Summer affords, at least in hope and in theory, a time for the relaxed reading of materials which would otherwise remain unread. Most preachers collect a stack of volumes during the year reserved for that mythical period “when I will have more time for reading.”
The books reviewed in this issue have been especially selected for interesting and thoughtful reading. All are recent publications of note which might otherwise escape your reading list. Two are masterful biographies of religious personalities. This is likely to be the one platform on which these two men will stand together. The third is a volume sure to gain a thoughtful readership and likely to spark a measure of controversy as well.
Robert Moats Miller. Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 608pp., $34.50, hb.
“In this century, which rapidly draws to a close, no American Protestant minister has exceeded the prominence of Harry Emerson Fosdick.” This observation launched Robert Moats Miller into research which has produced a biography of truly magisterial stature.
Loved by millions and hated by many, Fosdick has until now remained a man without an adequate biography. His autobiography, the Living of These Days, published in 1956, offers keen insights into the heart and mind of “America’s Preacher.” Nevertheless, any autobiography is limited to the perspective of the central character. Miller writes with an appropriate distance of time and perspective.
Robert Moats Miller, Professor of History at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is an established historian and writer with an interest in American Protestantism and the history of preaching. Miller writes as a “generalist” in the humanities. Though the book is a work of historical biography, Miller insists that it was not written for professional historians. It is free of historical jargon yet faithful to the standards of critical history. In sum, the book is both impressive and enjoyable to read. Six hundred pages of text pass before the reader thinks it possible.
Miller’s opening sentence is clearly accurate. Fosdick stands as the most prominent preacher in twentieth-century America. In terms of influence, impact, and recognition, Fosdick was a phenomenon not likely to be repeated.
Miller’s work follows a rather natural order, faithful to chronology and Fosdick’s interests. He begins with “Young Harry of New York” and finds in the youthful Fosdick the child as the father of the man. Young Harry’s first dramatic religious experience was an intense fear of the divine wrath. Indeed, Miller suggests that Fosdick’s life and work may be viewed as “a revolt against the Calvinist ethos,” which Fosdick saw as the source of his religious disquietude. Miller follows Fosdick through Colgate University, Union Theological Seminary, and into his first pastoral charge at the First Baptist Church of Montclair, New Jersey.
Rather quickly, however, the reader comes to the period which first brought Fosdick into national prominence, his service as a Baptist preacher at the First Presbyterian Church of New York City. By this time Fosdick had already captured the attention of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and become a central attraction in New York as “the Caruso of Preachers.”
Miller deals carefully with the events leading to Fosdick’s dismissal from the Presbyterian pulpit. The massive confrontation between fundamentalists and modernists on the issue of Fosdick was but a microcosm of the controversy soon to engulf large portions of American Protestantism. Miller writes of these events and issues with sensitivity. They were to have a massive impact on Fosdick. His ecumenical outlook and political pragmatism would not allow him to accept Presbyterian ordination, and his concern for peace would not allow him to become the issue of a split in the Presbyterian denomination.
Miller documents and describes carefully the important relationship between Fosdick and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. As early as 1912 Rockefeller and James C. Colgate had stalked Fosdick “with all the cunning generally ascribed to the senior Rockefeller’s business tactics.” The eventual call of Fosdick to the congregation of Park Avenue Baptist Church — later the nucleus of the Riverside Church — was the event which insured the strategic nature of Fosdick’s career. As the preacher in the great cathedral church in Morningside Heights, and later on the NBC Radio Network as well, the owlish pastor became known to millions of Americans simply as “Fosdick.”
Fosdick’s style of preaching was the product of his religious convictions and his enormous talent. Though Fosdick never described his manner of sermon preparation in detail, his model of “life-situation preaching” became a model for thousands of other preachers. In fact, Fosdick’s sermons themselves often found their way into other pulpits. He was commonly introduced to assemblies of ministers as “Dr. Fosdick, whose sermons you have heard and preached.”
Miller’s volume is full of hundreds of anecdotes, including the fact that the pulpit search committee seeking Fosdick’s successor at Riverside heard one potential candidate read one of Fosdick’s sermons in entirety. A reader of Fosdick’s published sermons will find them powerful even today.
Miller treats Fosdick the man with sensitivity and honesty. Fosdick is presented as a mere mortal with all the attendant foibles. Indeed, if Fosdick appeared superhuman at times, so did his fault lines. The author deals with the preacher’s emotional breakdown and other events with care.
This review can but hint at the riches found within this volume. Included are chapters dealing with Fosdick the professor, his pastoral ministry, his engagement with both modernism and fundamentalism, and his attention to social issues. Central to the entire biography is the issue of preaching, however. He was without doubt a homiletical genius.
The author’s generalist approach and historical perspective do not allow for an adequate discussion of Fosdick’s theology. Some of his doctrinal statements were certainly less than orthodox. Fosdick’s goal was to present the Christian faith in such a manner as would allow a thinking person to remain a Christian in the twentieth century. Each reader must determine if the theological price exacted in his method was too high. If he was a heretic, he was “the least hated and best loved heretic that ever lived,” to quote Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.
No preacher should neglect a study of Fosdick. The venerable Andrew W. Blackwood, speaking of Fosdick, suggested that “If any young man wishes to learn what to preach, he may look elsewhere; if he would learn how, he should tarry here.”
Miller and Oxford University Press are to be commended for the publication of this volume. It is a superb example of religious biography and is likely to remain the standard work on Fosdick for decades. The purchase price is a bit oppressive, yet the book deserves a general readership. Perhaps a less expensive edition will be forthcoming.
David Edwin Harrell, Jr. Oral Roberts: An American Life. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1985), 622pp., $29.95, hb.
The central figures in American televangelism are known to but the most reclusive Americans. Almost every channel broadcasts some religious programming, and Oral Roberts has graced most television screens at some point. He has been adored, hated, scorned, followed, and viciously attacked. Mostly, he is watched. Jeffrey Hadden and Charles Swann reported 1980 Arbitron figures showing “Oral Roberts and You,” the main television extension of Robert’s ministry, reaching a weekly audience of 2,719,250 — the largest audience in televangelism at that time.*
Though often the subject of derision and embarrassment to mainline Protestants and evengelicals, Roberts has until now lacked a significant critical evaluation. The present volume is more than a biography; it is a perspective on a movement with millions of adherents.
David Harrell is University Scholar and Chairman of the History Department at The University of Alabama in Birmingham. Prior to the publication of this volume Harrell was already the preeminent critical historian of the charismatic and healing revival movement in America. His 1975 book, All Things Are Possible was a penetrating look at the myriad of pentecostal manifestations. A sensitive writer, Harrell is both critical and sympathetic. At the onset he disclaims any acceptance of Robert’s theology, especially the healing ministry, yet he is obviously impressed by much of Robert’s life and ministry. The present volume, a magnum opus of considerable magnitude, is informative and most interesting.
Harrell is a professional historian and the volume is published by a respected university press. This alone should indicate the scholarly nature of the book. Nevertheless, it is free of academic obstructions and will serve both the scholar and the casual reader. The great mass of documentation is apparent in the bibliographical essay at the end. The author had a remarkable amount of cooperation from the Roberts family — a family not always known for its openness. One would hazard a guess that the quality of Harrell’s earlier book impressed the family.
The book begins in the childhood of young Granville Oral Roberts and concludes in the mid-1980s. Divided into five parts and twenty-three chapters, the book carries the reader through the poverty of childhood in rural Oklahoma to the jet-set lifestyle of the television evangelist and university president.
Harrell gives careful attention to the roles Roberts has played as leader of the pentecostal and charismatic movement, television pioneer, and founder of a university. Any one of these roles would require a remarkable personality. That one individual has played a central role in all three endeavors is one of the remarkable stories of American religious history.
The charismatic nature of Roberts’ ministry is well known to the most casual observer. After tracing the evangelist’s childhood, Harrell launches into the ministry of healing revivalism which marked the period 1947-1960. The cornerstone of this ministry was Oral’s firm belief in his own miraculous healing from tuberculosis as a child. Harrell describes the character of these early revivals held under the largest tent “ever constructed for the gospel ministry.” Harrell comments: “The Oral Roberts that captured the imagination of the American public in the decade of the fifties was a tent preacher.” Already, in 1954, Roberts had made his first foray into television.
One of the most captivating sections of the volume is the third major part: “Mainstream.” After rising to the top of the pentecostal movement Roberts longed for mainstream recognition. His early ministry had not received mainline or evangelical support, and had not been expected to do so. Harrell perceptively roots Roberts’ quest in the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism held in Berlin and chaired by Billy Graham. Calvin Thielman, pastor of Ruth Graham, served as a “social secretary” to Roberts, introducing him to mainline evangelicals and creating a dialogue which won Roberts a large measure of respect. Roberts had acknowledged the dream to build a university as early as 1960. Oral Roberts University was to become the symbol of the mainstream Oral Roberts.
The trials and tribulations of establishing a large university are detailed by Harrell as he chronicles the emergence of the university from the Tulsa dust. Also detailed is the fight for full accreditation, not only for the liberal arts courses, but for the graduate programs in medicine, law, theology, education, and business which were to follow. During this period Roberts was accepted into the ordained ranks of the United Methodist ministry, and joined the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church. With great care and sensitivity the author describes the personal and organizational development of Oral Roberts and his ministries.
Harrell found a great deal to admire in Oral Roberts and the other members of the Roberts family. Any readers doubting the personal commitment of the Roberts family to the theology they so forcefully preach will be touched by the chronicle of the family enduring the tragic deaths of daughter Rebecca and son-in-law Marshall Nash in a plane crash, and later the suicide of Ronnie, Oral and Evelyn’s eldest son. The author deals carefully with the divorce of Richard, the heir-apparent, and wife Patti, and his later marriage to Lindsay Salem, an ORU law student.
The construction of The City of Faith, the culmination of Roberts’ healing vision, is a story unto itself. The symbol of pentecostal theology wedded to medical science was understood to be a risky vision from the onset. Indeed, the facility continues to suffer from financial woes. Nevertheless, the fact of its existence and operation against all odds is a tribute to Roberts’ energy and drive.
Harrell deals perceptively with Robert’s theology and message, noting that “at first glance, Oral Robert’s ministry seems a collage of accommodations.” Without doubt, Roberts is one of the most pragmatic men to grace the religious scene. Like the proverbial cat, he always lands on his feet. This propensity Harrell roots in “two almost contradictory gifts” — Oral’s ability to focus on details and to conceptualize in generalities.
The portrait of Oral Roberts which emerges in the volume is one with significant strengths and apparent weaknesses, including a “volcanic temper” and irritability. Evelyn, Richard, and a host of other characters appear with strengths and foibles exposed. Roberts, now in a shift back to his pentecostal roots, is a fascinating character, almost appearing larger than life at times. His story is appropriately termed “An American Life,” and the preacher of any persuasion is richer for reading Harrell’s worthy biography.
*Prime Time Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism. (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1981). p.51.
Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1985), 175pp., $15.95, hb.
Though Postman never directly addresses the issue of preaching, Amusing Ourselves to Death may be one of the most important sociological studies in years, and it has direct impact upon the art and craft of preaching. Postman, an established communications theorist, is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at New York University. He is known to a large number of readers for his perceptive book The Disappearance of Childhood.
Postman’s thesis is haunting: “Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice.” The result, Postman suggests, “is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.” The author builds a compelling case for his thesis, demonstrating that the rise of the culture of entertainment has emerged as the culture of discourse has disappeared. This is an important clue for those of us who preach, that is, engage regularly in a form of public discourse.
The roots of the present crisis Postman roots in the emergence of the telegraph, the invention which broke the space barrier for information. Prior to the invention of the telegraph information could be communicated at a pace no faster than the messenger on foot, horseback, or train. The telegraph allowed for the rapid communication of information, and “gave a new meaning to public discourse.” Postman allows that the telegraph opened the doors for the rapid communication of irrelevant information, thus opening the doors to the information revolution and the trivialization of American culture.
The television is the real problem, however. Postman does not consider the television a mere invention. It has become an epistemology unto itself, a way of knowing which equalizes vast amounts of information, trivializing the meaningful and desacralizing the sacred. The symbol of the medium is the television-inspired game “Trivial Pursuit,” which rewards the knowledge of data but allows for no context or thought.
The central requirement of television is that it be entertaining. News, sports, dramatic presentations, and all other manifestations of cathode-ray programming are allowable so far as they are entertaining. “But what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience.”
The sermon emerged in a realm of public discourse. During the Reformation it quickly gained a typographical character. The sermon was the oral form of a written message. The congregation would listen for a long period of time to sermons crafted in detailed logic and rhetoric. The congregation most often left discussing the content of the message. Postman points to the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a paradigm for the age of public discourse now past. The audience listened intently for seven hours to detailed legal and historical arguments. The audience was comprised of the common folk of rural Illinois. Today, such a debate would never be televised. It would not make for an entertaining evening.
Television, Postman warns, has conditioned the public mind to think in segments of six to eight minutes at a time — just the amount of time between commercials. Producers actually craft the programs so that each eight minute segment is autonomous. If one segment is missed, the show still makes sense — or at least as much as it would in its entirety. The television-conditioned mind is at its worst when it attempts to be “serious.” News programs disseminate vast amounts of material without context or meaning. Great disasters and sports victories are equalized. Brief, expressionless commentary is the norm. Postman suggests that the symbol of the medium is the newscaster’s transition “and now this….”
What does this mean for preaching? Though Postman is not a preacher, and does not address the issue, the thoughtful preacher reading this volume will find several thoughts coming to mind. One may be the “Aha!” recognition that many of the blank faces facing the pulpit are unable or unaccustomed to listening to a logical oral presentation for an extended period. Simply put, there are no commercials in a sermon. Likewise, the preacher is faced with a congregation largely vaccinated against the urge to do something in the face of a challenge. Television floods the audience with a myriad of disasters, issues, and causes, most of which are greeted with a sigh by the numbed audience.
These two observations may lead the preacher to utilize illustrations so that a natural “break” is inserted to allow for a transition in the mind of the congregation. Humor is seen as an important communication device. Likewise, the preacher seeking to lead a congregation to a decision to do something had better give convincing reasons for the action.
Postman’s ideas represent a challenge to better, more effective preaching. The message cannot change, but it must be addressed ever anew to the congregation in such a way that they will hear and understand. This volume should make for interesting summer reading. And now stay tuned to this column for the next issue; same channel, same …
Booknotes
C. Hasell Bullock. An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books. Chicago: Moody Press, 1986. 343 pp, hb.
Bullock, an Old Testament specialist who teaches biblical studies at Wheaton College, provides a helpful survey of each of the major and minor prophets, organized according to their historical periods. While the preacher who plans to preach from these books (and many preachers manage to avoid them quite frequently) will want to move beyond this study, it does form a good starting point, with a brief evaluation of each book’s author, historical background, literary form and message, and concludes each chapter with an outline of the respective book.
Lowell O. Erdahl. Ten For Our Time. Lima, Ohio: C.S.S. Publishing Co., 1986. $4.50. 110 pp, pb.
Subtitled “A New Look at the Ten Commandments,” this book draws together ten sermons which offer suggestive treatments for preaching on these timeless truths in our own day. Erdahl, a former pastor and seminary professor and now bishop in the American Lutheran Church, includes a number of helpful illustrations, along with study questions for use in a discussion group or simply to stimulate your own thoughts.
John Wesley. The Nature of the Kingdom. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1986. $6.95. 282 pp, pb.
This collection of Wesley’s messages on the Sermon on the Mount have been edited by Clare Weakley, Jr., to make them more understandable to a contemporary audience. The fifteen sermons included here — all preached and published between 1735 and 1750 — include two introductory sermons and all 13 doctrinal sermons which Wesley preached on Jesus’ famous discourse.
John Bunyan. The Holy War. Charles G. Finney. Crystal Christianity. F. B. Meyer. Touched by the Master’s Hand. Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, 1985. pb.
Whitaker has reissued three classic works in inexpensive paperback editions. All three offer enjoyable reading and rich insights to the preacher; the Meyer book will be especially valuable if you plan to preach on John the Baptist, Peter or Paul in the near future.
Sheryl Bruinsma. Object Lessons for Special Days. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986. $4.50. 96 pp, pb.
If you regularly prepare children’s sermons or devotionals, you’ll find this to be a handy source of ideas for holiday and seasonal themes. The book follows the school year, from September to graduation, and touches on each area of the Christian calendar as well as some major secular holidays.
H. D. McDonald. The God Who Responds. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1986. $5.95. 188 pp, pb.
British theologian McDonald discusses ways in which God relates to His creation: prayer, miracles, providence and sovereignty. Emphasizing the personal nature of God, he deals with a number of significant questions (such as “Why is there evil if the world’s creator is good”) in a helpful manner.
Vance Havner. On This Rock I Stand. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986. $5.95. 159 pp, pb.
Formerly published as Vance Havner: Just a Preacher, this collection of Havner’s messages includes a brief interview with the popular evangelist. As always, the messages are enjoyable to read and include a variety of interesting stories and illustrations.

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