Memory to Hope
I just finished Tom Long’s provocative Preaching from Memory to Hope, which I’d recommend to every minister. (I know, I know, why am I still reading books on preaching? I can’t help myself!) Much of the book is Long’s material from his 2006 Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale Divinity School.
In the first section of the book (chapters 1 and 2), Long recounts the reemergence of narrative preaching — especially through the provocative messages of people like Fred Craddock, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Frederick Buechner.
But recently, there have been attacks launched against narrative preaching: from the right, from the center, and from the left. Curiously, Long’s example of an attack from the right is from James Thompson of ACU. Though James does raise some potential problems in Preaching like Paul, it hardly represents “an evangelical perspective.”
Nevertheless, Long admits that the critics have a point: not all narrative preaching is gospeled:
“What has been for the last thirty years called narrative preaching has too often devolved into a hodgepodge of sentimental pseudoart, confused rhetorical strategies, and competing theological epistemologies. Preaches have larded sermons with silly stories of their pets and their children, told anecdotes from the playground to illustrate Golgotha, told hundreds of stories about certain kinds of people and shut out others, and crafted shifty trapdoor plots to keep the listeners amused. If the effect of the recent critiques is to burn away this kind of story stubble, then burn, baby, burn.”
The answer, however, is not gimmicks or the wholesale rejection of narration:
“Some megachurch preachers have seemingly noticed, or perhaps intuited, an increased presence of episodic listeners and have, in response, begun fashioning ‘antinarrative’ sermons . . . sermons that are built as a series of stand-alone ‘bullet points.’ (We have perhaps returned in a digital age to the old ‘three-points-and-a-poem’ style, except it’s now ‘eight bullet points and a video clip.’ As one critic quipped, ‘When all you have are bullet-points, your ammunition is pretty quickly spent.’) Hearers are invited to browse these sermons as they would a Web page, skipping here and there as interest would allow. Such preaching is immediately engaging to many people, but it tends to reinforce the fragmented, nonnarrated character of contemporary life, and it works, at a deep level, against the gospel.”
What is needed, he insists, is narrative preaching that is “theologically smarter and more ethically discerning in its practice.” Messages where God is the main character, where we’re not just dispensing little bits of advice about parenting, balancing the budget, or being nice. “The presence of God is not a commodity to be packaged in a sermon. It is an even to which we give testimony.” Long goes on to help imagine what such preaching might look like.
The second section of the book (chapters 3 and 4) is a frontal attack on the neognosticism that Long says is plaguing the church. What is the response of ministers to the growing number of people who have left the center of the Christian message for other versions that are both new and old? He insists, as he responds especially to Marcus Borg, that he’s not on a witch hunt. But he’s convinced that “gnosticism today leads people, as it always has, into a theological, spiritual, and ethical cul-de-sac.” I thought Long was very effective in rebutting the revisionist history of Christianity that has been popularized by Bart Ehrman and Dan Brown that pictures powerful church leaders sneaking away at church councils to pull a big one on the poor commoners of the church.
The last section — and these are “sections” as I discerned them not as they’re laid out in the book — is about preaching and eschatology. To me, this was the strongest piece. I loved the opening paragraph:
“The comedian George Carlin, in one of his marvelous standup routines, expressed astonishment over those opinion polls on television networks like CNN and Fox, where some debatable question is posed and people are invited to phone in and vote their views. ‘Did you ever notice,’ Carlin said, ‘there’s always, like, 18 percent who vote “I don’t know”? It costs a dollar to make those calls,’ Carlin said, ‘ and they’re voting “I don’t know.”‘ Carlin imagined some guy seeing the question of the day on the TV screen and saying to his wife, ‘Honey, give me that phone!’ He shouts ‘I don’t know!’ into the phone and then says proudly to his wife, ‘Sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe you’re not sure about.’ Carlin went on to speculate that these same people probably call 1-900 numbers for $3.00 a minute to say, ‘I’m not in the mood.'”
So what does it mean to preaching eschatologically?
1) It means “to participate in the promise that the fullness of God’s shalom flows into the present, drawing it toward consummation.”
2) It means affirming “that life under the providence of God has a shape, and that this shape is end-stressed; what happens in the middle is finally defined by the end.”
3) It means “helping our people know that the eschatological and apocalyptic language of the Bible is not about predicting the future; it is primarily a way of seeing the present in the light of hope.”