I Love to Tell the Old. . .Old, Old Story: a book review

Preaching from a narrative text is different from preaching Paul’s epistles. In Preaching Old Testament Narratives, Benjamin Walton (professor, former pastor and president of Preaching Works) focuses on the skills and hermeneutical approach needed to preach from Old Testament narratives well.  Sensitive to story, Walton shows preachers how to craft a message which takes into account the genre and connec9780825442582ts with the congregation.

Walton likes three letter abbreviations and his methodological approach involves a series of them. First, he advises preaching from a CUT (complete unit of thought). This is roughly equivalent to what exegesis books and homiletics professors mean when they say, “determine the pericope,” but Walton observes that CUTs are larger  for narrative texts (perhaps a chapter or two) than say your typical epistle pericope (34).  Once you determine your CUT, you interpret it with an eye for its OTM (original theological message)—what the passage was communicating about God to its original hearers. Once you figure that out, you explore how it speaks to people today. This is your THT (take home truth). Finally, you depict the THTs with PPAs (picture painting applications) which make the truth of God’s word vivid for congregants context (165).  Along the way Walton offers great tips on how to craft and deliver a compelling message (i.e. writing the sermon and delivering it), and connecting Old Testament narrative to Christ’s redemptive work.

There is a lot that is commendable about this book. Walton’s approach is similar to Haddon Robinson’s Big Idea preaching but he is more sensitive to narrative than Robinson. Narrative texts make their points implicitly and indirectly and sometimes take a couple of chapters to do it.  If you are going to preach story well, it is helpful to have a sense of how story works. Walton is aware of this, helping preachers attend to the story in their exegesis and their delivery.

This doesn’t mean that this a hermeneutically heavy handed book. There are footnotes to Shimeon Bar-Efrat and Tremper Longman discussing some distinctives of the genre, but Walton never delves too deep into the characteristics of Hebrew narrative (i.e. doublets, type scenes, reiteration of events, etc). His approach is accessible to non-scholars, though is respectful of the interpretive gifts of literary approaches to the Bible. There is more to be said about narrative interpretations, but Walton gives enough of the goods to get young preachers on their way.

He also has tons of practical advice of how to craft and deliver sermons. A lot of what he commicates can be gleaned from other preaching books, but Walton focuses on how to do this with a narrative text. He doesn’t advise three-point sermons, alliteration or bullet points. Instead he helps preachers pay attention to the shape of story, and the way it communicates its theological message and take home truths (without devolving into moralism).

I give this book four stars and recommend it for young preachers and any preacher who wants to hone their craft. I love narrative but picked up some helpful stuff here. I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review

Preaching Preparation with Accuracy: a book review

I like reading preaching books. As a regular, but rookie preacher, I know I have lots to learn. Preaching books provide me with ideas on how to engage the text and present it to a congregation. Preaching with Accuracy: Finding Christ Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching is a new book from Kregel Ministry on how to preach messages that are faithful to the Bible’s text and intent. Author Randal Pelton is a pastor and professor at Lancaster Bible College and Gordon Conwell. Pelton pairs Haddon Robinson’s ‘Big Idea’ approach with Bryan Chapell’s Christ Centered canonical approach. The result is a ‘homiletic hybrid’ which allows selected passages of scripture to control meaning while placing it in the larger frame of the Bible’s unity and the understading of Christ (13).

The seven chapters of Pelton’s book provide a hands-on approach to selecting and exegeting the preaching text with attention to its main idea, its function in the wider context of the individual book or genre, and its place in the canon–the larger biblical story. The first three chapters address how to approach the text. In the first chapter Pelton makes the case of the expositional (rather than topical) approach to preaching. In chapter two, he urges us towards locating the ‘big idea’ from the passage and warns that preaching the ‘little ideas’ skews our understanding. In chapter three he advises us on how to select and ‘cut the text’ (decide the limits of the pericope and whether or not our passage has a ‘big idea’ of its own or if it is borrowing from the immediate context).

The rest of the book describes his method. Chapter four exlains how to locate the ‘textbi’ (textual big idea). Pelton walks through how to identify the big idea in various genres (and invites practical hands-on practice in relationship to particular texts). Chapter five examines the ‘conbi’ (contextual big idea)–how our text functions within the larger context of the book it belongs to.  As with the text, Pelton gives helpful advice on how to determine how passage functions in its peculiar genre (i.e. a story fits into a larger narrative, laws and legal material, geneologies are also encased in narrative, epistle texts are a link in the larger argument, etc). Chapter six explores the ‘canbi’ (canonical big idea)–how this work functions within the God’s story (i.e. how it relates to the story of Jesus, the canon’s center). Pelton’s final chapter explores how to use these different levels in crafting a sermon with an eye toward application.

Pelton’s argument is that accurate preaching happens when we attend to the meaning of the text, its context, and then its larger canonical frame. The order is important. By attending to the literal-historical meaning of the text first, Pelton guards our canonical/theological interpretation from devolving to a shallow allegory with little resemblance to the plain-meaning of the text. But he also helps us connect the dots to the larger biblical story. I think in practice it doesn’t work as neatly as Pelton describes. Sometimes our understanding of canon or our wider theological commitments drives our understanding of an individual text (in ways we may not be aware!). Still I appreciate his emphasis on making sure what we are preaching is the passage’s main idea (not our own).

This is not a book about ‘preaching.’ This is a book about the work preachers do before sitting down to craft their sermon. Pelton has little to say here about the preaching moment. He doesn’t address the sermon form (other than a couple of paragraphs on thinking of an introduction for your sermons). His focus is almost solely on sermon content rather than delivery. I think that emphasis is appropriate but it does indicate the limits of this book. If you are looking for a book which gets you to think about how to preach the Bible, attentive to the text, to its larger context and the gospel, there is a lot here for you to chew on. If you are looking for a book which will aid you to proclaim in relevant, creative ways, you will be disappointed with what you find here. That is a different topic altogether.

Still for what it does and is, it is pretty good. I read through and implemented his approach as I prepared my Sunday sermon this week. It didn’t change how I approached my text significantly but it did help me organize some of my ideas. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection; I received this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Preaching for Listeners Instead of Readers: a book review

Preaching is an oral act. It involves climbing into a pulpit (or at least standing before a congregation) and declaring God’s Word. Strangely though, sermon preparation has become increasingly a literary act. Since the dawn of the printing press and proliferation of print media, our reading of texts (and the Bible) have become increasingly private and individualized. This has had an effect on how sermons are crafted and delivered. In many churches, sermons are read and performed and do not deviate one iota from the script. Sermons are theologically precise, but often stilted in their delivery.

Dave McCellan urges the recovery of ancient homiletic practices. This would mean preparing sermons with the oral patterns of listeners in mind (rather than a literary outline which appeals to readers). In Preaching By Ear:  Speaking God’s Truth from the Inside Out, McCellan draws on the insights of ancient authors like Augustine,  Aristotle and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus and the contemporary historian, theologian and cultural critic Walter Ong (1912-2003). It is McCellan’s conviction that recovering oral patterns for preaching will transform us as preaches, and as churches and that preaching in this way is more responsive to the Word–reading it and proclaiming it in the way it was intended to be read and proclaimed.

In part one, McClellan begins with a focus on preparing the preacher. Chapter one relates an anecdote about McClellan preaching a manuscripted sermon in the ‘Big Church’ (he was a youth pastor speaking to the main congregation).  His friend’s feedback to him was that his sermon was good but didn’t ring authentic. It sounded stilted. He concludes that extemporaneous sermons allow for the greatest amount of authenticity and vulnerability in the speaker. He then grounds his argument for extemporaneous preaching in ancient writings. From Augustine (chapter two), McClellan argues that we should be ‘theologians’ who sit under the Word. He encourages us to deepen our understanding of passages and how they relate to others and what they say to us. McClellan uses Aristotle’s Rhetoric to explore the proper ethos in communication–speaking with personal character in an authentic voice (chapter three). In chapter four, Quintillian provides the most profound lessons about oral communication and preaching. McClellan says that this ancient rhetorician calls us preachers to moral character formation. He also has a method for improving our rhetoric (ccuriosity constant oral reading and writing, and casual debates with fellow preachers and small groups.

In part two, McClellan makes the theological case for the primacy of the spoken word in proclamation and walks us through how to prepare and deliver an extemporaneous sermon. It is in this section that McClellan delves into the work of Walter Ong, Ong’s thesis in his classic Orality and Literacy was that with the dawn of the printing press, fruitful practices of oral culture fell by the wayside. He identified nine characteristics of oral speech: imprecise, redundant, tradition driven, quotidian, acquainted with suffering. participatory, united in purpose, and comfortable with stories (91-96).  In contrast, literary approaches are precise, follow a logical sequence but are not reliant on the same devices for capturing and communicating shared memory. McClellan than delineates the implications for preparing an extemporaneous preaching.  One of the most profound insights on how oral preparation, invites communal preparation and allows for conversation which feed into and reinforce discipleship (129).

My push back would be that my preaching teacher manuscripted everything in his preaching preparation but in the preaching act was as free to move off script and take a new direction, often depart from his page to connect with the congregation or respond to the winds of the Spirit. He also wrote his manuscript with the spoken word in mind (short phrases, redundancy, internal summary). I think many preachers are sensitive to the dynamics that McClellan describes, even if their approach is more literary than what he commends.

McClellan’s approach is most fruitful for practitioners of expository sermons. He advocates listening to the text, learning to place it, inhabiting it and preparing a storied outline to share its truths. Topical preachers will find this sort of preparation difficult. I personally lean in a more expository and extemporaneous direction (though I still preach topically and from a manuscript when I feel it’s warranted). I am still processing how to best use McClellan’s insights in my own preaching but he does validate some of my own homiletic practice. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Thank you to Weaver Books and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.