Submit Your Own!

A Choir of Witnesses
By Randy Saultz

Ben Witherington dedicated one of his earlier works to New Testament scholars Raymond E. Brown and John P. Meier for their labors in study and in the service of God.  He concludes “may their tribe increase.”  After Witherington’s book, The Indelible Image, lets just state the obvious “the tribe has increased.”  This is exciting reading.  It is difficult to point out highlights because they occur on nearly every page.

The Indelible Image is written after 25 years of exegesis.  After thinking long and hard about the use of the OT in the NT, about ancient rhetoric, about narrative theology, about divine revelation, and a host of related subjects.  After a substantial commentary on every book in the New Testament.  Volume one is expositional and focuses on the individual witnesses.  One of the joys of this work is that he allows the witnesses to speak for themselves.  Another is that he is attentive to lesser discussed portions of the New Testament.

The sub-title is The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament.  As the sub-title suggests, Witherington writes with the conviction that ethics and theology intersect with one another.  Since this connection between ethics and theology has not been treated significantly, this work will likely form its own niche.

This intersection of ethics and theology is visible “Just as when one looks on the Son, one sees the splitting image of the Father, so too when one looks on the spiritual brothers and sisters of Jesus, one ought to be able to see the image of the Son.”

Of course, not everyone will want to pick up this two-volume set.  Volume one alone is 818 pages long.  As unbelievable as it may sound, biblical theology is not everybody’s choice reading.  To curb this somewhat, Witherington plans a one volume work for a broader audience in the future.

Witherington himself desires that we read as if the individual witnesses were a choir.  All sing the same cantata.  Each witness sings their own part.  It is the task of volume one to listen to all the voices.  The second volume will then attempt to re-create what this choir might sound like if they had ever gotten together and performed their scores as a single, masterful cantata.  I find myself eager to pick up volume two and listen to that score.

By David von Schlichten

Chris Rodell's "Use All the Crayons!: The Colorful Guide to Simple Human Happiness" (2012, iUniverse) is an entertaining book that offers some worthwhile ideas about how to increase happiness for oneself and others.

Rodell argues that, if a person is more colorful, then s/he will have a positive impact on others that will increase their happiness. He offers 501 suggestions, some silly, some serious. He intersperses among those suggestions humorous stories from his life that amplify how a person can be more colorful.

Several of the suggestions are religious. For instance, Rodell recommends that a person go to church and listen thoughtfully to the sermon. While the book is far from religious--indeed, at at times, it is quite irreverent--it is clear that Rodell is spiritual and recognizes the value of a well-developed spiritual life.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten

Another Thank You
By Randy Saultz

When we think of Calvin Miller, many of us may think first of The Singer Trilogy. But he has contributed significantly to the craft of preaching. One of the things that has always stood out to me was the way he was able to unite zeal and art in sermon. To speak with urgency and with beauty is a rare gift indeed. Calvin Miller had that gift. It is our loss that Calvin Miller died this past year.

I rather like the way that he talks about preaching and the role of preacher in Spirit, Word, and Story. “Preaching first came as a shout of hope.” He goes on to say that “The Messiah had come at long last! Hell, eternal as it was, had been confronted by life… The sermon, born as a desperate reply, was created by two words: the rhema (rhetorical word) that disclosed the logos (incarnate word). Both words, however, were silent without the critical bearer of the news: the preacher.”

Spirit, Word, and Story contains a chapter titled “The Word as Art.” A peculiar chapter title since in it he prefers to speak with urgency about urgency (though admittedly, he does so artistically). “The desperation of first-century sermons needed neither reason nor art… Why outline or exegete or illustrate when the theater is afire?! Humankind was perishing and needed neither an artistic word nor a scholarly word. Only a desperate word was needed. Urgency takes no time for irrelevancies. John the Baptist would not even answer the simple question, ‘What is your name?’ ‘My name… My name… What matters my name?… I am a crying voice – Flee from the fire.”

He preached like a hayfield worker from Northern Oklahoma. “I think there is a time when the secular grime sticks to us and gritty, itchy boredom clings to us and we turn our eyes to Jesus Christ and reach for the tap that washes our obscene egos away. We look imploringly to heaven and cry out, ‘Please, God, I wanna get washed!’”

He preached like one who was familiar with the characters in the text. “Who was Habakkuk? According to some, his name means “Babylonian house plant.” Since I have never appreciated being called a house plant, I can only guess that it wasn’t much of an ego boost in 607 B.C. Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah, but neither of them wrote poetry that caught on while they were alive. They must have presented quite a pair: Jeremiah crying all the time, and Habakkuk consoling him, “Now, don’t take it all so hard, big fellow. God isn’t listening anyway! Besides, Jerry, how would you like to have Dan Rather call you a Babylonian house plant every night on the 5:30 news!”

Miller is critical that “some contemporary sermons are little more than moral speeches that tip their homiletical hats to God. The fearsome trumpets of fiery desperation have settled into chatty liturgy.” Miller would rather we speak with urgency. Yet, he would desire us to attempt it in ways that grip and hold attention and cause others to remember. His sermon language is both urgent and artistic. Miller knew that urgent truth is not watered down when it is made beautiful. Perhaps, no one knew that better.

Thank you Calvin Miller.

Craddock and Boring Preaching
By Randy Saultz

Some listeners in churches have come to accept boredom as one of the crosses that comes with commitment. Fred Craddock is not one of them. In Overhearing the Gospel, he suggests that boredom is not just a condition that prompts humorous stories about a dull preacher. “Boredom is a form of evil.” Craddock goes on “Boredom works against the faith by provoking contrary thoughts or lulling to sleep or draping the whole occasion with a pall of indifference and unimportance.”

He seems to have company in Patricia Meyer Spacks who claims that in medieval times if someone demonstrated the symptoms we identify as boredom, that person was thought to be committing a “dangerous form of spiritual alienation.” A devaluing of the world and its creator. After all, who has time for such self-indulgence when worrying about basic survival.

Craddock talks about sincere but bored listeners who welcome interruption. “Have you ever quietly cheered when a child fell off a pew or a bird flew in a window or the lights went out or the organ wheezed or the sound system picked up police calls or a dog came down the aisle and curled up to sleep below the pulpit?” Craddock recognizes that the burden of boredom does not lie totally on the preacher but concludes “should we not then accept a large share of responsibility for the condition and move on?”

Part of the problem, according to Craddock, is that we have gained a great deal of knowledge but ignored the question of how to proclaim it. I like the way he says it better, “How has been made to stand out in the hall while what was being entertained by the brightest minds among us.” In response to this, he turns to Soren Kierkegaard, particularly this line “there is no lack of information in a Christian land; something else is lacking.”

He introduces Kierkegaard in a way that spurs my interest, “He delights in picking a fight with his reader, loading his sentences with exaggeration, humor, irony, sarcasm, and homely analogy, offering with one hand what he takes away with the other.” (Makes me wonder what kind of preacher Kierkegaard would have been). Then he tells us that Kierkegaard wrote thirty-five books, all in pursuit of how. “How to be a Christian, here in this place, now at this time.” Kierkegaard has convinced Craddock that the curriculum of the church, from Sunday School to seminary, should wrestle with how.

At its best, boredom forces creativity. Some have made an effort, Craddock acknowledges this, but finds many efforts to lack creativity and become reactionary, defensive, anti-intellectual, unimaginative, shallow, and faddish. As a result, this “reconfirmed and reinforced the original low opinion of programs centering on method.” There is such a thing as appropriate style. A style that is woven into the very fabric of the message we attempt to communicate. A style that reflects the message that we attempt to proclaim.

How is a question that will not leave. “If I toss it out the door… it returns through the window.” How experiences are communicated is a major factor in defining what those experiences are. There is no surgery by which what and how can be divided. Our task is not just to say the word and tell the truth. We are to get the truth heard. We are to bring a new hearing of the word to people who have been repeatedly exposed to it. There is nothing wrong with a preacher being lively and brilliant. One of Kierkegaard’s characters said “boredom is the root of all evil.” Craddock encourages preachers to do something about it.

Forbidden Word
By Dr. Darryl Aaron

Forbidden Word by James Harris

                Fran Kafka is noted for asserting that a book should be like an ice axe that breaks the frozen sea within us.  The Forbidden Word by James Harris is partly autobiographical and partly literary criticism, and using both autobiography and literary analysis, Harris sets out to dismantle certain longstanding and secure assumptions.  Specifically, in The Forbidden Word Harris challenges the status quo by declaring that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, and will remain, a great American classic because its author, Mark Twain, was a great American racist. 

                James Harris is a tenured professor and pastor who was born in the depth of crushing poverty undergirded and fed by Jim Crow. He has matriculated through some of the best schools in America. At the age of 53 Harris found himself in yet another graduate program. This program offered a seminar on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book that Harris had never read.

                 On the first day of the seminar, Harris discovered that he was the only black student in the class.  When the professor began the class with a recitation from the book, Harris was floored by the ease with which he casually used the word nigger. 

                Hearing the word nigger takes Harris back to his childhood days when he was first called a nigger by his white neighbors.  Consequently, reading and hearing the word for 13 weeks (Mark Twain uses the word 211 times in Huck Finn) requires Harris to draw upon every educational degree, every ounce of courage inherited from his ancestors, and all of his faith in God to endure. 

                Without question, The Forbidden Word causes one to examine closely white privilege, public education, black-on- black crime, and American values, among other issues.  Throughout the book, Harris performs much like a ventriloquist, throwing his voice across many subjects while demonstrating the power of the forbidden word nigger. At the same time, he focuses upon how the word symbolizes evil and white supremacy.  Unlike Mark Twain, whom the writer accuses of hiding behind the story so as not to reveal himself, Harris stands stage center taking on all of the weight of his desires and demons. 

                The Forbidden Word opened up some old wounds in me and resulted in the welling up of many cleansing tears.  As Harris sought to purge America of her most evil sin -- the sin of racism -- I found myself experiencing a catharsis much as one does when viewing a Greek tragedy. Lastly, as I read this book as a pastor, I could not help but think that the Church must also question her “forbiddeness.”  What is the Church hiding behind and what is it that she must be cleansed of?


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