We who are preachers have been trained, in one way or another, to deliver monologues to congregations who are expected to sit and listen attentively. Apparently this traditional form of religious communication is no longer connecting with the masses. But it’s not just the forms of delivery that are problematic; it is also the content that is being shared. Part of the challenge is the growth of technology and the prominence of the visual over the auditory. But that’s not the only problem facing us. Many simply don’t buy the traditional religious message.
So, what to do? We could introduce more video presentations and take our communication cues from Letterman and Colbert. After all, if the Top Ten list works for Letterman, why not in the pulpit? But is this enough to keep the attention of a tech savvy audience? But again, it’s not just the medium that is the problem. The message itself – and the one to whom it points is in question. That is, does the preacher have a word from God that connects with the lives of those she or he addresses?
Nietzsche declared God to be dead, and while many in the church pretend that Nietzsche’s pronouncement is irrelevant, for many the traditional understandings of divinity no longer make sense. We, who preach, therefore, are faced with the prospect of speaking of God in ways that take seriously this pronouncement. For many preachers, the dilemma of the challenge placed upon them by modernity has left them with little to share beyond “grand ethical exhortations that are more anthropological in focus than theological” (p. 3). That is, as Phil Snider points out in Preaching After God, many progressive Christians are attracted by social justice and compassion, they find it difficult to speak of God’s agency in the world. We’re called as preachers to declare the Word of God, but we find it difficult to speak of God in any real way. As a result our preaching tends toward moralistic platitudes.
So, how do we preach after Nietzsche and his friends have had their say? Is there any hope of speaking of God and not just humanity writ large? Phil Snider, a Disciples of Christ pastor from Springfield, Missouri, turns to Postmodern philosophy, especially the work of Jacques Derrida, and two postmodern interpreters of Derrida, John Caputo and Peter Rollins, for help in bringing God back into the conversation. In delving into this question of preaching after God in a postmodern vein, Snider writes that his book “isn’t for theologically certain preachers, nor for those who have all the answers. Instead, it is written for preachers and congregations who are living the questions, who are on a journey, who aren’t sure what to make of God, who may not even believe in God, and who think that might even be okay” (p. 15).
Preaching After God is composed of two parts. Part one, entitled “The Modern Homiletical Crisis and the Postmodern Return of Religion,” offers the theoretical foundation (if I can use this term for a non-foundationalist perspective on reality), while part two, entitled Preaching After God offers six sermonic attempts to live out the ideas shared in the first part.
In the course of this first section of the book, the author ranges over matters theological, philosophical, pastoral, and homiletical. Chapter 1 is indicative of the questions raised. Entitled “The Domestication of Transcendence,” he seeks to answer the question of why progressive Christians tend to dissolve God into human agency. He wants to reclaim transcendence without falling back into traditional supernaturalism, a move that wouldn’t connect with growing numbers of persons. How then does one envision God’s agency when we’re tempted to live with a functional atheism. Snider writes that his wish is that “progressive preachers loosen their tongues so that their preaching might be full of passionate sighs too deep for words, full of prayers and tears that hope and sigh and dream and weep for the unexpected advent of the “wholly other,” but not in ways that are tied to some sort of supernatural Supreme Being or Presence that progressives – including myself – tend to resist” (p. 31). From there he moves on to exploring why this homiletical crisis is a pastoral pastoral problem, why Nietzsche matters (it has to do with our tendency to turn theology into anthropology), and on to finding a way of envisioning God not in metaphysical terms as being, but rather as event. I will confess that this chapter was difficult to get my arms around. Not being as proficient in things postmodern or philosophical as our author, I struggled with this chapter. I find it difficult to conceive of God as something other than being – but the quest is something worth engaging in.
In a chapter entitled “The Risk of Preaching,” Snider suggests that in contrast to what many believe deconstruction isn’t destructive. Rather, it calls for the pursuit of truth, and this raises the promise of uncertainty in our faith journeys. The question then becomes – how does one proclaim the good news recognizing the presence of uncertainty. His solution is “critical fideism,” a confessional homiletic that emerges out of deconstruction. It is a homiletic that is “rooted in faith, not knowledge, and it is precisely the undecideability in the space of not knowing that constitutes faith as faith” (p. 160). In this we see the contrast between the modernist pursuit of scientific proof as the basis of religion, and the postmodern recognition that faith involves uncertainty. As preachers “we are risking our lives on the advent of the in-coming of the “wholly other,” the impossible, and we can never be sure what is going to happen” (p. 164). There are no guarantees, but the promise of hope rooted in the cross is present.
Part Two contains sermons that reflect the premise of the book. As Snider notes, printed sermons don’t provide the full experience of preaching. We don’t get the voice and the bodily presence, so these are somewhat disembodied. I would say that they are deeply theological and philosophical. Conversing with Derrida, Caputo, and Rollins in a sermon might leave many audiences behind. He does bring in story and culture to enflesh the word. This section will be useful, but it would be nice to have the full form to get the warmth that the written word lacks.
Like postmodern philosophy, a conversation about postmodern preaching requires patience. This isn’t any book to read. You can’t sit down and rush through it. This is especially true if you’re not as conversant in Derrida and Caputo (neither of whom I’ve read). Still, the struggle will be worth it, if we as progressive preachers are able to recapture the theological in our sermons. Phil Snider doesn’t reject the social justice emphasis or even the anthropological, but if God and Jesus don’t merit some deep attention then our preaching will fall on deaf ears and closed hearts. Postmodernism offers us a different way of looking at reality. It forces us to take risk.
I know that my own preaching has yet to find the kind of riskiness that Phil Snider details, but his book will push many to pursue that calling.