Beckett: Review Essay – Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World and Our Preaching is Changing

Author: David J. Lose
Publisher: Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Review

Every preacher is at a crossroads: either enter the same old homiletic indicative of modernity that makes truth claims in a post-Constantinian world or enter the new homiletic that listens carefully to the world and preaches the biblical text to their experience. Lose takes the latter road as he delineates quite well the trifecta of the world we currently live in: postmodernism, secularism, and pluralism.

While postmodernity questions and challenges absolute truth claims because of the competing truths that surround us, postmodernists have no certainty, something which the Scriptures provide in Christ Jesus.

Oddly enough, postmodernity’s secularism does not rebel against truth but is rather antagonistic toward the idea that Truth is found in God (this is post-Constantinianism); but as a result, secularists have no hope. This is because secularism is a world that believes all you see—the physical, material world—is all there is, which makes a hopeless world inevitable in that their material pursuits are never worthwhile, as they are remarkably transient.

Pluralism is cultural relativism at its finest, which, paradoxically, is highly religious; but this religiosity is one that accepts all religious worldviews as equally acceptable with the result that pluralists lack uniqueness to their inevitable religiosity (even atheists, who are religious about their core system of beliefs). If all religions are equally verifiable and acceptable, this lack of uniqueness—which Christianity is the most unique of all—makes their religion (or rather, “spirituality”) remarkably feckless.

Lose’s aim in this trifecta in which we live is to use the challenges these present to preaching as opportunities to relate the Scriptures to the daily, experiential lives of our hearers.

Chapter 1: “Preaching at the End of the World (as We Know It)”

Lose’s first chapter is useful mostly for the information given, mainly his sharp distinction between modernity and postmodernity vis-à-vis hermeneutics and homiletics.

Modernity can essentially be summarised as the Enlightenment movement that began in the 17th century where society at large moved from truth claims being rooted in religious faith to being rooted in human reason. However, the human experiment with “Enlightenment” was a colossal failure in that, although there were certainly beneficial advancements in science and technology, “poverty has not been eradicated, wars have not ceased, in the place of old diseases we have new and deadlier ones (and some of the old ones are reappearing as more virulent than ever), and after three years of harvesting the world’s resources to meet the demands of technological advancement, our world stands on the brink of environmental disaster” (p. 16).

Enter in postmodernity’s “solution” to the modern dilemma. Whereas absolute, observable, and verifiable truth marked the era of modernity, skepticism is the marker for the postmodern era in which we now live. “In particular, postmodernists dispute the [modern] claim that there are neutral, self-evident, and universal foundations one can appeal to for determining what is true. Rather, they contended that all our theories… are influenced by preconceptions we hold based on our race, gender, nationality, religion, economic status, previous experience, and other factors” (p. 16) What modernists assumed to be self-evident (cf. the language of the U.S. Constitution), postmodernists view as “social constructs.”

We can easily see, then, the pointless efforts in political circles of modern conservatives attempting to persuade postmodern liberals through logic and reasoning. Postmodernists are unwaveringly skeptical “of the sufficiency of human reason to solve all problems and meet every need” (p. 16). Thus, it becomes futile to appeal to logic and reason when dialoguing with a postmodernist because they are single-mindedly skeptical about these things to begin with. This is why dialogue is impossible with them.

This summarises, in a nutshell, the main difference between modernity and postmodernity. While it is admirable that Lose aims to utilise the postmodern dilemma as opportunities for better preaching, the impression I inferred is not so much opportunistic homiletics but a wholehearted surrender to postmodernity. For example, while speaking on postmodernity’s mark toward change, in this chapter he speaks favourably toward it:

Certainly, we in the church—who have over the centuries weathered controversies over issues as far-ranging as slavery, the ordination of women, the proper observance of the Sabbath, the appropriate Christian response to war, and human sexuality, just to name a few—can appreciate that it is possible to change, adapt, and even reverse one’s previous beliefs and still remain intact.

p. 20

Suggesting that it is desirable to submit to postmodernity’s unfiltered change is not an approach any hermeneutic or homiletic should take. Can we make some changes such as adiaphora in how we preach? Sure. But no change should be made at the expense of the integrity of God’s Word, as he insinuates with the ordination of women and human sexuality. As the Word of God is immutable because God Himself is immutable, which has given us our doctrines (teachings), so the doctrines of the Word must remain immutable. To change these simply because postmodernity demands change to self-evident foundations is not a faithful witness to the Scriptures. Lose is part of the ELCA, so his compromising on the infallibility and inerrancy of the Scriptures in this manner is unsurprising.

Chapter 2: “The Preacher and the Postmodern Bible”

Though I am largely resistant to postmodernism, with Lose I am open to new homiletical approaches. In modernity’s old homiletic, “the preacher figures out and explains what the passage once meant to its original audience (exegesis), and second, the preacher uncovers and shares what the passage should mean for us today (proclamation)” (p. 34). In fact, this is largely the homiletic I’ve been learning at Concordia Seminary until recently. It’s not that this old homiletic is wrong, as Lose later admits; it’s that it becomes insufficient in our postmodern age.

So, “postmodern interpreters assume that ‘meaning’ is not at all univocal or stable, because it is constructed by the reader or community. Therefore, meaning does not [reside] behind the passage in the author’s intention but rather lives and is constructed in front of the text, in the interaction between a passage and its readers” (p. 34).

In other words, the postmodern interpreter seeks to explore how the biblical text meets the daily experience of the hearer, which he explores more fully in a later chapter. This is the homiletic I’ve been learning recently at the seminary, which is something I believe needs to be included into our old homiletic rather than deposing the old homiletic altogether.

One helpful thing from postmodernity Lose touches on is, “The postmodern turn in biblical studies reminds us—indeed, insists—that there is no one meaning. Rather, communities of faith shape meaning in relation to their context, history, and deeply held convictions” (p. 43). This is true and helpful in the homiletical task.

For example, when preaching on the First Commandment, what it means to “fear, love, and trust in God above all things” will mean something different for every hearer depending on their station of life. What it means for the married couple who are having their first child to fear, love, and trust in God above all things will mean something different for the 18-year-old student entering her first year of college. With these different meanings in mind on the same truth of the Commandment, the preacher can speak to both experiences—and others—accordingly.

However, as Lose subsequently asks, does the possibility of multiple meanings mean the passage in question can mean anything? No, but the same Scripture can speak differently to people in each of their unique experiences.

Yet I have some problems with Lose here as well. When describing his different take on “the practice of Sachkritik” (p. 36), he writes on Paul Ricoeurs twofold homiletic approach:

The first, which he calls a hermeneutics of restoration (and is sometimes called a hermeneutic of trust), invites the interpreter to treat the text as a sacred symbol that deserves to be believed completely and unquestioningly. [This we must absolutely do if we wish to remain faithful to Christ.] From this point of view, the interpreter reads the text with absolute trust and aims to listen to the passage as closely as possible in order to detect and share the message residing within it. In the second approach [this is the one I hold to be in error], which Ricoeur describes as a hermeneutic of suspicion, the interpreter is far less accepting of the claims of the passage. Realizing that all texts are influenced and even corroded by the historical and cultural biases of their writers, the interpreter brings external critical criteria to bear in order to penetrate beneath the surface meaning of a passage and discover [its] “real” meaning.

p. 37

This second hermeneutic must be rejected because it challenges the inerrancy and infallibility of the Scriptures. By arguing for the bringing in of “external critical criteria to bear,” what Lose is really calling for is not exegesis, but eisegesis.

However, I can see this being helpful for hearer interpretation. That is, this second approach from Ricoeur in that while the preacher engages in hermeneutics, he can attempt to place himself in the shoes of the postmodern hearer to attempt to ascertain what suspicions they might have about the Scripture and address those suspicions in his preaching. This suspicion must not be the hermeneutical task that undergirds our interpretation, otherwise the preacher misrepresents the inerrancy and infallibility of God’s Word, which ought to put the fear of God into him.

On a briefer note, Lose is also an advocate for the historical-critical method, although he does say “it has also seriously injured our sense of the integrity of the biblical witness” (p. 41), which is ironic considering he did just that a few pages earlier.

My last critique on this chapter, and on his book in general, is in the form of a question: Where is the Holy Spirit’s role in all this? Sure, hermeneutics is not solely a cognitive endeavour (modernity), but neither is it solely subjectively emotional (postmodernity, see p. 44). Lose deposes the Holy Spirit’s work that drives the hermeneutic and homiletical task while he overvalues human, arbitrary subjectivity.

Chapter 3: “Preaching Hope in the Secular Age”

From this point on, the book becomes much more helpful, although I do have one point of criticism later on. Whereas the hopelessness of secularism can easily be viewed as a challenged in preaching, Lose rightly views it as an opportunity. If a secular people are those who have no hope, then Christianity is immediately relevant in that we have a certain hope to offer. At the same time, however, the challenge is that secularists do not believe Truth is found in God.

This has become particularly challenging for us because we’ve taken the wrong approach of trying to make Christianity rationally credible to secularists. This is the goal of modern apologetics, after all. The goal of all apologetics is to make Christianity appear as not only rationally credible but also as the better rational alternative to all systems of belief. This is even reflected in our preaching. Preaching has become poor attempt at persuasion rather than a faithful confession to the Word of God. Preachers are not in the business of persuasion; they are in the business of confession.

Instead of doing trying to make Christianity rationally credible, Lose argues “we need to embrace precisely the more transcendent elements of [Christianity’s] story and claims in order to speak to a world rich in credibility but poor in mystery and hope” (p. 53). Instead of trying to make Christianity rationally credible (and it’s not), we ought to rather preach hope and maintain the mystery inherent in our faith.

Our Christian hope is vastly different than the world’s. The world sees hope as an ecstatic optimism, but Christianity isn’t optimistic; it’s hopeful. “While optimism involves the expectation that things are eventually going to get better, hope asserts that no matter what may come, no matter how bad things may get, yet God’s word and promise will prevail. Further, and just as importantly, the hope to which we bear witness is not born of our own accomplishments, abilities, or prospects, but rather is founded upon the activity of God in Jesus Christ, and particularly God’s activity hidden in the cross and resurrection” (pp. 54-55).

When we preach Christianity thus, people just might begin to see that Christianity is not rationally credible, but it is certainly incredible because of God’s story in Jesus Christ that is not too good to be true but is true because God is so good.

Chapter 4: “Preaching the Grandeur of God in the Everyday”

This was my favourite chapter in the whole book, as Lose takes seriously the Lutheran doctrine of vocation, which secularism has altogether ruined. What Lose says is key, “Secularism has resulted in a loss of hope not simply or even primarily in an eternal future [the previous chapter], but rather in the value and meaningfulness of the present. Our people, that is, are not asking Luther’s question of whether they will find a merciful God in the afterlife, but rather whether what we spend our time and energy on in this life has even a modicum of enduring worth or value” (p. 66).

The reason why so many people are on an endless search for the meaning of (their) life—and the reason why terrible books like Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life exist—is because secularism has deconstructed vocation. It’s not that vocation is entirely absent in the secular world; it’s that secularism’s view of vocation is extremely narrow.

When most people think of vocation, they think of their job or career—vocation is the profession you go into, and this gives you meaning. While your job or career is certainly a vocation, it is not the only vocation you have and it is definitely not the only vocation that gives you meaning. I could write a whole book on vocation—and many books have been written on it—but Lose summarises it well:

  • God loves the world and seeks not only to redeem it at the end of time but also to care for and sustain it in the meantime. This ‘in the meantime’ is often the overlooked work of God” (p. 68). Contrary to the Enlightenment’s false view of God that He is an impersonal being like the watchmaker who wound up earth like a clock and is just letting it run its course, the biblical story of God is that He actually continues to care for all creation and all creatures, including human beings. “Through our families, communities, businesses, and government,” God is continually at work in the world providing for all creatures, including humans (p. 68).
  • All people, Christian or not are invited into this work of caring for and sustaining God’s beloved world and people” (p. 68). God not only continues caring for creation through His unfathomable and unsearchable ways, but He also uses people to care for creation: doctors, nurses, police officers, firemen, janitors, garbage truck men, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, musicians, writers, artists, gardeners, and so on. These people do not need to be Christian in order for God to work through them. Luther described vocations as “masks of God” in which God is the source of provision behind each vocation.
  • Opportunities for partnering with God to care for the world are manifold” (p. 68). From the examples of the various types of vocations, or “masks of God,” listed above shows just how manifold vocation is. There are countless vocations God calls each of us into not only to care for one another and the rest of creation but also to “[make] the world a more trustworthy place” (p. 68).
  • Lastly, “God works through our Sunday gatherings and congregational life to remind us of our baptismal identity and strengthen us for Christian service” (p. 68). This is especially important. For the Christian, ultimate meaning comes from your Baptism: at the core of who you are, you are a child of God. This forms and shapes everything you do in all areas of your life. Worship on Sunday is not only the place where you receive God’s grace through Word and Sacrament but it “also prepares Christians to enter into the world looking for opportunities to serve God in the ordinary and everyday aspects of their life” (p. 68). Think of worship—the liturgy—as a rehearsal. On Sunday, you’re really practising what you’re supposed to be doing throughout the rest of the week. For example, when you repent of your sins in Confession & Absolution and before you receive the Lord’s Supper, you’re rehearsing the act of forgiveness toward others (since you’re supposed to forgive your brother or sister in Christ before receiving the Eucharist0, which you will most certainly do Monday through Saturday. Sunday is when you learn how to live as God’s people; Monday through Saturday is when you actually live as God’s people in the world within the vocations God has placed you.

This last one speaks to the “Sunday to Monday” disconnect in our churches, and not just Lutheran ones. Although Sunday is most definitely the Sabbath, Lose says well that by heightening the importance of Sunday, “we have unintentionally affirmed the secular impulse to restrict God’s activity and therefore have made it increasingly difficult for our people to imagine being ‘called’ in their daily lives in the secular world. In particular, we have so greatly stressed the importance of Sunday activities that we have unintentionally devalued the lives we lead during the rest of the week” (p. 69).

We have a great theology on vocation, but it’s poor in practice. By rightly emphasising the holy vitality of Sunday, “we have unintentionally communicated to our people that Sunday is not only an important day, but also the most important day” (p. 69). This could not be farther from the truth. Rather, Monday is the most important day for the life of faith. How will what you heard and confessed on Sunday affect how you live on Monday and throughout? Sunday is holy, yes, yet the Word you receive on that day forms and shapes how you live Monday through Saturday.

So, how do we begin teaching our laypeople just how crucially important their daily lives are in all of their vocations, both professional and personal? By preaching about it. This is a homiletics book, after all.

One suggestion in preaching Lose suggests that is not helpful is, “Allow others to testify where they see God at work in and through their lives” in place of the sermon (p. 76). This is unhelpful because it does not align with our confession according to AC XIV, “No one should teach publicly in the church or administer the sacraments unless properly called” (emphasis mine). Because laypeople have not received a proper call, they cannot preach. Simply put, preaching is for the vocation of pastor; if they’re not a pastor, they cannot publicly preach.

I’m all for people sharing their testimonies, but the Divine Service is not the place for that. Save it for Bible study. Lose makes the same suggestion later in chapter 6 as a violation of AC XIV (p. 109).

Our doctrine of vocation shows just how down to earth God is (literally). “God both deigns and desires to enter into the mundane and ordinary elements of our lives in order to use us to care for and bless the world God loves so much” (p. 78). God works through ordinary, earthy means. Through the ordinary elements of the sacraments, God delivers His grace; and through ordinary human language, God reveals to us who He is in His Son, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Through the ordinary elements of our daily lives, God is still present and active among us Monday through Saturday, not simply on Sunday.

Chapter 5: “Ministry and Preaching in the Age of Digital Pluralism”

Whereas the problem with secularism is that it does not see the Christian God as the source of Truth, the problem of pluralism is that anything can be true for you. Lose links this especially to digital pluralism, as he explains, “We have entered an age where we make meaning and construct identity differently than in generations past because of the vast number of stories, worldviews, and meaning-making systems available to us via digital means” (p. 86).

Simply hop on Google and suddenly you’re an expert on Christian theology (or so you think you are). “Hence, while we usually use the term pluralism to describe the greater ethnic and cultural diversity that characterizes our world today,” Lose highlights “the pluralism of ideas, values, and convictions that are mediated to us not only through face-to-face encounters with persons who are different from us but also via digital means like the Internet, digital television, satellite radio, and more” (pp. 86-87).

The large variety of digital landscapes perpetuates the pluralistic ideal inherent in Western society. Lose makes several helpful suggestions, but one (or two) I found particularly helpful was to “teach the biblical story” and not simply to teach it but especially to “tell a better story” (pp. 94-95). That is, God’s story is the better story than the ones people are telling themselves from whatever they read on the Internet, or whatever they heard from their favourite YouTuber, or whatever nonsense someone at school or work told them. It is best to share a longer quote from Lose:

Tell a better story. There are some enduring human needs that persist across cultures and generations and remain as important as ever during the digital age. We all need to belong; we all need to feel that what we do matters; we all need a clear sense of identity and crave that the world we live in makes sense; and so on… Many of these products [that marketers market to us] are excellent and can be incredibly helpful [e.g., the car you drove, the clothes you wear, etc.]. None of them, however, can deliver on the promise of meaning, community, identity, and self-worth.

The gospel message we have been commissioned to bear, however—the story of God’s profound love for us and all the world—can and does offer these things. The problem isn’t with the stuff, it’s with what we’ve been led to believe we can expect from the stuff. We have a tremendous opportunity before us, therefore, to share the gospel… This is hard work, I know, but also good work, work worth giving our lives to.

p. 95

Thus, how do we preach in a pluralistic society that believes all stories are true if it’s true for you? Keep telling and retelling the better story—God’s story—in your preaching and teaching over and over and over again. Hopefully, as the Spirit does His work, the people will begin to see the lack of meaning in pluralism and the fullness of meaning in Christ.

Chapter 6: “Preaching and Christian Identity”

Lose’s last chapter loses some of its helpful momentum, but I did find one thing helpful. It’s no secret that youth and young adults are leaving the church. We all keep asking, “Why won’t my children/grandchildren come to church?” As Lose notes, this is more than a question; it is also a lament (p. 97). “What are we doing wrong,” we wonder.

Lose has an interesting take on this problem, “But the fact of the matter is that we didn’t do something wrong. The world just changed, and we haven’t really changed with it. The world offered us so many other places to look for meaning and significance and identity [pluralism]… But we continued to offer Sunday school and confirmation as if there were no other options… And we continued to preach as if our people already know the biblical story and just need a little more instruction and inspiration to live it” (pp. 97-98).

It’s not that the church needs to completely change everything about itself, such as forgoing all Sunday school and Confirmation practices; but we can no longer assume our laypeople know why these are important for Christians and we can no longer assume they know the biblical story. Why? Because the world in which we all live gives us access to so many other things!

Simply think of the typical family whose kids are involved in sports or marching band or dance class, all those shows you gotta watch through on Netflix and Hulu and Disney+ and HBO Max, all those social events you have to go to, those news reports you just “have” to watch, and so on. Knowing the biblical story is the last thing on these peoples’ minds. They’re “too busy” (really, it’s just a problem with prioritisation).

So, the homiletical task is much the same as the previous chapter’s: keep preaching and teaching God’s story. Remind your people and teach them why we do what we do, why we believe what we believe, and—most of all—time spent in the Word is much more important than watching that sports game on TV. Yes, even more important than your child going to baseball practice. If their Confirmation class is on Wednesday nights and so is baseball practice, Confirmation is the priority, otherwise parents will begin to ask that question we’re already asking ourselves, “Why don’t my children/grandchildren come to church?” Because you taught them it’s not important, that’s why.

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