Preaching and the Other -- Review

PREACHING AND THE OTHER: Studies of Postmodern Insights.  By Ronald J. Allen.  St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2009.  154 pp.

    It has become increasingly clear that the modern age is passing away.  We don’t yet know what will come next, but for now many speak of it as a postmodern.   Allen borrows a definition of postmodernism from a colleague at Christian Theological Seminary, another Allen – Charles – who is no relation.  According to Charles Allen, “to be postmodern is to be constantly and critically aware of the relativity of all human thinking and acting” (p. 15).  To be postmodern is to be suspicious of claims to objectivity and truth, especially of the universal or absolute sort.   Thus, Ron Allen writes:

    To be postmodern is also to respect difference and Otherness, to appreciate pluralism and particularity, and to recognize the social conditioning and relativity of all awareness (p. 15).

In this new age less confidence is placed in the ability of reason and science to answer all of life’s questions.    If the modern age was marked by the development of metanarratives that could offer explanations of the totality of reality, in the coming age there is less confidence in our ability to explain all facets of reality in one narrative.  This has important implications for the church, and for the preacher, since the biblical story is in essence a metanarrative.  The question that preachers, especially, face, is how to speak to and in this transitional age. 

    The book, Preaching and the Other, is written by a well-regarded teacher of preachers. Ron Allen comes to the question of preaching in this new age as both biblical scholar and as one who works from a Process Theology perspective.   Although attracted to the postmodern perspective, Allen isn’t ready to jettison everything that is modern.  Early in the book, he offers four Christian responses to postmodernism, which range from a simple ignoring of the issue to a rather full embrace.  He places himself in the third category, wherein he embraces parts of the postmodern interpretation, while retaining some modern aspects.  He has his reservations, but believes that postmodern raises important questions for the church and the preacher.  Whereas postmodernism tends to reject metanarratives, this perspective would offer modest metanarratives ones that are “non-imperial in character and that respects the particularity of all things while postulating their interrelatedness without violation of integrity” (p. 25). 

    This is a book designed for preachers, and in the course of six chapters, Allen introduces us to the question of a move from premodern to postmodern worlds.  He raises the question of the other – an important question for those of us who dare mount the pulpit.  We face the prospect of many audiences – the other – and we are to those audiences also the Other.  From there he moves on to discuss deconstruction, social location, transgression, and diversity.  In each chapter, Allen seeks to outline the perspective, offer a variety of responses to the question, and then close with a discussion of a biblical text that reflects the issue at hand. 

    When it comes to the Other, Allen notes that we value sameness and so we seek to suppress and minimize the Other.  We fear difference and the Stranger, and thus we seek uniformity.  This can take many forms, including racism and even violence – consider the attempt by Nazi Germany to eliminate the Other completely.    So, when confronted with the other, we may choose to welcome the Other, seeing in the Other as an enrichment of one’s own life.  We could also respond with curiosity, but still have reservations about the encounter.  We could tolerate, but ignore the Other – a sort of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell sort of reality.  Or, finally, we could do what we can to eliminate the Other from our world – this can run the gamut from segregation to genocide.  How we respond to the other has important implications for the preacher.  In fact, the preacher is called upon to help the congregation respond to the Other in ways that are theologically faithful.  It will ask of us questions of biblical interpretation and application. 

    From consideration of the Other, Allen moves to the principle of Deconstruction, which stands at the heart of much postmodern thought.  Deconstruction begins with the recognition that there is no objective, neutral point of departure.  He writes that from a postmodern perspective, “all human perception is inherently interpretive” (p. 48).  To engage in deconstruction is to take apart our own perceptions of reality, to question them, and overturning the received view points.  It is an act of decentering.  And, as a result of this questioning of reality, we must let go of our metanarratives, recognizing that there is no one grand story of reality.  Instead, we must recognize the reality of many local narratives, that run from ethnicity to community, from gender to religion.  In asking these questions of our reality, we must let go of the modern definition of “truth as correspondence.”  Truth is defined by context and community.  Such a starting point would have tremendous implications for preaching, since we cannot start from the premise of an absolute – “the Bible says.”  God may be absolute, but none of our interpretations are absolutes.  As a preacher, we engage in deconstruction at every level of engagement – from reading the text to the actual preaching event.  We must question the text, the tools, the community, ourselves.   One of the most important issues that the preacher must deal with is the question of social power.  This is especially true for males in the United States who are of European origin.  We must pay attention to our own social location, and how it impinges on our reading and interpreting the text.  The key issue here is discerning and exposing the power dynamics present in the congregation, community, and text.   In making use of this principle, Allen reminds us that we can’t stay here, we have to move from deconstruction to construction – though the process is an ongoing one!   

    Having set out this important principle, Allen moves onto the question of our social location.  Again, postmodernism raises questions about objectivity and neutrality.  It suggests that there is always more than one interpretation.   Even texts can have more than one meaning.  Social location is, according to Allen: “the combination of factors that come together to create the social world of the pastor and the congregation” (p. 78).   This includes gender, ethnicity, social class, and more.  Deconstruction becomes an important tool in wrestling with one’s social location.  Since Allen does not embrace completely postmodernism, he raises the issue of whether a text can mean anything we want it to mean.  Even most postmodernists recognize that we’re not free to do with the text whatever we want.  We need to recognize the integrity of the text and the realities of the Other.  The key is recognizing what is plausible. 

    The idea of transgression may be a bit off-putting, but it’s a helpful concept.  It’s not a matter of sin, but of crossing boundaries.  Allen notes that moderns have a tendency to create boundaries – categories.  He notes that this is especially true of the Academy, where even in theological education we all have our specialties, and we’re expected to stay within the boundaries.  This attempt to categorize is an expression of social power – we’re expected to fit within predefined expectations.   But it’s not just professions – we set boundaries between genders, ethnicities, races, and religions.  Think of denominationalism or the clergy/laity divide. As preachers we also need to be aware of the historical boundaries that we must cross as we travel back and forth from the present to the biblical ages – recognizing that along the road we encounter other interpreters.   Thus, to transgress is to cross the boundaries.  Allen does offer a caution, suggesting that while respecting specialization we should also allow responsible border crossing.  It’s important that we respect the integrity of the Other.  Indeed, he notes that when we cross the borders, we need to respect the “laws of the country.”  Thus, for example, as a theologian, when I cross the boundaries of science, and engage in conversation with science, I need to respect the laws inherent in this specialty.  From the perspective of the preacher, we need to be conversant with the boundaries present in the conversation – from the text to the congregation.  Indeed, as preachers, we have a responsibility to help congregants cross the borders and even enlarge the boundaries.  He suggests a number of ways of doing this, including involving laity in the actual sermon preparation process.

    Allen’s final chapter wrestles with diversity.  This is, he notes the easiest of the postmodern notions to understand and embrace.  We all know something about diversity, because we experience it every day.  In fact, for many of us, we welcome diversity, at least in our cuisine, if nothing else.  What we must be aware of is our tendency to make our own culture normative.  One aspect of the Modernist perspective is to make things uniform – to see the machine as the symbol of our reality.  Indeed, we have seen education as the key to imposing a certain view of reality on the community.  You may look different, but we expect you to dress, speak, think, the same.  Assimilation is a good term to use here.  But, in this new age there is a call to respect diversity, to recognize the need to grant civil rights to the Others.  It is a move beyond mere tolerance, to engagement with the other.  So, what are the implications for preaching?    It should challenge the models by which we preach.  It will push us to take on different formats and ways of communicating – something that isn’t easy.  I know for me, there is a form that is comfortable to me, that is reflective of who I am as a person.  Part of the issue is recognizing the congregation and its own engagement with the preaching event – for not all congregations are alike.  But then not everyone in the congregation is the same.  Thus, the preaching event, must become pluralistic. 

    One need not embrace everything that is deemed postmodern to recognize value in it.  At the same time, one need not jettison all that is modern.  We can question the metanarrative, deconstruct it, without becoming so localized that we can’t speak to each other.   In our preaching we can take stands, while always cognizant that our interpretations may be incomplete and even wrong in the end.  We need to respect the other and the diversity present in our lives.  Thus, even while we reject the modernist impulse to assimilate everyone and everything into one coherent whole, we seek to find ways of crossing the boundaries and learning from each other.  Although Ron doesn’t mention this in the book, a good way of seeing the difference in perspective is to look at the ecumenical movement.  A half century ago there was a strong trend toward uniting churches into one body.  My own denomination, which has roots in the very impulses of the modern age – Locke and Scottish Common Sense Realism – sought to unify the church on the basis of the New Testament order.  The United Church of Canada and the United Reformed Church (UK), are other examples.  Indeed, the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry Document of the Faith and Order Commission was conceived as a way of uniting our diverse confessional views, and the hangup has always been centered in episcopacy.  For the most part those efforts have ended, and we have recognized, even in the biblical text itself, the presence of different communities.  We can live together, learn from each other, welcome one another, without requiring uniformity.  And the preacher, well the preacher must wrestle with this daily and weekly as she or he enters the pulpit – or wherever one chooses to preach.

    Ron’s book is an excellent point of departure for anyone desiring to cross boundaries and engage the world that is coming our way. 




Austin said…
Hey Bob,
Thanks for the great review. Speaking of postmodernism and the church, I just read James KA Smith's "Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?" and found it quite interesting, challenging, and frankly a little disturbing. His interpretation of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucalt lead not toward just a hermeneutic of suspicion and humility, or mystical unknowing, but straight toward a new kind of theology called "Radical Orthodoxy". I admit, I have problems with this theology (I'll save my thoughts for now as I'm still processing it), but I am fascinated with the force of this movement (folks like John Milbank, Catharine Pickstock, and Graham Ward are leaders in it). I would very much be interested in your take on this postmodern movement called Radical Orthodoxy. If you are unfamiliar with it and want an introduction, I do recommend James KA Smith's "Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?". It's short and to the point, unlike much of the literature arising in the movement.
Austin, thanks for the pointer. I know of Radical Orthodoxy, but I really don't know much or enough. I'll check out Smith's book!

What I like about Ron is that he recognizes the usefulness of the analysis without swallowing the whole thing!!!
Anonymous said…
You sure covered a lot of ground, but it was all grounded. Interesting. Hey, did you mention God/ Jesus? I'm only 1/2 kidding. David Mc

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