Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

A Rickety Bridge: Biblical Preaching in Crisis

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

A Rickety Bridge: Biblical Preaching in Crisis

Article excerpt

WILLIAM H. SHEPHERD, JR.*

I.

"Never use the text as a pretext," said my old Methodist preacher friend. I've always suspected from the glimmer in his eye that he knew how often he did just that, using the Bible as a springboard for a message he had in mind all along.

Take the logic of the following sermon. The text is Luke 13:34: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" The text invokes the Lukan themes of the prophet's journey to Jerusalem, the necessity of Jesus' suffering, the resistance of the people to God's visitation, as well as the hot theological issues of antisemitism in the New Testament and biblical images of the divine female. Today's sermon, however, touches none of these. The preacher takes as a starting point the image of the mother hen, and admits that he himself has no knowledge of hens per se, but he does know something about pheasant, which look a lot like hens. He describes his childhood home and the pheasant in the woods behind the house, painting a vivid picture of Mama Pheasant and Babies Pheasant marching in single file. Pheasant, it turns out, have two main communicative modes, according to the preacher: they know how to say "Come" and "Follow me." Which, incidentally, is just what Jesus says to us.

Were we to use, as homileticians have often done, the metaphor of the bridge to describe the transition between biblical text and sermon, we would look back from the end of this sermon to see a strange sight. The bridge we have just crossed looks more like a roller coaster, with strange twists, loop-the-loops, and curlicues between here and there. On the other side, we see the scribes and Pharisees, Herod and Jerusalem, Luke and the people of God. But the bridge veers early and sharply, swiftly skirting around the outspread wings of mother hen to meet pheasant from the woods, who seem to share the linguistic if not symbolic world of Jesus himself. We may wonder exactly how we got from there to here, as soon as our heads clear from spinning.

The seminary professor's gut reaction may be to cast blame. The preacher has not spent enough time in the study. Serious exegesis and theological study, little appreciated by the congregation when presented in their raw form, have given way to pandering with popular personal anecdotes. Perhaps preachers and congregations have succumbed to the sensationalism of a culture obsessed with mass self-revelation; we do, after all, have to compete with Oprah, Geraldo, and Madonna. "Our preaching has taken on the same rhetorical characteristics of a TV commercial," says William Willimon. "Many preachers have capitulated to the `itching ears' of their congregations which desire to be entertained. They re-create the gospel in their own superficial image rather than allow the gospel to re-create them in its demanding image."1

Willimon and others, however, would blame the working preacher and the congregation less than the purveyors of homiletic theorythe seminary professors themselves. Willimon recalls that in seminary he was taught that "the preacher is the bridge between the world of the Bible and the world of the 20th century."2 He complains that in recent homiletical theory, with its stress on storytelling and rhetoric, traffic on the bridge moves mainly in one direction, from the modern to the ancient side.

But some would say that perhaps the bridge itself is in danger of collapse, and we need to find some other way of getting from here to there and back again.

II

Edward Farley has voiced a strong critique of the metaphor Willimon and recent generations of theological students were taught to use in connection with preaching, and his concerns are worth looking at in detail.3 "The bridge paradigm," as Farley calls it, has been the dominant view of preaching in recent memory. …

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