This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.
The outline of the book is in this post. This is an excerpt from the final chapter (8) on Preaching, Praying and Primary Christian Langauge.
Some questions discussed below are: What do you consider good and bad preaching? What form should sermons take? How should the sermon relate to the text? Should the preacher bring in personal stories or generally keep them out of the sermon? What assumptions should the preacher make about his / her listeners in a post-Christendom context? How critically should listeners listen to sermons?
I always am trying to remind students in class that the purpose of good theology is, to use a phrase from J I Packer, for ‘doxology and devotion’. In other words, there is no artificial boundary between a life of worship and theology (thinking about God, faith, and what means to be a Christian in the modern world).
One of the many things I like about Hauerwas is his lifetime of resisting modernist epistemological dualism – the notion that there is the detached objective world of knowing and the subjective world of values, beliefs and feelings. In his life and work he has consistently prioritised prayer, preaching, theologically reflective writing and some biblical commentary. He is on record as saying this is the work he cares most about and see as most significant.
I’m focusing in on their discussion on preaching. Brock creatively identifies common themes from Hauerwas’ sermon material – which provokes this from Hauerwas on preaching on the relationship between the sermon and the biblical text:
Those are extremely interesting observations. I always take the text very seriously. I am against idea-sermons. What you say in the sermon always has to be dependent on the text you’ve been given. One of the things I also try to do is work very hard not to exclude the Old Testament text. So I try to preach, as much as I can, in a manner that the text of the Old Testament is seen as crucial for what we’re saying in the New. So there is a certain sense that I hope my sermons are really exegetically responsible. That involves why it is that I believe Christianity is a form of Judaism and that I don’t say that but I try to show what the implications are for the reading of the text we have before us.
To this I want to shout AMEN! Preaching, if it is to be authentic, has to engage well with the text itself – doing the work of exegesis that underpins what is being communicated. What has a preacher to say if he / she is not preaching the text? I’m sorry, but far too much preaching is ideas merely hung on a handy text. Such preaching is dismaying. The Scriptures are powerful and Spirit inspired – the preacher’s job is to let God’s Word speak.
And I’m with Hauerwas completely on how the text is best located within the wider biblical narrative.
… sermons cannot be what they are without being embedded in the story of “Out of all the peoples of the world I have chosen you, Israel, to be my promised people.” (251)
He adds this caution that while all texts are located somewhere within the biblical narrative, sermons themselves are best not stories. Because our stories can be anthropocentric distractions :
But that doesn’t mean that the sermon itself tells a story. I worry that, for example, when preachers tell the story of “When me and my wife . . .” I always think, “Oh no.” That’s just an invitation for the congregation to think, “Isn’t our preacher clever?” I don’t like that at all. I try to stay away from any self-revelations or stories that have shaped my life. (251)
Do you agree with SH here? Is the preacher best to keep personal stories out of his / her preaching?
Preaching is a wonderful privilege but also a great source of temptation. Human nature being what it is, it is so easy, even unconsciously, to be motivated by the basic human desire for affirmation, praise, admiration and respect. And so, to present a particular story about ourselves to our listeners that feeds into those desires. The best practice I think therefore is to keep stories of ourselves and our lives out of the frame. A sort of ‘And lead us not into temptation’ sort of ethic. Yes, let’s have creative illustrations and relevant stories that illuminate the text, but let’s keep the ‘me’ out of those stories.
At one point Brock asks Hauerwas about his oft quoted proposal that sermons should be argumentative.
What’s at stake in your insisting that “sermons should be arguments”? And what kind of arguments do you mean? You elsewhere suggest that the sermonic form is a better form of argument than theoretical argumentation. (252)
Hauerwas’ point here is that sermons must engage the hearers and proposing, unpacking and defending an argument is the best way to do this. Again this is helpful – a basic argumentative form invites listeners into a conversation that ideally is relating to their lives and their world.
There is much more in this rich conversation that I can capture here. Here’s is an intriguing aside:
This is why preaching in our time is fundamentally shaped by the assumption you are preaching to people who are only half Christian. Apologetics takes over. (254)
Absolutely right. The reality of church life in a post-Christendom world means that very little can be assumed of what people know and believe. My hunch is that many sermons assume far too much and that we might be very surprised at what many listeners actually believe.
I think a good approach to this is to preach about the Christian life / gospel in a way that avoids WE and US language as much as possible. This presents the gospel and demand of the Christian life and leaves but space for the listener to be reflecting on where they are. It makes no assumptions of the listeners.
Yes, by all means stress the corporate nature of the Christian faith, but WE and US language all too easily makes a dangerous assumption that everyone present is ‘IN’. And this slides comfortably into US switching off – while there might be something interesting to think about, nothing much is at stake in the message; it is really just about helping us to do a little bit better in our lives rather than a message that calls us to come and die to ourselves and live to the Lord.
On critical assessment of preaching, Brock asks Hauerwas this:
BB: … do you have any advice on whether we should allow our critical mind to start chewing on what the minister is doing in church?
SH: No, I think that’s exactly what we should do.
BB: Why’s that?
SH: Because the sermon isn’t the property of the one preaching it. The sermon is the congregation’s reception of the Word of God. You sure better be ready to think that that word should invite some critical response. The idea that the congregation is just passive recipients of the word means that you don’t get what the word is about. (255)
This is wise counsel. The worst response to a sermon I guess is that it creates no reaction at all – just indifference. A sermon should be expecting and receiving critical response. And depending on the context, that response may welcome the Word and at other times fiercely resist it. Both responses can be reactions to what the Spirit is saying – one good soil, the other perhaps stony ground.
That critical response can also be, as Brock’s question implies, reflection on the sermon itself. The challenge here I think is for the preacher / leader not to be defensive but to take the initiative to welcome critical feedback by setting up structures in which a learning loop can happen with a small but diverse group of trusted people. However good and experienced a preacher, everyone always has more to learn.
Comments, as ever, welcome.