Review: Annette Brownlee, Preaching Jesus Christ Today: Six Questions for Moving from Scripture to Sermon (Baker, 2018. Pp. 208).
Review by Matthew Burdette
I am still quite new to ordained ministry, and so it is with the recent experiences of divinity school and seminary that I read and appreciated Annette Brownlee’s Preaching Jesus Christ Today, which is a gift to preachers and therefore a gift to the people who suffer preachers for a few minutes each week. This is a good book, and I hope that preachers and those preparing to be preachers will read it.
A professor of mine in divinity school who had a saying for future ministers, derived from Jesus’ instruction to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. My professor used to say, “Always tell the truth, but don’t always be telling the truth.” I acted on my professor’s advice when I was discerning for ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. A committee comprising priests and laity asked me why I thought I might want to be a priest. I told them the truth. But I also left something out: one of the first times I thought about ordination was when I finally realized how much I dreaded listening to sermons, and wondered if I needed to try it myself.
I now preach almost every Sunday, and so I’ve learned to be more forgiving of preachers, but I fear that my original instinct was basically right. Too many sermons have no particular point, are delivered without particular attention to the text of Scripture, contain no particular expression of the gospel, and have nothing in particular to say about Christian life in this world.
The situation cries out for a diagnosis, one that doesn’t settle on accusing the preacher of laziness. I suggest that the problem is theological and spiritual. Too many of us did not learn what it means to say that the Bible is the Word of God. And if we did learn a theologically correct way of stating what this means, we did not learn to listen to Scripture as though the Lord is in fact speaking by it. The strange history and composition of the Bible, that is, those things we discover by historical-critical study, only intensify this challenge.
Which brings me back to Brownlee’s book. Unlike a number of homiletical texts dealing with rhetoric or with a theology of preaching (which are important), Brownlee offers a robustly theological account of God’s address by means of the text of Scripture. She instructs preachers in this theology, not by conveying abstract truths to affirm, but by modeling the spiritual discipline of interrogating the concrete texts of Scripture in their strange particularity, and modeling how the preacher chooses to be interrogated by these texts, trusting that by them the Holy Spirit bears witness to Jesus Christ.
Learning to read the texts of the Bible, rather than reading at them or above them or presuming already to know what they say and fitting them neatly into already settled theological categories, is indeed a spiritual discipline. And it turns out that this discipline is also the only viable relationship that the preacher can have to the Bible if she actually believes that God speaks therein, and if she has any hope of conveying what God is saying. Preaching Jesus Christ Today is a great help in taking up this discipline, and so it teaches the meaning of our espoused theology, that God really speaks by this book.
The book’s structure centers on six questions and roles: “What do I see?” and the preacher as witness; “Whom do I see?” and the preacher as witness to Christ; “What is Christ’s word to me?” and the preacher as confessor; “What is Christ’s word to us?”and the preacher as theologian; “What is Christ’s word about us?” and the preacher as theologian of a broken body; and finally “What does it look like?” and the preacher as witness to Christ in a disobedient world. Brownlee applies these question in a chapter on sermon form and examples, which is followed by a conclusion on love as the hermeneutical criterion.
Incidentally, I tried out Brownlee’s six questions with my last sermon. What I found is that I did not preach the sermon I expected to preach because I did not find in the text of Scripture what I assumed I would find. I heard the text anew, and I believe my listeners did too. So the book actually works.
There are moments when Brownlee’s writing style is somewhat awkward or repetitive, and I was also left wondering about the pedagogical consequence of figural readings of Scripture, especially when preaching to those who are biblically illiterate. But these are minor complaints.