“Sermons aren’t commentaries, sermons are events” (14).
This statement from J. Brandon Meeks encapsulates the message of his new book, The Foolishness of God: Reclaiming Preaching in the Anglican Tradition (affiliate link). This collection of essays possesses rich reflection on preaching from a brilliant man. To me, The Foolishness of God is a singularly captivating book. Dr. Meeks has given us a description of preaching that is entirely theological. That is to say, God looms large in this beautiful account of the nature, purpose, and practice of preaching.
This is a book of essays, so one is not going to find a linear argument in The Foolishness of God. It reads more like a constellation of reflections which contribute toward a theology of preaching. Yet, Meeks has ordered the essays to have a sensible flow.
The book begins by telling the truth about sermons and the task of preaching. Preaching is “The Fool’s Errand” and is nothing less than a miracle of God’s arrival through a fool’s words. Preachers are “court jesters” who revel in the divine comedy of the gospel in the court of their king. What we preach is “The Splendour of the Naked Word.” The Scriptures are the cleansing fires of God. Studying the Scriptures is not merely historical inquiry, nor is it curious digging into ancient stories. It is an encounter with God and must be done prayerfully. After describing the event of the sermon, Meeks gives his theory for “Why Anglicans Can’t Preach.” The method of this essay lets us in on the method of the rest of his book. It is reflective and anecdotal, so we won’t find extensive proof for his positions here.
From here, “The Plot Thickens,” and the essays begin to offer a solution and way forward for preachers. We are reminded that the story of the Old Testament must be allowed to breathe and live in our parishes, for the New Testament to make any sense. Us preachers should avoid becoming characters in “The (Hobby) Horse and His Boy,” and rather let our love of the central doctrines of Scripture direct our time and attention. Getting lost in less important matters is unwise and unbiblical.
To this point, the essays reflect classic/historic Protestant thought. The following essay entitled with the double (triple?) entendre, “Preaching Time,” briefly lays a foundation for a sacred view of time before listing the merits and virtues of preaching the lectionary and Church Calendar. We begin to see the specific application of Meeks’ project to Anglicans.
How long should a piece of string be? Long enough to do the job. This proverb, handed to me by my college intro philosophy professor, communicates the gist of “St. Eutychius, Pray for Us.” It answers the question about sermon length: “How long should a good sermon be? Long enough.” Part of the motivation for briefer sermons (e.g., 25 instead of 50 minutes) in the Anglican Church today is an emphasis on the weekly celebration of “The Church’s Banquet.” Divine activity in the Church’s worshipping life ties Word and Sacrament together into one cohesive movement. The sermon prepares for the Table.
As we prepare sermons, we must never forget “Christ the Center,” who is the interpretive key to the whole counsel of God’s word. This is more than a claim that it all points to him. Christ is in the Old Testament, he shapes it and fills out its shapes. Modern projects of tight historical inquiry are anemic and won’t sustain the Church’s full spiritual life. The spiritual and historical “senses” of Scripture must be brought out. This is further explained and illustrated in “Swing Down Chariot,” as the four senses of Scripture are likened to four powerful steeds pulling a heavenly chariot to earth. That is, the full weight of God’s heavenly word is brought to us by means of these several senses.
“The Leech has Two Daughters” continues with the theme and implores preachers to “texture” their sermons with metaphor, since metaphor is necessary to the way we understand and hear God. Indeed it is how God has spoken about himself. And again, we are called to be a “Priesthood of Poets,” people who see the world for its miraculous poetry, spoken into existence by God. We ourselves are poetry, spoken by God, and must live and speak as such. Anglicans should be “Preaching Beauty,” wooing the hearts of the faithful with beauty rooted in the nature of God. In a word, longing should suffuse our message.
Every Anglican preacher ought to know “How to Convert Anglicans” when they preach. Of course, conversion is a deeper term than is usually assumed, and though we don’t assume every listener needs to “become a Christian,” we assume every Christian needs to turn to Christ anew. This requires us to understand “Preaching as Truth Telling.” We can’t present the message of the Scriptures without the sting of prophetic conviction, and sin must be named as such, with all it’s specifics.
What of the soul of the preacher? What of his life in the quiet place? There is a deep connection between “The Closet and The Pulpit.” The one who preaches better be the one who prays or the preaching will suffer dearly. Praying is communion, and communion with the Triune God is our life. As we pray, our eyes are opened to the needs of our people and this world. Prayer prepares us to engage in “Preaching as Warfare.” We never come into the pulpit to speak peaceable things to peaceable times. We always war against powers and principalities and the call to worship is truly “a call to arms” as we fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
But what about “The Rest of the Gospel?” Pastors and laypeople alike “live hurried and harried lives” (145). We are invited to cease from activity and allow God to break the chains of busyness. This goes for the preacher. We rest as he rested, that his rest may find its rest in us. After all, “The End of Preaching” is that we may glorify God, announce his reign, and enjoy him forever. Such is the message of Meeks’ book, and it is a message we need to act on now.
I would recommend The Foolishness of God certainly to any preacher, but also to any Christian who is interested in thinking more deeply about the nature of preaching in the church. One is not going to find step-by-step preaching advice in this book. Meeks’ purpose is to explain the theological nature of preaching and exhort preachers—especially in the Anglican Tradition—to see their sermons for what they really are and preach accordingly. Embedded within this project is a somewhat critical assessment of the current state of affairs in Anglican preaching.
This is the first publication from The North American Anglican Press, and they are still figuring out how to best lay out pages, space margins, etc. I only caught a few errors in the text, but I’ve been told they are seeking to improve on formatting design, even as they seek to run future printings of this book.
Alive in Meeks is the spirit and pen of men like John Webster and G. K. Chesterton. He has the ability to brilliantly pack a gallon of meaning into a cup of words. He can turn a phrase, drop the perfect allusion, and paint a picture as well as or better than any theologian I’ve read in our day. On one page, Meeks’ depth of learning shows when he says, “The doctrine of logical procession thus becomes the existential axe laid to the root of historical skepticism” (25). Yet, in the same essay, one can hear a grandfatherly country preacher behind lines like, “God drew the straight line of his redemptive plan with the crooked stick of human history” (31).
Why make the point on Meeks’ prose? I’m convinced he is modeling what he advocates, that the medium must match the message. He speaks of holy things, and applies himself to composing holy speech. We proclaim a Story, and he applies himself to metaphor, imagery, and narrative. The effect is compelling.
The highest compliment I can pay this work is that it exalts the Triune God. Not only does it speak well of him, but it does so with the expectation of God’s action and intervention in the life of the Church every time the Scriptures are opened and explained for how they reveal God and call us to greater life.