Saturday, January 02, 2010

Good Preaching according to William C. Placher

I am a fan of William C. Placher, a Reformed theologian. Recently, he wrote a book The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology, and I came across few paragraphs where he described what good preaching is. Below is an extraction:

Good preaching involves helping a particular congregation think of how the biblical stories illumine the patterns of the world. So the prophet Nathan (a good preacher indeed) told King David nothing he did not already know about his betrayal of Uriah, but by putting David's life into the context of a story he enabled David to recognize the reality of his sin. Struggling at once with the text and with the world in which the congregation lives, the preacher attempts to show that that world fits into the biblical patterns and to deal with puzzling elements of both text and world. But for some listeners (on dark days, even for some preachers) the pattern does not fit. This is why we pray for "illumination" before the reading of Scripture: in the realization that only the inner testimony of the Spirit can enable us to see things in the pattern God intends.

Martin Luther King Jr. insisted that the arc of history is very long, but it bends toward justice. He did not, I am fairly sure, reach this conclusion simply by reflection on his own life experience or on the history of African Americans in the United States. The evidence there would have been ambiguous at best. Rather, he considered the biblical stories, in which darkness never closes out hope, exile is followed by return, and crucifixion by resurrection. Looking in the light of those stories at the history in which he was so important a participant, he could discern in that history a pattern like that in the biblical stories—a pattern he could not have seen without the illumination of the biblical texts.

On a much smaller scale, ordinary preachers sometimes face a tough task in a funeral sermon. Sometimes one can speak of accomplishments, and of family and friends who will treasure the deceased's memory. But suppose the old woman lived poor and died poor, had no family, alienated those who tried to help her as she suffered the bitterness of what may have been the onset of Alzheimer's. Those who would have remembered her kinder self preceded her in death. What comfort is there to speak at the end of such a life—unless somehow her life fits into a larger story that embodies God's will, and in which nothing that is good is ever lost. But, if one starts with that story, then the values of her life emerge, and imposing a Christian pattern does not seem to be a distortion. The resulting sermon might indeed be more authentically Christian than one devoted to praising worldly accomplishment.

-By William Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), pp.107-8.

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