Mike Graves. The Sermon as Symphony: Preaching the Literary Forms of the New Testament. Valley Forge: Judson Press. 1997. 289 pp. ISBN 0-8170-1257-5
Mike Graves, Professor of Homiletics at Central Baptist Seminary in Kansas City, Kansas, following in the trend of recent scholarship which attempts to relate the fields of biblical studies and homiletics, has offered one of the most significant works in homiletics this year. The trend follows in the steps of Tom Long, Fred Craddock, David Buttrick and others who maintain that the form of the Biblical text ought to dictate the form of the sermon. The Sermon as Symphony is intended more as a reference tool than as a work to be read straight through.
As the title suggests, Graves makes much of musical imagery in suggesting that a sermon’s effects on its listeners ought to be comparable to the effect of a fine symphony. Graves forthrightly asserts that he is attempting to build on the work of Tom Long. Graves distinguishes between form and genre.
Genre is a broader category of biblical literature comprising of gospel, acts, epistle and apocalypse. Form is a smaller subset within a genre such as parables, aphorisms and Johannine discourses within the gospel genre, and poetic exhortations, and hymns and poetry within the epistles. Graves differs from Long in his narrower focus on the forms, rather than on the broader genres of biblical literature. Graves asserts that the ideal in “form-sensitive preaching is maintaining the proper ‘respect’ for the text and its literary form.” This is to say a sermon on the Lord’s Prayer does not have to be in the form of a prayer; a sermon on the Hymn to Christ in Philippians 2 does not have to be sung.
Graves calls for Biblical interpretation which allows the form of the text to influence interpretation much as differing shapes and sizes of envelopes in the mailbox provide clues to what is in the letter. Drawing from musical terminology, as the title of the book would suggest, Graves says that effective, form-sensitive preaching harmonizes the mood and the movement of a biblical text. An effective preacher will know how to accentuate the mood swings inherent in a biblical text such as John 11, when the despair over the death of Lazarus gives way to victory in the raising of Lazarus from the dead. At the same time, there may be a mood change in the text, the movement refers to the logical progression of thought in the text.
Form-sensitive preaching is interested in saying and doing what the text is doing. While that seems essential to faithful and effective proclamation of the text, Graves argues that the approach he is advocating is merely one among many. A faithful and effective preacher will also know his or her worship context and the listening styles of those who are listening. Graves offers the disclaimer that “when communication theory, or what the preacher knows about the congregation, or common sense seem to dictate otherwise, the preacher should not feel bound to follow slavishly the text’s own structure. The primary emphasis in form-sensitive preaching is being true to the mood.
The first three chapters spell out a rationale for taking the forms of the text seriously. The remaining chapters deal with the forms which comprise the four major genres of New Testament literature — gospels, acts, epistles, and revelation (apocalyptic). Each chapter includes a model sermon interspersed with Graves’ analysis of the preacher’s method and effectiveness in faithfully proclaiming the text. These form a reference tool or a handbook which one may use when seeking to put a new spin on an old familiar text or when looking to proclaim the word more faithfully. It is a worthy addition to any preacher’s library.
Frank A. Thomas. They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching. Cleveland: United Church Press, 160 pp. ISBN 0-8298-1181-8. $15.95
Frank Thomas, pastor of New Faith Baptist Church in Matteson, Illinois explores the vital role of celebration in effective preaching. If such a theme calls the name of Henry Mitchell to mind, it should. (You are a well-read homiletician.) Thomas is a student of Mitchell and continues the ground-breaking work established by his mentor. The title comes from a sermon by an old African-American preacher by the name of Uncle Pompey entitled “Uncle Wash’s Funeral.”
Uncle Wash had been in prison, causing some to question his fitness for Heaven. Uncle Pompey reminded the mourners of the thief on the cross who made his way to heaven, leaving hope for Uncle Wash. The story of that sermon was related with the phrase: “when they got to singin’ ’bout the dying thief in heaven, an’ they seen the ‘surance of grace that was in it, they like to never quit praisin’ God.” (p.2)
Thomas says, “the nature and purpose of African-American preaching is to help people experience the assurance of grace (the good news) that is the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (p. 3). While Thomas is writing out of his African-American experience, the truth he is expounding is relevant for all those who preach.
Celebration is an emotional experience and as such, some could say that it is more caught than taught. Nevertheless, there are important theological and methodological factors to be taken into consideration in celebrative preaching. From a theological point of view, it is self-evident that the gospel is good news to be celebrated. Thomas states, “Whenever the good news of the gospel (the assurance of grace) is received and appropriated, celebration is the natural response.” (p. 23). Celebration must be defined if one to strive to effect a celebration in his or her preaching.
Thomas says, “Celebration is the culmination of the sermonic design, where a moment is created in which the remembrance of a redemptive past and/or the conviction of a liberated future transforms the events immediately experienced.” One could argue that the genius of African-American homiletics is its capacity to elicit celebration from a people facing desperate circumstances.
One could argue that the ability to engender celebration is more caught than taught but there are methods that may be used to foster celebration. Thomas offers a preaching worksheet which is helpful for anyone who seeks to lead the congregation to celebrate. The preacher asks, among other things: “What is the good news in this text?” “What is the bad news in this text?” and then is encouraged to develop a strategy for celebration asking: “What shall we celebrate?” “How shall we celebrate?” and “What materials of celebration shall we use?”
Thomas work provides a fresh look at an important aspect of preaching. How do we legitimately balance the emotive and the cerebral so that the congregation may “feel” the gospel as well as “know” the gospel. Model sermons are provided in the final chapter. Though Thomas is writing out of his own heritage about a theme associated with the African-American pulpit, this book speaks to a broader audience. It should be read by preachers who desire to awaken a staid, reserved, and, some might say cold, worship atmosphere. It should be read by preachers who desire to be faithful to the emotive as well as the cognitive aspects of the gospel.
Lucy Rose. Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press. Paper. 158 pp. ISBN 0-664-25658-9.
In Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church Lucy Rose demonstrates a firm grasp of the historic trends in homiletics and offers an inclusive, dialogical model for preaching in the 1990’s and beyond. Her attempt is to offer a “communal, heuristic, and nonhierarchical understanding of preaching.” Since conversation is her dominant paradigm, she offers her model as another contributor to the broader understandings of preaching rather than as the new definitive model.
A strength of Sharing the Word is the way that Rose is able to trace the history of homiletics and set forth her paradigm as a next logical step in that progression. She traces homiletics through the influence of John Broadus and Greek rhetoric, to the kerygmatic theories of C.H. Dodd and others, and to transformational homiletics wherein what is talked about is experienced viscerally as well as intellectually. For instance, a sermon on love should make one love, not just understand a new definition of love; a sermon on forgiveness should make the congregation feel forgiven.
Rose shows appreciation for all of these models but proposes moving beyond them to a new model which includes those previously marginalized. The trend is away from hierarchy and authoritarianism and toward collegiality and shared ministry.
Rose views preacher and congregation as journeying together to “understand and live out their faith commitments.” In viewing pastor and people on a journey together, Rose resists any notion of separation in the preaching task. Rose joins Dietrich Ritschl and others who advocate sermon study groups with the pastor and select congregation members studying the text together. She affirms Ritschl’s assertion that preaching’s true purpose is “so to proclaim the Word that Jesus Christ becomes the ‘true Preacher’.” In short, conversational preaching is a paradigm in which all voices are heard and taken seriously.
Rose’s paradigm has much to commend it. Preaching must be more than merely the sharing of information. Preachers are no longer the most educated persons in their community. Arrogant authoritarianism which refuses to take seriously the insights of those in the pew will not win a hearing in today’s world. Theological understandings are enriched and deepened when viewed in conversation with other points of view.
A critique of Rose’s work is in order at at least two points. One, she seems to fall into the pattern of believing that anything feminine is good and anything masculine is bad. In setting up the tension between inclusion and separation, she assumes that all female preachers fit the model she is contending for and that no male preachers do. That is not fair to those male preachers who are trying to be “sensitive, 90’s kind of guys” who are open and vulnerable.
Secondly, there are times when the preacher must realize that she has a different role and is called to speak for God to the community. This ministry must never be exercised in an authoritarian manner which “lords it over” the congregation, however.
Rose’s grasp of the long-term trends in homiletics makes this book worthy reading. Her proposals for conversational preaching will enhance a team approach to shared ministry.

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