Indeed, preaching must be improved. However, before preaching can be improved, one must first be aware of the cultural context in which one lives today.
Jesus asked by chief priests by what authority he preaches – By Tissot
Over the past few years, a staggering reality has surfaced: many individuals leaving the Church are doing so because of the quality of the preaching. 1 This indicates, at least in part, the impetus for the rare words of chastisement from Pope Benedict XVI in his post-synodical apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini:
In the Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, I pointed out that “given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved. ….” … Generic and abstract homilies which obscure the directness of God’s word should be avoided, as well as useless digressions which risk drawing greater attention to the preacher than to the heart of the Gospel message. The faithful should be able to perceive clearly that the preacher has a compelling desire to present Christ, who must stand at the center of every homily. 2
Indeed, preaching must be improved. However, before preaching can be improved, one must first be aware of the cultural context in which one lives today. What are its characteristics? What are its needs? And how can the one entrusted with the task of preaching (ordinarily the priest and deacon) better engage those living within that particular cultural milieu?
I will attempt to address the foregoing questions in what lies below. However, once our cultural context has been established (as best as is able), it will be important to recall the homiletic of the recent past before forging ahead with a proposed homiletic for this post-modern world. With that former homiletic in mind, I will then examine the troubles associated with such an approach, particularly in light of the post-modern world we are attempting to evangelize with the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Finally, and most important of all, I will attempt to demonstrate how preaching can and should be improved in order to meet more adequately the spiritual needs of a post-modern world that is dying to live.
The World Today
If you take a long look around, what do you see? What is it that defines our culture? What motivates our young people? What brings us satisfaction? It seems that, over the past twenty years, the answers to the foregoing questions have changed and, in some respects, rather drastically.
The modern era ran from roughly the beginning of the French Revolution until the fall of the Berlin Wall (c. 1789 – c. 1989). For all intents and purposes, that was a time of intellectual dominance. In fact, it was during that 200 year period, possibly more than any other time in human history that we, as human beings, believed that we could think our way out of our troubles. In short, we believed that we, as enlightened creatures, could use our minds to do all sorts of wonderful things and, moreover, to stop all sorts of terrible things. But did we really accomplish what we had hoped?
The 20th century saw more genocide than all the previous centuries combined. Though we increased in knowledge, we concurrently discovered all sorts of new ways to hurt ourselves and others: drones, suicide bombers, and planes that served as missiles. We can predict storms, but we cannot stop them. We can see spot trends in the stock market, but we cannot end poverty. The reality of the modern era is this simple: after all the optimism of the past 200 years, we still live in a world that is violent, fractured, sinful, and self-interested. Evil is real, and our intellect cannot stop its debilitating force. 3
Since the modern era promised us success on our own, a success where we could think ourselves out of our troubles and into a more meaningful and productive live, those of us who stand in the dust and ashes of the modern hope are more terrified than ever. We realize that the promises of the past were empty. We realize that we, on our own, are nothing (Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris). We could not fix ourselves by ourselves. And the symptom of living today, in the aftermath of the modern era, is the chronic awareness of our feeling alone and unloved.
All of the foregoing, however, leaves the Church in a very difficult predicament. People are leaving us, as the surveys indicate, but when they depart, are they really finding balm for their weary souls? We must do something, and I believe that it should start with our preaching.
Preaching Today: Aiming at the Wrong Target?
Preaching today, by necessity, cannot be like the preaching of the modern era, and preaching in the modern era was, by necessity, more didactic than it was kerygmatic; it was more mind than mouth; it was more education than proclamation. Why? Very simply, it was believed that, to a greater or lesser degree, faith emerged from understanding, and not the other way around (fides quaerens intellectum). 4
In some sense, however, this phenomenon began long-before the beginning of the French Revolution, when a young Fr. Martin Luther officially set the Reformation into motion. At its core, of course, the Reformation was framed around a simple theological question, one which has been posed in all sorts of different ways since 1517: How does one find a merciful God? However, when the confessional and dogmatic lines were drawn in the middle of the 16th century, Scripture and, by consequence, preaching, suffered tremendously. Used for the purpose of theological debate and critique, these two sides of the same Word of God “coin” came to be understood primarily as the means for divine information instead of divine communication. In short, religion, on both the Catholic and Protestant sides of the battle, became an intellectual system, and preaching became a divine information dump. The fact is: maybe this was a fitting response to a Reformation era on the cusp of modernism, but what about our response to the world today?
As I listen to homilies, it seems that some of them are aiming at the wrong target, particularly shooting for the modern era. In fact, it is easy to spot such out-of-touch preaching, as the homily usually follows one of two (though possibly more) inaccurate approaches to preparation and delivery:
1. Preaching is governed by a “scientific” approach to homiletical preparation and delivery.
What this means is that, in preparing for the Sunday homily, the pastor often excises the given pericope from the whole of the Biblical corpus and lectionary narrative, and begins his interpretation of that text using primarily historical, philological, and literary tools. This style of preparation presents itself, however, with the ongoing challenge to find some ontological connection between the text and the people in the pew. In fact, the more the Scriptural reading is studied in the foregoing manner, analogous to that of a coroner studying a corpse, the more the text loses its Christological character and intrinsic connection to the faithful gathered for the liturgical celebration. Necessarily, therefore, when this sort of homiletical preparation occurs, application of the given pericope to the people becomes secondary, not primary.
Consequently, lacking any real connection to the hearer, the preacher is forced to make his own connection, which often originates from outside of the given biblical selection, precisely because his own homiletical preparation has left him with no choice but to insert (whether it fits or not) a theological point, which he finds applicable to his people. Often, this means that on a given Sunday, any number of theological assertions will be made by the preacher (right or wrong) regardless of their actual inclusion in (or being a natural consequence of) the given scriptural passage.
In some traditions, these are assertions of God’s law and God’s gospel (Lutheran). In other traditions, these are assertions of God’s majesty, sovereignty, or glory (Reformed). And in yet other traditions, these are assertions of God’s expectation for holy and moral living (Roman Catholic).
Such theological assertions, however, when not springing to life from the very heart of the given text, seem horribly artificial. And artificiality leaves the post-modern hearer longing for something authentic and real. More troubling still, since these theological assertions are drawn from outside the given scriptural narrative, they often come across as abstract doctrinal treatises, which tend to engage the mind more than the heart, instantly transporting both preacher and hearer back to the modern era. Sadly, both results – artificiality and hyper-intellectualism – upset the post-modern equilibrium.
2. Preaching is governed by a “Spirit-filled” approach to homiletical preparation and delivery.
What this means is that, in preparing for the Sunday homily, the pastor often understands the work of the Spirit as distinct from, and more important than, his own personal preparation. Such an approach usually has one of two results.
On the one hand, it means that, in preparing for the Sunday homily, the pastor uses very little of his time for actual sermon crafting. Why? The Spirit will see him through. In turn, with very little thoughtfulness beforehand, the clergyman ascends to the ambo to deliver his homily, but, in real time, must rely upon his winsomeness (which is often equated to the Spirit) to get him through, since he is lacking any real substance. Homilies such as these often come across as, at best, kitschy or, at worst, fuzzy, soft, and watered-down. Necessarily, therefore, this kind of preaching ends up being more about the preacher than it is about Jesus.
On the other hand, there is an opposite trend occurring today, but one that is equally as dangerous. This second “Spirit-filled” approach is terribly concerned with writing a theologically excellent homily. When it comes to the delivery of that homily, however, what is clearly lacking is any concern for winsomeness, the observation of the rules of rhetoric or, very simply, pathos. In other words, the role of the Spirit trumps the role of the preacher.
This latter sort of preaching, while it may be theologically excellent (in that it stays faithful to the given scriptural text), fails to give attention to the incarnational and sacramental nature of Holy Orders: that Jesus, in whose stead the clergy stand and speak, took on flesh and blood and spoke in a particular way, with careful attention to his own cultural context. Consequently, any approach to preaching which denies the role of the humanity of the preacher necessarily denies the humanity of Christ and, therefore, results in an incantation of sorts (the right words have the right effect), rather than a truly kerygmatic event where the viva vox Jesu speaks here-and-now in a way that the post-modern hearer can be moved by the beauty (one of a few things to which post-moderns are drawn) of how Jesus says what he says, as much as by what it is that he is saying. 5
Of course, there may be other examples, but when preaching does what I have just delineated above, it is naturally at a disadvantage. Why? Precisely because this kind of preaching is not conducive to the post-modern way of being. It is, very simply, preaching that is out-of-touch with reality: artificial, hyper-intellectual, fuzzy, or dry. In turn, it is preaching that does not deliver fully the person of Jesus Christ in a way that people today can hear him and receive him and be changed by him.
But, in this sense, Vatican II was prophetic.
Vatican II: A Prophetic Council
From the perspective of the conciliar documents, it seems best to understand the work of the Council, not as a progressive attempt to do away with the past, but as a pastoral attempt to rescue the Church from the grip of rationalism (a uniquely modern trouble), and return her to pre-modern ways of thinking and being. And the pre-modern era had two significant theological realities attached to it (among others), which Vatican II attempted to restore to the fullness of the Church’s thought: 1) that Christ is the primordial sacrament; and 2) that Christ, the primordial sacrament, is present in his Word proclaimed within the liturgical assembly. 6
But how does remembering that help us today?
First, it helps by reminding both preacher and hearer that, within the particularity of the homiletical event, Christ himself is present. Preaching, therefore, is not a theological lecture filled with abstract concepts or theological tenets intended to be intellectually apprehended; nor is it an eight minute “time-out” within the totality of the Sunday liturgy where anything goes; but it is an encounter with the Word made flesh, the person of Jesus Christ, who comes to make all things new. 7 Second, it helps, by reminding both preacher and hearer, that a homiletical encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, present in his Word proclaimed, is a thoroughly sacramental event. And such a sacramental encounter changes us: it blesses us, graces us, forgives us, and sanctifies us. We grow, not merely intellectually, but spiritually and Christologically. We are, in short, united more fully to the person of Jesus, and the life that he has called us to live, as his disciples and as his friends. Therefore, it is not to be taken lightly, by preacher or hearer.
And that means, of course, that the Second Vatican Council was prophetic because what the council fathers declared was, at the same time, precisely what people are most in need of today. The empty promises of the modern era have left us alone and unloved. And Jesus—the Jesus who is for us and not against us; the Jesus who is present here-and-now, tangibly and corporeally—is the only balm for our weary souls. That Jesus comes to us in preaching, as a living and sacramental reality.
Making the Prophetic Vision a Reality
In order for clergy to hit the post-modern target and, concurrently, fulfill the pastoral vision of Vatican II, I would suggest that preaching needs to be re-thought of in terms of Jesus’ own mandate to his apostles: homologeo. 8 In other words, I would suggest that preachers need to focus on saying precisely the same thing as Jesus. The preacher’s task is not to impose anything of his own onto the text (even if it be a worthy theological point), but to take Jesus at his word, and then to deliver that same Jesus to his hearers.
Necessarily, therefore, in attempting faithfully to deliver Jesus, the preacher will be cognizant of his cultural context and, in turn, will speak in such a way that people today can “hear” Jesus speaking in their midst. Jesus spoke in a particular way, and with a particular pathos. Remember, it was said that when Jesus preached, “demons shrieked, crowds gasped, and services sometimes ended with attempted executions rather than altar calls.” 9 People were affected by Jesus’ preaching because his words—what he said and how he said it—moved people’s hearts, both for good and for ill. And preachers today, likewise, need to be passionate about the task at hand. What happens in preaching has eschatological significance, both for the preacher and his hearers, precisely because Jesus, the Word made flesh, is actually entering into our midst and, tangibly, into our very own lives. There is nothing boring about that!
Given the foregoing, therefore, I would suggest that a good portion of the preacher’s homiletical preparation should involve the ancient art of lectio divina. It is imperative, first and foremost, that the preacher hear the voice of Jesus himself before he begins to translate that same voice into the language of his post-modern hearers. The given pericope should be read, meditated upon, prayed, and contemplated; and then read, meditated upon, prayed, and contemplated again and again and again. And, along the way, the questions to be asking are these: What is Christ saying? What is he saying to me? What is he saying to my people? How can I say what Christ says in a way that this post-modern world can “hear” him speaking today?
The goal, of course, is that through the faithful proclamation of the Church’s clergy, hearers will be brought into tangible participation with the divine through the person of Jesus Christ who is, himself, living and speaking and acting in and for his Church as sacrament, the sacrament, the primordial sacrament. The goal, in short, is union with Christ. For when we are united fully with Christ, the empty promises of the modern era cease to hurt. We are not alone. We are not unloved. We have nothing to fear.
- From the Catholic perspective, this was a major impetus for the document recently drafted by the Bishops of the United States on the topic of preaching entitled: “Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily.” ↩
- Pope Benedict XVI, Post-Synodical Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (30 September 2010) no. 59.: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20100930_verbum-domini_en.pdf. ↩
- Cf. Diogenes Allen, The End of the Modern World: A New Openness for Faith, Princeton Seminary Bulletin, XI:1 (1990), 13-15. ↩
- Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 25ff. ↩
- Cf. Tom Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York NY: HarperOne, 2006). There, Wright clearly explains how post-moderns are, more often than not, drawn to four things: beauty, community, spirituality, and justice. ↩
- Cf. Augustine, Epist. 187.34 in PL 38.845: Non est enim aliud Dei mysterium, nisi Christus; Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (Lanham MD: Sheed and Ward, 1963); Henri de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church, trans. Michael Mason (San Francisco CA: Ignatius, 2006), 202; and Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 7. ↩
- This understanding of an “encounter” with Christ is, as I understand it, at the heart of the New Evangelization. ↩
- Cf. Matt 10:32; Lk 12:8. ↩
- Russell D. Moore, “Preaching Like the Devil” in Touchstone May/June (2010), 10. ↩