PARENTAL GUIDANCE ADVISED: Adult Preaching from the Old Testament. Edited by Alyce M. McKenzie and Charles L. Aaron Jr. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2013. Xi +147 pages.
The biblical story, especially the section of it Christians most often refer to as the Old Testament, is not G rated. For the preacher to take up the Biblical text and discern a message for today requires a great deal of wisdom and recognition that not all parts are appropriate for children. The Old Testament has stories of rape, adultery, divinely commanded infanticide (Abraham and Isaac), and more. There is violence and there is even the erotic. It is no wonder that many preachers shy away from the Old Testament in their preaching, because it can easily push buttons we're not ready to handle.
It is helpful for the preacher to have, if not parental guidance, expert guidance in ways of handling these texts. Such a word from those wise in communicating the message embedded in the Old Testament comes to us packaged in a book whose cover features a picture of Abraham about to slay Isaac, with an angel intervening. The eyes of each character are covered with a thick black line, and stamped across the picture is the word uncensored in red. The cover itself reminds us that the task at hand is a dangerous one, but it is a necessary one.
The book is brief and readable. The essays written by teachers of homiletics and preachers of sermons, with a concluding essay by Walter Brueggemann, honor John C. Holbert on his retirement as Lois Craddock Perkins Chair of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology (Southern Methodist University). Holbert is a scholar of the Old Testament and a teacher of preachers, and his colleagues and students have chosen to honor him not with a collection of unrelated essays, but with a primer on preaching difficult or challenging biblical texts. The editors note in their introduction that in taking up this topic they seek to confront the heresy of Marcion that continues to plague the church. They write: “Far too many Christians consider the Old Testament as at best ‘background’ material to the New Testament; far too many preachers ignore it when choosing sermon texts” (p. 1). Holbert, as a teacher, invited his students of preaching to enter the texts of the Old Testament and let them free to speak to congregations.
The essays cover topics such as like divine wrath, the character flaws of biblical figures, the presence of the erotic, as well as the use of film and literature in preaching. Each takes up themes from the Old Testament, usually offering guidelines for preaching -- including creating sermons series that wrestle with texts that are truly adult in their focus. Since this is a book of individual essays, readers may find some essays more intriguing and helpful than others. I was particularly attracted to the opening essay written by Stephen Tuell that suggests we preach Jonah as comedy. Tuell, who teaches preaching at Pittsburg Theological Seminary, suggests that the very premise that Jonah thinks he can flee from God sets the text up as comedy. Besides, everything in the story is larger than life – including the city of Nineveh. As a comedy, Jonah lifts up the theme of God’s surprising grace. Seeing Jonah in this fashion allows us to see the Christian confession focusing on life being a comedy – “a celebration of joy and possibility” (p. 16). Mary Donovan Turner’s essay on sexuality and the erotic will also prove challenging, especially since the church tends to shy away from anything sexual. But, there are important discussions of sexuality present in the Old Testament, especially in Song of Songs. Then there’s Brueggemann, bringing the book to a close by inviting us to consider the prophetic word.
According to the editors, “the golden thread is that each topic connects the biblical text with the concerns of contemporary people” (p. 1). Such is the task of the preacher and the focus of the book. Each essay addresses in some way the task of preaching the text. Because the lectionary doesn’t always offer an extended look at these texts, in many cases the preacher will need to diverge from the lectionary. Thus, in relationship to the book of Jonah – there are only two readings from this book. To fully catch the comedic message a series of sermons that move from beginning to end is likely necessary. The same would be true of treatments of the character flaws of biblical characters or the erotic. For the preacher willing to leave the tried and true, there will be fruitful journeys ahead.
It should go without saying that any book that concludes with an essay authored by Walter Brueggemann is probably worth reading. Having read widely in the work of Ron Allen, I can say the same of a book that includes an essay by him as well. Therefore, I commend this book to all my colleagues who take up the task of preaching. Although many of us have been tempted by the heresy of Marcion, we should resist. Most likely our fears are misplaced. The idea that the God of the Old Testament is a wrathful divinity is without foundation. It’s not that one will not find divine anger expressed, but that this does not define the God we meet in the pages of the Old Testament. As Ron Allen’s essay reminds us, the God of the Old Testament is not the feared high school principal who is “hard, unbending, gruff, and punitive” (p. 17). The God we meet in the Old Testament is not different from the God we meet in Jesus. In our preaching we have the opportunity to address these misconceptions and introduce congregations to a much fuller understanding of the biblical story.
As one who enjoys preaching from the Old Testament, in part because it is full of possibilities, I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to read this primer on “adult preaching.” So, be not afraid -- much wisdom can be found in texts that we are tempted to avoid due to their perceived dangers. The adventure could prove dangerous, but it will be one that will accrue blessings to both preacher and congregation.