Every working preacher out there knows that preaching in the twenty-first century presents many challenges, especially when it comes to the ways in which proclamation is perhaps unfairly measured up to other modes of oral communication.
One of the more obvious comparisons is preaching and the news. This match up immediately brings to mind the dissimilarity and disparity between the two, accompanied by the impulse to differentiate, perhaps even to defend, the nature and purpose of preaching as a particular, or wholly different, kind of oral communication.
Gertrude Stein once said about Hemingway, “Remarks are not literature.” A similar word association can be used as a way to highlight the primary difference between preaching and the news, especially if the focus is on biblical preaching. A homiletical paraphrase of Stein might go something like this, “commentary is not preaching.” While the purposes of preaching are certainly many and various, the primary nature of biblical preaching is not commentary on the text. It is not a reporting of exploratory or undercover efforts from the pastor’s study or detailing the findings of certain experts in the field. It is not minute-to-minute coverage of events, either located in past time or in the convergence of God’s word in present time.
Yet, to what extent are such purposes the implicit expectations associated with the pulpit? Not proclamation, but explanation; not an interpretive act but an investigative report; not an incarnated word from God but an unbiased, objective deposition meant to unearth hardcore facts.
As such, preaching is less about testimony and more about an informed and accurate account; meaning for the sake of proof, not truth. The preacher, therefore, becomes commentator, reporter, journalist; a witness not of the revelation of God but for the sake of evidence for God. Rather than saying “behold,” the preacher is left with mere summary.1 As a result, the invitation to meaning making becomes a distillation of acceptable meaning and the hearers become receptacles of information and not participants in the reincarnation of God’s word. When the expectation is information, or a final report of specialists, the challenge is even greater to preach as a means of collaboration and mutuality, as an invitation into a hermeneutical journey where the destination is not about an ending but rather a new beginning; where the outcome is less about a fixed body of material to cover and more about a new creation in the junction of preacher, congregation, and the biblical text.
The side by side comparison of preaching and the news not only exposes expectations of preaching but also uncovers assumptions of the nature of biblical authority and the kind of role the Bible is assumed to have in the lives of people who assert its normative value. When preaching is commentary, the Bible can be relegated to past events and may not be allowed to have its redemptive function in the present. While the authority of the Bible can still claim an effective power, that power has less to do with the saving acts of God at hand and is more demonstrative of the precedence of God’s power over, and sometimes against, the experience of God here and now and even in the future. The authority of the Bible is then dependent upon the source from which its authority is claimed, setting in place a hierarchical rather than functional understanding of biblical authority.
Another issue that surfaces when preaching is weighted in comparison to or weighted against the news is when the news is primarily described as bad. To what extent does this shape our preaching? Has our preaching compensated for the negativity that abounds in world, national, and local broadcasts? Have we unreflectively countered this reality with “feel good preaching?” Do we avoid, even ignore, the ways in which the text unabashedly and unrelentingly speaks of our human failure, our all too human brokenness, because people have more than enough weighing them down? Are we less inclined to acknowledge the sin of which the text speaks so as not to depress people even more? Have we made the Gospel nothing more than a bandage, a pick-me-up, just a little good news in an otherwise disheartened, discouraged, and disillusioned time? To what extent does the Gospel of God then only speak about our reality rather than into it?
In our effort to make the Bible relevant, timely, applicable, when and how and why is its context left behind, thereby saying that our context is what really matters? When the news is immediate, how do we speak of the transcendent? When the news is daily, minute-to-minute updates, how does proclamation for this time, this place, these people, and this purpose find a meaningful hearing, a hearing that is an event in time? When the news is ubiquitous, how do we profess the omnipresence and omnipotence of God? When the news points to that which is, how do we communicate that preaching points to that which is beyond itself? Are we able to claim that the biblical witness is every bit as timely as, perhaps even more so than, the live-feed postings of the latest breaking news?
At this point, we may wonder about, maybe even lament over, the relationship between preaching and the news when the challenges appear as disheartening, discouraging, and disillusioning as the news itself. But if the nature of God, if the essence of God’s work in the world, is at its heart paradoxical, when there is power in weakness, where the last are first, and an executioner’s choice of death becomes God’s choice for life, then conceivably the challenges are the opportunities.
1A biblically informed understanding of witness might draw on the Old Testament concept of “sentinel” as found in Isaiah 40:9-11; 52:7-10. The present participle of bāśar as the one who brings good news points to an understanding of witness grounded in the victory of God even though the victory is not yet realized. Another image from which to draw might be the presentation and characterization of John “the Baptist” in the Gospel of John, who is never described as “the Baptist” in the Fourth Gospel. Rather, he is the herald of good news, the one who points to God’s revelation in the world in the word made flesh (John 1:29, 35).