James W. Cox, ed. Best Sermons 1 (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 384 pp., $16.95, cloth.
Geoffrey W. Bromiley, the prolific theologian/translator of Kittel’s Theological Wordbook of the New Testament and much of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, is said to translate in his sleep, It must also be true that James W. Cox edits and writes as he slumbers — otherwise he would get no sleep!
Professor of Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Cox is a veritable industry. Nevertheless, what flows from Cox’s pen and editing desk is not “preaching pulp” — it is well worth the reading.
Best Sermons 1 is the product of a unique sermon contest directed by Harper and Row, the San Francisco publishing house which has recently demonstrated a genuine interest in contemporary preaching. The contest was nationally advertised and produced over 2000 entries from throughout the world.
Entries were judged in six sermon categories: evangelistic, ethical, doctrinal/theological, expository, pastoral, and devotional. From the abundance of entries, one winning sermon and three honorable mention sermons were chosen for each category.
The judging process was directed by Cox, and included fellow judges Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., Theologian in Residence, Georgetown University; David Allen Hubbard, President, Fuller Theological Seminary; John Killinger, Senior Minister, First Congregational Church, Los Angeles; James Earl Massey, Dean of the Chapel, Tuskegee University; Carolyn Weatherford, Executive Director, Woman’s Missionary Union, Southern Baptist Convention; and William H. Willimon, Minister to the University and Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke University. Fully half of the judges — Hubbard, Massey, and Willimon — are Preaching Contributing Editors.
Best Sermons is an audacious title. Indeed, the title would seem to claim more than the book can possibly deliver. Discerning the “best” in any field, and even the most analytical disciplines, is a daunting task. Acknowledging this, Editor Cox commented: “As with any competition of this nature, selecting the best of many fine entries is not easy.” Furthermore, “The evaluation of a sermon, whether that sermon is heard or read, is an inherently subjective undertaking….”
Nevertheless, the Best Sermons competition was designed to minimize arbitrary judgment and to maximize objectivity. Each winning sermon was evaluated by three judges, who focused on the criteria of originality, scriptural and/or Christian basis, relevance, clarity, and interest.
Readers of Best Sermons 1 will discover the twenty-four winning sermons joined by twenty-eight additional sermons commissioned by Cox from individuals of “considerable visibility” in the preaching world. Together, these fifty-two sermons comprise one of the freshest and most interesting collections of sermons to emerge in recent years.
The twenty-four winning sermons demonstrate their worthiness with energy, discernment, pathos, and conviction. The commissioned sermons are drawn from preachers of proven and acclaimed ability, and are clearly from among the best in each preacher’s arsenal.
Older preachers and those younger who peruse the secondhand book shops will remember the several Best Sermons volumes edited in the 50’s and 60’s by G. Paul Butler. Though the two series are unrelated except by title, a comparison of the two efforts provides an interesting perspective on the two most significant factors marking the intervening twenty years — change and constancy.
The change is easy to spot. The contributors to the Butler series were uniformly male, mostly Protestant, and white. By contrast, contributors to Best Sermons 1 include women, a prominent rabbi, and black preachers. The content, structure, style, and subject matter of the sermons also vary over the two decades between the series. The emergence of narrative, confessional, and other contemporary models of preaching is immediately apparent.
The constancy is also remarkable. Volumes entitled Best Sermons and produced in connection with widely-publicized competitions emerge only in eras when preaching is held in high esteem and is the subject of intense interest.
Between the 1960’s and the late 1980’s America was in a period marked by a decline of the pulpit. The prominence of the pulpit in the post-war period gave way to the instability and soul-searching of the Vietnam era and the “me generation” of the 1970’s. The previous series and the current Harper and Row project both reflect positively on the estate of preaching and the power of the sermon in contemporary life.
The fifty-two sermons in Best Sermons 1 make the volume a must for the preaching minister. No other contemporary volume brings together such a wide variety of worthy sermons. The winning entries are fresh, innovative, and compelling.
“Who Is Jesus Christ?” by Kathleen J. Crane, winner of the evangelistic sermon category, and “Old Hundredth” by James R. Shott, winner of the expository category, are indicative of the flavor and quality of the sermon entries. The entries range from the didactic to the confessional, from prose to poetry, and from established sermon styles to more innovative and experimental models. None are quixotic or frivolous.
In addition, the twenty-eight commissioned sermons constitute a unique gathering of model sermons by established preachers and teachers of preaching. These sermons were preached in university chapels, churches, synagogues, and various other settings. Each brings a unique quality and contribution to the collection.
Where else can the reader expect to glean from the best of David G. Buttrick, A. Leonard Griffith, Fred B. Craddock, Lloyd John Ogilvie, Richard C. Marius, and David H. C. Read, among many others? In addition to Lloyd Ogilvie, Preaching Contributing Editors Massey, Willimon, and Haddon W. Robinson are found among the commissioned preachers.
Though Best Sermons 1 has set for itself an exceedingly ambitious program, it proves itself worthy of the preacher’s attention and investment. Though it is well to be reminded of Fred Craddock’s assertion that much of the best preaching is to be found in quiet, inauspicious churches — whose preachers are not likely to enter any sermon contest — it is comforting and challenging to reflect on the state of preaching evidenced in these pages.
Though John Killinger’s clever and insightful “What is Truth? Or Shirley MacLaine, Meet the Master,” and C. Neil Strait’s “Something for Yuppies to Consider” reflect the spirit and flavor of the au currant, they also represent the kerygmatic content of these sermons.
Preachers will find themselves stretched, enriched, and challenged by Best Sermons 1. Harper and Row and Editor James W. Cox have established a solid benchmark for subsequent volumes. Best Sermons 2 will be available in February, 1989.
J. Daniel Baumann, An Introduction to Contemporary Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972, 1988), 297 pp., paper.
Introductory surveys of preaching are notoriously boring, pedantic, and pedestrian. A very few stand out in terms of wide use, influence, and innovation. For over a decade An Introduction to Contemporary Preaching has been among those few.
Widely used in evangelical seminaries, colleges, and schools, J. Daniel Baumann’s weighty volume has also proved itself helpful to the preacher as a critical refresher course in preaching — a useful process for any preacher.
The demand for the volume is indicated in its recent re-release by Baker Book House. In trade paperback form for the first time, Baumann’s introduction is likely to serve a new generation of seminarians and preachers.
Baumann, currently pastor of the College Avenue Baptist Church in San Diego, was head of the department of pastoral ministries at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. A solid practitioner and teacher of preaching, Baumann has much to offer and delivers a competent and solid primer for preachers.
Baumann, as one would expect, is quite confident of the importance of preaching, a calling he defines as “the communication of biblical truth by man to men with the explicit purpose of eliciting behavioral change.”
Though confident of the role of preaching in the church, Baumann is aware that it has not always held a central position: “At times the preaching has been life-changing and nation-shaking; but frequently the pulpit, partly as cause and partly as effect, has been so innocuous that the church merely survived, and that certainly not triumphantly.” It is clearly Baumann’s purpose to establish the centrality and vitality of preaching as a manifestation of the church.
The author’s definition of preaching provides the structure for the volume. The three major sections of the book are, respectively, “Communication,” “Biblical Truth,” and “Behavioral Change.” Each receives a detailed treatment combining practical considerations and theological foundations.
Baumann’s section on communication is dependent upon both classical communication theories and contemporary communication theorists. Though he tips his hat to Aristotle and the five rhetorical canons of antiquity, Baumann gives greater attention to the communication theorists of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Marshall McLuhan is a rather constant discussion partner throughout the volume, a factor reflecting the original date of authorship.
Baumann also gives attention to the role and calling of the preacher — the human instrument of the preaching event. The preacher, he suggests, is one called, balanced, disciplined, compassionate, humble, and courageous. In his words, “Effectiveness of the pulpit is indeed tied to the life, the integrity, the Christian character of the man who declares the gospel.” His explicit assumption is that the good preachers are “full of their message and will be heard.”
After sections dealing with the audience and the setting of preaching, Baumann turns to deal with the means of preaching as communication. Deductive, inductive, psychological, and dramatic dimension receive consideration. Though the deductive and inductive elements are by now rather well established in the minds of most readers, the psychological and dramatic dimensions would now be more easily identified as life-situation and narrative models of sermon construction. None are discussed in great detail.
Baumann also discusses several experimental models of preaching as communication: dialogical, drama, mixed media, and visual. These again reflect the origin of the volume in the early 1970’s and the struggle at that critical time to find effective means of communication. The rather single-minded focus of that time was on “relevance” and modernity. Most of the experimental models of that period have long since disappeared from the scene, to be replaced with the experimental models of our current period.
Part II of the volume, “Biblical Truth,” includes chapter-length considerations of the definition of biblical preaching, preparation for preaching, subject matter for the sermon, introductions and conclusions, exposition, illustrations, and delivery. Common to most texts on preaching, these chapters contain a combination of standard instruction and Baumann’s unique perspective on these critical issues.
Included in these chapters are extended discussions of issues and matters long since abandoned by many contemporary texts. Baumann deals with pulpit manners and practical matters of concern — matters seldom to be found in most contemporary introductory volumes on preaching. The recent volumes by Cox, Craddock, Killinger, and But-trick, among the most influential and substantial contemporary offerings, deal with these matters in a cursory fashion, if at all.
Positively, this reflects a renewed seriousness about the subject matter and central purpose of preaching. Nevertheless, a cursory glance at life in American pulpits suggests these practical considerations should not be assumed by contemporary teachers of preaching.
In all probability, readers will find Part III of the volume most distinctive. Baumann’s unapologetic focus on behavioral change is distinctive and worthy of careful reading. The very presence of this section will come as a source of comfort to some, of interest to others, and of discomfort to still others.
The focus on preaching in the current period has been on existential, attitudinal, and ethical/social change. While these matters are certainly included to a greater and lesser extent in those concerns above, it is Baumann’s focus on the purpose of preaching as behavioral change which stands out from the crowd.
Baumann helpfully focuses on the question, “What is preaching to accomplish?” In answering this question he turns to four distinct purposes: Kerygmatic, didactic, therapeutic, and prophetic. Of these, the first is directed toward the unbeliever. It is evangelistic preaching — the proclamation of the kergyma.
The other three purposes are directed to Christian believers. The second purpose, “didactic,” focuses on doctrinal preaching, the communication of essential theological and biblical content from the pulpit.
“Therapeutic preaching” focuses on critical issues involving individual change. Baumann suggests that this may be in the form of resolution of grief, psychological and emotional issues, or other problems encountered by the individual.
“Social-Prophetic preaching” focuses on social change. This section is especially reminiscent of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
In the end, many readers will wish for more detail in Baumann’s understanding of behavioral change. One conclusion is certain: the contemporary period is quite ambivalent about what behavioral changes are the proper concern of the pulpit. Baumann is to be commended for his unapologetic focus on these issues.
An Introduction to Contemporary Preaching has a proven track record of service in the church. Its re-release after sixteen years of service is cause for appreciation. It is a worthy volume for republication. Nevertheless, the preaching world would have been even better served by its revision prior to republication. As it is, it bears all the marks characteristic of its origin in 1972.
The issues framing the social and ethical concerns are dated and somewhat stale. Furthermore, communication theories have undergone tremendous transformation since 1972. McLuhan has given way to the hermeneutical revolution of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Gada-mer, Hirsch, and Riceour have altered the hermeneutical landscape. In addition, the influences of structuralism and other schools of thought in communication theory take the discussion far beyond that of this volume.
A revision could also strengthen the sections on models of preaching and sermon structure. The influence of narrative models has grown far beyond that which could have been anticipated in 1972. A consideration of the contributions of Craddock and Buttrick would add much to the volume. Baumann’s evangelical perspective is much appreciated. An evangelical analysis of these contemporary developments would be of genuine service to the church.
Preachers seeking a solid resource for retooling in basic skills and principles will find this volume useful. Students will find it serviceable as a text, and as a useful conversation partner with more recently released volumes.
Fredrick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: an ABC Theologized (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 116 pp., $12.95, cloth.
Marjorie Casebier McCoy with Charles S. McCoy, Fredrick Buechner: Theologian of the Lost and Found (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 162 pp., $14.95, cloth.
Few wordsmiths compare with Fredrick Buechner. He is, quite simply, one of the most effective and engaging writers of our day. Preacher/novelist/theologian, he is an individual with a rare chemistry of skills, instincts, and insights.
Few readers will be unaware of his genius, and most will join in the appreciation for the release of his latest volume, Whistling in the Dark. Like his earlier book Wishful Thinking: a Theological ABC, Whistling in the Dark is a collection of short prose pieces of theological themes. Several words came to Buechner after the release of the first ABC volume, and he has taken the opportunity to bring them together in the present short book.
“I used up almost all of the overtly theological ones the first time round, so most of these are just plain words which I’ve tried to say something more or less theological about.” What Buechner has to say is indeed more and not less theological, but for Buechner theological is not something contrived; it is something seen.
The words in Whistling in the Dark range from “Abortion” to “Zero” with one-hundred-and-eight sandwiched in between. Faith, says Buechner, “is a kind of whistling in the dark,” a process he sees reflected in these definitions — “an attempt to keep the spirits up while peering through the shadows for some glimmer of meaning.”
Buechner’s way with words is almost mystical. He simply makes words do things they refuse to do for normal folk. In the piece entitled “Animals,” Buechner ponders the difference between animal and human consciousness. Human beings know animals as this and that, but the animals seem unmoved.
“The marmalade cat dozing among the nasturtiums presumably doesn’t think of herself as a marmalade cat or anything else for that matter. She simply is what she is and what she does. Whether she’s mating under the moon or eviscerating a mouse or gazing into empty space, she seems to make herself up from moment to moment as she goes along.”
This power of language and fertile meaning is to be found on every page. Preachers will find in these brief articles the strange and elusive alchemy of words.
Buechner the man is more remote. He is shy and elusive, and rarely submits to an interview. We should not expect to see him on a television talk show, though he once set a compelling scene in that context.
Marjorie Casebier McCoy invested a great deal of her life in a study of Buechner and his work. For many years adjunct professor at the Pacific School of Religion, McCoy established a solid reputation as an authority on the writings of Fredrick Buechner. Fredrick Buechner: Novelist and Theologian of the Lost and Found is her contribution to the interpretation and study of Buechner, and is a volume sure to interest all touched by Buechner’s spell.
In her introduction, McCoy identifies the key to understanding Buechner. Truth, for Buechner, is autobiographical — a powerful merging of his own autobiography and those of his readers. Readers discover much about Buechner, but even more about themselves. “The ways he manages to work these miracles within us disclose his gifts as artist and theologian.”
The subtitle gives the clue to McCoy’s interpretation of Buechner’s life and work: his role as novelist and theologian. McCoy discovered his power as a novelist in 1965 when Amos Wilder’s review of Buechner’s The Final Beast crossed her desk. She was soon to read the book itself. “Doing that was enough to hook me hopelessly and finally.”
Buechner’s power as a novelist is undeniable. Often compared to Graham Greene and William Faulkner, he is a writer of rare energy and directness. His images reach out of the page and pull the reader into the world of the story.
Nevertheless, it is not Buechner’s role as novelist which establishes his unique power. It is instead his combination of fictional finesse and theological content. The latter is rooted in Buechner’s own experience as well.
Already an established novelist (A Long Days Dying was a bestseller when Buechner was only 23), Buechner came under the spell of the preaching of George A. Buttrick at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. Converted to Christianity, Buechner was later to sense a call to seminary and the ordained ministry. Buttrick was encouraged enough to take Buechner personally over to Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Buechner graduated from Union Seminary, and his experiences there flavor and occasion much of his later work. The influences of Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and James Muilenburg, among others, are discernible within the pages of both his fiction and his non-fiction.
Though Buechner has provided two works of autobiography, The Sacred journey and Now and Then, McCoy provides both facts and insights beyond those volumes. The book is well written and a pleasure to read. Those veteran Buechner readers will find Fredrick Buechner a solid companion piece to their collection of Buechner works. Readers unfamiliar with Buechner will find this volume an excellent way into Buechner’s world, much as McCoy discovered Buechner through a book review.
Preachers will find a double confirmation in Buechner’s story and work. In the first place, it is affirming to see the power of one preacher, in this case George A. Buttrick, reach out so powerfully to another. Indeed, Buechner roots the key to much of his understanding of the Christian experience in one of But-trick’s sermons.
The second confirmation comes at the recognition of the power of Buechner himself as a preacher. This novelist and theologian is also a preacher, and one who stood for many years in a challenging pulpit as minister to Phillips Exeter Academy. Though now dedicated full-time to his writing, Buechner continues to preach — through his writings and through the preaching event.
McCoy’s contribution in Fredrick Buechner: Novelist and Theologian of the Lost and Found puts us in her debt. The book was clearly a labor of love, but one she was not able to complete. During the writing of the book Marjorie Casebier McCoy was discovered to have a malignant brain tumor.
She confessed, “Buechner’s encounters with death and his awareness of growing old and living with the expectation of dying have struck me with a special and personal force as I have re-read the novels within the context of my own illness.” The work was capably completed by her theologian husband, Charles S. McCoy.

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