Peculiar Speech (46)

A last notice on new books for today (I’ll add more tomorrow, I hope). Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized by William Willimon is on the docket. This is a book challenging the way preaching is viewed. Willimon is especially rejecting the notion of liberal theology that preaching is an exposition of the universal human condition (though he also takes on more conservative theologies for their excessive dogmatism and moralism). He puts it this way:

They [the church] are not here to be titillated, entertained, or even reassured. If all they want is entertainment, let them fly to Vegas. If mere reassurance can soothe their pain, a core of chemicals and self-help books are cheaper than church. Leo Buscaglia us all over.

No. The baptized congregate because they have been called.

He follows up with a story illustrating the point that the sermon is not just a human word – it has a divine source. If someone is angry at the messenger, they need to go to the source and make their complaint!

The book has a distinctive postmodern flair – the biblical story is central and it illumines our story. And that story creates a community – the community of the baptized: “We are never neutral with these texts because we listen expecting these texts to form a community that would not be here without these texts. This is our epistemological basis, the vested interest that forms our listening to these texts.” In fact, he questions whether text is the right term – the canonical text is not something that has some independent status apart from the community. As a community, though we may not agree on the hermeneutics, we do agree to listen to the canonical text as a norm.

This means we should expect to be odd, different – or as he states it simply: “We talk funny.” He contrasts this with other modes of preaching:

Unfortunately, most of the theology I learned in seminary was in the translation mode. Take this biblical image and translate it into something more palatable to people who use Cuisinarts. The modern church has been willing to use everyone’s language but its own…In more liberal speech, talk tiptoes around the outrage of Christian discourse and ends up as innocuous, though urbane, affirmation of the ruling order. …By the time most of us finish qualifying the scandal of Christian speech, very little can be said by the preacher that can’t be heard elsewhere.

In the end, he argues that preaching is meant for those already committed to the faith and thus should be unapologetic about using its distinctive language. It is preaching to the baptized. And to that, I say amen.

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