Probably the two most significant new books in homiletics that were released in 1997 were Mike Graves, The Sermon as Symphony: Preaching the Literary Forms of the New Testament (Judson Press) and the late Lucy Rose’s Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Round-Table Church, (Westminster / John Knox Press). Graves gives helpful insight into the literary form of the Scripture, enabling more authentic Biblical proclamation. Rose demonstrates a grasp of historical trends in the field of homiletics and builds on that to offer a helpful paradigm for preaching in an age which resists authoritarianism. (Both volumes were reviewed in the September-October 1997 issue of Preaching.)
The juxtaposition of two other books published in 1997 provide a healthy dialogue regarding the current state of homiletics in North America. Eugene Lowry in The Sermon: Dancing the Edge of Mystery, (Abingdon Press) and Charles Campbell in Preaching Jesus: New Directions for Homiletics in Hans Frei’s Postliberal Theology, (Eerdmans Press) provide a stimulating analysis and critique of recent trends in homiletics. The sense gained from reading these two books is that much has seen learned in the field of homiletics in terms of inductive versus deductive and the broad category of narrative. Now is the time to move beyond these categories. Campbell asks the poignant question — which assumes a high view of preaching — “If there has been such interest in preaching in the last 25 years, why are most mainline churches still in decline?”
Eugene Lowry is Professor of Preaching at the St. Paul School of theology in Kansas City. His previous works include The Homiletical Plot, How to Preach a Parable, and Doing Time in the Pulpit. In The Sermon, Lowry does not repent of any of his earlier writings (nor should he). Rather, he is attempting to dialogue and interact with current thought in homiletics.
He develops four central variables in preaching — purpose, content, language and form. Each of these are a valid point of entry for discussions regarding preaching. Lowry’s preference is to speak about sermon form, though he will develop each variable further in the book. Under the category of Time — Place, he fleshes out the meaning of narrative preaching versus story preaching. He explores 6 categories of sermons — inductive, story, narrative, transconscious African-American sermon, phenomenological, and conversational-episodal.
Probing the issue of Task — Goal enables Lowry to highlight the difference between the Old and the New Homiletic. The Old Homiletic is characterized by Karl Barth’s assertion that one is merely to speak the Word and trust that it has power to accomplish its work in and of itself. The New Homiletic defines preaching as an offering intending to evoke an event that cannot be coerced into being. Simply put, the issue consists of the imparting of information versus viewing the sermon as an event to transform lives.
In probing Act — Art, Lowry makes the startling assertion that over the last decade, usage of the Revised Common Lectionary in mainline churches has produced sermons that are more biblical, more boring, and less evocative. Such sermons spring from a merely cognitive approach to preaching that rushes to find what others have said about the text and then to impart that to the listeners. The statement, “I got it across,” is an indictment of preaching that “plods along the road of truth rather than ‘dancing the edge of mystery’.” This is not to say that truth is an irrelevant category but to suggest that the truth is bigger than any one person’s ability to grasp it all.
Lowry strongly advocates narrative preaching in speaking of Shape — Strategy. Here he reasserts the model of sermon which was advocated in The Homiletical Plot — the oops!, ugh, aha, whee, and yeah model of preaching. He reasserts that story telling is merely a subset of narrative and insists that all effective preaching will have narrative components to it. He pays particular attention to timing and sequence in the development of sermons.
A particular strength of Lowry’s work is the concluding chapter on Preparation — Presentation where he articulates the preacher’s task as Attending, Imagining, and Shaping. These categories allow the preacher to find his or her own best style in developing sermons while laying out principles which all preachers do well to incorporate into their preaching. Attending involves immersing oneself in the text and looking for whatever tensions and conflicts may be present there. Imagining is the next step of naming issues, consulting scholarship about the text, and “ruminating potential connections” on the way to Shaping, which is the process of strategizing, and sharpening the focus and direction of a sermon.
Lowry’s concluding remarks about attending, Imagining, and Shaping drive home the point that there is no one way of preparing a sermon. The elements of attending, imagining, and shaping need to be present in the process of moving from text to sermon regardless of how one incorporates them. In that same spirit, Lowry offers a model schedule as one example of what part of the sermon preparation process can be done when.
Charles Campbell teaches preaching at Columbia Seminary, a Presbyterian institution in Decatur, Georgia. Like Lowry, he is puzzled by the apparent failure of a resurgence in homiletics to spark a resurgence in the mainline Church. In Preaching Jesus: New Directions for Homiletics in Hans Frei’s Postliberal Theology, Campbell offers a critique of several homiletical approaches on theological grounds. He believes the thought of Hans Frei, author of The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative and The Identity of Jesus Christ and professor at Yale, offers a model which can move preaching beyond mere storytelling and an inappropriate focus on narrative for narrative’s sake.
Campbell’s book is a re-working of his dissertation and as such is not what some would call homiletics lite. Nonetheless it raises some effective critique of many of the accepted notions in contemporary homiletics.
For those who have a high view of preaching and have devoted their lives to it, it is problematic that much of mainline Christendom appears to be in decline in spite of a resurgence in interest in homiletics. There must be something missing. There must be some factor that is not being taken into consideration. Campbell sees a way forward through an appropriation of Hans Frei’s theology in constructing a post-narrative, post-liberal homiletic.
Campbell is not afraid to take on the giants in offering a critique of narrative homiletics as it has come to us through Grady Davis, Charles Rice, Fred Craddock and Eugene Lowry. Much of Campbell’s critique centers in the starting point for preaching. He maintains that preaching has become human experienced centered to the detriment of the gospel. He also laments that much of the emphasis on narrative has been an emulation of Jesus rather than a proclamation of Jesus.
In other words, we have been told that we should use story because Jesus used story. Parables have become popular homiletical fare because Jesus taught in parables. Campbell would argue that an inappropriate usage of narrative has resulted in narrative for narrative’s sake at the expense of authentic proclamation of the content of the gospel.
Campbell believes that Frei’s Christology offers a viable model in appropriating what has been learned about narrative into authentic proclamation of the Christ. Narrative for narrative sake is not what matters.
Rather narrative “is important because it is the vehicle through which the gospels render the identity of Jesus of Nazareth, who … seeks today to form a people who follow his way.” (p. 190) Campbell credits Frei with shifting attention to the gospel narratives in their totality and to the focus on the character of Christ revealed in those narratives. Campbell helps us to see that narrative can help us proclaim Christ and should not be used merely for narrative’s sake.
Other works of significance include Charles Bartow’s God’s Human Speech: A Practical Theology of Proclamation. Bartow attempts to construct a post-modern, theological homiletic. Robert Capon’s George Craig Stewart Lectures at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary have been preserved as The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel against the Wisdom of the World. Capon writes from a mainline perspective and encourages pastors to develop “a passion for the passion”. He includes an interesting approach to the use of sermonic notes in a rather free-form style of sermon delivery.
As the pace of societal change accelerates continuously, the message we are called to proclaim never changes. Thus the continual need to find appropriate means of telling the old, old story. Every preacher ought to read at least one or two new homiletics books every year (in addition to Preaching magazine!) 1997 gave the preacher a broad variety from which to choose.

Share This On: