Read an Excerpt
Confessing Jesus ChristPreaching in a Postmodern World
By David J. Lose
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2003 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.
IntroductionReaping the Whirlwind
In many quarters of our common world there exists an increasingly shared conviction that the modern world is dying, if not already dead. Born some three centuries ago in the aftermath of bloody religious conflict, the modern era was founded upon an optimism that by the enlightened application of reason humanity might eradicate disease and suffering, establish a basis for just and moral behavior, foster personal and social liberation, and subdue nature for the good of all people. At the dawn of the twenty-first century - awash in the blood of ideological and nationalistic conflict, beset by pandemic viruses, and standing at the brink of ecological disaster - such confidence has been all but sentenced to the gallows, and the name of its executioner is "postmodernity."
The effects of the "postmodern turn" appear perhaps most dramatically in the scholarly world. Raging like a whirlwind of relative values and subjective truths through the ivory towers of the academy, postmodernity has in one fell swoop severed the connection between language and its referent, divested history of its purely academic character, banished the pretense of objectivity from the sciences, betrayed the lie of social progress, and killed the authors of literary texts. It has, inshort, irrevocably altered our intellectual landscape.
But traces of the de(con)structive force of the postmodern gale are felt in our churches and communities as well. Churchgoers report a greater sense of "homelessness" in this "post-denominational" age, and church leaders admit less confidence in their roles and responsibilities as the church's influence in society wanes. The larger culture continues to adjust to changing perceptions about the "traditional" roles of men and women and the increasingly pluralistic nature of our communal life. In the wake of the cold war, national boundaries and identities continue to shift, while global security remains elusive. In light of all this, several theologians have aptly described the plight of our church and society as "de-centered" and "disestablished."
Not surprisingly, the discipline of homiletics has not been exempted from its own set of disruptions, some of which reflect the trends just noted. With the annihilation of the historical-critical synthesis in biblical studies, for instance, so also perished the two-step hermeneutical waltz danced by so many twentieth-century preachers. Similarly, as the New Hermeneutic collapsed under the weight of its modernist presuppositions about the referential properties of language, so also the new homiletic is buckling under the assault of postmodern critics who question its assumptions about the "universality" of human experience. In a time when, as Yeats penned, "things fall apart" and "the center cannot hold," truth, like beauty, seems increasingly to be in the eye of the beholder, and proclamation of a message that claims both ultimate and universal significance seems a dicey venture at best. Little wonder, then, that postmodernism appears to more than a few acute observers as a threat to the very nature of Christianity.
But while I agree that the situation is clearly urgent, I am less sure that it is either dire or novel. In fact, I am increasingly convinced that within the postmodern whirlwind there lies, waiting to be reaped, an unprecedented opportunity to clarify the nature and import of our theology and preaching. Postmodernity, I believe, not only offers some distinct challenges to Christians, but also may lend us a fresh perspective on the very nature of faith and in this way call us to greater fidelity. For this reason, this project seeks to respond to the challenges, and realize the opportunities, of the current age by fashioning the means by which to proclaim God's Word in a postmodern world.
In short, I propose that preaching that seeks to be both faithful to the Christian tradition and responsive to our pluralistic, postmodern context is best understood as the public practice of confessing faith in Jesus Christ. Preaching, to put it another way, is a particular type of confession, made in response to the reading of the biblical text and the particular context and circumstances of the hearers, and set within a pattern of corporate worship. By describing such preaching as "confessional," I seek to reclaim a Christian practice that rests not on empirical proof but on a living confession of faith, leads not to certainty but to conviction, and lives not in the domain of knowledge and proof but rather in the realm of faithful assertion.
This proposal unfolds into three significant parts, each of which consumes two chapters. The first deals primarily with describing the postmodern challenge and outlining the means by which to speak of truth and reality with integrity. In Chapter One I contend that postmodernity is best understood as a reaction to the Enlightenment quest for rational certainty that animated the modern era. By challenging the possibility that we can ground our claims to knowledge in indisputable foundations, and by calling into question our ability to speak accurately of reality, postmodernists seek to overturn the modernist penchant for order, which they claim is only achieved at the expense of dismissing or destroying that which does not conform to the norms it imposes. Whatever its gains, however, postmodernity also exacts certain costs: namely, our ability to speak meaningfully of what we believe to be true. For this reason, in Chapter Two I propose that we can transcend the modern-postmodern debate only by refusing to accept its terms. I therefore outline a postfoundational position that proposes a critically fideistic epistemology that relies upon cross-contextual, critical conversation. The chapter outlines the need for such conversation, overcomes postmodern concerns about the limited ability of language to refer beyond itself, and proposes a model of "dialogical realism" that grants us a measure of confidence in the referentiality of our speech.
The second significant part of this project moves from general philosophical and theological inquiry into the challenges and opportunities of the postmodern context to a more specific concern for Christian proclamation by reclaiming the Christian practice of confession as the most apt term for describing speech about truth in our era. In Chapter Three I therefore define and describe "confession" by examining its New Testament use, surveying several recent theological works that have reclaimed it as an important theological category, and viewing it from the perspective of linguistic theory. From the results of this study, I suggest that "confession" has functioned in the church to describe (1) a summary of the "essential" faith and (2) the articulation of that faith in response both to the proclaimed word and the present needs and circumstances of the community and world. In Chapter Four I move forward to fashion a confessional homiletic by surveying two recent attempts to respond to the postmodern challenge. The first is the postliberal homiletic of Charles Campbell which stresses the ascriptive power of the biblical narratives, and the second is the postmodern homiletic of Lucy Atkinson Rose which reconceives preaching as conversation. Each of these proposals develops one of the two elements of "confession" I discern, but only at the expense of the other. I maintain that only by retaining both senses of "confession" can we preach in our context both faithfully and adequately, and I therefore recommend placing the distinct contributions of Campbell and Rose in creative and critical conversation with each other.
In the third and final part of this work, I focus on the specific tasks that confront preachers by suggesting that they will profit by allowing the entire process of preparing sermons - from their engagement with the text to their concerns for sermonic form and language - to be shaped by the Christian practice of confessing faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, in Chapter Five I explore the nature of the Scriptures as a collection of confessions and describe the demands such a view makes upon our exegetical practice and our understanding of the role of the preacher. In Chapter Six I then consider the conversation we hope to promote in the congregation through our preaching by giving attention to the way we conceive and execute our sermons. In particular, I seek to formulate a "confessional" or "kenotic rhetoric" patterned after God's self-disclosure in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and to explore the implications of that rhetoric for sermonic form and language.
Throughout this book, I draw material from a variety of philosophical, theological, and homiletical sources in order to fashion a useful way to think about preaching in the postmodern context. Ultimately, I conclude that, far from threatening the life of the church, postmodernism presses us to release deceptive foundational securities and live, once more, by faith alone; we therefore would do well in our preaching to reclaim the ancient Christian practice of confessing faith in Jesus Christ. Interestingly, in so doing we not only respond to the postmodern challenge but also overcome the major limitation of postmodernity and reclaim the means by which to speak of "truth" and "reality" with integrity.
I conclude this work by offering two sermons to illustrate what I have proposed.
Before proceeding to the main argument, two final notes are in order. First, while the project unfolds fairly neatly from (1) an analysis of the problem (Chapters One and Two) to (2) the construction of a recommendation (Chapters Three and Four) and (3) the application of its implications (Chapters Five and Six), such an order belies the actual origin of the argument, which comes only at the end. For far from believing that postmodernism holds the power to determine the church's present and future theology, I think that the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ exposes the lie - more devastatingly than postmodernism ever could - of any and all foundations upon which we would guarantee our faith. As Rudolf Bultmann noted half a century ago, Jesus Christ created - and still creates! - a crisis (krisis) for those he encounters by destroying every place of refuge to which we would flee other than the naked proclamation of the gospel. Thus, the deconstructive force of postmodern criticism only renders us the timely service of reminding us, albeit at times painfully, of our essential nature and calling.
Second, the reader should note that this whole project is itself a confession of faith. That is, it rests upon several axiomatic assumptions about the nature of reality and of God's revelation that, while able to be described and defended, simply cannot be proved. This, I believe, is not only fitting but also, as we shall see, unavoidable in our postmodern context. I hope, therefore, that both the conception and execution of this project will, if not prove its major argument, at least offer a consistent and compelling witness to its usefulness to the Christian community in this day and age.
Excerpted from Confessing Jesus Christ by David J. Lose Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.