Preaching in a Postmodern Context

Myron Bradley Penner is interested in the way we talk about our faith and we should be grateful. His interest in the subject has resulted in a book The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context that I believe articulates some things many of us have already been thinking. While not everyone will agree with Penner on every point, we can all be glad that he raises questions that are helpful for Christian preachers to grapple with. I am especially interested in the questions raised for preaching in a postmodern context.

Many sections of the book are worthy of discussion, one of them is his use of Soren Kierkegaard’s distinction between geniuses and apostles. Geniuses are experts.  They are the default authority for how we should live. Geniuses are the “highest person on the intellectual totem pole, the first in our pecking order of whom to believe.” Since geniuses are more brilliant than the rest of us, they have access to truth that the rest of us do not. It follows then that they are qualified to speak authoritatively about how the rest of us ought to believe. We understand this because we are surrounded by supposed geniuses.

In contrast, Kierkegaard suggests that an apostle does not appeal to reason but to revelation. He claims that “a genius is born” while “an apostle is called.” Therefore, an apostle’s message cannot be improved upon or added to because the message is dependent on the activity of God. There is nothing extraordinary about an apostle prior to the call. An apostle does not depend on human ability. An apostle’s message does not have authority because it is rational or brilliant but because it comes from God.

Penner goes on to draw a distinction between appeal and coercion. Simply, he sees appeal as invitation that sees genuine interest in a person. Coercion, on the other hand, reduces others and is in fact “a subtle form of violence against another person.” He goes on “any attempts to coerce my neighbor rationally demonstrate that I really do not love my neighbor as I love myself.”

There are significant implications for our preaching witness. Penner suggests that our witness be “nonviolent and noncoercive – it is person preserving.” He goes on to say that it must avoid “apologetic violence.” Penner wants us to ask questions like ‘is changing the mind of an unbeliever the same as inviting someone to follow Jesus?” “Can our methods and style be separated from our message or are they inseparable?”To borrow language from Penner, let us have fewer geniuses in pulpits and more apostles.  Let us hear more appeal and less coercion. Let us deliver less reason and more revelation.

This is a hermeneutical issue. We are unable to master the text, we cannot improve on it. The text is given and is ours to interpret. Not to justify or rationalize. When we participate in hermeneutics we are joining something that already exists. We are listening and attempting to understand what has already been said. The word we listen for always comes from outside ourselves and is never due to our own ability.

If I understand Penner correctly, I hear him calling for a shift from a rational to a relational apologetic. A belief system that is dependent on provable information will disconnect us from faith in a mysterious unpredictable God. A rational predictable God is a limited God. Our preaching will benefit from wrestling with the idea that our individual witness is connected to a collection of people who follow an unpredictable God. This is a helpful discussion for those of us who participate in the witness of preaching in a postmodern context.

Craddock and Boring Preaching

Some listeners in churches have come to accept boredom as one of the crosses that comes with commitment.  Fred Craddock is not one of them.  In Overhearing the Gospel, he suggests that boredom is not just a condition that prompts humorous stories about a dull preacher.  “Boredom is a form of evil.”  Craddock goes on “Boredom works against the faith by provoking contrary thoughts or lulling to sleep or draping the whole occasion with a pall of indifference and unimportance.”

He seems to have company in Patricia Meyer Spacks who claims that in medieval times if someone demonstrated the symptoms we identify as boredom, that person was thought to be committing a “dangerous form of spiritual alienation.”  A devaluing of the world and its creator.  After all, who has time for such self-indulgence when worrying about basic survival.

Craddock talks about sincere but bored listeners who welcome interruption.  “Have you ever quietly cheered when a child fell off a pew or a bird flew in a window or the lights went out or the organ wheezed or the sound system picked up police calls or a dog came down the aisle and curled up to sleep below the pulpit?”  Craddock recognizes that the burden of boredom does not lie totally on the preacher but concludes “should we not then accept a large share of responsibility for the condition and move on?”

Part of the problem, according to Craddock, is that we have gained a great deal of knowledge but ignored the question of how to proclaim it.  I like the way he says it better, “How has been made to stand out in the hall while what was being entertained by the brightest minds among us.”  In response to this, he turns to Soren Kierkegaard, particularly this line “there is no lack of information in a Christian land; something else is lacking.”

He introduces Kierkegaard in a way that spurs my interest, “He delights in picking a fight with his reader, loading his sentences with exaggeration, humor, irony, sarcasm, and homely analogy, offering with one hand what he takes away with the other.”  (Makes me wonder what kind of preacher Kierkegaard would have been).  Then he tells us that Kierkegaard wrote thirty-five books, all in pursuit of how.  “How to be a Christian, here in this place, now at this time.”  Kierkegaard has convinced Craddock that the curriculum of the church, from Sunday School to seminary, should wrestle with how.

At its best, boredom forces creativity.  Some have made an effort, Craddock acknowledges this, but finds many efforts to lack creativity and become reactionary, defensive, anti-intellectual, unimaginative, shallow, and faddish.  As a result, this “reconfirmed and reinforced the original low opinion of programs centering on method.”  There is such a thing as appropriate style.  A style that is woven into the very fabric of the message we attempt to communicate.  A style that reflects the message that we attempt to proclaim.

How is a question that will not leave.  “If I toss it out the door… it returns through the window.”  How experiences are communicated is a major factor in defining what those experiences are.  There is no surgery by which what and how can be divided.  Our task is not just to say the word and tell the truth.  We are to get the truth heard.  We are to bring a new hearing of the word to people who have been repeatedly exposed to it.  There is nothing wrong with a preacher being lively and brilliant.  One of Kierkegaard’s characters said “boredom is the root of all evil.”  Craddock encourages preachers to do something about it.