The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America

By Jones, L. Gregory | Interpretation, October 1997 | Go to article overview

The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America


Jones, L. Gregory, Interpretation


The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America, by Richard Lischer Oxford University Press, New York, 1995. 344 pp. $25.00. ISBN 0-19-508779-8.

RECENTLY I SHOWED STUDENTS a videotape of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. I wanted the students to appreciate the cadences of King's oratory, and the ways in which, both in content and style, he was able to move people. I also wanted them to reflect on the power of his theological allusions and argument. So, at the conclusion of the videotape, I reminded them that at a pivotal point in the speech, King called on his audience to "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream." When I asked the students why King invoked these words, there was an awkward silence. Finally a student rather hesitatingly suggested, "Well, he was a mighty fine orator, he probably coined them himself." Virtually no one in the class recognized what King (in all likelihood, rightly) presumed about his audience: namely, that they did not need to be told that those words came from the prophet Amos in order for them to hear a prophetic indictment of people worshiping God while ignoring claims of justice and righteousness.

Over the past thirty years, a marked increase in biblical illiteracy among many Christians in the United States has been accompanied by a correlative decrease in the ability to hear the biblical message. This is true both within the churches and in broader cultural contexts, with increasingly disastrous consequences for our ecclesial and civic discourses. At times, this means that people do not even recognize explicit passages quoted from Amos or Jesus, much less Ruth or Paul. But it also undermines our ability to discern biblical allusions in sermons, literature, and in public speeches such as Lincoln's Second Inaugural or any number of King's addresses.

This situation also threatens our ability to interpret the complex shape of King's legacy-or it would have, without this remarkable and insightful book by Richard Lischer. In a time when both admirers and detractors are tempted to turn King into just another "public intellectual" or worse, a mere "social activist," Lischer eloquently displays the complex theological, social, and political tapestry of King's life and witness. King's identity as a preacher in the black church offers the key to Lischer's interpretation. He suggests that his book can be read as an extended commentary on King's recurring remark, "In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher" (p. 3). Using such a comment as an interpretive key might invite the worry that this is an attempt to overread King's "religiosity" at the expense of his social witness. But Lischer persuasively shows how King remained a preacher both in church pulpits and in public policy arenas. According to Lischer, King "believed that the preached Word performs a sustaining function for all who are oppressed, and a corrective function for all who know the truth but lead disordered lives. He also believed that the Word of God possesses the power to change hearts of stone" (p. 6). King developed this conviction about preaching while growing up in his father's church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta. In Lischer's view, it guided King's own preaching and shaped the strategy for his public speeches.

There are two particularly noteworthy features of Lischer's analysis of "the preacher King." First, he shows the remarkable degree to which King, like the black church tradition more generally, cultivated a scriptural imagination. …

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