Few preachers or teachers have influenced the preaching world as much in recent years as Fred Craddock. Now 75 years old, he taught for many years as Bandy Professor of Preaching and New Testament at Emory University in Atlanta. He presented the Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale in addition to other distinguished lectureships. He is the author of several important books and commentaries, including As One Without Authority (1971), Overhearing the Gospel (1978), and Preaching (1985).
Following his retirement from Emory, he became pastor at the Cherry Log Christian Church in rural north Georgia. (Craddock retired from this role April 14 of this year.) A native of rural West Tennessee, he regularly leads workshops for rural churches and Appalachian ministers. Preaching magazine editor Michael Duduit visited with Craddock in his church office in February.
Preaching: You have been one of the most influential persons in the field of homiletics in recent years. In fact, many people look to you as the one who launched this whole movement that has come to be called the “New Homiletic.” How would you describe how preaching has changed over the past three decades?
Craddock: I can talk about changes but I’m not as comfortable with the term “New Homiletic.” Preaching was essentially the same in mainline pulpits, criticized pretty heavily by Harry Emerson Fosdick in “What’s the Matter with Preaching?” in Harpers Magazine back in the 30’s. Preaching had become in many churches either exegetical pieces without much present in them, or under the heading of expository preaching, generally regarded as unrelated to the pulse and vein of life.
Fosdick went to what I thought was an extreme – it was totally group counseling. What’s your problem and we’ll talk about that – you can add some poetry and Bible to that. But it did not really affect preaching that much. Broadus and Witherspoon’s text – On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons – that still held sway, but it was based on the presupposition that the pulpit was the center of authority. And that was being eroded by the revolution of the 60’s and the early 70’s. Rightfully or wrongfully, it was perceived that way – to say something from the pulpit did not immediately get it accepted. The audience wanted to have more participation in the conclusion of the matter.
Well, where do you land between an old method which assumes the authority of the pulpit, of the speaker, of the scripture and of the church, to the more psychologically-oriented, “What can I do for you today? What would you like to talk about?” approach? Somewhere in between some things had to come together.
It was my struggling effort as a beginning teacher of preaching in the late 60’s and early 70’s to find a way for the community out of which the pulpit and the scripture comes, and the scripture which addresses the pulpit, to talk to each other in such a way that you don’t sacrifice either one. The closest I could come to that was a method that’s been called inductive preaching – not an entirely accurate description but as close as I could come to it.
People have given me credit for starting a trend. I think it was really the time in this country to rethink the lines of authority: By what authority do you say these things? Where do you locate the Word of God in the conversation between the pulpit and the community? Is the minister an enabler? Is he over here with scripture talking to the congregation, or is he a member of the congregation listening to the scripture? Where am I located?
That question arose in a fresh new way, and opened the door to just a range of new books in the area of method. How do we do it? Many of them were good books; some of them not good books. I was struggling just to teach preaching; my field was New Testament exegesis. I went to Germany thinking that would help; I enjoyed it but it didn’t help in that matter, except I did get acquainted with the writing of Soren Kierkegaard.
Well, out of all of that, in various ways of putting it together – the increase in narrative; the rise of the use of story or narrative in the field of theology moved over into preaching; the whole idea in biblical studies of the introduction of literary criticism, what is the form and shape of the text – caused the preachers to say, “Hey, that’s an important feature, too.” So out of it came just a world of things like story telling and narrative preaching, inductive preaching and all of this. I think “New Homiletic” came to be a term that covered everything from the turn from Broadus and Witherspoon to where we are today.
I think where we are now is to take a break from “How we do it?” and ask ourselves, “What are we saying?” I think in every field you have a cycle of change of method over content, then you move to content, or you accent content and then realize nobody’s listening, and you say, “We’ve got to think of a way to do this.”
We are, in my judgment, now at a point of needing to give more attention to what are we saying. What’s the size and shape of the sermon? How much memory does the sermon have? Are we being true to the continuity of the Christian faith, or am I just sitting with my Bible and forgetting 2,000 years in between?
I said when I started began preaching for this church that I would never talk about what was not important. Because that’s where I was; I felt that however you say it, it should be important. So the question I ask myself, is “So what? What difference does it make?” I think now the size and content of the sermon should be the area of the best minds in homiletics going to work. This is not to toss out the gains that have been made in method.
I hold seminars and workshops in preaching. I’ve noticed that with more recent graduates, their teachers apparently assume that the preacher has a grasp of Bible, theology and church history, and what the homiletics class should do is how to shape this into a sermon. The fact of the matter is that this cannot be assumed and even if they did have a grasp of Bible, theology and church history, that needs to be stressed as what we’re about.
It’s the same way when I started teaching New Testament. I could assume the majority of students in seminary grew up in the church – Sunday School and youth group – and came to the seminary, perhaps even through a church college, and knew what it was about, the core of the Christian faith. So my job was to disabuse them of superstitious views, to clean up their act, scrape the barnacles off. I don’t know that it was ever true, but it certainly happened in the course of generations when I was teaching that I had students who didn’t grow up in the church, had a call to ministry after they finished pharmacy school or something like that. They didn’t know diddly about the church or Bible or theology. When they came into my preaching class it wasn’t just a matter of refining the “how do you do it?” question but “what are you doing?” And I made some mistakes in that transition.
Preaching: As you talk to pastors today, how do you encourage them to struggle with that content question?
Craddock: It is a tough assignment. Most of them found it more delightful to work on the “How do I do it?” It gives me a chance to be witty, or clever, or sometimes humorous. I don’t mean to make light of it – I spend a lot of time on “How do you do it?” But to say “Now what are you talking about?” – it’s almost like re-entering school. It’s a substantive thing.
So the first thing I ask them to do is if you haven’t sold them or thrown them away, re-read one basic textbook in theology, in ethics, biblical studies. Just re-read the textbooks you had to read to pass the exam a few years ago. You don’t have to buy new books; those were good books – they are good books. Then write at the top of you page every time you start working on a sermon: “So what?” Answer that. Then if you’ll just picture in your mind, picture your congregation hungry for something, and realize your job is not to be clever; it’s to make a difference. If you have something you want them to hear, now you move to: how do I get them to hear it?
You’ve got to have some dough in the tray before you cut out biscuits. You don’t just walk in and start cutting biscuits. You’ve got to have a lot of substance that doesn’t appear in any one sermon, but is the stuff out of which all your sermons come. So in recent years I’ve urged pastors to take seminars or summer classes in theology or ethics or biblical studies and get refreshed. It’s been neglected.
Preaching: For some preachers is it an issue of getting back to the text in a way they haven’t dealt with it before?
Craddock: I think so. I think ministers, if they would get together and read scripture – we’re not working on a sermon now, we’re reading this text, listening to this text. What does it say? To be honest in a conversation, you’ve got to respect the other side of it. It’s easy for me to go to the Bible and use it as an ink blot text; I see in it what I want to see. Or I talk and the Bible listens, instead of the Bible talking and I listen. So to develop the skill of just sitting before a text and listening to it. And once I hear it, then all the work I’ve done on how to prepare sermons will be ready and in place and useful.
The more I think about it, I’m also going to support taking time to see how other generations of the church have interpreted this text. Take John Dunne; he was a great preacher in the English language centuries ago; it’s antiquated language, very hard to read now. He’ll read a text, then he’ll tell how several great church people in the history of the church read it – he’ll talk about how Augustine read this as meaning so-and-so, and Martin Luther. We’re a part not just of a text but of an interpretation history of that text.
Preaching: How would you describe the approach to preaching you developed and wrote about in your own ministry?
Craddock: I was taught with Witherspoon. All my sermons in seminary were symmetrical, had three points. I worked hard at that, and I think I did that well, except there seemed to be something in the process that wound down instead of winding up. I stated my main stuff early, and then fell from that into detail. Why not get people to listening and arrive at some conclusion – though we may not all be together at least we’ve had the opportunity to think about it?
I think my change was born in my own inability to remember my sermons. I was putting a grid over the biblical material and sermonic material that was not normal. I was preaching it and I’d look down at my material and I was in the wrong place. What’s wrong with this? So on occasion, when I was asked to speak at a civic club or a Sunday School class, I would abandon my homiletical plan and talk to them. As I examined those speeches, they had as much content as the other, but they started at a different point. So one week I just said to my wife, “I think I’m going to try to preach Sunday morning like I talk to these other groups.”
She was kind of aghast at what happened. People would say, “Well, that was interesting but was it a sermon?” It was a real struggle for me because I’d been doing it the other way, and I could have moved right along. So it was, first of all, running into myself in the pulpit. I had the feeling that good communications would flow normally and naturally enough that I could remember it and follow my own sermons without looking down and saying, “Oh, I’ve forgotten that.”
So when I started teaching preaching, the campus revolution against everyone in authority was in full swing. Homiletics and preaching classes were made optional, and I struggled with the students: What’s wrong with this? Why is this not working? I took a year off and studied preaching out of the frustration that I wasn’t getting anywhere. It wasn’t working.
I remembered my own preaching there in Columbia, Tennessee, and the changes I made in my preaching. So instead of teaching preaching classes like I was taught, maybe I can help them develop, if not like I do it, a way that they would be comfortable. So I played with that, took another year off and studied – I just had a rough transition. A lot of things I said in As One Without Authority I still hold to. I don’t believe that a lot of people who give me credit for getting them started thinking a new way – I don’t think many of them are doing what I thought I was doing. I don’t think many of them have had the agony I went through. I just don’t want to take credit for everything that’s going on that supposedly is called “inductive.”
I had an e-mail this morning from a graduate student who wants me to send him bibliographical material on the history of inductive preaching and what caused the change. It’s hard to recover all that. But it grew out of that personal agony and my struggle to teach preaching, which really started out being an exegetical exercise: the text says, the text says, the text says, we may stand for the benediction. I was actually afraid, I think, that I would put too much water in the wine if I left the text to talk about what was happening in the world. So I went through exposition, with a little application at the end. It was kind of artificial. So every sermon was really two or three little sermons.
I really decided that the normal flow of conversation – if preaching, if theology, if Christology comes out of the conversation between the community of faith and the book that called it into being, then the conversation should be a conversation. Now I don’t mean sitting on the end of the table saying, “Well, what do you all want to talk about today?” There’s some authority there, there’s responsibility there. But how can I get people in the congregation to participate? That’s what I still struggle with.
I imagine that if somebody came here and listened to me for four or five Sundays who had read my books, they’d say, “You’re not even doing what you said in the book!” I’m trying to get people to hear the word of God, and if I have to bend myself into some strange shape, I don’t care.
Preaching: What are the sermons like which you are preaching today at Cherry Log Church?
Craddock: I think they are still, in a sense, inductive. I spend longer in the text than I did in the 70’s and 80’s. I felt like mine were true to the text then, but I stay in there longer because the audience hasn’t been there at all. I stay longer in the text, but I think the general shape of it is the same. I tease them, I joke with them. Thinks like, “You know, I told you what Paul said to this church. I think it was about five years ago, but in case you’ve forgotten let me remind you . . .” Of course, most of them weren’t here five years ago.
We had a young man read the text (1 Cor. 9:24-27) Sunday morning. And I started off by saying, “I suppose Allen wants us to think he was reading from the Bible, but he was actually reading from the sports page. Would you people get your Bibles out and check and see if that’s what it really says?” I think if you analyzed that sermon, the general movement would be inductive in the sense of arriving at a conclusion. I think the big difference is that I come at the scripture in an inductive way; now I stay in there longer, with more detail, than I did.
Preaching: That really speaks to one of the criticisms of your work. Your approach to preaching has been described as leading people on a process of discovery, but that you can’t take people on the same journey if they don’t have the same experience or knowledge – the fact that people are increasingly less knowledgeable about the Bible.
Craddock: Yes. In fact, when I wrote that book, that would have been a proper criticism. But the reason I did it: even back in the early 70’s, we had congregations that were not all that knowledgeable about the scripture, but they thought they were, so I had to break the illusion or the perception. It certainly is true today that most people – even those that bring their Bibles to church – don’t really know what’s in it. They know things they’ve heard about the Bible. There’s not much knowledge.
I’ve heard that criticism. It’s a valid criticism. It puts a real burden on you to get in there and share some content and not assume too much knowledge on their part. So the trip can’t be quick. You just have to pick a piece of the trip, and say, “This portion of it we’ll travel Sunday morning.”
I still have a problem with my tendency to develop a way and think it applies to every text, to every subject, to every audience, and that is not true. I must allow myself to grow, to bend and meet the current situation. There is what is called the rhetorical situation. If a group is gathered for Ash Wednesday or a Good Friday service, the rhetorical situation so profoundly affects what people are hearing, what you are doing. On an average Sunday, July 9, the rhetorical situation is not anything really. So do I read all the factors in each situation, even though it makes me sound vague and uncertain when somebody asks me about preaching – “Sounds like you haven’t decided yet, have you Fred?” Well, in one sense, no. Let the variables work. The only invariable I have is the scripture. My approaching it makes the approach variable.
I guess I have a firm center, which is the scripture, and God’s word of grace in Christ. But then I have some fluidity in how can I get that heard. These people have heard a lot of sermons, but have they really heard? That’s the challenge. I’m already worrying about it, thinking about it for next week.
Preaching: You’ve seen a lot of changes in preaching. If you wouldn’t mind putting on the prophet’s hat for a moment, do you have any idea where preaching may be going over the next several decades? What changes do you see coming?
Craddock: I think I can see two things. One is what I call a minimizing of the sermon in a larger and livelier context of worship. The whole context of worship with a range of presentations, visual and verbal and all that, is in a sense of time going to reduce the sermon. The minister in many churches is going to be more like an emcee with various acts of worship introduced, and in the midst of that an almost devotional-sized, homily-sized sermon – a verse of scripture, a few analogies from the news or something in the paper. And those churches will flourish for a time, though I fear for the memory of those churches. Will they have a good memory of the Word?
On the other hand, I think there’s going to be more exegetical work done in the pulpit. Some people will call it expository work. You can see the beginnings of it now in some ministers just opening the Bible, read some verses and talk about it, read some verses and talk about it. There is a going to that extreme in what I think is a healthy shift, that is to the content of the sermon, but that’s going so far as to neglect what constitutes good communication. But I appreciate the fact that they feel here’s a hunger, an appetite, an emptiness that needs to be filled, so let’s just read scripture and talk about it. That becomes sort of walking through the woods and notching every tree, and the minister does not provide enough discernment between major importance and lesser importance in a text.
I think, I hope in the future there will be an increase in the dealing with biblical content in the sermon. Some people will find that antiquated or quaint, but the fact of the matter is we live out of the reservoir or the well of the scripture. You can’t get people talking about it if they don’t know what it says. I think there will be an increase in the preacher teaching texts he preaches on, she preaches on. I try to do that here, and have for the last few years. If I’m invited to a church to preach, I ask, “Can I have the adult classes together during the Sunday School hour?” and I teach the text that I’m going to preach, on the assumption that if they get familiar enough with it they’ll start thinking about it, they won’t be intimidated by it, they won’t feel put down because they didn’t know it. They’ll be partners in the preaching process.
I think we’re going to have more of the minister as a teaching preacher in the future. All of that is saying what I said earlier, which is an accent on the content. I hope that’s true.
Walter Brueggemann has written extensively on preaching. As the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, he has written or contributed to more than 60 books, including Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles and Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation. Recently he presented the William Self Lectures on Preaching at Mercer University’s School of Theology; it was during that lecture series that Preaching editor Michael Duduit visited with him.
Preaching: In this evening’s lecture you mentioned your theory of preaching. How would you describe that theory?
Brueggemann: I am trying to think about a way of preaching that is not coercive; because I don’t think that coercive preaching does any good. What I propose is that the preacher’s task is to provide materials of metaphor and image and narrative and figure that will be material through which the congregation can imagine its world differently, if it wants to do so.
The point of that is that the congregation has to do the hard work; we can’t do the hard work for the congregation. I think we have a long history of the preacher trying to do all that work for the congregation, and it just leads to endless quarrels, because it turns out that a lot of people in the congregation do not want that worked out for them, and eventually they have to do it themselves.
I was saying in my lecture that it’s analogous to psychotherapy in which one new decision by the person in therapy is worth a thousand suggestions by the therapist. We’ve known that for a long time, and I think the same thing is true.
Preaching: You made the comment tonight that preaching is inherently subversive and counter-cultural. Tell me what you mean by that.
Brueggemann: Well I think it is, so far as preaching is about the God of the Bible, or more particularly about Jesus Christ. It insists that at the center of the world is this elusive, holy presence that cannot be captured in any of our slogans or ideologies or programs. That is endlessly subversive because it de-absolutizes the things that we want to make absolute. I think it’s counter-culture because culture always wants to find things it can count on that are short of the holiness of God. When the holiness of God is preached, what it shows is that the things culture counts on cannot ultimately be relied upon. That’s why I think good preaching endlessly undermines the seductions and pretenses of cultural certitude and cultural privilege and cultural entitlement.
Preaching: In light of this, what are some of the implications of preaching in an American context here in the 21st century.
Brueggemann: I think in recent years – with our economic, political, and military monopoly in the world – ordinary U.S. people who are not very reflective just assume that what we want in the United States is what we ought to have, and we are free to do anything that we want to get it. I think that in terms of the economy – with the force of our market controlling the world – I think in terms of a personal sense of entitlement, it is just that there isn’t any reason that I shouldn’t be comfortable or indulgent, no matter what damage it does to the neighborhood or to natural resources, or anything else. I think that’s a wide cultural assumption in which Liberals and Conservatives participate together, and it is a way of death. Evangelical preaching, it seems to me, has to talk about that.
Preaching: Let’s bring those ideas together: the idea of preaching as creating a world of image that allows people to move into that experience, while at the same time trying to be counter-cultural, to help people confront their biases. What would be some insights you would offer to pastors as they seek to struggle with that challenge?
Brueggemann: I think it’s exceedingly difficult, and I don’t minimize the difficulty, but I think it means staying very close to the actual phrasing and wording of the biblical text. I think the text itself does much of this work if we will stay with it. What happens is that liberals want to transform the text into their ideologies and conservatives want to transform it into their ideologies, so that, by-and-large, the congregation never gets face to face with the text. It gets filtered and mediated for somebody’s agenda, and what that does is to cut the nerve of the text itself.
I think that the biblical texts themselves create a kind of openness; they create an ambiguity; they create a kind of playfulness in which change and transformation is possible. But change and transformation are not possible if everything is reduced to a set of certitudes, whether it’s liberal certitudes or it’s conservative certitudes. So I understand the Bible to be a document that continues to surprise and open and jar us of all the settlements we think we’ve made. So my urging to preachers is to stay very close to the text and try to let the congregation hear how the text works. I think the text will do some of its own work.
Preaching: In an the interview with Fred Craddock (which appears in this issue), he talked about the fact that the last couple of decades have been a time of emphasis on methodology, and he thinks where we are now, and need to be, is a renewed emphasis not on how we do it but on what we say – the content of the message.
Brueggemann: I think that’s exactly right, and I think if we can get access to the guts of the content, preachers will find effective ways to communicate. So there is artistry involved in preaching, but it’s a very idiosyncratic artistry for every preacher. The preacher has got to find her own voice and her way of saying this. So I quite agree with that. I think we’ve got to talk about what are the claims of the gospel that the church in our context now needs to be hearing. And then we can ask what is the best way to do this.
Preaching: You made a comment tonight about a time of exile being a time when all the guarantees are gone, and that since 9-11, we preach in a time of exile – that we preach to a people in exile.
Brueggemann: I think the big trauma of 9-11 was not that those buildings came down or that those people died. That’s really horrible; I agree with that, but the big trauma is that young people in our society, in their 30s and down, discovered for the first time that we are a vulnerable people. I think that it was easy to grow up after the second World War and imagine that we are immune from all the threats. I think that’s exactly what they discovered in Jerusalem in 587 B.C. They thought that as long as they stayed close to the Jerusalem temple and they had King David and all that stuff, they were going to be safe from everything, and then it all blew up in their face. So I think the analogue to that is very suggestive for us.
Preaching: So in what way would the text of Jeremiah help preachers today as they preach to people whose guarantees or assurances have just been cut out from under them?
Brueggemann: I think that Jeremiah had to live in a culture of denial that kept saying it can’t happen here. I think that we live in a culture of denial, and this really can’t be very serious, and we’re going to come out of it alright and all that stuff. And I think that there are, in Jeremiah, rhetorical strategies for how you try to undermine and cut through that kind of denial to get people to see the world the way it really is. It’s a world that is well beyond our control and management – we are not going to manage it. And every time we try to manage it, we’re simply going to produce another wave of terrorists that are going to undermine us further. So we need a whole different way of thinking about that, as they did in Jerusalem.
Preaching: Shifting subjects for a little bit, you just had a book of prayers published. (Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, published by Augsburg Fortress) Tell me a little bit what led to that.
Brueggemann: It’s the custom in many seminaries, and in ours, that class every day is opened by prayer. So I’ve been doing that for a long time, and what I try to do, as an Old Testament teacher, is relate the prayer to the text we’re going to talk about that day. So it’s sort of praying by the scripture. As I began to work more carefully on these, and write them out, rather than just extemporaneous prayer, I began to accumulate them. A number of students over time said to me it would be helpful if you would publish those prayers so we would all have permanent access to them. So about a year ago I thought to do that and found a pastor in Vancouver who was willing to take on the job of putting them together and editing them and so on. So they grew out of my own classroom. My wife thinks it’s the best thing that I’ve done!
Preaching: Do you see a teaching role in prayer?
Brueggemann: Yes I do, though one obviously has to be very careful that a prayer does not become didactic and you are only talking to God in order to instruct the listener. I think that you model how to practice faith in a prayer so that other people may then learn to pray out of that in a certain kind of way. So I do think it has that modeling effect, and to that extent it is instructional. But obviously that’s not it’s main point; it’s main point is an authentic transaction with God. The trick of public prayer is to try to say the prayer so that people who are praying with you silently could say “yes, those are my words too.” That’s not very easy to do, and we don’t always get that done.
Preaching: What changes do you see in preaching over the next 10 to 20 years?
Brueggemann: I think that preaching is going to have to be much more imaginative and adventuresome. I think that as our society draws more secular and more illiterate about biblical tradition, preaching has a huge educational job of helping people understand what an odd angle of vision is given to us by the Gospel on the world. I think preaching has to really be nervy and imaginative, so that what we say doesn’t just sound like an echo of what is assumed in dominant culture.
I think that the tension between the dominant substance of our culture and the claims of the Gospel – I think those tensions are going to have to be more and more visible and available to people. There was a very long time in U.S. society when we just assumed that the American dream and the Gospel were the same thing. I think that’s got to be pulled apart in rather dramatic and bold ways. Of course that upsets people greatly when do that, but I think that’s what’s got to happen. The followers of Jesus cannot ultimately sign on for any other commitment of state or society or culture or anything like that. We make proximate commitments but not ultimate commitments, and all those commitments are held under the judgment of the ultimate commitment of the Gospel. I think that’s very difficult for all of us.
Preaching: Why is preaching still important for the church in the 21st century?
Brueggemann: I think that pastors need to recognize more that preaching is really crucial, not only for the maintenance of the church but for the health of our society. There is almost no other place left in our society where the truth can be told – the truth of the good news and the truth of the bad news. So preaching has got to be – with lots of artistic sensibility – preaching has really got to be truth-telling, because we live in a society of pretend, and that pretend is going to bring us to death. It’s a matter of preaching being able to pop the bubble of the illusion, I think, which is very hard work. But what a glorious calling; what a glorious calling that somebody gets to do that regularly.
Michael Duduit is the Editor of Preaching.