Few writers can coin a phrase like Leonard Sweet, and nowhere is his talent for creating new terms on greater display than in his new book Giving Blood.
Sweet, a United Methodist minister who now serves as E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Drew Theological Seminary, has written many books—more than 60 at last count—and many of them aim at an audience of pastors and church leaders. This is his first, however, that is so directly aimed at preachers and their craft.
In Giving Blood, Sweet aims at redirecting preachers away from their text and word-driven paradigm toward a new semiotic approach. Sweet explains, “Sermons that point to Christ through stories and images make use of semiotics. Semiotics is best defined as the ability to read and convey signs, where a sign (be it image, gesture, sound, object or word) is something that stands for something else. Semiotics is about pointers, not points.”
Sweet contrasts his suggested semiotic approach to more traditional textual exegesis, which he says, “is based on mining the ore of words to excavate the gems of biblical principles, a biblical panning for nuggets in one massive stream of words. Biblical semiotics, by contrast, is a form of spelunking Scripture while surfing the Spirit for resonant images and stories by which to live and for which to die in Christ.” (You don’t have to read far in this book to recognize that you are going to be immersed in a tidal wave of metaphors.)
In the process of urging this semiotic paradigm, Sweet also returns to a theme he previously addressed: the EPIC model, which he indicates stands for experiential, participatory, image-based and connective (or, at times, communal). Anxious that the reader may not yet be swallowed in a sufficient level of creative terminology, Sweet also introduces what he calls “the transductive or transincarnational method of preaching truth,” which he defines as “preaching that mediates the revelatory power of the Holy Spirit; it points to God in the midst of the congregation, in the midst of lives.”
A major part of this new homiletical paradigm is a dramatic increase in the use of story. “The church’s failure to tell stories in a culture that talks in stories is a story in and of itself,” Sweet asserts. Stories are more than techniques, but have “become the very essence of communication itself,” in what he calls our TGIF world (Twitter, Google, Instagram, Facebook).
“The semiotic sermon,” says Sweet, “is the art of exegeting not the words and principles, but the images, metaphors and stories (narraphors) of Scripture.” The term narraphor is another Sweetism that plays a significant role in the book. It is his term for what he calls a “narrative metaphor.” He explains, “When we combine images/metaphors with narrative (story), we create a narraphor. Like a parable, a narraphor contains the power of a metaphorical image with the accessibility and approachability of a story.” As is often the case, Sweet coins a new term to express an idea rather than simply explaining the concept in more traditional language.
Evangelical preachers who have been trained to do big-idea preaching will note that Sweet has something entirely different in mind:
The prevailing homiletic approach encourages preachers to identify the main principle or the key idea or the big point. So, for example, if I were preaching about the flood of Noah, I would identify the main principle as God’s judgment and mercy. This is not the goal of EPIC preaching. In EPIC preaching, we look for the master metaphor, the leading or controlling image that reframes the conversation or concept. This metaphor can be a character, a key moment in the story, an artifact or artifice, even a word that functions as an image. Metaphors are not the sermon’s seasoning; they’re the very meat of the sermon itself, and they are the mediators that carry the incarnational story of Jesus.
Blood is the master metaphor of Sweet’s book; indeed, there is no escaping it, as it recurs again and again in virtually every section. Explaining that “blood work is the practice of preaching,” he describes the development of his argument in the text as lab work. He provides a quick survey of the “various stages of lab work” that he covers, “from the first steps of preparing the sermon (knowing yourself, your sources, and your method of delivery) to the challenge of building your sermon (constructing creative narraphors; using image and metaphor; embedding style, depth and passion; and supplementing with humor and participatory apps) to the nuts and bolts of delivery (involving your congregation creatively, using altar calls, embedding sacramentality, and ensuring powerful impact) to problems you have encountered (including preacher’s block, criticism, nervousness, the propensity to be too rough or too sugary, agendas, heresies, and ideas that don’t come off) to lessons that come from experience (maintaining humility, learning from peers, interpreting response, and feeding your sheep more effectively).”
Clearly Sweet wants preachers to rethink their craft so as to reduce the emphasis on the text and enhance the image-based, experiential element. He makes the valid point that contemporary American culture is story-driven and that effective communication requires that we speak to listeners in language they can grasp.
Evangelicals, however, likely will find discomfort in Sweet’s downplaying of the significance of the words of the biblical text in favor of an almost total emphasis on image and metaphor. Jesus preached primarily in parables, but other examples of New Testament preaching differ significantly. Surely there is a place for both approaches in today’s pulpit.
In a doctor of ministry seminar I recently led, I had the students read Sweet’s book and was interested in one of their chief complaints: There are no examples of what he is urging preachers to do. After a long discussion of a new paradigm, asking preachers to reframe their approach to proclaiming God’s Word so dramatically, Sweet offers not a single example of a sermon in which he models what he is selling.
This is a book preachers should read and from which they can gain some real insight, but don’t swallow it completely. Image is vital, and so is word.