by Zack Eswine
Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008. Paper, 288 pages.
Postmodernism has been a boon to the religious publishing industry. Countless volumes have been written about how the faith relates to postmodernity, and preaching is no exception. Some have been shallow and of little value, while others have been substantive and a worthy addition to the literature of preaching. Zack Eswine’s new book fits neatly into the latter category.
Eswine teaches preaching at Covenant Theological Seminary and, like his colleague Bryan Chapell (who writes the foreword), is a key contributor to the Christ-centered preaching movement. He has provided here a useful handbook to faithful biblical preaching in the challenging context of postmodernity.
The book begins with a powerful moment of reflection, as Eswine explains, “I was the child of a single mother in a low-income apartment complex. I had little biblical context. I smoked cigarettes as a 5-year-old while playing with the older kids. I think that sometimes our playing together was like parenting one another. … My family tried to love one another, but we often broke one another with various forms of active abuse, passive neglect, or earnest attempts to love that didn’t accomplish what we hoped.
“That was then. The grace of God has long since met my family in the deep places. I am a Christian, a pastor, a seminary professor. And I have been asking myself this question: Could I now reach who I once was?”
As he notes, “Every preacher needs to ask this question.” Continuing that thought, he observes that meeting the challenge of reaching today’s world with the gospel will only happen “when a generation of preachers remembers where they have been.” And Eswine proceeds to help his fellow preachers explore what it will take to reach “post-everything” people with God’s Word.
The book shares many of the challenges biblical communicators face in today’s culture, but Eswine reminds us that ultimately our work is dependent not on ourselves but on God’s power.
In the book’s first major section, the author discusses how to reorient the biblical sermon to the unique challenges of a postmodern culture. Arguing that preachers are to help the faithful navigate “the terrain of reality,” he introduces the concept of the “Context of Reality” (or COR), which he defines as “the mutual life environment that contemporary believers and unbelievers share in common with those to or about whom the biblical text was written that teaches us about the nature of reality.” Preachers use the COR to help their listeners understand, “This is what life is like.”
Citing the “expository bans” (those areas of biblical reality we avoid discussing for various reasons), Eswine encourages pastoral sensitivity but, at the same time, insists that we must not avoid bringing biblical truth to bear on these challenging areas of reality. We do so, he says, by faithfully recognizing and addressing the COR of our texts.
Urging preachers to focus our preaching on the redemptive work of Christ, Eswine builds on Chapell’s foundation of the “Fallen-Condition Focus” or FCF (which he argues is primarily “a tool for churched converts”). He extends the paradigm to include the unchurched as well as believers by letting the FCF stand not only for a “Fallen” condition but also Finite, Fragile and Faltering conditions. The FCF highlights the “holes that ravage our human condition,” and it becomes the task of the preacher to point to the “grace of the passage” that helps us understand the provision God has made to meet those needs. Eswine then deals with the implications of this approach for structuring sermons.
Given the postmodern attraction to story, Eswine includes a helpful chapter on developing sermons based on biblical narratives. And in a chapter called “Remember Where You’ve Been,” he challenges preachers to missional rather than exclusive preaching, which he defines as “a tendency to act as if one must already believe, understand, or agree in order to find a welcome environment to hear the sermon.”
In the second major section, Eswine analyzes how the Scripture should shape the sermon. Noting that the Bible is “our primary homiletics textbook,” he asserts: “To ask what resources the text provides is to consider how God chose to speak a particular text. The resources God provides in the text normally follow one of at least three basic paradigms. The prophet is the primary paradigm for preachers. But ‘God’s messengers are not all alike.’ God speaks through the prophet, but He also speaks through the sage and the priest in Christ. These diverse means of preaching reveal His homiletic range. Preachers need to lay hold of God’s homiletic range in order to meet the demands of post-everything preaching.”
The third major section takes on the “task of cultural engagement and contextualization by letting the sage, priest and prophet mentor us.” He reminds us that we all speak “with an accent” that reflects our “expository ethnicity, which refers to the cultural grammar and backtalk that I bring to the biblical text as a local preacher.”
Eswine includes a helpful chapter on how to preach biblical war passages in an age of terror-which can prove a particular challenge for unbelievers as well as many believers-along with a chapter on how to deal with the doctrine of hell, a topic many preachers simply avoid in a postmodern culture where the very notion of judgment is rejected out of hand. Additional chapters evaluate dealing with issues of idolatry, preaching as spiritual warfare, and the role of the Holy Spirit in the preaching task.
Preaching to a Post-Everything World not only offers valuable resources and counsel for biblical preaching in the 21st century, it regularly confronts preachers with the probing questions they must ask of themselves and their own ministries if they are to proclaim God’s Word with effectiveness and power today. This is a book that deserves a spot on each preacher’s bookshelf.
by Zack Eswine