In this revision of his 2003 Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale University Divinity School, Shepherd begins by suggesting that contemporary preaching upholds only two thirds of Augustine’s goals for Christian rhetoric: we attend to teaching and converting but seldom to delighting.
In his substantive second chapter Shepherd reminds us that the God we proclaim is both creative and imaginative and suggests that rightly to serve that God is to engage in our own homiletical creativity and imagination.
In the third chapter, inspired by the first Beecher lecturer, Henry Ward Beecher, Shepherd gives some very practical advice that should help all of us be more imaginative, crafted, and crafty in our preaching. For me this was, appropriately, the most helpful chapter in the book.
The fourth chapter persuasively ties the task of preaching to the miracle of resurrection. Shepherd borrows from Shakespeare and Frederick Buechner to suggest that like Lear and Cordelia we are supposed to be God’s spies–and what we spy out, he claims, is resurrection in all its surprising manifestations. Here is a paragraph that is both descriptive of the preacher’s task and (cleverly) descriptive of what it might be like to read yet another book on preaching: “We preachers need to take another look at the stuff, the cross, the litter, the tiny, seeming nuisance stuff that clings and clutters up our days. Just like that common ordinary loaf of bread, we need to break it open, crack the crust, and find there at its heart, life, the seeds, the promise and the hope that in the very best, and not just the worst sense, what goes around comes around … “ (pp. 96-97)
The book provides a wealth of directly useful source material. It closes with three sermons that are exemplary both in the sense that they are good examples of what Shepherd is talking about and they are good examples of preaching. The pages of the book are full of quotations, especially quoted poetry. Many of the poems are Shepherd’s own, but he also draws on Hopkins, Frost, and Leonard Cohen (twice). Shepherd’s poetic strategies seem closest to those of Frost. For the most part the strength of both Frost’s and Shepherd’s poems is not any surprising rhetorical or linguistic turn but the ability to name and reframe experiences that will be familiar to us and often to our congregations.
My reservations are of the typical “on the other hand” variety. Imagination can be central to the gift of preaching, but on the other hand …
Since Shepherd shares frequently of his own experience as a preacher I am bold to do the same. Like him I have preached most often in university towns with fairly highly educated congregations. Yet even there — sometimes especially there — I have found that my affection for poetry and even for fiction is not always shared by all the members of the congregation. Scientists who do studies of how we hear and how we understand could probably help explain why there are people who get poetry and people who don’t, highly metaphorical folk and highly prosaic ones.
In one congregation I had a philosopher who could always tell me what principle the metaphor I had just used illustrated and a chemist who was so glad when I stopped inductive preaching for a few minutes and made a straightforward doctrinal claim that he nearly cried.
Maybe it is the task of the preacher to help people love poetry so that they will love our preaching. But maybe it is the task of the preacher to be, well, pretty much all kinds of things to all kinds of people. If the purpose of preaching is to instruct, convert, and delight we need to acknowledge that what delights us may not always delight others. There are people who are genuinely delighted when an argument makes sense, or they get a straightforward piece of practical advice to get them through the day. We want to delight those who love words and see the world metaphorically, but we want to delight God’s other children, too.
None of this modest reservation detracts from my enthusiasm for this book.
It is delightful.
David Bartlett is professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga.