Saturday, October 25, 2014

text and context

With the SAIACS MTh class in 2013
Requiring MTh students to take a course in homiletics/preaching? It is most unusual. But that is what happens here at SAIACS (Bangalore). Twenty five students. Their theses go in on the Friday (yesterday). Then this module starts on the Monday. A bit of a challenge for the instructor - but that privilege is all mine.

We'll buttress our theological convictions together, as we take the text seriously on the way to the sermon. The content and purpose of the text will determine the content and purpose of the sermon. There will be no compromise on this. Each one will demonstrate this ability by preaching a sermon in class.

But that is not all that we will do together. We will also take the context seriously. While it won't determine the content or purpose of the sermon, we will be listening carefully to it and looking for ways to build bridges to it.

So, in small departmental teams, students will work with a general topic. They will add a specificity to it by drawing in a perspective from within the borders of their departmental focus (New Testament, Missiology, History of Religion, Theology etc) and creating a question. They will orient that perspective directly towards preaching, the preacher and the sermon. In this way, three worlds will be integrated (hopefully): South Asia, their specialisation, and homiletics. In the aftermath of the rigour of thesis-writing, the focus will be on an oral presentation to the class.

And the general topics in 2014?
This year I have decided not to include the three issues which surface most frequently in this context - caste, corruption and sexual violence - and push them into other areas. Here they are:
Rural India and orality
(Narendra) Modi and oratory 
Hindutva and persecution
Gurus and pastoral leadership
TV - Hindu and Christian
Karma and providence
Prosperity and hope
Shame and freedom
Garbage and stewardship
Bhakti and worship

Should be fun. One thing is for sure.
I am set to learn a bit over the next month.

nice chatting


Sunday, October 19, 2014

preaching matters

Yes - another book on preaching, pitched primarily for people making a start.
(I've tried to surf this recent wave for readers - herehere, here, and here!).

Jonathan Lamb's Preaching Matters (IVP, 2014) has arrived.

I read the book in one sitting - or, one lying, to be accurate - early one jet-lagged morning in Kingston, Jamaica. Not sure I've ever done that with a non-novel before. Maybe they should add that endorsement to the dozen others that fill the first four pages!

Jonathan Lamb was Langham Preaching's first director and pioneer, under whose guidance the work touched sixty countries in just ten years, ex nihilo and with limited resources. Amazing. As his successor, it often leaves me breathless. Jonathan is now CEO and Ambassador-at-Large for Keswick Ministries globally.

There are a number of distinctives which help this book stand out from the crowd...
1. Jonathan distills such a wide array of reading and experience into simple, clear and brief description. This is what held me through the early hours as I read, just as it is the often overlooked combination that keeps people awake during sermons. Simple. Clear. Brief. For me, it means this book lines up alongside Darrell Johnson's The Glory of Preaching as one to use for required reading in more formal college/seminary courses. It is that good.

2. The use of Nehemiah 8.1-12 to provide an unobtrusive, gentle structure to the book is a bit different and it works well.

3. As a little aside...  Just before we shifted here to India, I taught a final preaching course, something that had been part of my annual rhythm for two decades. It was a master's course and so experienced pastors comprised the core, many of whom I had taught in their undergraduate days. Overall, it was a disappointing experience. As a teacher of preaching, I left NZ with my tail between my legs. Their confidence in the word seem to have eroded. Intimidated by a very difficult mission context, they seemed to be humming and hahing theologically. Deep conviction no longer seemed to hold them. As I listened to them preach, it seemed that the very sin I had pleaded with them to avoid all those years earlier was now holding them - namely, scanning the horizon for the (technique-filled) waves coming from off-shore, finding and riding the next big one, only to find that it crashes into nothingness on the shoreline - just like all the other ones before it. I chastened them but, more significantly, I chastened myself and have made changes in what and why and how I teach preaching as a result.

Techniques have their place. Of course they do (see below). But our confidence, our hope, does not lie in mastering the latest magical technique. It lies in the transforming power of the gospel which comes to us as word, written and living. The secret is found in being mastered by convictions - for a lifetime. In the opening pages (19-61), Jonathan weaves his way through truths and passages to identify some of these convictions, starting with:
Preaching matters, because it is a God-ordained means of encountering Christ (16).
If a preacher does not have this conviction holding them through thick and thin, they should consider another vocation. Later, Jonathan adds:
Too often, the Bible doesn't set the agenda; it is simply the background music (22).
If a preacher is not willing to work hard at letting the Bible set the agenda of the sermon, again they should consider another vocation. It is that big a deal.

4. Speaking of techniques(!), Jonathan then heads in this very direction (62-108). As he does so, the approach of Langham Preaching is overheard on every page. This is intentional, as the book is partly motivated by a desire to get a basic resource into the hands of those we train worldwide. In a nice touch, Jonathan dedicates his book 'to the courageous preachers of the Majority World from whom I have gained so much inspiration.' Then he takes the reader step-by-step through the process of moving from text to sermon in pursuit of a sermon that is faithful, clear, and relevant. So practical and so useful. The Appendix even gathers some of the worksheets that are being used worldwide.

With Jonathan at one of my favourite places on earth
- St Bathans in Central Otago (New Zealand)
Reading Jonathan's book provoked another trajectory of thought. There is an irony here. The quotation which I hear attributed to John Stott more frequently than any other is his phrase 'double listening'. In fulfilling our callings - including the call to preach - we need to listen to word and world, text and context. Or, changing the metaphor to the title of Stott's definitive book on preaching, our callings involve 'bridge-building' - particularly in the call to preach.

But here is the irony. Those who stand in this Stottian tradition - particularly the British and Australians with whom I have chatted and trained and whose books I have read - don't seem to me, in practice, to take listening to the world as seriously as the Stott quotation suggests they should. Does not double-listening suggest that in the course of the sermon we need to be biblical exegetes, but also cultural exegetes? Does not double-listening suggest that in the course of the sermon we need to instill the true biblical story and worldview, but always alongside the need to expose the false stories and worldviews of those with whom we live and move and have our being in wider society? Does not double listening suggest that in the course of the sermon a preacher is a skilled biblical theologian - but also, at the very least, an amateur sociologist? Have we listened carefully enough to Stott's call to be double-listeners?

These are some of the questions on my mind, as I read Jonathan's book and as I pick up the reins of  leadership from him. Don't get me wrong. The pursuit of relevance in the sermon is given priority (109-121), as is careful application (150-157). A foundational session on 'making the connection' inhabits the basic Langham training. It's great. But I do wonder aloud, for those who stand in the Stottian tradition, whether this area needs further strengthening - even methodologising. What are the techniques to use? Just as there will be steps to take and skills to learn in handling the word well, will there not also be steps to take and skills to learn in handling the world well? I think so. But my hunch is that well-convictioned preachers don't want to go there because they think to do so will diminish the preaching of the word in some way. It ain't necessarily so. Either we go there, learning new steps and skills, or we pull back from the claim to be double-listening, bridge-building preachers.

nice chatting


Saturday, October 18, 2014

on caste and more

It's one month ago now. Two conversations. One in which I participated. One which I heard about second-hand a couple of hours later. But there they are - both running around my mind ever since ... and annoying me. So it is back to the purge-by-posting strategy.

The first conversation was with a bunch of Christian university graduates. It was about the ongoing presence of caste in Indian society, including the church. Caste had reasonable vocational origins, but now it is a way to keep people separate and then to value some much more than others. A student related to me that when his denomination gathers for it's annual assembly, they divide up according to caste. What?! Haven't these guys heard about Ephesians 2, Galatians 3 - and a bunch of other passages?

It makes me combust. It just does. But when we are about to combust, it is always good to pause, stop the flow of oxygen, and ask 'why'. Self-awareness is always a friend. For me, it is more than a biblical-theological issue. I can see this. As I approach leadership and community and mission, 1 Corinthians 12 may have taken on creedal proportions - but there is more to it than this.

As a child, stuff happened that makes me sensitive to nonbelongingness. It will always be that way. I am from New Zealand. We are so flat and egalitarian. Hierarchy is hated. We have a thing called the 'tall poppy syndrome'. As soon as someone grows too tall and excellent, standing out from the mediocre crowd, we have ways and means to cut down that poppy - or just wither it into lifelessness by a welter of sarcasm. Plus I now work in a UK-based organisation and I see a bit of caste in this class-y society. The era of Downtown Abbey did not rid it of all vestiges of the upstairs:downstairs way of life. I feel it - just as my Dad felt it when he went to work in the UK at my age, three decades ago. Self-awareness? These are some of the factors that light-up my combustible contribution into any conversation on caste.

But then there was a second conversation. I didn't hear it myself. Barby, my wife, heard it and related it to me. Again, a Christian graduate student. She has lived life in multiple places around the world. One simple observation. 'You guys in the West spend a lot of money on leisure.'

Boom. Hmm. Wow. Ugh. Ouch. As you can see, a highly articulate conversation has been triggered inside me.

Is she saying that leisure is wrong? I fantasize about sneaking a week here and there with Barby in some oddly exotic place. Is that wrong? I don't think so. Next month we are having our first 'longer-than-one-week' holiday in four years. Do I feel guilty? Of course not. Truth be told, I feel guilty that it has taken this long a time! Leisure. Rest. Lying fallow. These are good things.

What this woman couldn't understand is the amount of money we spend on leisure - and, I guess, this reflects the huge space it occupies in our imaginations and dreams, our goals and priorities. What I hear her saying is that 'in a world where there is so much need and inequity, how do you justify spending so much money not just on legitimate things like an education and a home - but on your leisure?

Is she onto something here? Of course she is. What is wrong with my self-awareness that I can't see this as clearly as she does? While I've been combusting over Ephesians 2 and Galatians 3, she has been reading much of Luke's gospel and a whole lot of the prophets. And out she comes with disturbing stuff, exposing blindspots in my reading of the Bible and my following of Jesus.

Nah - I don't really want to purge-by-posting. Filling, not flushing, is what I want. I want to get close enough to people like this that they tell me stuff that annoys me, triggering conflictual conversations in my head that help me be more faithful to the gospel with my life. I am asking the Spirit to help me combust as much over leisure's overspending as I do over caste's undervaluing.

nice chatting


Saturday, October 11, 2014

words and word

Using a tap to turn off a waterfall in the monsoon. That is how these twin books felt like to me. The authors are trying to contain trends that have swept through society and church and already taken control. It is too late - surely?!

Maybe. But I am happy to help them turn off that tap. This stuff is too important.

In Marilyn Chandler McEntyre's Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, the author argues that 'the stewardship of words is akin to stewardship of other resources' (146). The ecological crisis is not the only crisis which we face. Words are in big trouble. 'Language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants' (1).

Or, switching the analogy a little, we have a problem with 'junk texts' that is similar to the one we have with junk food. 'A steady diet of drivel weakens us' (82). As with eating well, 'we (need to) savor and linger over words; we (need to) taste with delight and take in slowly' (83). If we don't do so, it will be more of the same where 'we say more and more about less and less to more and more people' (230).

As you can imagine, cultural artefacts like news bulletins and talk shows are among those that feel the heat. But the book is not a negative diatribe. Far from it. It is constructive - and this comes through in a couple of ways. One is that McEntyre writes beautifully, adorning her argument with appealing prose. The medium provides a message! Listen to this piece on recovering wit in the face of the contemporary reliance on sarcasm:
Wit doesn't argue with sophists, simpletons and demagogues. It waves them on their downward path with a quip. They don't even know they've been had. Wit withers with a smile; it never wrangles; it prefers fine-pointed instruments to bludgeons, and uses them to more effect ... Wit lands lightly and leaves quickly, never explains a punchline or takes too long to deliver one ... Wit awakens the willing and ready and leaves sluggards to their sleep. It doesn't proselytize or preach, but it does speak truth to power, expose the hypocrite and incites its victims to the distressing self-awareness they may have sought to avoid (207-208).
The second constructive feature is seen in the very backbone of the book itself. The twelve chapters are twelve 'stewardship strategies' ('practices that may help to retrieve, revive and renew our precious language resources', 10): love words; tell the truth; don't tolerate lies; read well, stay in conversation; share stories; love the long sentence; practice poetry; attend to translation; play; pray; and cherish silence.

By the way, McEntyre loves Jane Austen ('whose dual legacy of precision and restraint is a gift to us all', 48) - but it is another woman about whom she speaks that I'd love to be like: 'a woman rich in experience who held her own opinions vigorously and was curious about those of others' (90).

In Kevin DeYoung's Taking God at His Word, the author claims that 'the word of God is more than enough to accomplish the work of God in the people of God' (24). As I replay my past - particularly the years serving the church in New Zealand - I wonder how many people with whom I have walked over the years believe this statement? Some... But it is the ol' Chesterton quotation which more readily comes to mind. Many consider the word to have 'been tried and found wanting' - when the reality is that 'it has been wanted and not really tried'. That is how I see it.

I've enjoyed DeYoung before (here, with a follow-up here). He is chatty and accessible. There is a neat contemporary engagement, while still being anchored in great convictions. Probably more conservative theologically than many readers of this blog - but that is exactly why you should engage him :). Take a risk. Quit the diet of reading only the reassuring echoes of what you already believe!

DeYoung opens with Psalm 119 because it shows us 'what to believe about the word of God, what to feel about the word of God, and what to do about the word of God' (16). The rest of the book provides the 'building blocks' which enable us to share those Psalm 119 convictions. It is a collection of warmed-over sermons on selected passages in the Bible - 2 Peter 1, Hebrews 1, Deuteronomy 30, Acts 17, 1 Corinthians 2, John 10, and 2 Timothy 3 - from which emerges the useful acronym, SCAN. Sufficiency, Clarity, Authority, and Necessity.
If authority is the liberal problem, clarity the postmodern problem, and necessity the problem for atheists and agnostics, then sufficiency is the attribute most quickly doubted by rank-and-file churchgoing Christians (45).
Amen. The church does need a sharp jolt in its theology of word, beginning with its sufficiency. It is one of the larger blindspots today. I now commence every homiletics/preaching course with this topic. What is the point of going any further, if this is not first in place? Listening to sermons from preachers with a deficient theology of word can be so tedious. They should be considering another vocation methinks. Then, recalling the post which I consider to be the most important one which I have tried to write over the years, DeYoung observes that 'the Bible is only impractical for the immature, and only irrelevant for the fools who believe that most everything is new under the sun' (122).
If we learn to read the Bible down (into our hearts), across (the plot line of Scripture), out (to the end of the story), and up (to the glory of God in the face of Christ), we will find that every bit of the Bible is profitable for us (54).
My own high view of Scripture has often been challenged by others along the way. DeYoung addresses three of the leading challenges: (a) starting with what the Bible says about the Bible leads to a circular argument (23-25); (b) being such a bibliolater when I should get my eyes back on the person of Christ (102-110); and (c) affirming all of Scripture to have authority, discarding the populist red-letter approach (117-120).

I like this book - a lot. I'm trying to find a way for it to worm its way into the required reading of my classes - and it is a leading candidate to be the next book I give to each one of my kids. There can be no higher praise.

nice chatting