American preaching is having a nervous breakdown according to Thomas Long (xiii). The totality of preaching techniques that we bundle neatly under narrative preaching is tired and worn out. What else can we call pastors using “experimental gear” like screens, videos, bulletin points, the stripping off of robes, etc. other than a total meltdown of confidence in the sermon (xiv)? The purpose of this book is to bring a “certain calm in the midst of this storm” (xiv). But even more than that, this book will be a “…call for a bold and joyful approach to preaching, preaching that stands in the full force of the cultural gales, unafraid of the storm, preaching that can lovingly tell the story of God’s people, courageously announce what God is doing among us, and confidently invite people to lean forward in hope toward the promises of God – preaching, in other words, that clearly and confidently proclaims God’s past, present, and future to a spiritually disorientated age” (xv).
Chapter 1 takes the reader through a history of the rise and fall of narrative preaching. In the 1950s sermons were heavy, weighty doctrinal propositions, but congregations, Long claims, were bored and disconnected from the sermon. Beginning with Davis in the late 1950s, continuing with Craddock in the 1970s, and culminating with Lowry’s loop in the 1980s, the preacher as story-teller connected with the American Christian in the pew. A mix of cultural conditions made the time ripe for the rise of story-telling preaching. Besides boredom in the pew, the clergy doubted the usefulness of preaching and the culture was in full rebellion against any kind of authority. Preaching with authority had become passé. Enter in the narrative sermon. Such heady times for the narrative sermon could not last. The critics of the narrative sermon are finally being heard, probably because people are once again bored with the sermons they are hearing. The critiques are coming from all sides – from conservative circles as well as liberal circles. James Thompson has worked out the fullest critique from a conservative perspective, “Narrative homiletics, he charges, wrongly assumes a Christian culture already in place, focuses on the form of the sermon to the neglect of the larger theological aims of the sermon, limits its capacities of hearers to think rationally and reflectively about the faith, is reluctant to press demands for ethical change, and is weak at building and sustaining communities of faith” (8). Although Long does lay out in great detail the arguments of the critics of narrative preaching from all sides, he calls on the preacher to leave intact, “a chastened, revised, theologically more astute, and biblically engaged form of narrative preaching…” (26). After all, Long argues, isn’t Christianity one, big story about God’s intervention in the world? This chastened form of narrative preaching involves weaving explanatory and authoritative preaching into the narrative itself.
Chapter 2 begins with a lament of the mysterium tremendum. What happened to the days when Martin Luther would stand in the presence of God, ready to administer the sacraments for the first time, and unable to continue because of his fear of God? Luther himself said about the moment, “I was utterly terror stupefied and terror-struck” (28). What happened to the days when Karl Barth could say, “What are you doing, you human being, with the Word of God upon your lips?” (35). Long does not hope that preachers would move around waiting for lighting to strike right behind them, but he does call for preachers to “gain a deeper participation in the eventfulness of God” (41). He spends the rest of the chapter outlining an addition to any exegetical study of the text, urging the preacher to search each text for the movement of God. This movement of God in each text becomes the kerygma for the proclamation of that particular text.
Chapters 3, 4, and 5 are Long’s approach to the new spirituality in our world. He describes the loss of trust in the Bible, the emphasis on spirituality, and the loss of any kind of eschatological future as Gnosticism. Marcus Borg is the perfect example of this kind of neo-gnosticism in Long’s opinion. Chapter 4 lays out Borg’s thought along with Long’s analysis of it. Chapter 5 is Long’s response to Gnosticism. He calls on the preacher to preach eschatologically and incarnationally because the true Gnostic cannot feel at home in a world with a real, material future.
Long is at his best in his introduction and chapter 1. He does a great service to the church by helping the preacher analyze the assumptions behind alternate styles of preaching and worship. His look at the history of narrative preaching together with all of the voices critical of narrative preaching is his greatest accomplishment with this book. This chapter of his book is worth reading for any preacher looking at an alternate style of preaching, worship, or what he calls “experimental gear” in preaching. Setting our day in a historical context is always helpful in navigating cultural trends.
From the introduction into the later chapters, the usefulness of Long’s writing falls off. While Long would never say this, Chapter 2 is a good reminder for the Lutheran preacher to remember his theology. God is both transcendent and immanent. God is present through his chosen means of grace. When God’s Word is preached, hearts are changed. The Word does not return empty. The Holy Spirit is connected with this Word. Many years ago – it seems – Long lost his faith in the inerrant Word, even noting later in the book, “…we have both bit the apple of historical criticism and know that we cannot return to a naïve, precritical time before Christianity became historically conscious” (84). This historical-critical apple results in chapter two and the other chapters dying a slow death, infected by this poison.
Chapters 3,4, and 5 are useful for the pastors dealing on a regular basis with emergent Christianity. In my limited experience I haven’t found nearly as much emergent Christianity as Long proposes, yet I hear his words as an encouragement to preach like the Prophets and Apostle, the coming Judgment and new heavens and new earth, even if Long doesn’t express it quite that way. Here again, Long is greatly injured by his dismissal of the Word of God. In his final chapters, he sounds at once dogmatic about eschatology, namely that you ought to have one, yet he doesn’t offer one. He sounds hopeful, but he can’t really tell you why. He sounds truthful, yet confused.
In short, reading this book just for chapter 1 makes this book invaluable. Chapter 2 reminds us to hold to our theology. Chapters 3-5 are the best description of emergent Christianity that I have yet read. Thankfully, the Word and our historical, Spirit-wrought faith equip us to reach those swimming in these waters.
Thomas G. Long is Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He is author of numerous best-selling books including The Witness of Preaching, Hebrews, and Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian.