While we Lutheran church leaders generally can see the relevance of the church to our twenty-first century, postmodern context, we may need assistance with verbalizing and in other ways embodying to the world that relevance. Numerous new books offer powerful assistance with help to proclaim through word and action the relevance of the church.
One means through which we leaders convey this relevance is preaching, and Fortress’ Elements of Preaching
series provides much coaching and encouragement for preachers. The series editor is homiletics professor O. Wesley Allen Jr.
The series consist of books by several preaching experts who cover with insightful thoroughness the basics of preaching. My column for the January / February 2009 issue included a review of James R. Nieman’s contribution to the series, Knowing the Context: Frames, Tools, and Signs for Preaching
Two other books from the series worth considering are Delivering the Sermon: Voice, Body, and Animation in Proclamation
by Teresa L. Fry Brown (Fortress, 2008, $12) and Shaping the Claim: Moving from Text to Sermon
by Marvin A. McMickle (Fortress, 2008, $12). Brown’s Delivering the Sermon
is distinctive in its extensive focus on the mechanics of preaching. She helps us preachers to think anew and with productive self‑consciousness about such homiletical components as the voice, gestures, facial expressions, and furniture in the room. Brown’s book challenges us to reexamine
what we preachers look and sound like and how we are interacting with our surroundings, whereas most preaching books concentrate on the exegesis, theology, and structure of the sermon.
Indeed, McMickle’s Shaping the Claim
is of this latter variety and provides instructive tutoring along these lines. McMickle contends that “every sermon needs to make one clear, compelling, biblically centered, and contextually relevant claim that sets some aspect of God’s will and God’s word before some specific segment of God’s people” (p. 6). Toward this end, the author divides the book into three chapters, each one having a key question as its title and center: “What to Preach?” (chapter one), “So What?” (chapter two), and “Now What?” (chapter three).
Moreover, each chapter dwells on one of Aristotle’s three famous foci regarding rhetoric: “logos” (chapter one), “pathos” (chapter two), and “ethos” (chapter three). McMickle uses logos to refer to the claim or message of the sermon, pathos to refer to the passion and enthusiasm in the proclamation, and ethos to refer to the implications of the sermon. He argues that an effective sermon should contain all three. McMickle develops each of these ideas in thorough, realistic, and useful ways through the book.
The strongest chapters are the first and third. In the first, McMickle reviews the exegetical process and provides both instruction and encouragement to preachers for formulating one central claim to the sermon. Sermons, according to McMickle, should not have three points, but one point, one claim. There can be secondary points, but they are to contribute to proclaiming the one claim.
Chapter three is the book’s most valuable part because, in it, McMickle offers several suggestions for what kind of response a sermon can prompt in the listeners. In my sermon preparation, I will return to this chapter often as I
consider what action I want people to take in response to a given sermon. Calling for people to do something, even if that something is “merely” rethinking an assumption or belief, can help us preachers to show for the world the relevance of the sermon and of the good news in general.
Central to the issue of the relevance of Christianity is the current burst of often stridently‑toned, pop‑atheism books by figures such as Richard Dawkins. An intelligent, more level‑headed exploration of atheism is The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue
, edited by Robert B. Stewart (Fortress, 2008, $19). While the book, not surprisingly, has a theistic, pro‑religion bias, it nevertheless provides a fair and thoughtful atheistic perspective without the mean‑spiritedness sometimes coloring the current array of pop‑atheism literature. After an opening chapter by Robert B. Stewart that offers a perspicacious assessment of atheism, the book presents the transcript of a dialogue between two highly respected thinkers, atheist Daniel Dennett and Christian Alister McGrath. The dialogue was the Greer‑Heard Point‑Counterpoint Forum in Faith and Culture held February 23 and 24, 2007, in the Leavell Chapel on the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The topic was “The Future of Atheism.” The dialogue between McGrath and Dennett is respectful and even‑tempered while also containing critiques of both positions. The book is refreshing in its equanimity as well as stimulating in its thorough probing of the strengths and weaknesses of both theism and atheism.The Future of Atheism
contains seven additional essays that assess atheism versus Christianity, concluding with an essay by Ted Peters, a professor of systematic theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, which avers that the cross and resurrection cannot be scientifically interpreted because they are ultimately about revealing that God is a deity of grace. Peters adds that the criticism of the violence that religion has begotten is valid, but when one truly follows the God of grace, one eschews violence and embraces love.
Atheists would contend that The Future of Atheism
does not do justice to their position, but it is helpful reading in that it provides theists a valuable presentation of
atheistic arguments minus the nastiness and irrational generalizations that some have hurled in the name of being rational.
Another book that helps to amplify the relevance of the church is Sallie McFague’s A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming
(Fortress, $20, 2008). McFague asserts that the words “theology matters” distill why she wrote this book (p. 5). When it comes to the causes of climate change and how people should respond to the crisis, theology matters. Our understanding of God and ourselves as Christians is vital to addressing this issue.
The book comes in four parts. Part one serves to underscore the ample evidence for the reality of global warming and the substantial human contribution to it while going on to emphasize that global warming is a problem with theological implications. To avoid catastrophe, we humans need to change how we live, but such a change demands a tectonic shift in how we think about ourselves and the world. We abide by a consumerist, materialist, and anthropocentric mentality that we must replace if we are going to avoid disaster.
The crucial change in thinking McFague proposes is that the church is, by its nature, ecological; therefore, we Christians are to alter our lives so as to take more seriously our responsibility to care for the planet. The church is inherently ecological because the term catholic should be interpreted to include, not just people (an anthropocentric view), but the entire world. Such cosmological theology is not new‑fangled but actually quite old. In addition, McFague contends that we believers need to understand God as intimately connected with this world, not removed from it, sitting in some heaven on the other side of the universe. God is
incarnational in God’s involvement in the world. Such an understanding demands more than blessings of pets and recycling. It demands that Christians make substantial sacrifices for the sake of honoring God by caring for God’s creation. Instead of being egocentric and anthropocentric, we are to be theocentric. This shift will beget dramatic changes in lifestyle that can help steer us from disaster. More importantly, this change moves us far closer to doing God’s will.
A final word goes to an evocative book on relevance, Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage
(William B. Eerdmans, $28, 2008), edited by Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Richard B. Hays. This book is a collection of eighteen essays and an epilogue explicating and contemplating Jesus. The book is the fruit of the Identity of Jesus Project, an interdisciplinary team of Christian scholars who met over the course of three years to discuss Jesus. This project is not like the Jesus Seminar, which proposed that the historical Jesus was hidden beneath Scripture and tradition. Rather, the Identity of Jesus Project investigated what Scripture and tradition have taught about Jesus. Thus, as the book’s subtitle indicates, this project is more of a pilgrimage than, say, an archaeological investigation. This collection of essays explores what the New Testament, the early church, the Reformation, and the contemporary church have contributed to an understanding of Jesus. The book offers an array of views about Jesus but also provides unifying themes, including, among other points, that Jesus was a Jew, that he is not dead, and that he is always a destabilizing and disturbing figure.
Any of these books may be especially resonant while we walk toward Good Friday and Resurrection Day. As we prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection of this mysterious yet marvelous figure called Christ, may we appreciate and proclaim anew the relevance of Christ and the church even to the end of the age.David von Schlichten is pastor of St. James Lutheran Church, Youngstown, Pennsylvania, and the the book review editor of
Lutheran Partners magazine.