Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Art of Reading Scripture: Chapters 8 and 9

I'm actually going to skip chapter 7, 'Reading the Scriptures Faithfully in a Postmodern Age' by William Johnson because the issue is too difficult and outside of my area of 'expertise.' I would need to be much more informed about postmodern philosophy.

The eighth essay, 'Preaching Scripture Faithfully in a Post-Christendom Church,' by Christine McSpadden was a pleasant surprise. McSpadden is a priest in the Episcopal diocese of California, and if you know about what's been going on in the Episcopal church lately, you may understand why I did not come to the essay with the highest of expectations. McSpadden's advice is mainly geared towards those in mainline denominations, but I think we in the Evangelical church can gain from her insight as well. McSpadden's general hermeneutical methods are in line with the rest of of the authors of this book, so even though she does discuss hermeneutical issues throughout, I want to focus more on her homiletical suggestions.

Given the title, we can tell that the basic assumption McSpadden works from is that Christendom is over. I think this is obviously true, but what's less clear is what preaching should look like in the post-Christendom church. Even more basic is the question some ask, 'why privilege preaching?' McSpadden says that preaching still offers the most bang for the buck, it still offers 30ish minutes with a large group of people. So what should preaching look like today?
  1. Preach the basics - we're in a position where the Christian message is news again, many don't know it, so preach clearly, simply, and hospitably. Also, call for conversion, don't preach mere moralizing exhortation.
  2. Conceive of the sermon as an 'environment' for wondering, rumination, and imagination - be respectful in the way you treat questions and objections and make room for people's imagination to be captured and provoked by the story.
  3. Preach from all of Scripture - this gives us a much clearer picture of who God is. Don't duck difficult texts, and remain faithful to the text at all times. Don't critique Scripture, but allow it to critique you. Thus we are to stand under Scripture and approach the Bible prayerfully in our preparation. For, 'apostolic proclamation grew out of prayer and the gifts of the Holy Spirit; faithful preaching has the same points of origin' (p. 137).
  4. Engage the multiplicity of voices from the surrounding culture - do this in an attitude of humility, but be willing to engage the real differences that exist between Christians and others.
  5. Be compelling in your preaching so your hearers want to hear more about the Bible
Granted at some of these points McSpadden may have something slightly different in mind than an Evangelical would giving this same advice, but I still think that conceptually she is spot on (and not so greatly different than Evangelicals in the particulars). She also had a couple of practical tests for each of these points, I found them all to be very good tests, but I liked a couple especially that I want to point out.
  1. 'As you read through the text to be preached, and as you gather your thoughts on ways it might be preached, think about what creedal affirmation correlates with your ideas. Whether it is a point of the Nicene Creed, the Apostle's Creed, or the Westminster confession, think about how it supports and directs your explication. Simultaneously, think about how the biblical text gives dimensions to, illustrates, and makes sense of the creedal affirmation' (p. 131).
  2. On difficult texts: 'Examine why the text makes you bristle. What does it challenge, criticize, or propose that might be offensive? Is there an underlying, existential issue related to your own resistance that might connect with a similar resistance in your hearers?' (p. 138).
As McSpadden notes in the conclusion, preaching in today's context is difficult, but it's also a great opportunity. For many we can present the gospel to them for the first time, and hopefully we can do it in a way that glorifies God and is compelling to our hearers.

I will be brief on chapter 9, 'Embodying Scripture in the Community of Faith' by L. Gregory Jones. His essay begins by discussing the problem that we have, which is rampant biblical illiteracy. Our congregation doesn't know the stories of the Bible, and too many who do know the stories study the Scriptures at a solely academic level. For, as he notes, it's much easier to answer critical questions than to have our lives critiqued by Scripture.

As a solution, Jones suggests that we need to interpret the Bible in community, and our community is not just the community of contemporaries, but extends back to previous 'saintly interpreters.' Much of the essay looks at how Martin Luther King Jr. and Augustine interpreted Scripture. Much of his emphasis was on how these two men exemplified the way they understood the Bible through the way they lived. They had both sides, they knew the Bible very very well, which most Christians today don't. And their knowledge ran deep to the way they lived. While both of them had all of the tools of critical study at their time, they didn't satisfy themselves with that. They were transformed through their time in Scripture. Jones calls us to follow in their path, seeking to learn from God in his word and to put what we learn into practice, to love God and love others, especially our enemies.

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