Preaching in the New Creation

David Jacobsen, Westminster John Knox, 1999

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        We live in apocalyptic times, with a sense that an age is ending and a new one breaking forth.  Jacobsen provides methodology for preaching apocalyptic texts, starting with a definition.  ‘Apocalypticism is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which envisages eschatological salvation, invoking another supernatural world intended to interpret present earthly circumstances’ (p 6).  Jacobsen points out the ways in which a throne room imagery is common to both Hebrew bible imagery and the Christian literature, the new testament; all the  throne room scenes begin with the throne, move to the heavenly court and end with the commission (eg Revelation 5) (p 80ff).

        The symbolic language offers a vision, a symbolic inversion, capable of evoking not just a different image but a different social world and a different way of engaging the old one’ (p 89).  ‘Symbols are not interested in mediating information but in altering perception, as we live out in our lives the claims of colliding worlds…. John the Seer uses these symbols in order to encourage a praise of resistance among his hearers’ (p 89).

        Thus the throne room scene invites us to think of ways of maintaining or perpetuating the alternative reality that is John’s vision:  the tension between our own cultural messianic longings and the mystery of the Christ crucified, ‘to find places of tension where worlds collide and discern ways in which we can confirm the life the gospel offers us in the world, establishing the claims of competing symbolic worlds. (p 90). Read more ›

Paul: the Pagans’ Apostle

Paula Fredriksen, Yale University Press, 2017

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Paul’s letters concentrate on two ancient worlds, one Jewish, one pagan.  The first is incandescent with apocalyptic hopes, expecting G-d through his messiah to fulfill his ancient promises of redemption to Israel.  The second teems with human and divine actors, with superhuman forces and hostile cosmic gods. Fredrikson clearly outlines Paul’s situation within the social/cultural content of gods and humans, pagans and Jews, cities, synagogues and competing Christ-following assemblies, with particular attention to Paul’s letter to the Roman church. 

        Central to Pauline thought is his conviction that the kingdom of G-d is at hand, his firm belief that he lived in ‘history’s final hour’ is absolutely foundational, shaping everything Paul says and does. This vivid apocalyptic expectation unites the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth with the resurrection experience of his early followers, and accounts for their decision to spread Jesus’ message of the coming kingdom outside of the homeland to Israel within the Diaspora (p 167).  It also explains their incorporation of pagan god fearers into this new charismatic assembly (the promise of the biblical theme of Gentile inclusion in Jewish End-time traditions, the inclusion of Gentiles as a natural extension of its mission to other Jews).

        Fredriksen does careful cultural and linguistic analysis of terms and categories; calling Jesus ’Lord’ does not attest to unique divinity; it functions as an eschatological-messianic designation, not as a theistic identification (p 238).  ‘Divinity is an extremely flexible category in Mediterranean antiquity and it is applied to humans as well as to superhumans’ (p 241). Read more ›

Gospel Medicine & When G-d is Silent

Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 1995; Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 1998

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Gospel Medicine is a collection of brief meditations on biblical texts, on 26 meditations that tough on a wide spectrum of biblical stories.  All warrant attention in Taylor’s inimitable fashion:  Jacobs wrestling bout (Genesis 32), the ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:9),  the Silence of G-d (Isaiah 58:6,7).

        I was particularly moved by ‘The First Breakfast’, where Jesus meets the seven of his disciples post-resurrection (John 21:2,3).  ‘We are much better at beginnings; we are not so good at endings (p 84).  Jesus is not serving supper this time—that was the last meal of their old life together.  This is the first meal of their new life together (p 87).  Evocative imagery!  ‘There is a voice that can turn all our dead ends into new beginnings.  ‘Come,’ that voice says, ‘and have breakfast’ (p 88).’

        When G-d is Silent looks at religious language, especially at the role of proclamation:  the sermon.  Religious language is communal property, shared language about G-d which includes biblical narratives, creeds, liturgies, theologies, popular piety and folklore (p x).  ‘The problem is how to call people to the table with the language at hand’ (p xi), a language not unambiguous. Read more ›

Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a simpler Path

Steve Willis, Alban Institute, 2012

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Willis identifies the small church as one with an average worship attendance of 100 or fewer; his denomination has about 10,500 congregations, of which about 7000 are small churches; these are the congregations he has served in his 30-years of pastoral experience, bearing witness to what has seen G-d doing in small churches.  ‘This book boasts no ten or fifteen steps to a successful small church, but encourages the reader to give up on steps altogether—and to see with new eyes the joys and pleasures of living small and sustainably. And what they see are love, belonging and faithfulness’ (p xiii).

        Willis develops the concepts of central and peripheral culture (p 4).  This is not simply a division between urban and rural; large populations of marginalized communities also reside in urban centres. Churches live and minister in these different cultures.  Often the central culture is simply seen to be the way in which things work and that voices at the periphery are not measuring up.  When central-cultural church power fails to respect the differences and imposes itself on small peripheral churches, it causes damage to these congregations (p 6).  As mainline Protestantism has lost power and influence, many congregations are struggling to adapt to the change from being at the centre to being at the periphery.  It’s ironic that some dominant church leaders complain about the way their churches are being mistreated by the changing culture, and they turn around and misuse their power and influence within the church family (p 7).

        This is a wonderful treatment of church growth theory.  For those on the periphery, adjusting to smaller scale and diminishing budgets, it’s a reminder of a simplicity that echoes Jesus’ own teachings and practices. We need not look for the culture’s approval but tend to the people and places right in front of us. And a new application of love emerges (p 97). Read more ›

Building Effective Ministry

Carl Dudley (ed), Harper & Row, 1983

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff


        So it’s an old book.  But its message is as stimulating as the first time I read it.  The majority of people in the United States and in Canada have chosen to relate themselves to the Christian faith through local congregations.  Their faith is not found in extreme behaviour, opinion polls or pronouncements about religion.  They associate believing with the local church (p xi), they support more than 330,000 local congregations.  There are more churches than schools, more church members than people who belong to any other voluntary association, and more financial support for churches than for all the philanthropic causes combined.

        Building Effective Ministry is not a how-to approach, where congregations fill in behavioural blanks in self analysis; the writers sketch the general outlines of congregational study (psychology, sociology), suggesting components of a multi-disciplinary approach for a congregational perspective.  Brief treatments invite congregations to self-reflect; these treatments are frequently reduced to point form to help the reader focus the situation and a possible response from five disciplines (psychology, anthropology, literary symbolism, sociology and theology) (p 35).  ‘A congregation is profoundly shaped by its social context, but because of its relation to a religious or faith tradition, has the capacity to transcend the determinative power of the social context (p 109).  ‘Internal factors such as race, social class, national and ethnic backgrounds…. are more important variables than the particular denominational affiliation of that congregation.’ (p 164).  There is a two-way movement as the congregation is acted upon by forces in its environment and at the same time moves outward to affect and change its setting.’ (p 238). Read more ›

Images of Christian Ministry

Donald Messer, Abingdon Press, 1989

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Messer, president of the Iliff School of Theology, identifies five images with their implications for ministry (these are seen as supplementary concepts for the traditional concepts of priest, prophet and king).  These images are the wounded healer, the servant leader, the political mystic, the practical theologian and the enslaved liberator.

        Key is his insistence that ‘ministry is viewed as not simply the professional presence of the ordained but as an expression of the total church both clergy and lay’ (p 15).  The danger of compartmentalizing functions comes from viewing ministry as individualistic acts of service rather than as an expression of G-d’s gift of grace to the community of faith; Messer calls for liking lay and clergy together in common bonds of faithfulness and effectiveness.  ‘Christian ministry is G-d’s gift to all persons, ordained and lay’ (pp 16,17).

        The congregational thrust of his ecclesiology is expressed in ‘ordination is rooted not in the bishops’ authority to ordain but in the priesthood of all believers’ (p 37).  The minister’s image of prophet is developed well:  ‘the image of the prophet has always been a sociologically marginal metaphor of ministry’ (p 43).  Messer warns against the ‘cult of personality with its individualistic focus on the preacher’ (p44), and quotes P. T. Forsyth:  ‘the church does not live by its preachers but by its Word’; no one has the right to the pulpit by virtue of personality. A magnetic personality may endanger the communication of the gospel’ (p 45). Read more ›

Cross Shattered Christ & A Cross Shattered Church

Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos, 2004; Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos, 2009

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Two books that invite us to walk with the crucified carpenter.  Cross Shattered Christ consists of meditations on the seven last words on the cross; A Cross Shattered Church is a collection of sermons.  ‘The way Jesus went to the cross, despite the pressing demands that the world be saved some other way, is the definitive part of the holy story’ (A Cross Shattered Church, p. 156).

        Hauerwas quotes Michael Ramsay, calling on us ‘to be on the watch constantly for the ideological bondage that threatens to take over a church-based or church-focused theology’ (Cross Shattered Christ, p 18).  ‘Our resource is our faith in the G-d to whom Christ prays on the cross’ (Cross Shattered Christ, p 19).

        In our time when reorganization is a major preoccupation and tampering with committee structure in the institutional church, the scattered shattered body of Christ, a shifting, rumbling body, will not be united by means of conferences and negotiations; it is only as our bodies are held in common through prayer and Eucharist’ (A Cross Shattered Church, p 20). The sermon, for Hauerwas, is an attempt ‘to make the familiar strange’ (p 24). Read more ›

The Bible in the Pulpit

Leander Keck, Abingdon, 1978

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Another old book.  But a book that raises issues as clearly as does the sermon we heard yesterday.  Keck reiterates the historical thinking about the Bible, that every aspect of it and in it is conditioned by history (p 12).

        ‘It is no longer the amount of the bible cited that makes preaching biblical….  The bible does not belong to the guild of professional scholars; the Bible belongs first of al to the church’ (p 13).  Keck uses striking metaphors.  ‘Today’s preacher stands in the pulpit like a modern Lazarus, immobilized, showing no face to the public; (p 33).  ‘Good preaching is characterized by clarity and orderly presentation and frequently by simplicity as well.’

        Keck makes the cogent point that the religious communities (of Jews and of Christians) have recognized (perhaps even ‘made’) the bible as the canon of the church by church.  Just as there was an Israelite community and faith before there was a Hebrew bible, so there was a Christian faith and a Christian church before there was a New Testament.  Christianity is not a response to a holy book (p 70, 71); there was a community before there was a book. Read more ›

Trembling at the Threshold of a Biblical Text

James Crenshaw, Eerdmans, 1994

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Thresholds function as a barrier between outside and inside, separating those who dwell within a residence from persons outside it.  Ancient Canaanites associated thresholds with demons who were thought to lurk underneath and to attack hapless persons disturbing their rest.  Anyone who endeavours to understand a biblical text encounters a threshold under which lurk untold ‘demons’.  The text has been granted a privileged position above every other human production.  We spend countless hours combating the demons released on an unsuspecting society by stepping across the threshold of our canon. 

         ‘The biblical text has been used to sanction slavery, the suppression of women, the jingoism and narrow fundamentalism that demonizes others who read texts differently. (p 3)  Our encounter with the biblical text, as I cross the threshold, constitutes a dialogue. Crossing the threshold brings us into immediate contact with an alien culture.  Every text carries within its spaces multiple meanings, and so with one foot firmly planted in the modern age and the other tentatively feeling for a toehold in the biblical period ( 5), we risk disturbing the demons lurking beneath the threshold.

        We are beneficiaries of ancient religious thinkers who stepped across the thresholds, giving a decision to cling to the living G-d.  And that is where we find ourselves:  trembling because of the silence of eternity and the anticipation of hearing the clamour from the past.  Crenshaw gifts us with twenty sermons and nine meditations that step deliberately on the thresholds of our culture.  The biblical metaphor of ‘threshold’ becomes a powerful  incentive to utter a faithful word, recognizing that we have been entrusted with a weighty message. Read more ›

Preaching to Strangers

William Williman & Stanley Heuerwas, Westminster, 1992

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Willimon and Hauerwas, of Duke University, join forces in this book:  Willimon contributes ten sermons and Hauerwas responds to each.  The sermons are the occasion for Willimon to preach to strangers (mainly to students and to tourists).  The sermons are addressed to students who are passing through, to people who share no common tradition, to people who have so little in common that they are not even able to locate disagreements.  ‘Most preaching in the Christian church today is done before strangers’ (p 6).  Christians once understood that they were pilgrims; now we’re just tourists who happen to find ourselves on the same bus.

        Preaching needs to translate the language of the gospel onto experiences that are already well understood; preaching is not about communicating but about challenging our understanding.  Willimon’s sermons reflect startling perspectives, eg “Jesus’ systemic abnormality’.  The pretentious power of the state is countered by healing the ill, telling the truth, feeding the hungry, stampeding swine—systemic abnormality had to put him away.  Here is the power in the sermon, that summons each of us to submit to transformation (p 33). Willimon’s sermons reflect the canonical range of ‘the systemic abnormality’, of ordinary people eg Ruth, Joseph/Mary, Christmas, urging us to universal human love (!), and all we get is a hasty trip from nowhere Nazareth to Left Armpit Bethlehem.’  The nativity story is small, specific and particular.  It’s not about the whole human race; it’s about real people with real names—you can make a road map and follow Mary’s and Joseph’s journey (p 124).  G-d did not appear as an idea or a program:  G-d came to Mary and to Joseph (p 129).

        Preaching to Strangers suggests an old and a very new way to think about theological words to strangers. Read more ›