The Beauty of Preaching (Michael Pasquarello III) -- A Review
THE BEAUTY OF PREACHING: God’sGlory in Christian Proclamation. By Michael Pasquarello III. Foreword by Will Willimon. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020. xxxiii + 254 pages.
You’ve seen the ads or signs from churches promising "relevant Bible preaching." The advertised preaching often involves little more than a mixture of pop psychology and scattered Bible verses. Others promise prophetic preaching, which often is little more than political speech with a few verses of scripture mixed in. In other words, Scripture is little more than a pretext rather than a word of wisdom and revelation. So how might preaching encompass "God's glory"? Or, how might we understand the "beauty of preaching?" By that, I don't mean mere eloquence of speech, but preaching that leads the hearer into the beauty that is God?
Michael Pasquarello invites us to "behold the beauty of Christ, which is inherent in the gospel we proclaim" (p. xv). This kind of preaching is focused on God's glory, and the conformity of the Christian "to the image of Christ in communion with the Father through the Spirit," so that human actions might be "true, good, and beautiful" (p. xv). This isn’t a utilitarian form of preaching. It also doesn't sound much like the "relevant Bible preaching" advertised by so many preachers. That might be, perhaps, good news for those of us who are by vocation engaged in preaching.
The author of The Beauty of Preaching is, as noted above, Michael Pasquarello, who is a United Methodist minister and has served as a professor of preaching at several seminaries, including Asbury and Fuller (long after my tenure there). He is currently the Methodist Chair of Divinity as well as director of the Robert Smith Jr. Preaching Institute and director of the D.Min. program at Beeson Divinity School. William Willimon, who writes the foreword to the book, makes note of the core message of the book, which is that "good preaching is not primarily about therapy, delivery of information, advocacy of social programs, carping criticism, or the enunciation of practical principles for better living. Preaching is that event whereby we invite the beauty of Christ to shine upon his church" (p. xii). If this is the point of preaching then the focus must be on God and not technique. Thus, while technique is not unimportant (preaching is a craft that must be honed), it's not the focus. Perhaps I'm old school when it comes to preaching, but this message does resonate with me.
Before we move further into the review, I need to make it clear that this isn't a how-to-preach a sermon book. You won't find him offering five steps to keep the attention of your audience or how to memorize your sermon. Instead, you will be taken into a largely theological conversation about the goal and purpose of preaching, which is to lead the community into the glorious presence of God. This is an invitation to doxological preaching, that is trinitarian in orientation. Pasquarello writes that "while the work of preaching includes acquiring knowledge, technique, and skill, faithful proclamation of the gospel also requires the formation of wisdom, rightly ordered knowledge and affection for God, and an awakened aesthetic sensibility that delights in the truth and goodness of God's beauty" (pp. 7-8). In other words, he sets preaching in the context of the worship of God. The Beauty of Preaching is intended by the author to be an "invitation to 'see' afresh the heart of the church's vocation of preaching: to know, love, and enjoy God in all we think, say, do, desire, and suffer" (p. 24).
At the core of the book are six chapters that lift up and explore elements of beauty in relationship to God and preaching. Pasquarello brings into the conversation texts of scripture, including Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark. He also draws into the conversation Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Wesley. Among the contemporary authors whom he draws on is Rowan Williams, with whom the author regularly engages in the course of the book.
Chapter one is titled "Saving Beauty." He speaks of here of "useless" beauty that focuses on God's initiative rather than the practical application of religious texts. Such preaching invites us to behold God's glory and then proclaim that message, as revealed in texts like Isaiah that are then interpreted through the lens of the Gospel so that we might be drawn into the saving presence of God. From there, we move to a chapter on "seeing beauty," which predominantly draws on the Gospel of Mark. Here the focus is on Jesus, who reveals God's beauty and glory through his life and his death. He points us to the act of beauty on the part of the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus at the home of a leper. He writes that the "unnamed woman gave freely of herself for no purpose other than offering thankful praise to God" (p. 73). Again, worship is set in the context of worship, which appears from the outside to be useless in that it focuses our attention on the beauty that is God. Thus, the "primary motivation for preaching is the sheer love, enjoyment, and appreciation of God" (p. 80).
With chapter three we encounter a series of chapters that draw our attention to the words of Augustine, Wesley, and Luther. In chapter three, titled "converting beauty," the author invites us to consider the message of Augustine's Confessions, which tells the story of his conversion. He notes that due to this conversion experience, "Augustine came to view the work of preachers as participating in the prayer and praise that constitute the church's life, educate its desires, and nurture its delight through the word spoke in the humanity of Christ" (p. 83). In Chapter four, Pasquarello continues the conversation with Augustine, expanding the sources beyond the Confessions, so that we might engage the "spoken beauty" that is preaching. He writes that "the beauty of preaching is displayed by speaking the truth of God as aesthetically pleasing, accessible, and clear." He then notes that the concern for Augustine was less style and skill, and more a concern for the belief that humans "long for and love truth as it is presented in Scripture" (p. 112). The author also notes that "Love is the constant refrain that runs through [Augustine's] preaching; love as the heart of Christian life and faith, love as the heart of God and the world, love as the glory of Scripture, and love as the beauty of the church" (p. 135).
From Augustine, we move to John Wesley (the author is United Methodist after all). Here the focus is on "a simple beauty." Pasquarello notes that "Wesley proclaimed the beauty of the gospel plainly and with conviction and compassion" (p. 140). The end of this preaching was holiness and happiness in God, as expressed in the love of one's neighbor. From Wesley, we step back in time in chapter six to Marth Luther in a chapter titled "A Strange Beauty." Here there is a conversation about prophetic preaching, that "expounds the beauty of the Word in Scripture to renew the church in faith and love." (p. 172). Part of the conversation here is Luther's engagement with the Magnificat, which draws us into a beauty that affects both mind and will.
The conclusion of the book is titled “Beauty, Now and Then.” In this concluding chapter, Pasquarello seeks to bring the different parts of the story of beauty together in a way that speaks to our times. He speaks here of an "evangelical beauty," which "the church proclaims, inviting the world to see what it truly is: creation known, loved, and delighted in by the Creator" (p. 194). He speaks of preaching as "an expression of doxological speech, through which the Spirit's love awakens the church to delight in God's gifts of creation and salvation in Christ" (p. 195). Preaching with the glory of God as the goal might not be the way we often think today of preaching, but with this book, we have the opportunity to refocus preaching. My sense is, that if we let go of the need for constant relevance we might inhabit the beauty of God as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and made known to us by the work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, a triune vision of the beauty and glory of God. This might seem like a useless form of preaching, but perhaps that is as it should be, for it is an eschatological act, that points us to the completion of God's work in the future.
I found the book intriguing. Since I’m closer to the end of my days as a preacher, I’m more interested in books that open my mind up to deeper things when it comes to preaching, than I am to the message how-to manuals. Thus, the book resonated. I’m also a historian, so the engagement with Augustine, Luther, and Wesley was enticing. At the same time, the conversation partners in the book are largely White and male, though if I take to heart Justo Gonzalez’s suggestion that Augustine was a Mestizo—Berber and Roman— then Augustine might qualify as a non-Eurocentric conversation partner. Nevertheless, Augustine is still male. I’m wondering if another conversation partner or two might enhance the beauty of the book. With that caveat, I do recommend The Beauty of Preaching to preachers new to the calling and to those of us who’ve been at it for time. Preaching should celebrate God’s glory.