|The Beauty of the Word — The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching|
|Written by ROY HOWARD|
|Monday, 12 December 2011 05:48|
by James C. Howell
Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky. 178 pages
reviewed by ROY HOWARD
I have read plenty of books on the art of preaching. I would sacrifice most of them for this one by James Howell. Seriously. Perhaps it’s because Howell, who is the pastor of Myers Park Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., writes with refreshing honesty from that haunting knowledge that Sunday comes like a train regardless of what is happening in the preacher’s life. Maybe it’s because he will not allow the preacher to be lazy, or to utter cute banalities and clichés that might please the congregation but cheapen the gospel. Considering the task before us, he speaks directly to his colleagues who weekly stand in pulpits: “Do not write one more word of one more sermon until you have found something big and true to say; do not stand in a pulpit ever again unless you intend to speak of what is large, the fruit of good seeing and good thinking, and with some urgency.”
The strength of this book is the author’s ability to focus attention on what is most beautiful — God — and then guide preachers in using the skills necessary to proclaim what is most astonishing about this God: the gospel of Jesus Christ. From the first pages one senses that Howell understands the dilemma all preachers face: “In a way this book is about failure in preaching, although I would defend homiletical failure as the only genuine sacrifice of words on the altar of God’s church.” With that confession, Howell invites his readers to join him in a conversation about how preaching actually works, acknowledging that we, like Paul, have nothing to stand upon other than God. “In preaching we not only talk about powerlessness; we rather shamelessly put it on display. I am writing to invite us who preach to become weaker, to relish the folly, to thrive on our inability.” Hearing that, the reader wants to listen to this experienced preacher reflect on the art. In other words, this is an honest book for honest preachers written by one who knows the demands of this high calling to stand each Sunday to offer the gospel precisely as Gospel. Congregations will be exceedingly glad for his stern admonition to preachers, “make a vow to your self, ‘Whatever I say this Sunday will not be the predictable or the trite.’”
Here is a provocative, probing question that preachers need to ponder: “how is it that the text, which sparked riots in the first century, elicits yawns in the 21st?” Howell insists that texts work in a peculiar way and so do sermons. It’s the peculiarity that connects texts and sermons that Howell wants preachers to notice. Nothing is worse than a predictable sermon born of a quick skim of texts that when handled well are capable of shaking the foundations. “For the sermon to work the way the text works, the preacher is vigilant to notice the startling angle of the text.” The preacher who is startled by the biblical text will be likely to preach startling sermons that bear witness to the gospel.
This is a rare book. If you are a preacher, read it. If you listen to preachers, give it to one. In the end, the Beauty of the Word will be more visible for all.
ROY HOWARD is pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda, Md. and book review editor of The Presbyterian Outlook.