Walter Brueggemann, Finally comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1989), 162 pp., $8.95, paper.
James Forbes, The Holy Spirit and Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 1056 pp., $7.95, paper.
The Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School are doubtless the most familiar annual lectureship in the American religious world. Founded in honor of Henry Ward Beecher, the lectures were named for Lyman Beecher, Henry’s esteemed father, at Henry’s insistence. Henry Ward Beecher did present the first series of lectures.
The Beecher Lectures, always addressed to the preaching task, have been presented by a succession of pulpit figures of world renown, and by some of little fanfare. Some series have been almost instantly forgotten, but most have been the focus of considerable attention — their influence multiplied by the publication of the lectures in book form. Several have become mainstays of homiletic discussion, from George Buttrick’s lectures published as Jesus Came Preaching (1930) to Fred Craddock’s Overhearing the Gospel (1978).
The publication of Finally the Poet and The Holy Spirit and Preaching will add to the reputation of the Beecher Lectures — and to the stature of their respective authors.
Walter Brueggemann, professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, has established an international reputation as a biblical scholar and exegete. His books and monographs are found among the stacks in thousands of preacher’s bookshelves. He is also president-elect of the Society of Biblical Literature.
Preaching has never been far from view in Brueggemann’s writings, and though few biblical scholars have been chosen to present the Beecher Lectures, Brueggemann was a natural choice. His lectures were sure to combine biblical scholarship with homiletical insight.
Readers of Finally the Poet will not be disappointed. Indeed, the reader will find the quality of biblical insight expected of an exegete of his stature but combined with brilliant exegesis of the human subject, the hearer of the text.
In his 1989 Beecher series Brueggemann “sought to address the crisis of interpretation the preacher faces in our culture.” As he suggests: “Preaching as an act of interpretation is in our time demanding, daring, and dangerous.” This context is shaped by twin crises, according to Brueggemann, a crisis in interpretation and a “crisis of categories in scripture study.”
Brueggemann’s suggestive title points to the central thesis of his lectures: The world, its cynicism and ideologies, have reduced the biblical message — and the gospel — to prose, when only poetry can save. The gospel is, he states, “a truth widely held, but a truth greatly reduced.” It has been, he suggests, “flattened, trivialized, and rendered inane.”
Such a situation calls upon preachers to be “poets that speak against a prose world.” Ideologies, with their “uncriticized absolutes,” distort and conceal the gospel, whether from the ideological left or the right. This leads to the reduction of the gospel and of all human speech as well. By prose, Brueggemann refers to “a world that is organized in settled formulae, so that even pastoral prayers and love letters sound like memos.” By poetry Brueggemann identifies, “not rhyme, rhythm, or meter, but language that moves like Bob Gibson’s fast ball, that jumps at the right moments, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace.”
Preachers may find Brueggemann’s thesis unsettling, which is what he surely intended. Those facing a congregation each week often find themselves far too comfortable with the tepid prose their congregants expect. Though his thesis is abstract, its relevance is inescapable. Brueggemann’s proposal is that poetic language is the appropriate medium for the preaching event. Furthermore, it is the primary form of language found in the Bible.
Brueggemann points often to the “generative power” of Scripture within the biblical community. He identifies four partners who must be present for this generative power to be loosed in the community of faith. The first is the text itself. The text resides in the community’s memory, but in distorted form. Given the power of human ideologies, “the text has come to sound strangely like Adam Smith or Thomas Hobbes or Jacque Rousseau or Alfred North Whitehead or Karl Marx or Carl Jung or Eric Berne or Daniel Moynahan.” Only the poet can free the text to come alive within the jaded community.
The second partner is the baptized — that is, the community itself, shaped as it is by the text. Third, there is the specific occasion of the speech. “When the music stops and the rheostat is turned down, then there is this precious, awesome moment of speech.” The fourth partner is the new world revealed in the text. “We find new configurations of life yet unformed, unthought, but now available.”
The four main chapters of the book deal with four critical pairings: numbness and ache, alienation and rage, restlessness and greed, and resistance and relinquishment. By themselves, the words are suggestive, but without form. In Brueggemann’s hand they come alive.
By numbness and ache Brueggemann points to “the powerful reality of guilt and the more powerful reality of healing.” This requires a three-fold task of the preacher. First, the preacher must speak honestly of sin and guilt. Brueggemann does not shy away from the reality of guilt and hide behind psychological language to deny its valid role in the human struggle. The reality of sin and guilt is “more powerful and more destructive than we are wont to imagine.” But the preacher cannot stop there, but must “construe an alternative.” That alternative is reconciliation, forgiveness, and restoration found within the text “and the God of the text.”
The third task of the preacher is to move the congregation from one world to the other — from sin and guilt to restoration through the new reality disclosed within the text. This, he makes clear, cannot be accomplished by flattened prose. After all the other voices have spoken, finally comes the poet.
The evangelical thrust of Brueggemann’s thesis and his focus on the “taxonomy of guilt and healing” will prod the reader to hear his contrast between prose and poetry. He acknowledges that it may sound strange for those in the mainline churches to speak such clear words of judgment and redemption, but “the requirement of reparation and the self-giving by God constitute the central insight of the gospel.”
His critical sword cuts a wide swatch, including both the conservative and liberal extremes in the church: “Evangelical preaching is invited to break out of the conservatism that makes God function mechanically, for such a scholastic God has no power to save. Preaching is invited to break out of the liberalism that believes we finally can manage on our own, for managing never gives life. Preaching has to do with a life poured out for us to deal with the residue of guilt left untouched by reparations.”
Genuine preaching thus requires four assertions: that there is real guilt, that God is serious in anger and anguish, that reparations are required, and that the residue is resolved. But his message must be presented artistically if it is to be heard.
“Alienation and rage” speak of the biblical notion of communion, a reality more often assumed than found. Two forms of “muteness” rob communion of possibility. The muteness of excessive subjectivity and of extreme objectivity can render genuine communion impossible. The first points only to the individual, the second only to God. Brueggemann suggests that the preacher must speak for both parties, of “the Sovereign who transforms” and “the subject who yields in delight.”
“Restlessness and greed” and “resistance and relinquishment” point to other realities. The former to “obedience for missional imagination” and the latter to “a permit for freedom.” Brueggemann illustrates his model of poetic textual exegesis throughout the volume, with biblical texts (most from the Old Testament) shaping his discussion.
Readers will find Finally Comes the Poet a feast for any preacher attempting to break through flattened language and flattened ears. The book is itself a model of poetic communication. Brueggemann is a skilled writer, whose command of the language and intentional freshness make for a deceivingly easy appropriation of his point. The style and substance of the book reveal the powerful freshness of poetic speech.
That speech is, he suggests, “spoken with the gentle quiet of a dove, with the dread-filled cunning of a serpent.” The preacher has only the word, he admits, “but the word will do.”
The Holy Spirit and Preaching reveals another homiletical mind at work. Few preachers are unaware of the contributions of James Forbes, who taught for several years at Union Theological Seminary in New York before becoming pastor of Manhattan’s Riverside Church in 1988. Forbes brings his own background in black southern Pentecostalism (the United Holy Church of America) and years of reflection on the preaching task to his 1986 Beecher lectures and to the volume.
As a child, Forbes imitated his preacher father, Bishop James A. Forbes, Sr., and the pulpit has been his obsession ever since. Trained at Howard University and Union Theological Seminary, Forbes brings a unique combination of Pentecostal fervor and brilliant insight to the preaching event and to these lectures.
Actually, Forbes deals less with preaching than with the preacher, who “makes a statement about the Holy Spirit just by entering the pulpit.” The preaching event is “a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood expression of the theology of the Holy Spirit.”
Forbes speaks of the “ebb and flow” of attention to the Spirit within the history of the church. He sees some signs of revitalization in the present, but warns against unrealistic hopes of a significant breakthrough. Why is the Spirit, as one theologian has suggested, “the neglected member of the Trinity?” Forbes suggests that some mainliners may feel reticent to speak of an experience with the Holy Spirit, leaving such talk to the Charismatic and Pentecostal communities within the church. Others, he suggests, “fear being grasped by an invisible presence we cannot control.”
This is, he believes, a central problem within the church: “I am convinced that Pentecostals and charismatics, as well as mainline Christians — be they conservative or liberal — face a common problem. Given the predominating view of reality in which we live, many find it difficult to know with certainty that it is indeed the Spirit of the Lord who shapes our personal and religious experience.”
This more general problem is the subject of Forbes’ attention for his “sense is that most of us find it difficult to experience the sacred.”
Forbes points to the experience of Jesus, and His anointing to ministry in particular, as the central model for the Christian preacher. Jesus’ anointing by the Spirit was a central part of His calling, and it was a reality, Forbes suggests, which Jesus intended His followers to experience.
Forbes calls upon preachers to “abandon the notion of a weekend experience that achieves an overwhelming experience of God, but would deem everything that came before it as absolutely unimportant.” Jesus, he illustrates, spent a long and necessary period of nurture.
The Holy Spirit and Preaching demonstrates James Forbes’ powerful preaching, and his concern for the spiritual life of the preacher. His call for a serious and intentional turn to the Holy Spirit is a healthy corrective to the contemporary church — in all its denominational manifestations.
The volume is brief, but worth the preacher’s attention. Forbes’ careful attention to the life of the Spirit in such issues as sermon preparation and delivery will enrich and challenge every preacher.
Book Notes
Warren W. Wiersbe, ed. Classic Sermons on the Prodigal Son “Kregel Classic Sermons Series” (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1990), 153 pp., paper.
Preachers love the parables of Jesus, as do their congregations. The parable of the so-called “prodigal son” is a challenging text for preaching. Warren Wiersbe has collected ten classic sermons on the prodigal son from leading preachers of the past. Sermons are included from the ministries of Charles H. Spurgeon, Alexander Maclaren, Fredrick W. Robertson, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and D. L. Moody, among others. Each brings a unique homiletical focus to this classic text.
William Watley, From Mess to Miracle and Other Sermons (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1989), 143 pp., paper, $8.95.
Sixteen sermons are included in this volume by William Watley, pastor of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey and visiting professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. Each sermon takes a biblical personality as its focus, with sermons covering characters ranging from Ananias to Tamar.

Share This On: