What Are We Reading?: Working Preacher Book Review

Transforming Preaching, by Ruthanna B. Hooke. New York: Church Publishing, 2010.

I just finished reading Hooke’s book, serendipitously on Epiphany, January 6, 2011, otherwise known as the day after the Twelfth Day of Christmas. For many of us, this is the day that Christmas is really over: the trees come down this weekend, decorations are put away, and Christmas is boxed up until next December. Of course, the rest of the world was done with Christmas on December 26, but maybe that is because the rest of the world too easily forgets that for Christians, Christmas is a way of life. Christmas is not a day. Christmas is not even twelve days. Christmas is what it means to be a Christian, and I am not just talking about acknowledging and celebrating the birth of Jesus. To be a Christian means to live the life that God lived, not “What Would Jesus Do,” not a Sermon-on-the-Mount kind of moral blueprint, but living an incarnated life. And that’s why I am glad I read this book during the twelve days of Christmas, because it reminded me that I am no preacher at all if I am not a fully embodied, fully present, completely incarnated communicator for the sake of God’s Word.

Transforming Preaching is one volume in the series, Transformations: The Episcopal Church in the 21st Century, addressing various practices of the church that need transformation for the sake of the church’s future as a viable presence in our time. The book is organized into five chapters. Chapter One, “Why is it Frightening to Preach?” calls attention to that very basic, extraordinarily human emotion of fear that manifests itself in preaching for assorted reasons and in different ways. In addition to the expected fears surrounding public speaking, theological competence, and views of Scripture, Hooke draws attention to a primary fear that few of us preachers articulate: the fear of being fully present. It is a fear of “showing up,” because when that truly happens, when we live in the now, our real fear surfaces: “we are afraid of becoming real.”

Becoming real, being fully present in our preaching, necessitates authenticity and is the focus of the second chapter, “Is There a Word From the Lord?” Just as “the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth did not ‘get out of the way,'” neither should ours. God needs our humanity so that God can be made known in our preaching. Of course, this raises a number of questions regarding personal disclosure, personal stories, and the like, which Hooke addresses in turn. Hooke argues that one way that a “quality of presence” can be realized in preaching is through the metaphor of preaching as performance.

After discussing various definitions of “performance,” Hooke argues that “to call preaching a performance highlights the fact that it is a practice with a particularly acute tension between the practicing self and the faith that is practiced.” Much like actors or musicians, preachers are “completely themselves, free and independent, and yet for this time the whole of their being, their life, their freedom, their skill, is taken up with this mysterious, different thing that is the work to be brought to life.” Moreover, we cannot be fully present unless our bodies are acknowledged as necessary to that presence. This book is dedicated the process of embodiment as essential for incarnational preaching.

The third chapter introduces us to Episcopalian preachers in whom Hooke finds authentic preaching. There is a wide variety of gender, race, context, and experience in these profiles which allows for a deep expression of the ways in which the reader can imagine practices of embodiment in her own preaching. Specific techniques towards becoming an embodied preacher are the subject of the fourth chapter.

From voice work, to yoga, to Scripture performance, to improvisation, Hooke provides enough resources for even bodily fearful preachers to recognize that our bodies cannot be ignored in our preaching. They are who we are. The fifth chapter imagines a visitor to a church where the preacher regularly practices the ideas narrated in the book. What would the visitor experience? The final chapter provides the reader with a discussion guide if the book is being used in a congregational or community discussion.

Here’s one of the main reasons I appreciated this book. When do we get to talk about our bodies as preachers beyond “I look terrible in albs,” or “I need to interject a good gesture here,” or “I need to stop eating so many cookies with the quilters”? Fundamentally, Hooke offers a theology of authentic presence and a kind of presence that can be taught and learned. Presence is premised on the holistic communion of mind, spirit, and body. We preachers know a lot about cultivating the mind and appreciating the spirit, but, it remains true that, “It is as though we work around our bodies in our preaching, rather than with and through them.”

Transforming Preaching gives preachers the opportunity, the permission, and in the end, maybe even, finally, the freedom, to be able to talk about how and when we think about our own bodies in the act of preaching and how embodiment in and of itself is an expression of biblical interpretation. And for homiletical imagination, Hooke has provided a new vision for the understanding of and commitment to incarnational preaching.