As the Nazi’s purged the German universities of those who did not think like them, Karl Barth exhorted the students and preachers he left behind with some version of the following quote. (This one is found in Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Romerbrief Period by Richard E. Burnett).
Dear friends, who have listened to me, the main thing you have heard from me is dogmatics. Dogmatics is a high and steep art. I do not want to deny that, humanly as well, I strive after it with a certain love and desire. And I dare say that I have noticed that many of you have been excited about this subject matter as well. If this now for the moment has come to an end, accept this as a signal for you to temporarily begin anew your studies at a different place. Take now my last piece of advice: Exegesis, Exegesis, and once more, Exegesis! If I have become a dogmatician, it is because I long before have endeavored to carry on exegesis. Let the systematic art, which can also make one mad, rest a little and hold on to the Word, to the Scriptures, which is given to us and become perhaps less systematic and more biblical theologians. For then the systematic and dogmatic tasks will certainly be taken care of as well. That is what I wanted to say to you and in this way I wish to be you farewell.
According to Thomas Long and Cornelius Plantinga Jr., students of preaching should “study great sermons, learn their moves, and master some of their aims and forms.” This is not unlike the reason “aspiring composers study Haydn symphonies and Bartok string quartets” and “serious chess players learn the great games of Tanasch and Capablanca” and “army generals master the battle plans of strategic and tactical experts from Alexander the Great to Douglas MacArthur.”
This is good reason for A Chorus of Witnesses, a collection of sermons that the reader may “ponder, inspect, disassemble, praise, criticize, and generally, learn from…” It is true that all sermons are not equal and not everyone will agree on what a good sermon is. Yet with sermons from the likes of Buechner, Brown Taylor, Craddock, Achtemeier, Barth, Lewis, Willimon, Peterson, and Buttrick to name a few, a volume like this one is an excellent starter for us to “tune our ears” and “untether our imaginations.”
“A written sermon is not a preached sermon. Reading a sermon is an importantly different experience from hearing one, and both differ from actually seeing a preacher aim and fire.” Reading a sermon is more like “reading the score of some musical masterpiece. Whether reading a piece is better or worse than hearing it depends in part on the quality of the performance.”
Reading excellent sermons can be helpful on a variety of levels. Even when we reject the theology in a sermon we may admire the form. Even when we think the sermon strayed too far from the text we may still feel that we have been strangely warmed. I will not guarantee that you will enjoy this particular collection of sermons but am in agreement that reading the sermons of others is a good practice. “Perhaps homiletic discernment, like general spiritual discernment, is a gift of the Spirit. In any case, serious study of widely varying sermons is likely to sharpen it.”
David Kelsey says that for Karl Barth, the Bible is “one vast loosely-structured non-fictional novel.” He is quoted by William Willimon in Conversations With Karl Barth on Preaching. This becomes important for Willimon because he believes that we do not make up our stories as much as our stories make up us. (For the record, I am in hearty agreement with that thought).
Willimon says that “the novel has become so important in the modern world because we are desperate for some means of order and experience, now that we no longer believe in an Orderer of experience. The novel becomes our means of attempting to make up a story in order to make up a life.” Perhaps Barth would say that this is unnecessary because we already have a story. We can be sure that he would say that “the object of this loosely structured historical novel is none other than Christ himself.”
Barth’s approach to scripture as a history-like narrative promotes an imaginative reading. He speaks of the biblical narratives as “legendary witnesses.” Willimon says that Barth “throws himself into his interpretations, identifies with the characters, treats biblical personalities as contemporaries, delights in discovering some detail of the text that has eluded others, focuses on one word of a text as potentially pregnant with meaning, and, in general, brings a wonderfully naïve, childlike approach to his reading.” Barth says in Homiletics, “the true exegete will face the text like an astonished child in a wonderful garden, not like an advocate of God who has seen all his files.”
Is Barth suggesting that we find ourselves in the text excitedly anticipating what we might find next? Rolling over a stone to see what lies underneath? Digging in up to our elbows? Wading into the deeper parts? Discovering new spaces? Admiring beauty? Appreciating even the thorny parts? Rushing over there to see around the corner? Moving slowly through another space out of reverence? Frequently stopping in awe of what is being said? Continually going back to explore again and again? What will we find over there? What is under here? Behind that? Going in a little further each time? Walking in from a different angle next time to see if it looks different from there?
Time in the text will remind us that we aren’t the first to look at beauty and pronounce it good. We aren’t the first to find ourselves up to our elbows in a creative moment. We aren’t the first to roll away a stone to reveal what is behind it. It may be safe to say that Barth sees himself, as well as the rest of us, in the narrative. And he wants us to come out wide eyed, muddy, bloody, and elbow deep in our story. Excited to tell others where we have been and what we have discovered.
William Willimon credits Thomas Long as saying that preaching’s turn to the listener is the most significant homiletical trend of the twentieth century. Willimon then agrees with that assessment and suggests that our homiletical thought has become more interested with rhetorical, rather than theological concerns. He goes onto add that this “accounts in great part for the impoverishment of contemporary preaching.”
It is no secret that Willimon is enamored with Karl Barth. If there are doubts, then read Conversations With Barth on Preaching. So it comes as no surprise that Willimon brings Barth into this conversation. In the discussion “How to Say What God Says” he concludes that Barth has convinced him that listening to God is so much more interesting than listening to listeners.
Barth has been referred to as a “theological poet” and Willimon himself says that he wrote “theology with style.” While Willimon thinks of Barth as a master rhetorician, he is doubtful that Barth would take that as a compliment. Instead, he credits Barth with the development of a new way of speaking about God, as if he invented a new genre.
His preaching took on an explosive manner. I am reminded that someone once said that his Romans fell like “a bomb on the playground of the theologians.” His concern was not for the hearer but for the subject matter – God. At the very least, we can agree that this move is counter to the way many contemporary preachers think about preaching. In Conversations, Barth comes across as thinking either that preaching is theological or “a trivial endeavor hardly worth the effort.”
Willimon also invites Aristotle into the conversation who believes that “speaking is a politically significant power play that ought to be used with care.” He goes on to say that most preachers “do not think of themselves as powerful people.” He goes on, “yet anyone who has the gift of words has the potential to alter the world.” Then he adds that “Anyone who stands up and utters, ‘Thus saith the Lord…,’ is thrust into a situation where issues of power and language become primary.”
I do not suspect that Willimon cares whether you agree with him on these things. Or that you are in agreement with Barth. I do suspect that he hopes that such conversations with Karl Barth spur contemporary preachers to “a recovery of nerve, of gospel-induced boldness.”