Thursday, December 9, 2010

Review: Anabaptist Preaching

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Anabaptist Preaching first caught my eye when my friend, Brett, took preaching class last fall, the last time former EMS dean, Ervin Stutzman, taught it before his transition to executive director of the Mennonite Church USA. It was assigned reading at that time and so for a while it was laying around Brett's study carrel which is right next to mine. My church tradition, the Church of the Brethren, has historical Anabaptist roots but as I've recently observed, those qualities have mostly bled out of the denominational consciousness and expression. So I've been going through a process of happily reclaiming Anabaptism these past two years at seminary.  Given, then, my high interest with anything Anabaptist-related, the title to this book itself was enough to get it on my mental “to-read” list, filed away for later. When our new seminary dean, Michael King, was brought on this year I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was a co-editor of this book, as well as contributing the second chapter. So after a year's wait I've finally had a chance to read it and have put down a few quick thoughts in review...

What first struck me about this book, published in 2003, is that it seems to have a fetish with postmodernity. Variations on the word “postmodern” appear in three of the fourteen chapter titles and references in section headings are scattered throughout. Indeed, the foreword to this book was written by Brian McLaren and it doesn't get more hip and postmodern than that! I reference the year of publication above because it seems to me that the age of constantly reckoning with postmodernity has past, at least in the academy. Perhaps scholars are aware they have talked it to death and that so many definitions of  “postmodern(ity/ism)” have been offered that it has largely become useless as a term. Or perhaps the societal shifts that scholars were trying to describe by using such a term have finally become apparent to the broader society. For instance, cultural scholar, James Davison Hunter, avoids the term altogether in his recent book, To Change the World, preferring instead the term “late modern.”

Next, the question may be asked: How Anabaptist is Anabaptist Preaching? The results of this query yield interesting variety. The faith traditions of the book's authors and editors, the schools and congregations they serve, as well the two publishing houses are all, to some degree, Anabaptist. The broad topic of the book, though, is not Anabaptism but rather preaching. So the foci of the chapters vary to great degree in terms of the academic disciplines brought to bear as well as the concerns they address. Anabaptism is sometimes referenced only in passing, sometimes dealt with more substantively, and other times doesn't come up at all. Surprising to me, pleasantly, especially in light of my earlier comment about Brethren, is the chapter on prophetic preaching by Brethren scholar, Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm. She weaves historical Anabaptist faith distinctives such as Christocentrism and a Holy Spirit-led communal hermeneutic together with Walter Brueggemann's social conditions for prophetic preaching, arguing convincingly for deep resonance between the two.

Another highlight for me was Renee Sauder's chapter on narrative preaching. Narrative is huge in my book (sic), most apparent by my BA in English literature and a life-long love of both fiction and nonfiction alike. As my theological education has progressed, this narrative preference has been given new tools and expression, with both theological writing and preaching. Of course reading Scripture is also a largely story-heavy endeavor, as Sauder notes, “(t)his intersection between the biblical story and our own is no accident. It is where authentic revelation takes place in a profound way” (164). I also appreciate her noting that stories have a way of constituting and sustaining a community, however in the end Sauder wisely points out that narrative preaching must be used variously with other styles, including more proclamatory, expository modes; counsel which resonates with the biblical text itself.

It strikes me now in hindsight that both chapters which I just mentioned, the two that stood out to me, were written by women. In fact six out of eight authors contributing chapters to this book were women. For a tradition that has some ambivalence about women in leadership in the church, I see this as a great strength of the book.

In closing, I'll say this book was helpful overall in showing the range that contemporary Anabaptist scholars and/or practitioners of preaching are capable of. These are wise church leaders and their counsel is intellectually stimulating while remaining rooted in and directed toward practice and the life of the body, which I would argue is an Anabaptist impulse in itself. Anabaptist Preaching is a great book for pastors in Anabaptist traditions who in seminary may not have had much opportunity to study preaching through the lens of their own tradition.

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