Introduction to the Papers of the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Homiletics -
Williamsburg, Virginia - 2005.
There is so much going on in the world that causes us to ponder and wonder about what we can do to help shape a new understanding and appreciation of life. Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast and caused tremendous damage and death in New Orleans. And, the recent death of Rosa Parks who was the symbol of the Civil Rights movement - one whose sitting caused many African Americans and other Christians and Jews to stand up for justice - a stand propelled by the power of the Holy Spirit. Williamsburg, Virginia is full of history and it has a prominent place in the life and legacy of early America. Meeting here will allow us to ponder and meditate upon the value and importance of preaching in today’s world where the issues of modernity and the artifacts of history provide new opportunities for preaching and worship. From 1699 to 1780 Williamsburg was the political and educational center of the American colonies and served as the capital of Virginia. While there is a tendency on the part of some to romanticize and idealize this colonial capital, I feel compelled to point out that in the 1770’s almost half of the population of
Williamsburg were slaves. Williamsburg, as a meeting place, symbolizes the dialectic between freedom and slavery, and the past and present. Gathering here is truly an opportune time to reflect on the connections between preaching and spirituality and its correlates: freedom, independence, and revolution. In the following pages you will find the ideas and thoughts of a number of Academy members. There are some papers that address the theme explicitly and others intersect with homiletics in a more nuanced effort to expand our horizons. This year we are grateful to have excellent papers in eight groups.
Thank you so much to each person who has written a paper; however, I regret that my e-mail address was listed incorrectly in the August newsletter because this ultimately meant that there may have been a few papers that I never received even after making an effort to call each group convener.
We look forward to seeing you in Williamsburg, Virginia on December 1-3, 2005. James Henry Harris
First Vice President
2005 Academy of Homiletics Note: The copyright of these papers belongs to the individual authors.
Note from the Conveners A brief note of introduction will help explain the arrangement of the papers for the
Hermeneutics and Biblical Study section of this year’s gathering of the Academy of Homiletics. The first set of papers—presented by Alyce M. McKenzie, Stephen Farris, John C.
Holbert, and Rein Bos—offer homiletical approaches to “contrary” biblical texts. Our focus is
upon texts that seem at odds with the core commitment to declare good news incumbent upon all preachers. What makes a text “contrary” in the context of proclamation? How are these texts to be viewed theologically as scripture for the church? What strategies could aid and direct preaching on these texts? As has been our pattern for the past few years, our aim is to facilitate a true roundtable conversation at the Academy meeting. For that reason, the authors were not asked to submit systematic, comprehensive position papers on the topic, but instead to develop brief provocative and evocative essays that would serve as a discussion starter for the study group. As an added bonus, the panel discussion will include reflection on the same contrary text as a way of further demonstrating the authors’ positions and strategies. We especially hope to generate a variety of hermeneutical approaches and practical ideas to offer students and preachers. The papers included here promise to do just that.
The second set of papers—presented by Michael Knowles and Eunjoo M. Kim—are related quite directly to the theme of this year’s gathering of the Academy: Spirituality and Preaching. Knowles looks at this theme from a Pauline perspective, focusing on a cruciform spirituality evident in Paul’s letters, while Kim takes a Lukan angle of vision, combining that gospel’s spirituality with ideas suggested by narrative criticism, canonical criticism, and Buddhist meditation. We look forward to the conversation on their insights. O.W.A. and J.R.N.
Several months ago we entertained a brilliant speaker on the Vanderbilt university campus. The speaker spent some forty-five minutes explaining how to preach one of those baby-bashing texts from the Hebrew Scriptures, to be specific, the baby-bashing text, Psalm 137:9: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” The lecture was witty, quite brilliant, and full of homiletic insight. But when it was over, the first question from the audience was devastating. The question was, “Why bother? Why would preachers bother to preach a baby-bashing text when they could be declaring the good news of the gospel?”Why indeed? But perhaps that question can be left without response for a time inasmuch as the topic seems to propose that we may well actually want to preach, if not on Psalm 137:9 on texts that approach it in contrariness. The assignment accepted by this panel was to address the following three questions:
1. What makes a text “contrary” in the context of proclamation?
2. How are these texts to be viewed theologically as scripture for the church?
3. What strategies do you advocate in moving toward preaching on these texts?
In appropriately linear fashion, let me begin with the first question. A “contrary” text is not a text that is difficult for the preacher to preach from. In my opinion the most difficult text in the Bible to preach might well be 1 Corinthians 13. Perhaps the best sermon on that lovely text might be to stand, point to the reader of the text and say, “What she said!” Then sit down. But who could call that “contrary?” Nor is a contrary text a text that is difficult to hear. As Catherine Gonsalus Gonzalez notes in Difficult Texts, “a particular demand may be contrary to
characteristic of a particular society… some of the gospel imperatives will find ready acceptance in some places and yet be seen as almost impossible in others.”1
2 We are not in this panel speaking, I think, of texts that are contrary to the mores and accepted wisdom of a given society. Many such texts are very close to the heart of the gospel. We are, rather, speaking of texts that are contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. That observation is well into “Duhh” territory and it is, of course, much more complicated than it seems. But let it stand for the moment. Texts that fall into this category might include not only Psalm 137:9 but the story of Jephthah’s daughter, Elisha and the she-bears, some of the grizzlier passages from Revelation and the conquest texts from Joshua, texts to which I am more sensitive now that I am in a school with a significant Native ministry component.
Next, how are these texts to be viewed theologically as scripture for the church? The first and most important observation must be this: these texts do not stand alone but rather are part of a wider canon. That canon is both a body of literature and an invitation to a process. That is to say that Psalm 137:9, for example, is not “scripture” by itself. It is a verse from the scriptures which are as a whole the priceless heritage of the Christian Church. The earliest version of the hermeneutical circle of which I have knowledge is Schleiermacher’s: it is impossible to 1 David Buttrick, A Captive Voice: The Liberation of Preaching (Louisville: WJKP, 1994), 11.
understand the whole without the parts and the parts without the whole.3 To restate the point theologically: the whole of scripture is not scripture apart from its texts and the texts are not scripture apart from the whole of scripture. At this point, we are interested primarily in the second statement, that it is impossible to understand the parts without the whole and that the texts are not scripture apart from the whole of scripture. We will return to the other half of the statement shortly.
As far as I can see, no text in scripture makes a claim that texts in atomic isolation are by themselves scripture. The closest such statement is 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” This text, beloved of fundamentalist Christians for some strange reason, does not affirm that every text of scripture is inerrant, infallible, or even that it contains an edifying nugget of thought. It declares that all scripture, pasa graphe, is useful for a whole range of valuable purposes in the church.
One might even translate the text as “Scripture as a whole is inspired by God, etc.” That translation does not do undue theological violence to the verse. Theological shorthand for “Scripture as a whole” is canon. The fact that we interpret texts within a canon means that, although both the whole and the parts are necessary for understanding, the whole is hermeneutically privileged.
But the canon is not merely the body of literature; it is an invitation to a process. Because the Church lives in, with, and under the scriptures, there is a constant process of interpretation, restatement, shifting of viewpoints and of starting points. But this constant shifting is in relation to the same body of texts. The canon is, as James A. Sanders has argued, marked both by stability and by adaptability.4 The adaptability comes from the church’s resignification of these texts in new situations. The stability comes from the fact that the resignification is of these texts, including the contrary texts. This resignification occurs frequently, perhaps even primarily, but not exclusively in preaching. I have argued elsewhere that inspiration resides in the “Word of God” and occurs in the encounter with God through the texts rather than in the texts themselves.5 The key word in 2 Timothy 3:12-17 may be “useful.” The texts become scripture when the church goes to them with the intention of finding teaching, reproof, and correction in its new situation. They are Word of God when they are read with an eye to equipping for good works the people of God. It may be that some of the “contrary” texts may be particularly useful for just those purposes precisely because they are contrary and because they make us stop and take a second look both at the scripture and ourselves. The double take can be a moment of grace.