Two of the most insightful minds in the worlds of homiletics are Thomas G. Long, Patton Professor of Preaching and Worship at Princeton Theological Seminary, and John Killinger, Distinguished Professor of Theology and Culture at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
Long recently came to Samford to speak, and that provided the unique opportunity to visit with Long and Killinger simultaneously. They were interviewed by Michael Duduit, Editor of Preaching.
Preaching: Tom, your recent book, The Witness of Preaching, provides some real insight into the nature of the preaching task. Tell us a little about the purpose of that book.
Long: Well, what I was trying to do in that is to create a basic textbook in which every phase of the preaching task would be touched, and all of it would grow out of a coherent vision and theory of the theology of preaching. The place I thought to begin in terms of developing a coherent understanding of preaching was with the image of the preacher.
I looked over the homiletical literature of the last fifty, seventy-five years, and it’s been amazing to see how much homiletical thought has been generated out of basic figures of speech around the function of the preacher. And I identified three of those that have been in the literature.
I talked about the preacher as “herald,” which is really out of the Barthian movement. And I talked about the preacher as “pastor,” which has come, really, out of the Harry Emerson Fosdick model of preaching — life situation preaching, the therapeutic preaching model. And then, more recently, the preacher as “story teller.”
I found all three of those images to be extremely important and valuable but limited in various ways. I suggested that the New Testament image of the preacher as “witness” was one that was superior to those others, and could afford a way of understanding the task of preaching that could pull together what we do with the Scripture, what we do with the structure, how the listener is involved, the role of the church in preaching — all of that falls into place once you put the image of “witness” into the foreground.
So I tried, then, to execute that image throughout the book in terms of all the aspects of the craft of putting a sermon together and delivering it.
Preaching: In The Witness of Preaching, how do you separate that from simply the idea of preacher as evangelist? For someone just hearing the title, it would be easy to assume: “He’s discussing preaching as it relates to communicating the Gospel in evangelism.” How do you differentiate between those two images?
Long: At one level, I wouldn’t differentiate between them. A preacher as evangelist in the broadest term is one who speaks the “evangel,” who speaks the Good News. But, generally speaking, it’s been used in a smaller sense, to mean one who takes the Gospel out to the world that has not heard it, and does the kind of public, missionary sort of preaching.
Preacher as “witness” is really a “court room” image. In the court room terminology, a witness appears in a trial in which the truth is the matter at stake. And the witness is no different from the ordinary round of citizen, except that the witness has seen and heard something, and then swears — is set apart, is ordained — to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about it.
I think that’s a good image for preaching. Moltmann says that the one who preaches comes from the community, walks and turns and speaks and acts in the name of Christ. So the witness actually comes from the community — it’s the community at large, the church, that has the interest in the truth at heart.
And it sets apart one of its citizens, one of its persons, to take on the task of witnessing. So that person then goes to Scripture seeking to hear and see something, to encounter the voice of the text. That person carries with her, or with him, all of the questions and concerns and needs of the community from which he or she comes, but goes to Scripture prepared to hear whatever Scripture wishes to say about that need or action, and then turns and tells the truth about what has been seen and heard.
Sometimes the truth that is told answers, or responds to those questions that the community has. Sometimes, as Barth says, it calls them into question, but the witness is always prepared to testify to what is true. It is no accident, then, in the New Testament, that the word for “witness” is martyr, because sometimes bearing witness to the truth carries with it a great price.
Killinger: I’ve read Tom’s book, and it’s excellent. I think it is a very meaningful characterization of preaching, partly because what we’re dealing with is mystery. And I like to think of the image as being enlarged somewhat to be that of a mystery story in which, not just one witness, but many witnesses are taken into account. I think for me, at a personal level, preaching has been far more than simply witnessing to a tradition; it’s been trying to listen to all the witnesses in many places, and to be able, as I listen to those witnesses, to know, as you suggest, the truth of the mystery.
And yet, there’s always an elusive character to that truth for me. I feel like a maverick in lots of ways — that I, to this point in my life, have never been totally satisfied with any witness I’ve heard. I hear this witness, and I hear that witness, and the truth keeps shifting a little bit. I expect the business of listening to witnesses and then making whatever witness I have to make, to be a life-long project.
Long: I think that’s very helpful. The task of witnessing is a very local activity. That is to say, it occurs in this place, with this person speaking to these people about what has been said, heard and experienced, as they seek their mission in this time and place.
That’s why I think it is rather remarkable that we have moved, in our own time, away from the nationally recognized pulpit figures. I mean, if you were on a committee thirty years ago trying to find a baccalaureate preacher at a school, you could come up with a lot of names, and then see if you could get one. Now, such committees have a tough time coming up with names, and I think that’s because our understanding of what makes for excellent preaching has moved much more into a local setting. It doesn’t travel as well, it doesn’t publish as well, perhaps. We’re struggling with the mission at this place, and one bears witness in this court room to the concern for the truth that is a very local sort of event. Which means that a single witness can’t claim to encompass it all. We have a cloud of witnesses.
Killinger: One reason for their difficulty in finding names might be that Christendom has disintegrated in our time, and that the lay people who are out looking don’t know what they’re looking for. I’m afraid, that we don’t have the sense of solidarity in Christendom that we’ve had. Now that’s the flip side of what you’re saying —
Long: No, I would agree with that. I think it is true that the Constantinian synthesis of Christendom has dissolved. The New York Times is no longer interested in publishing summaries of the great preachers in the pulpits on Sunday.
Preaching: Do you think television has affected that, also? The preaching they watch on Sunday morning on television, or on cable, or wherever they’re watching, is by nature a very different kind of preaching than what, in past years, characterized the great preachers.
Long: I have some hunches that the television preachers that sort of parade across the whole landscape have probably less effect than some of us fear. I don’t think they do very good preaching. I think it’s superficial. I think it massages the zeitgeist of the culture. I don’t run into a lot of lay people who really look to those preachers as the exponents of the Christian faith, so I’m wondering about the size of their audience and the real impact in our culture. They’re an interesting phenomenon.
I’m much more concerned about their local imitators; that is to say, people who do the same sort of baptizing of the cultural ethos in a local setting. I think they’re far more dangerous, because they show up when pastoral care is given. They are the pastors and they’ve had the reinforcement of preaching that makes it really good or bad, whether the message itself is faithful. So I guess I’m not too much worried about the television preachers but I am worried about their imitators in a local setting.
Killinger: You don’t think they’re really “witness,” in other words.
Long: I don’t.
Killinger: They haven’t seen anything; they don’t have anything, really, to tell.
Long: That’s right.
Killinger: But they’re manufacturing something out of consumer materials which they know that people will want to hear instead of really talking about it.
Long: I couldn’t agree more. The collapse of Christendom and the breakup of the understanding of the nature of the Gospel in the church, I think, points to a shift that we’re going to experience in preaching, and I’d be very interested to know what John thinks about this.
The oldest textbook we’ve got about preaching that we know anything about is Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, Book IV, and in there, he borrows a line from Cicero to describe the purposes of preaching. He says, “The purposes of preaching are to teach, to delight, and to persuade,” by which he means a very specific thing. And I think that’s right, in a way.
I do think that also describes phases in the history of preaching. Sometimes we have been in a teaching mode — I think the Reformation was a bursting forth of the teaching mode of preaching. I think we’ve sometimes been in the ethical mode. You can see that in the Rauschenbush movement.
And I think for the past fifteen or twenty years, we’ve been in the delight mode in preaching. The whole emphasis on narrative and story has been a way of re-invigorating the pulpit with its ability to inflame the imagination. It’s been good. We’ve learned a lot. I think we have discovered, however, the task of teaching has been neglected in the pulpit, and we’ve got congregations that no longer know the biblical materials, no longer have the theological vocabulary in their repertoire. Without losing what we’ve learned in the narrative phase, I think we’re going to return much more to the task of teaching in the pulpit.
Killinger: How do you think that will happen, Tom, with an 18-minute homily? I mean, what can you possibly teach in the present liturgical setting? Are we talking about something that’s much bigger, that is, the Sunday school, the Wednesday night meeting, other opportunities for people to….
Long: Yes, I don’t think it’s going to be restricted to the pulpit, because we can’t do the whole task there. But I think the keynote is set there in terms of teaching.
I’m attracted to Ellis Nelson’s new book, How Faith Matures, in which he points out the difficulties that many parishes are having with Sunday school as the primary way of doing education in the life of the church. He really says that what we need to do is — well, he’s not negative about the Sunday school as an institution, but we really need to back up and think of the totality of the congregational life as the educational ethos. What a congregation does, how they behave together as a group, is the educational environment.
I can testify to that. The Christian education that I really got, that’s deep, occurred not so much in the Sunday school classroom as participating in the common round of congregational life as a child. And if the task of the pulpit can be to lift those moments up and interpret them — what does it mean that we behave and do, that we do these things in this place? — then that becomes the educational moment that is not cut off in congregational life, but is very much attached to it.
I also think that, even in an 18-minute sermon, we can take a vocabulary word, like “grace,” and begin to give that back to people. I think we can begin. The black church has never forsaken the task of telling the biblical story in such a way that the congregation owns it and knows it, lives it, has it as a part of their repertoire. I think we’re going to see some more of that. The fact that the sermons are short, though, is a disadvantage in the teaching.
Killinger: You know, one word that I thought of when you were talking about Augustine is the word “discover.” Teaching and inclining the will and delighting are all involved in the single task of discovering something, which is related to witness of something. That the sermon, even a brief sermon, is able to put us on the road to discovery — that may be the key to successful television evangelists as well as to the local pastor and what he does, or she does, in the pulpit. That there is enough time there to pique the interest, to put a clue in front of somebody as to what truth is about, where people can move, how they can look, where they can turn to find something for their lives.
And I think part of what has been wrong with our approach to Christianity — not just the pulpit, but the whole community — for the last thirty, forty, fifty years has been that we have tried to pre-package things and give these things to people, instead of involving them in the search.
And that leaves us in a nation where we have experienced the “dumbing-down” of everything — the “dumbing-down” of education, the “dumbing-down” of the church, the “dumbing-down” of the interplay between government and people, almost everything you can think of. It leaves us in a very precarious situation if we’re no longer piquing people’s interest to learn for themselves, to be individuals in search of something.
You know, I quite agree with what Ellis Nelson says, that there’s something about being in the community that makes us teachable. We learn, we imbibe from, we absorb by osmosis from the community, but if the community doesn’t have anything beyond just the fact of getting together and repeating cliches, dwelling in a land of effete images and so forth, then something’s got to be done to raise the level of the community.
So I come back to the word “discover.” I think we’ve got to discover something, and maybe, just maybe, at this point in our history, the thing that’s going to save us is the witness, not of our own traditions in this country, but of the new traditions emerging in Africa, Asia, and other places. So that, for me, witnessing means that we’ve got to do an awful lot of listening to the emerging witnesses in other places.
Long: And that makes the breakdown of Christendom not altogether bad news.
Killinger: It’s been very personal to me, I think, being in Los Angeles for three years and trying to minister in a run-down church in the center of a place that has become multi-ethnic and everything else. The impact I felt of the world coming in on that, and the breaking down of the old structures — very, very dynamic to me. I have this sense that we’ve got to discover something good out of the collapse of Christendom.
Just as the Reformation occurred out of the collapse of the Christendom of the Middle Ages, I think we’re on the verge of breakthroughs, but American Christianity, by and large, is not aware of it yet. I think some really dynamic leaders are going to emerge in the next twenty, thirty, forty years and show us the way. Their witness is going to be very important but I think we need to listen more sensitively to these other places than we have, in order to hear the shape that witness is going to take.
Long: I agree. The level of awareness in the American church about the erosion of our consensus with the culture …. I suspect that you’re right, that our level of awareness is not very high, although I do think that varies from region to region. I think it is becoming very clear to churches in the Northeast, for example, that they no longer are in a position of dominance in the culture. It’s probably less so in the Southeast — where my roots are — there is still much more of a hand-shaking with the dominant culture. But I think it’s a matter of time, and it will become apparent to all of us.
Killinger: It’s an exciting time in which to be a witness but it’s also a very precarious time, and it bears out what you said about the danger of being a witness, the martyr aspect of it, that you can easily get clobbered by your own community today because you’re not satisfied with cliche witness. Because you’re searching for that edge of a word, a cutting word, that is just being formed in the midst of a new world community.
Preaching: How does the preacher deal with that? In your preparation and when you stand in the pulpit, how do you come to grips with that change, and doing the kind of teaching, Tom, that you talk about, that’s becoming increasingly necessary? How do you suggest the pastor responds to that kind of challenge?
Long: To the challenge of the multiple voices in the world, and ….
Preaching: And the fact that his or her own congregation may be increasingly less aware of their own tradition, much less the other traditions that they’re hearing.
Long: Well, I think that we do, and we’ve already started to do, a different kind of exegesis of the text for preaching. More and more of the recently-trained ministers are very much aware of the fact that a text can be manhandled by critical approach. Every critical approach narrows your range of possibilities as well as gives you some depth, and the historical critical method which has been reigning supreme — which I am a believer in, I think we ought to take a good healthy dose of every day — is nonetheless also limited in its capacity to see the range of possibilities in the text. The “Lone Ranger” style of exegesis, where it’s just you and the Bible, with your little range of methods.
Now we’re aware of the fact that you need to have a seminar. You need to construct — in your mind, at least — a seminar around the text, in which voices from the Third World; and, if you’re a male, a woman’s understanding of the text; if you’re an adult, a child’s perspective on the text; if you are white, a black or oppressed minorities’ understanding of the text needs to be brought in there, as a way of seeing the multiple possibilities that are there in a text.
Killinger: I think there’s also another dimension to that, that not only do we need all of those aspects of the text in mind but we also need somehow to maintain a kind of ambivalence toward textual preaching itself — to realize that the minute we choose the text, that we have narrowed the witness. In a sense, that the witness is even trans-textual, that it comes from many voices outside the biblical tradition, as well.
Long: The question of a congregation’s awareness of its tradition, and the value of a particular tradition, is a controversial question. And I suppose you could run in two separate directions with that question if you were a person of goodwill and understood the Gospel transcends a particular heritage.
One would be that a tradition is an embarrassment in a way, that it is a dividing marker between you and the global Christian community. I think that’s true but that’s not the direction I want to run. I think, as a matter of fact, one gets more ecumenical, and more able to speak in partnership with the other Christians, the more aware that you are of your own tradition, your own heritage. That fact that none of us speaks as a kind of universal Christian, and we’re always speaking out of a particular place and location, so the more we’re in touch with the place and location in which we stand, the better we’re able, then, to communicate with others.
I think of it as like a neighborhood of houses. The Jones live here, and the Kims live here, and the Smiths live there, and the Longs live there. And the more they are aware of their own stories and their own genealogies and their own backgrounds and their own convictions and values, the better neighbors they can be, the more access they can have to their neighbors. I think the Christian faith is like that, too.
So, as a Presbyterian — I’m a preacher in a Presbyterian church — I want that congregation to understand the Reformed tradition is an attempt to speak toward the totality of the Christian witness. It is a particular accent, a family accent, that I want them to learn and enjoy, and also become aware that it’s not the whole, it’s not the totality of the Christian faith.
Killinger: That’s a good image. But the problem for the minister, always, is how do you enhance that sense of the family tradition without making people think that’s all there is? You have to make people aware of the sacredness of other traditions as well, and be able to go down to somebody else’s house and understand another tradition.
Preaching: If we could, let’s go back and touch on a topic that was raised earlier. So many books and articles are saying to the pastor, “When you preach, you’ve got to use narrative, you can’t use the old ‘three points and a poem’ style that you learned in seminary. You’ve got to change and emphasize story.” Tom talked about that as being a very healthy movement that has taken place, but at the same time, it’s cost us in terms of the teaching ministry of the pulpit. Is it possible to merge those two elements of story and teaching? We discussed using narrative in the pulpit and then teaching in other settings. Is it possible to merge those two in some way in the pulpit itself?
Long: One of the reasons I like the witness image is because the witness is not restricted to a single mode of communication. Sometimes the witness is asked to tell the story: “Just tell your story.” Sometimes the witness is asked to listen to facts: “Just listen to facts.” That is to say, the nature of the thing being pointed to governs the structure of the communication required to do it, as well as the capacities of those who hear.
One of the flaws of the story telling movement has been to privilege the narrative genre in Scripture and otherwise. It seems to me that what we’ve got in the Bible is a collection of genres, each of which was called forth because the richness of the Gospel cannot be spoken in a single voice. Narrative voice is very important, but it’s not the only voice.
Sometimes the community gets to the place that it needs ethical instruction. Sometimes the community says, “Yes, but how was Jesus Lord?”, in which case systematic reflection of some kind. Sometimes it simply wants to cry in lament form, the poetic lament form, or give thanks in the doxological form.
All of these are voices that the Christian faith assumes under particular circumstances, and I think it’s incumbent upon the pulpit not to restrict this chorus down to a single solo narrative voice. I think our key into that is to pay attention to the rhetorical strategies, as it were, of the Scripture itself when we preach — to recognize that these are not simply arbitrarily chosen vessels, this epistolary form, proverbial form or parabolic form. But that governs some of the power of the text itself and the meaning of the text itself. The literary rhetorical form in which it comes is instructive to the preacher. It gives us freedom to assume a range of styles, structures.
“Three points and a poem” has been much maligned, and, if it is the only style used, it communicates, over time, that the Christian faith is a set of propositions. But avoid it altogether, and we lose the capacity that it brings to teach clearly when things are able to be spoken as ideas.
Killinger: From a historical perspective, in the teaching of homiletics, it seems to me that the experimental period which we went through in the ’60s and ’70s, which we’re still deriving benefits from, was a lot like what happened in the theatre of the absurd — Samuel Beckett, other playwrights like that. It was not the kind of theater that was going to last very long. It was experimental in nature, it destroyed the old classical Shakespearean, Ibsenian kind of theater and permitted something new to be born in our time.
And if you go to the theater now, whether it’s David Mamet, or Harold Pinter, or Tom Stockard, you get the new freedom that has come from those extreme experimentalists who were tearing up the nature of theater, who were following the idea that you turn the lights on to the audience and you create havoc in the theater so that people are disoriented — instead of putting on a well-made play, you assault the consciousness of the audience. That couldn’t last but it did bequeath something to the modern writers of theater, who give us story in the continuous form, more or less, as we once had it, but with a freshness, with a new freedom to experiment in little ways and to make us see things better in theater.
And I think today preaching is enjoying, as you suggest, Tom, this sense of freedom to experiment with form in order to get the message across. Or, sometimes, not just to preach a message, but to be message. The freedom of the medium becomes a message in itself, to say something about the nature of Christianity.
Preaching: You referred a minute ago to some of the great preachers. One of the questions I am frequently asked is, “Who are the best preachers in America?” Who are two or three of the pulpit voices that you two particularly enjoy right now?
Long: I work every year with Fred Craddock, who I think, both in terms of his own preaching style and the way he thinks about preaching, has made a dramatic impact, not only on me, but on a lot of people. I like, also, Barbara Lundblad, a Lutheran from New York City. She is on The Protestant Hour as one of the Lutheran preachers, along with a colleague named John Vanorsdall, who has also been influential to me. Barbara’s sermons are very sturdy, very clear. John’s are poetic, and evocative of mystery. I like Jim Forbes at Riverside Church, I find him to be stimulating, exciting. He brings the passion to the pulpit that many of us lack, and I find myself energized by him.
Killinger: I’m very fond of our friend and colleague here in Birmingham, John Claypool, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. I’m always mystified a little bit by what it is I like about somebody. In John’s case, I think a lot of it has been the continuing struggle that I’ve felt in John. Back to the old witness terminology, that John’s been trying to identify what the truth is in his tradition, and, at the same time, to identify what is untruth in his tradition, so he can move beyond that.
Long: You feel the struggle.
Killinger: Yes, I have a sense of the meaning of the struggle itself. The last time I heard John was during Lent, and he preached a sermon that, if I were being critical — in terms of how it struck the audience — I would say it was too much personal, too much of his own personal psychological struggle at the moment. I’m not sure how many people were really participating at the level at which he was talking about it. But it was a witness to me that he was struggling, and that he was willing to talk about it. I like that very much.
Another person that I don’t hear talked about very much, I think because he’s way down in San Diego — and who in the world knows what’s going on in San Diego? — is Mark Trotter. Mark is at First Methodist Church there, and he puts a lot into his preaching, works very hard on it. And yet his preaching comes across as a kind of smooth dialogue with what’s happening in the daily lives of his people. He always has a keen theological insight, but there is a casualness — an apparent casualness — about the approach, that is very winning to me. I admire the kind of offhanded style he achieves in talking to people in a culture like that around San Diego, who are not terribly church-conscious about the mysteries of the faith and of life. He’s one of my favorites. I get his sermons in the mail, and he’s about the only preacher I get in the mail I enjoy reading.
Of course, Fred Craddock has been a good friend and I always enjoy listening to Fred.
Two of the most insightful minds in the worlds of homiletics are Thomas G. Long, Patton Professor of Preaching and Worship at Princeton Theological Seminary, and John Killinger, Distinguished Professor of Theology and Culture at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.