Preaching with Variety: How to Re-create the Dynamics of Biblical Genres
by Jeffery Arthurs (Kregel, 2007), pb, 258pp
Part of the Preaching With series
“Preachers sometimes get bored with their own preaching. It’s the regularity that dulls us. On some Sundays we speak because we are expected to say something and not because we have something to say. In addition, we get bored with preaching the Bible because we treat the Bible as an assortment of texts from which to build sermons. To actually preach with variety and excitement, we must treat the Scriptures as they are – a library of different types of great literature.” (p.11, from the foreword by Haddon Robinson)
“Because God loves poetry, the preacher must try to appreciate it.” (p.11, from the foreword by Haddon Robinson)
“Why should we preach with variety? Because God himself is the Great Communicator, and part of that greatness is seen in his freshness and creativity.” (p.22)
“Ministers who, week after week, frame their sermons as arguments, syllogisms armed for debate, tend to give that form to the faith perspective of regular listeners. Being a Christian is proving you are right. … Sermons which invariably place before the congregation the ‘either/or’ format … contribute to oversimplification, inflexibility, and the notion that faith is always an urgent decision. In contrast, ‘both/and’ sermons tend to broaden horizons and sympathies but never confront the listener with a crisp decision. … Regardless of the subjects being treated, a preacher can thereby nourish rigidity or openness, legalism or graciousness, inclusiveness or exclusiveness, adversarial or conciliating mentality, willingness to discuss or demand immediate answers.” (p.27, quoting Fred Craddock)
“The following five factors influence how contemporary listeners listen, and so should influence how contemporary speakers speak. Visual. … Speed. … Participation. … Experience. … Authority.” (pp.31-36)
“One hundred listeners will translate a single sermon into one hundred or more correlated messages.” (p.37)
“As lyric poetry, the psalms display the following features: brevity, intricate structure, concrete images, and intense emotion.” (p.41)
“The ancient Hebrews were music-loving people. The Bible alludes to a number of secular songs such as work songs for digging (Num. 21:17-18) and making wine (Isa. 16:10; Jer. 48:33). Music was integral to ceremonies such as marriages (Jer. 7:34) and funerals, at which laments were sung or chanted (2 Sam. 1:19-27). In his works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien captures the way that ancient oral cultures used music. Notice how often and with what lack of self-consciousness the characters sing in Tolkien’s works – they sing as they bathe, drink, walk, work, lament, and commemorate.” (pp.41-42)
“The first element on which your preaching will depend for power and success … is imagination, which I regard as the most important of all elements that go to make the preacher.” (p.49, quoting Henry Ward Beecher)
“Silence is torture to a person who brought up with constant visual and aural stimulation. Most Americans lack the ability to silence and to imagine something not paraded before their eyes, but those skills are necessary to exegete the Psalms. Is there any hope for channel surfers like you and me?” (p.49)
“The key to communicating concretely is verbs and nouns. … Mark Twain once said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” (p.50)
“Try writing out a manuscript. This discipline helps slow the preparation process. It gives us time to choose vivid words. It also gives us a tangible document to edit. Caution: write a manuscript, but do not preach from it! … Don’t memorize the manuscript either.” (p.51)
“In face-to-face communication, the non-verbal channel dominates the actual words. This is especially true when the nonverbal channel seems to conflict with the words. … When the two conflict, we believe the nonverbal; therefore, preachers who want to re-create the rhetorical impact of the text must embody it.” (p.59)
“Perhaps all of this advice on re-creating the impact of the psalms can be summarized in the old adage about writing: ‘If you’re going to talk about a bear, it is of utmost importance to bring in a bear.'” (p.59)
“The key features of narrative literature are plot, character, setting, and point of view.” (p.68)
“Plots typically move through five stages: (1) background, (2) conflict, (3) rising action, (4) climax, and (5) resolution. … As a preacher of narrative, you’ll find it helpful in your exegesis to lay out the plot of your passage in these five sections.” (pp.70-71)
“I estimate that 50 percent of biblical narrative is dialogue, which means the quoted word carries the story’s freight of meaning, yet the dialogue is compressed and crafted so that every word tells.” (p.73)
“… today’s readers must use a slightly different set of conventions to read the old texts well. Here are seven of those conventions that convey character: dialogue … action … titles and names … physical description … authorial comment … response from other characters … foils.” (pp.73-75)
“… imbibe and appreciate five techniques of perspective that biblical storytellers use to guide readers’ responses to plot, character and setting. … [They are] degree of omniscience … amount of detail … flow of time … selection and arrangement … [and] irony.” (pp.79-81)
“As a teacher of public speaking, Alan Monroe developed a way to organize sales presentations and other talks to achieve maximum persuasion. In a sales talk, to get to the ‘close,’ Monroe said you must take your audience through a five-step process: attention … need … satisfaction … visualization … [and] action. (pp.87-88)
“Lowry’s ‘homiletical plot’ … also arranges material in five steps designed to take the listeners through an experience in time: … upset the equilibrium … analyze the discrepancy … disclose the key to resolution … experience the gospel … anticipate the consequences.” (p.89)
“Jesus spoke fifty to seventy parables, depending on how you define the term, so that approximately 43 percent of his words in Matthew, 16% of his words in Mark, and 52 percent of his words in Luke are parables.” (p.103)
“The communication dynamics that parables engender are so complex that they can seem inscrutable, but we can get a handle on them by exploring three qualities: their realism … their folktale qualities … their natures as analogies.” (p.106)
“Proverbs abound in western culture just as they did in the ancient world. We see them on t-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, and calendars. … Advertising is the primary creator and transmitter of of proverbs today …” (p.130)
“Try this. Preachers have many options for recommunicating proverbs … These suggestions are arranged roughly in chronological sequence moving from exegesis to delivery. Preach observations, not promises. … Do not preach selfish behavior, humanism, or materialism. … Preach thought units. … Use your imagination. … Show as well as tell. … Turn on the spotlight … not the floodlight. This means to rove mentally through society searching for particular situations that should be illumined by a particular proverb. … Make your central idea ‘proverbial.’ … Dueling proverbs. Compare and contrast modern proverbs with biblical ones. … Borrow the proverb’s movement. … Adopt the teacher’s stance. … Feature women. … Use some humor. … Use homespun language.” (pp.140-150)
“Epistles substitute for the presence of the author … Under Augustus, the Roman emperors established their own postal services with vehicles, horses, and inns, all largely restricted for imperial use, but an official letter from Rome to Caesarea still took fifty-four days. For private letters, no postal system existed …” (p.153)
“A major modification Paul made was to greatly expand the length of letters. The average length of a letter of Cicero was 295 words; Seneca, 955; but Paul’s epistles averaged 2,500 words! No epistles in the ancient world come close to this.” (p.157)
“Epistles are like speech in four ways: they employ various small forms, argue with linear logic, cite or allude often, and are composed for the ear.” (p.158)
“[In the epistles] most citation is taken from the Old Testament, usually the Septuagint, but citation also comes from hymns, creeds, sayings of Jesus, and even pagan poets (Titus 1:13). As much as half of an epistle can be quoted, what scholars call ‘preformed material.’ [E.E.] Ellis estimates the following percentages: Romans – 27%; 1 Corinthians – 17%; 2 Corinthians – 11%; Galatians – 32%; Ephesians – 54%; Philippians – 7%; Colossians – 43%; 1 Thessalonians – 37%; 2 Thessalonians – 24%; 1 Timothy – 43%; 2 Timothy – 16%; Tutus 46%; Philemon – 0%” (p.160)
“Epistles were not simply dashed off. The whole process was laborious and expensive, especially when you consider the extraordinary lengths of most of the New testament epistles. [E. Randolph] Richards estimates the following [with the hours required to make a final copy and the cost in dollars from the year 2004]: Romans – 11.5 hours and $2,275; “1 Corinthians – 10.7 hours and $2,108; Galatians – 3.6 hours and $722; 1 Thessalonians – 2.4 hours and $484; 1 Timothy – 2.8 hours and $554.” (p.163)
“Chapter checklist [on preaching the epistles]. Exegete and respond to mood. Don’t cage wild things. If your text uses word pictures, use word pictures. Or use real pictures. Light a candle. If your text is autobiography, tell a story. If your text is debate, debate. If your text is a doxology, doxologize. Pay attention to ideas, paragraphs, and logical transitions. Use dialogue. Try question and answer. Try feedforward. Try feedback. Put the listeners at ease so they’ll talk. Interview. Use rhetorical questions. Use question and answer for your main points. ‘Dictate’ to a secretary. use examples, lot of examples – real or hypothetical. When you climb the ladder of abstraction, come down quickly. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Use purposeful redundancy on eight to ten key statements in every sermon. Remember that you are not delivering an essay. Use koine. Prepare out loud (as well as silently). Ground the imperative in the indicative. Join kerygma and didache, the gospel and catechesis. Try appropriate self-disclosure. Watch your ethos.” (pp.176-177)
“Like a maze of high hedges with gold at the center, this genre [apocalyptic literature] does not easily yield its treasure. … Preaching this genre may feel like handling snakes, but let’s remember that God has given it a major place in the canon.” (p.179)
“In the Bible, the following passages are often categorized as apocalyptic: Isaiah 24-27; Daniel 7-12; Zechariah 1-6,9-14; Matthew 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12; 2 Peter 3:1-13; and the book of Revelation.” (p.180)
“The surrealism of apocalyptic functions through three literary-rhetorical features: its dualism, symbols, and hybridized narrative.” (p.183)
If you are what you eat, I was meat loaf, green beans and buttered toast during most of my growing up years.
Not that I’m complaining. I loved Mom’s meat loaf. It was the best in town. At least I suspect it was, seeing as how I never ate anyone else’s back then. It was always the same; perfectly predictable. The same could be said for my liberal application of ketchup there upon. And the green beans were always predictable, too: either Del Monte or fresh from a friend’s garden. I confess, I was a bit adventurous with the beans. Sometimes I’d scoot them over into my ketchup. Once in awhile I’d douse their steam with some lemon juice. And, of course, if time was of the essence and I needed to get some serious playing done, I’d just wolf ’em down plain with a smile. Oh, and the buttered toast? Wonderbread, of course. Was there any other brand? How old was I before I learned bread came in some other color than white and in different shapes, not to mention having different tastes? I wonder.
This much is certain: Mom was a good cook, but variety just wasn’t her thing. And the same could be said for many of us preachers. We may serve up some good stuff, but it may very well be, more often than not, the same-ol-thing just served up the same old way.
In his book Preaching with Variety, Jeffrey Arthur, associate professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, not only encourages us preacher-types to put some variety into the sermon dishes we serve up, but gives us real aid toward dreaming up some recipes that can do just that. And it comes to the ideas for those recipes from, of all places, Scripture!
A glance at the book’s table of contents will let you know that Dr. Arthur’s recipe book deals with discussions of the six main genres of Scripture: psalms, narrative, parables, proverbs, epistles and apocalyptic. A quick thumb through the pages will reveal that Dr. Arthur practices in writing what he preaches concerning variety, too. While each of the discussions of the Biblical genres follows the same outline (some choice quotes, a definition of the genre, an exploration of how the text communicates and what it does, practical suggestions entitled “Try This,” and a chapter checklist), sweet variation abounds within those discussions. Charts, quotes, bullet points, tables, and more will be found. There’s even a complete sermon; a true “classic” you’ve likely heard, but perhaps never knew who originally authored it (pp.54-56).
Complete documentation appears at the end of the book; 17 pages of endnotes and 17 pages of well-rounded, current bibliography pointing to web-based, as well as paper-based, sources. The endnotes insure that we’re not deprived of trails to follow for more information, but also guarantee that the book’s main text remains uncluttered and free of distractions. And that text cast in an easy-to-read font and appearing in formatting that truly aids our “following the trail” the author blazes for us. However, since there are no indexes, I did find myself wishing for the inclusion of a simple Scripture index given Dr. Arthur’s occasional, helpful discussions of specific texts.
It’s probably obvious by now; this book isn’t just anyone’s meat loaf. This is the good stuff, just like Mom used to make. I can wolf this book down because it’s smart and often informs me of things I’ve wondered about (e.g. – the estimated percentage of ‘pre-formed’ material in Paul’s letters [p.160]; the number of rabbinic parables that have been discovered that date before 200 A.D. [p.212]; etc.). It tastes great to me because it often gives me suggestions that cause me to slap my head and say to myself “Why didn’t I think of that before?” (e.g. – line graphing the emotional ups and downs of a text, as exemplified with Psalm 77 on p.53). I like this book because it seems like I’m continually pulling out from it helpings of quality illustrations that illustrate oh, so well (e.g. – Tolstoy on pp. 123-124; Max Lucado on pp.125-126; etc.). And I eat this book up because it simply summarizes in an original and memorable way (e.g. – the end of chapter “checklists” – pp.60-61,101,128,150,176-177,198-199).
To be sure, more detailed discussions of Biblical genres can be found, but I dare none so truly readable and downright helpful as this one. And so, I’ll go so far as to say if you purchase just one book on suggestions as to how to approach the genres of Scripture for the purposes of preaching, this book should be the one you get. All others that’s I’ve read so on this matter come in a distant second. I give this one a 9.6 and no, you can not have my copy!
Buttered toast, green beans and meat loaf. Come to think of it, I can’t recall the last time I had a meal like that. Maybe it’s been too long; maybe I need some variety. Pass the lemon juice, please.