Questions Preachers Ask (Scott Black Johnston, et al) -- Review

QUESTIONS PREACHERS ASK: Essays in Honor of Thomas G. Long. Edited by Scott Black Johnston, Ted A. Smith, and Leonora Tubbs Tisdale. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xix + 172 pages.

                As a preacher, I'm keenly aware that we face, as a profession and calling, challenges. We all have questions in search of answers about our craft. That a festschrift honoring Thomas G. Long would carry the title Questions Preachers Ask, if appropriately formulated would be both a tribute to a well-known preacher and teacher of preachers, but it would also provide a welcome resource for preachers. Having co-edited a festschrift myself, I also know the challenges that are faced in bringing together essays that will honor a person's contributions to the academic arena, but have something coherent to say as well. Many a festschrift is simply a collection of essays written by colleagues with no organizing theme. Those books may have value to the honoree, but little life beyond. Such is not the case here. This is a book meant to be read and used by those called to preach to congregations.  That is not to say that it lacks scholarly acumen, just that it was constructed with a practical agenda in mind. This, I believe does truly honor the work of Tom Long.

                The honoree, Tom Long, is Bandy Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, which is part of Atlanta’s Emory University. Long succeeded Fred Craddock in this position, after teaching for many years at Princeton. Filling Craddock's shoes would not be easy, but Long had already distinguished himself as a preacher, teacher, and author prior to his move. I had the opportunity to hear him preach about twenty years ago, after Baylor University had named him as one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world (I just happened to be in Waco visiting a friend, who is himself an excellent preacher, when Long was in town to preach, so Brett and I took in the event).  At the time, Craddock, another of the twelve, was still at Candler and Long at Princeton. While I’ve not read everything that Long has written (I’ve not read, though I have a copy of his preaching text The Witness of Preaching), I’ve read several of his books, including The Good Funeral, which he co-wrote with Thomas Lynch, one of the contributors to this book.

                The festschrift began life when the editors, two of whom had been colleagues, and one a former student, decided to poll a group of thirty preachers to see what questions they had regarding preaching. With that information, they came up with eleven questions addressing preaching in the contemporary world. These eleven questions deal with the Bible, theology, changing congregational contexts, the relationship of church and culture. Ten chapters/questions are gathered into these four categories. Part five is composed of one chapter, which addresses hopeful signs. Titled “Tomorrow’s Breaking News,” Sally Brown, who teaches preaching and worship at Princeton, addresses the question of where signs of hope can be found for contemporary preachers to take hold of. Sally Brown is one of eleven essayists, all of whom are preachers or teachers of preachers, to whom a question was posed and an essay composed in response. Many of the names will be well known to preachers, including Barbara Brown Taylor, Anna Carter Florence, Richard Lischer, among others. The book closes with a selection of poetry written for the occasion by Tom Lynch, a long-time funeral director here in Southeast Michigan, and co-author of two books with Long about funerals—the most recent being the excellent TheGood Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care. 

                Before I turn to the essays, I thought it fitting to take a brief excerpt from Lynch’s triptych:

          The etymology is perilous:
pulpit from pulpitum, meaning scaffold,

by which we come, at length, to catafalque—
those f's and a's, like tongue -and-groove boards,
like rope enough to hang, or hoist, or let
a corpse down to its permanent repose.
One platform’s raised; one frames a coffin’s rest.
So, first the elocution, then the wake?

Could it be that there is a relationship between pulpit and scaffold? It seems rather morbid, but perhaps pertinent.  

                As noted earlier, each essay addresses a different question related to preaching. While I can’t go into great detail, I’ll try to give a flavor of what can be found between the pages of the book.  Section One deals the Bible, and the opening essay by biblical scholar Gail O'Day is especially poignant. She was tasked with addressing the question of how we can "reclaim the Bible in the pulpit for people who have little grounding in it or connection to it." In other words, how do preachers address an audience that may be biblically illiterate? Her answer may surprise. We're not to reclaim the Bible, but proclaim its message.  She reminds us that literacy itself is rather recent. She writes of Jesus' use of Isaiah in Luke 4, noting that it is a "poignant reminder that communal worship not about reclaiming the Bible but about the holy possibility of hearing the Bible together for the first time" (p. 7). Later in the final essay, Sally Brown takes note of the fact that the New Homiletic took for granted a certain level of biblical literacy, which can no longer be assumed. Thus, we'll need to learn to tell the story (proclaim it) anew, recognizing that hearing is key. 

                Along the way, between opening and closing essays, essayists address questions about the form and function of the sermon, how to organize a workable and meaningful sermon series that addresses contemporary questions and deals with scripture with integrity. There’s an essay written by Barbara Brown Taylor addressing the question of how to preach in a pluralistic context -- being faithful to the Gospel while recognizing the possibility of engaging other religious traditions. There is an essay on authority in an age when traditional authorities are suspect (something preachers quickly discover if they didn't already know it when they enter preaching ministry). The section on changing contexts will be of great interest to many preachers, as the essayists deal with preaching to multi-cultural congregations, to young adults, and to those depressed and discouraged at shrinking congregations. Richard Lischer suggests that the "umbrella narrative is ultimately not one of ecclessial slippage but the freedom of God to go into uncharted places and to create new realities" (p. 110). In Part IV, which deals with the relationship of church and culture, the essayists address the impact of social media and social justice fatigue.

                We can be thankful for these gifts that honor the work of Tom Long, while speaking to our own needs as preachers. There is much food for thought in these pages. Each essay has something valuable to say to us. As Tom Lynch offers up later in the triptych for Long:

Thus, exegetes and preachers on their own

Hold forth, against a never-ceasing din
Of second-guessing, out there on their limbs:
Have faith! Behold, the mystery! Behold!

Perhaps we preachers are standing out on a limb, proclaiming an ancient message in changing times. It’s not an easy task, as these essayists remind us. So, if you're a preacher or student preparing to preach, this is a book to read and keep close at hand. Take up a question at a time. Your preaching may be blessed by such attention. 


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