power, to embody the Word here and now!  Dennis Kinlaw makes this point abundantly clear, “As I read the biblical biographies of mighty preachers, I’m convinced that ultimately there is no great preaching unless the preacher partakes of the divine holiness in some measure.”[13]

Icons continue to be an important part of worship and in preaching.  However, preaching itself cannot be an icon because it is an aural and oral event.  As Walter Ong states, “Writing moves words from the sound world to a world of visual space, but print locks words into position in this space.”[14]  In other words, because preaching is oral it does not occupy visual space as do icons.

However, this does not mean that icons are not a vital part of preaching.  There are at least two ways that icons can play a supporting role in preaching: preacher and community as icon and sacraments as icon.  We cannot pretend that preaching is an isolated moment.  It takes place in the context of communal worship, whose audience is God.  That is essential!

Images do not contain the full mystery to which they point.  If they claim to do so, they are idols.  An icon is not an idol.  It is either one or the other, not both.  To use a metaphor, an icon is like a window that allows us to see through it to something beyond itself.  As soon as we become preoccupied with the window (perhaps we become entranced by the reflection of our face on the window’s surface), it no longer serves its function.  It is at this point that the icon becomes an idol.  And, yes, there is always a danger for that to happen!  However, we have yet to get rid of our Bibles due to the tendency for bibliolatry!  Does it then make sense to do away with any and every image for which this might be a temptation?  Eliminating images and icons from worship does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of idolatry.  We have always been adept at turning God’s good creation into our obsession (idolatry).

The preacher as icon notes the necessary aspect of a vessel consecrated to service with God.  One who has yielded to the Word and been deeply transformed by such an encounter is marked by a power in their preaching.  Dennis Kinlaw notes the importance of this kind of preaching, “…The Spirit-filled preacher knows how to relate the Word of revelation to the Word in creation.  No matter what a teacher says or how impressively he says it, if there is not some extrinsic witness to what he is saying, nobody will believe it.”[15]

In other words, when the Word bears witness through us, Christ is also incarnated in and through us.  This is also why there is such disillusionment that stems from pastoral failure.  Truth and reality are not aligned in the preacher and the congregation languishes under the dichotomy.  In a similar vein, if the congregation sees only the top of the preacher’s head while they read from a manuscript, the congregation may wonder if the truth of the Gospel has really gripped the preacher in their inmost being.  It is through the character, mood, intonation, passion, and Spirit-filled leadership that the glory of God is imaged through the preacher.

Preaching, however, is not only about the preacher.  It is about the hearers as well.  As we receive the Word, we are called out of our passivity to response.  As we faithfully respond to God’s call, we are also participating in the life of God.  The Word calls for us to embody, to become icons, God’s glory to the world.  Thus, we become visible reminders to the world that God loves and desires to redeem the Creation!

The sacraments as icons are also essential for preaching because they are the symbols of the Word’s transformative work already available in the ordinary elements of Creation, which includes us!  Bread, water, and wine are the elements of everyday sustenance.  Yet, through the Spirit’s power they become more than these things alone.  They become the means of grace whereby we encounter God’s presence!  The preached Word always moves to touch the ordinary elements of life, albeit transformed elements.

AESTHETICS, IMAGINATION AND DESIRE

In essence, we are back to where we started with metaphors.  The Word and Sacraments become the culture-shaping metaphors of the collective imagination and desire of a congregation.  James K. A. Smith puts it this way:

We don’t choose desires; they are birthed in us.  They are formed in us as habits, as habitus.  And as Merleau-Ponty helped us to see, the acquisition of such habits is ultimately a rearrangement of our corporeal schema – a reconfiguration of how we imagine ourselves and our places in the world.  Or as Bourdieu would put it, to acquire a habitus is to have been incorporated into a social body and its vision of a way of life.  And that incorporation marshals our embodied nature.  In short, the way to the imagination is through the body.[16]

Preaching, along with the Sacraments, has always been a means for being incorporated into the social body that is the Church and its vision of the “good life”, which is the Kingdom!

But, if our language has been ineffective and the preaching event seemingly inadequate, how might it be re-energized?  Several authors (i.e., Fred Craddock, James K. A. Smith, Walter Brueggemann, and others) have suggested that a primary means of allowing language to be evocative is through narrative and poetry.  That does not mean that preaching is simply a series of stories.  Rather, it calls for narrative flow and intentionality that begins and then goes somewhere.  This is the difference between Kierkegaard’s direct and indirect language.  Direct language is the language of the sciences.  Indirect language is the language of faith because it deals with the existential questions that are irreducible, it provides meaning.[17]

The language of narrative and poetry also provides us with the opportunity to see the world afresh.  Walter Brueggemann’s text, The Prophetic Imagination, undergirds the power of preaching in this way: “The prophetic imagination knows that the real world is the one that has its beginning and dynamic in the promising speech of God and that this is true even in a world where kings have tried to banish all speech but their own.”[18]  This is the difference between the closed speech of deductive methods and the open speech of inductive methods.  It is the distinction between propositional preaching and poetics.  For, as Brueggemann notes, “The newness wrought by Jesus will not be explained, for to explain is to force it into old royal categories.”[19]

But, poetry and narrative happen upon us in unexpected ways.  It is not the language of certainty, but allows the edge of mystery to circle about our worship.  James K. A. Smith states:

I imagine a telos or vision of the good life on an aesthetic, metaphorical, poetic register.  And that is why a ‘vision’ of the kingdom is birthed in me or inscribed in me through aesthetic means.  I come to imagine the kingdom in certain ways – because I have drunk up the stories of a people or a culture.  I am incorporated into the habitus of a people, and that habitus in [sic] inscribed in me, because I have been immersed in the stories of the body politic.  Liturgical animals are imaginative animals who live off the stuff of the imagination: stories, pictures, images, and metaphors are the poetry of our embodied existence.[20]

The technological and visual age has tapped into this realization.  Our immersion in that culture profoundly shapes our imagination by incorporating us into the cultural narratives.  Much of this happens on a sub-conscious level!  This is where preaching has opportunity to provide a counter-narrative, a poetic engagement with reality.  We are formed as a community as we are corporately storied and habituated through our communal listening to the Word and responding in obedience.  Preaching is the language forming event of the community of faith.  As such, it inevitably shapes the form of life for a congregation.  To ignore this vital duty is to ignore our calling and to submit ourselves to the culture shaping world of technology and media.

GOD CALLS PREACHERS

            If preaching really is no longer a viable option for communicating the Gospel, then someone should inform God.  It seems to me that the basis for continued efforts to preach and to preach well is rooted in a long and continuous history of preachers called by God to go and proclaim the Gospel!  If God still desires to call preachers, then it also follows that God is willing and able to empower the effective preaching of the Gospel.  Perhaps preaching’s decline is not due to God’s inability or preaching’s lack of relevance.  The problem may lie in impotent preachers and congregations who lack connection to the Source of our preaching.

Technology, as a dominant metaphor, often plays a significant role in this disconnect from God.  In this technological age, perhaps our only hope is to allow God to breathe through our preaching so that our imaginations are awakened to the Kingdom’s call, as has happened in every age where the Word is proclaimed by the faithful.  It is a Word that names the world, not only as it is, as it should be.  When this is our proclamation, iconic communities are formed whereby the glory of God is reflected for the world to see and hear the invitation to be transformed by the Word.

 

Bibliography

Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001. Print.

Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001.

Craddock, Fred B. Overhearing the Gospel. Rev. and Expanded ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002. Print.

Ellul, Jacques. The Humiliation of the Word. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.

Kinlaw, Dennis F. Preaching in the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985.

Lord, Jennifer L. Finding Language and Imagery: Words for Holy Speech. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

Meyers, Carol L., and Bill T. Arnold. Exodus: New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

Ong, Walter J., and John Hartley. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. 30th anniversary ed.; 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2012.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan, 1953.

 

 

[1] Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, 3-4.

[2] Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, 3.

[3] Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006, 15.

[4] Ibid, 28.

[5] Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. This is Neil Postman’s essential argument concerning technology’s capacity to shape our epistemologies.  Our entertainments have destroyed our capacities to speak, to think cogently, to have true dialogue, and to act.

[6] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan, 1953, Pt. 1, paragraph 19.

[7] Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013, 118.

[8] Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013, 118.

[9] Ellul, Jacques. The Humiliation of the Word. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985. This is the basic premise of Ellul’s work. He traces through both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament a line of thought that suggests images are entirely absent from these stories, unless these images are idols.  In his thinking, it is only the word that is capable of communicating truth. Images can only display reality, but can say nothing about the truth of that reality.  And, at best, those images only give the perception of seeing the whole of reality. But, in fact, we only see a small portion which must be interpreted but cannot be since images are decontextualized. It seems that the apostle Paul might not fully concur with Ellul’s assessment of reality. After all, Romans 1 has Paul claiming that nature clearly communicates there is a God, leaving us without excuse.  Perhaps reality is not entirely divided from truth, even if it can only communicate it in limited ways.

[10] Lord, Jennifer L. Finding Language and Imagery: Words for Holy Speech. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010, 37.

[11] Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001,

17.

[12] Meyers, Carol L., and Bill T. Arnold. Exodus: New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 170.

[13] Kinlaw, Dennis F. Preaching in the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985, 18.

[14] Ong, Walter J., and John Hartley. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. 30th anniversary ed.; 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2012, 119.

[15] Kinlaw, Dennis F. Preaching in the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985, 65.

[16] Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013, 125.

[17] Craddock, Fred B. Overhearing the Gospel. Rev. and Expanded ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002. 70.

[18] Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, 64-65.

[19] Ibid, 104.

[20] Imagining the Kingdom, 126.

Postman begins by noting that the “medium is the message.”  It is not merely the information that is communicated, but also the form of communication, that produces a message or gives shape to the message.  So, for instance, he notes that philosophical discussions cannot be produced by means of smoke signals.  The medium allows certain kinds of discourse while negating others.

Orwell and Huxley both wrote notable books that visualized a future where cultures and freedom had been compromised.  For Orwell, huge forces, like Big Brother, would censor information and stymie learning through by controlling information and discourse.  Thus, culture would become enslaved to those able to control everything.  Huxley’s vision was far more subtle.  Culture would be undermined and destroyed by the things we love, namely entertainment.  Thus, television as a new medium matches Huxley’s paradigm far more closely than Orwell’s vision.  We have willing accepted, rather than had imposed, television’s role in education and curriculum and culture development.

Postman sees this in direct conflict and competition with the written word.  His argument rests upon the assumption that news and other such methods of information dissemination decontextualize the information.  Thus, we are able to hear about tragedies, war, and other stories that have no real connection to our own contexts.  The news also contains small stories that have no larger connection with the stories preceding or following each story.  Each is a self-contained whole and need no further explanation or connection.  As such, all news is relegated as unimportant and disconnected from our lives as a whole.  Thus, in Postman’s mind, it seems that television creates a culture of entertainment that allows for no real discourse or intelligent counter-argument.  Rather, as consumers of television programs we must accept whole-sale the “news” that we are provided.  Thus, information composed by images is vastly differing from arguments contained in words.

Postman decries the use of images as sufficient for dialogue and argument.  He even goes so far as to liken the culture’s use of image and icons to idolatry, quoting the Decalogue’s command to make “no graven image.”  Even though I agree with Postman’s basic intuition about the epistemology of television as information bearer, I disagree with some of his major points.  Namely, I disagree that “icons” are synonymous with idols.  Can they be?  Certainly.  However, this is not always the case, especially with a proper understanding distinguishing between an icon and an idol.  An icon draws us beyond itself to something greater than itself.  The Cross is one such icon; communion is another.  Not to mention, John 1 paints the picture of the Logos (the Word) becoming flesh and thus imaging God (imago Dei).  An idol draws our attention to itself.  Thus, if we worship the Cross or Scripture, we commit idolatry because it has taken the place of God.

The larger issue I take with Postman’s degradation of icons and images is the fact that all language bears imagery.  Or, as Wittgenstein would affirm, all language is a “form of life.”  Words are not Platonic, nebulous entities that float about disconnected from life.  Language is metaphorical because it is not the thing itself that is being described, but calls upon our experiences for understanding of the words we employ.  Postman seems to have a faith in the written word as a means of concrete communication that has little to no wriggle room for alternative interpretations between multiple readers.  Yet, many words are composed of a cloud of meaning.  Puns use this to their advantage.  Yes, news stories often decontextualize events.  Books are also often decontextualized.  Just read the Bible and you will learn quickly that not everything is abundantly clear without further information to clear up context.

Postman sits firmly within Modernism’s conception of reality, which relies heavily on the cognitive faculties with serious disregard or distrust for knowledge gained emotively.  Yet, there are some experiences that are too deep for words.  It is quite possible in those moments to discern elements of truth about life.  For instance, I don’t necessarily need a well-reasoned argument for resolving issues of poverty and malnutrition among children in our world.  Images of suffering can be explanation and argument enough for action.  That doesn’t always mean that our emotions are trustworthy and accurate, but that does not also mean that they are fully unreliable either.  Thus, images may have an important role to play in discerning truth.

However, despite my reservations, Postman’s assessment about television’s purpose seems quite appropriate and accurate.  Because it is largely based upon entertainment, it has re-oriented many things to this epistemology.  One of the profound impacts of television has been on education.  Education is now deemed to be an exercise in entertainment and amusement.  This is where I think Postman’s warnings are intelligible and helpful for the Church.  Parishioners, because they have been oriented around entertainment, view worship and Church life as an extension of television’s amusement.  Televangelists and the like have not helped this trend, nor have campus site ministries, such as Life Church.  It creates personality-centered ministries (Joel Olsteen, for instance, named a church after himself), which replicate show-business models of success.  Thus, “successful” discipleship is the church with the largest audience.  I will add that I’m not saying that ministries like Life Church are all bad – there is plenty they do well and from which we can learn.

The detriment comes when an audience is no longer entertained.  They seek their entertainment elsewhere, which usually means in the culture’s media because the Church cannot possibly compete with the substantial pocketbooks of the media moguls.  Also, as James K. A. Smith argues in Desiring the Kingdom, worship centered on entertainment is ultimately about us, which is idolatry because it is not centered on God.  Thus, television’s therapeutic consumerism (entertainment) is applied to faith.  However, we quickly discover this is not true faith but merely a way to be inundated, and thus rendered without personal responsibility, from the cares of the larger world.

I think Postman’s concerns for the Church now would be their worries about the things they fear as threats to their faith.  Whether it’s big government or other world religions, the focus on these “threats” to faith actually blinds us to the real threat: those things that we love.  The things that we love are the very things that shape us without much reflection about how and toward what we are being shaped!  This is James K. A. Smith’s argument as well.  The church in North America tends to reflect an Orwellian orientation to the world.  Perhaps we would do well to heed Huxley’s caution.