New books on preaching

God, Neighbour, Empire
Author: Walter Brueggemann
ISBN: 978-0-334-05562-4
Date: 2017
Price: £15.50
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Publisher: SCM Press

A Theology of Preaching
and Dialectic
Author: Aaron P Edwards
ISBN: 978-0-567-67856-0
Date: 2018
Price: £69.99
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10% off price: £63.00 (+P&P)
Publisher: T & T Clark

In the field of the study of liturgy and worship there has not been, at any rate in this country, a great deal of theological writing about the art of preaching and homiletics. The College of Preachers, and the work, for example, of theologians like Deacon Duncan Macpherson, who has often contributed to this journal, have attempted to fill the gap but I suspect many of us who preach regularly seldom reflect critically or theologically about what we are doing Sunday by Sunday or day by day.

The American Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written extensively on preaching over the years, but unfortunately his work is not known that well in this country. His new book, God, Neighbour Empire has a forward written by Jane Williams who teaches on the Anglican ministerial course, St Mellitus College, so hopefully it will have some influence on future clergy. The book is made up of lectures given at Fuller Seminary in the United States. Rather in the manner of Fr Daniel Berrigan, Brueggemann’s theme is the relationship between God as portrayed in the Old Testament and the empires which form the historical background and setting for our texts.

So often divine backing is attested for the power structures of empire. But, as Brueggemann argues ‘It is in that recurring, almost constant context of empire that the Old Testament became the countertext of ancient Israel. The Old Testament is offered as an alternative to the imperial narrative that dominates ordinary imagination. That countertext intends to subvert the dominant imperial text and so is rightly seen as a ‘sub-version.’ The trajectory of texts that the synagogue and the church entertain as ‘good news’ bears witness to an emancipatory God who stands apart from and over against the mythic claims of imperial religion.’ (p.3) In his study Brueggemann explores God’s covenant with his people as it develops in relational terms, focusing on the themes of justice, grace and law. As in his previous books Brueggemann’s writing style is lively and engaging and he sheds a lot of new light on familiar passages. It is also topical: ‘While we can, in global context, identify other empires or would-be empires, closest to us are the imperial pretensions of the United States.’ In so many parts of the world Christians need to distance themselves critically from the power of the State and its claims, and this book is a good resource in that task; the inability of so many Christian leaders to resist leaders with imperial pretensions rests so much on poor theology, and this book can help to put that right. Some English readers may be unfamiliar with the author’s practice of using the word ‘Yhwh’.

One English scholar who is familiar with Brueggemann’s work is Aaron Edwards, who teaches at the (historically) Methodist Cliff College. A Theology of Preaching and Dialectic is an expanded doctoral thesis and for that reason is a very different type of book from Brueggemann’s. Edwards explores in depth the complex relationship between a preacher’s vocation to heraldic proclamation (inspired by Karl Barth) and the dialectic and tension in the text, associated with the theological tradition known as the ‘New Homiletic’ (represented in the work of Fred Craddock in his 1971 book As One Without Authority); so the book is a challenge to preachers who often deliberately do not allow scholarship or academic study to get in the way of a rousing sermon. As a sort of case study, he examines the different approaches to Grace and Works in the letters of Paul and James. The book is rich in scholarship and draws extensively on Hegel, Kierkegaard, Milbank, Zizek and others. Edwards’ overall argument is that we do not have to choose between the two approaches – a good preacher should reflect both the herald’s authority and attentiveness to the nature of the texts about which he is preaching. This is a much more demanding book than Brueggemann’s, but it is worth making the effort to engage with the author’s arguments and extensive work on the topic. Although he is himself from the reformed tradition, Edwards draws on Augustine, Aquinas and others in the Catholic tradition. He is critical of Brueggemann’s approach, arguing that for him ‘socio-political issues drive the agenda for what preaching is.’ (p.167) I think this misunderstands Brueggemann, and others inspired by Brueggemann’s writings will be disappointed by this. It is all too easy to accuse commentators of fitting Scripture into their own world-view. Nevertheless Edwards’ book is a very good and helpful study of the nature of contemporary preaching.

Ashley Beck
St Mary’s University, Twickenham