ACTUALITY: REAL LIFE STORIES FOR SERMONS THAT MATTER
ABINGDON PRESS, 2014
Scott Hoezee launched this book at a festive gathering of friends and colleagues in the seminary where he teaches. Though he is a teacher of preachers and the readership for his book is pastors, the guests were not limited to them. The book assumes a lively relationship between the pastor and his congregation, and thus it seemed right for a large number of lay people to be at this event.
I write this review as a fellow parishioner, with an age advantage over Hoezee, probably having heard more sermons than he has preached. Also, as a teacher of writing and literature, I align myself with his theories and practices about communication – in this case, a special kind of communication, nothing less than the unfolding of the Scriptures in such a way that we hearers can see ourselves in the sermon and realize in a fresh way how, as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” – both in nature and in grace.
Hoezee says as forcefully as possible and in as many ways as possible that the preacher needs to acknowledge “the grain of real life,” a phrase he uses at least five times. Karl Barth represents the opposite of this program. He is all for exegesis (hardly any introduction or conclusion necessary, he says). So does the Scottish preacher whose sermons during the four years of the war, when Britain’s very existence was at stake, were later found, revealing that he had not made a single reference to the anxieties and fears and desperation of his parishioners during those fateful years. Hoezee would call that a serious failure to do justice to “the art of preaching” – indeed, to the gospel itself.
MAKING IT CONCRETE
One phrase that captures this well, of course, is the formula known to educators: “Show, don’t (only) tell.” Jesus is our example. His teaching typically began, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Hoezee’s introduction, “Stories: How and Why They Work,” and suggestions for locating narratives is followed by Chapter 1, “Show, Don’t Tell.” The golden rule that comes through is “be specific.” A teacher of writing said as much when he told his class, “A chair isn’t merely a chair; it is a Queen Anne chair with a fiddle-shaped back and brown-leather seat riddled with spidery cracks.” Hoezee puts it this way: “Just telling people that scenario X exists in the world will never be as effective as showing one clear and detailed example of that scenario in action.” Hoezee uses abundant illustrations from novels, movies, and the news to demonstrate that “if the devil is in the details, then God is in the details as well.”
Chapter 2 is a richly illustrated admonition to the student and preacher about the world’s pathology and that parishioners are affected by it. Through biblical stories (the Jacob story seems to be his favorite), fiction, television and observation, the pastor needs to make clear to listeners that she or he understands such tales not only in a general abstract way but in ways that are specific if the pastor wishes to be helpful. Telling is not enough. What the preacher has before him or her is a segment of humanity falling into one or another of these categories: the pain of dysfunctional families, broken dreams and dashed hopes, human character committing sin and the struggle with loneliness. Not until the pastor can understand the bewildering complexities of some people’s lives can he or she effectively convey the reality of God’s grace – which really needs to be the heart of the sermon. Pastors need to train themselves to be observant, to be quick to latch on to the realities of life passing before them. Again, Jesus is our example. He did sit down to watch the people place their offerings, after all. And he was quick to notice a woman mourning the death of her son before she realized he was around.
But isn’t there a right way for a preacher to isolate a sin and thunder against it?
Chapter 3, “Showing Grace,” makes the point that the pastor needs keenness of observation to detect that God’s grace envelops us on every side. Sometimes it appears in dramatic events, but often it appears in slanted angles of ordinary existence.
Permit me a few observations. As Hoezee acknowledges, the student sermons he reads often lack the depth and layered richness that come with age and experience. Congregations need to insure conditions to facilitate that maturity. Hoezee, understandably, inveighs against moralism, hurriedly proposing lessons from certain experiences. But isn’t there a right way for a preacher to isolate a sin and thunder against it? Hoezee’s emphasis, correctly, is on narrative – and the importance of all believers aligning themselves with the great narrative of God’s growing kingdom. But single metaphors can be effective, too. Stories, metaphors and allegories all require the gift of imagination, which needs to be nurtured through constant stimulation by reading, viewing and keen observation. This book also reminded me of the pastor’s burden, having to push that boulder up a hill every Sunday, again and again. Our pastors do well and need our encouragement. They are a real gift to us.
Hoezee’s book should be read widely by both pastors and parishioners. It should contribute to the quality of preaching among us, so that the splendor of God’s involvement in the world he created and still governs may become increasingly evident in the world through faithful and effective preaching.