Michael Pasquarello III
Eerdmans, 288 pages
Many of us who are preaching in this season of pandemic are flailing at methods, grasping for measures of effectiveness. All the rules we have followed – of structure, technique, delivery, relevance and more – seem vulnerable at best, and inconsequential at worst. “The Beauty of Preaching” is a timely reminder that our work is not primarily practical; nor is it to please the “audience” of listeners. Instead, as Michael Pasquarello lays out in the introduction:
“If by the Spirit’s love our life and words are graced with the beauty of Christ’s suffering and death on behalf of the world, then the ‘attractiveness’ of our preaching does not rest primarily on decorating, dressing up, and making sermons ‘pretty.’ I am convinced that the beauty of preaching is found in its blessed uselessness. By this I mean preaching with no purpose other than delighting in the truth of God.”
One of the gifts of this book in our liminal season is the reminder of the longer arc of the history of preaching. Pasquarello names his own presumptions: how he had grown accustomed to preaching that “aimed to instruct and persuade, to teach and move, to explain and motivate.” He shares many preachers’ concerns about finding a “hook” to make the sermon work or entertain.
As he focuses on entering into God’s beauty and seeking humbly to convey it, Pasquarello returns to three seminal preachers of earlier ages: Saint Augustine, John Wesley and Martin Luther. His review of the passion of Wesley and scriptural focus of Luther are solid and timely. But it is his review of Augustine’s preaching that most resonates. Augustine, he reminds us, was arguably Rome’s most highly revered and popular rhetorician of his day. Not only did Augustine wholeheartedly pursue the intellectual and moral wisdom of the ancients, he also mastered the influential art of oral rhetoric. I cannot help but perceive this from my vantage point in Los Angeles, where the highly refined art of Hollywood production has enormous impact — not just in content or popularity, but also in what we prioritize as valuable.
A result of Augustine’s conversion to the Christian faith was his confession of the vanity of intellectual achievement and limitations of human wisdom. As he subordinated the glory of his learning to the humility of the incarnation, and subjected the wisdom of this world to the “folly of God,” Augustine entered into a “cruciform way of life.” This, Pasquarello shares, compelled Augustine to begin “a new vocation in the use of words, a conversion from speaking to win the praise of people to speaking that gives praise to God.” For preachers today, this invitation to humility and service to God’s glory is a profoundly liberating word.
If there is a fault in this book, it is Pasquarello’s need to invoke numerous other scholars and historical citations to confirm his points. While they are instructive, the beauty of his own words points to God’s glory more effectively than the accumulation of others’ declarations. Greater simplicity would have served his message well.
But in the end, his message could not be more timely. As Pasquarello summarizes: “Freed by divine grace from our fears, self-interests, and anxious striving for control, we are caught up by the Spirit in offering our words and selves as a sacrifice of praise to God that is our eternal duty, desire, and delight. This is the beauty of preaching.”