In response to my recent post “What in the World is Missiology?” Steve Bevans suggested that missiology has a distinctive contribution to make to other seminary disciplines like systematic theology, church history, or biblical studies. In this post I build on Bevans’ thought, but in relation to the discipline of homiletics.
In 1982, after seven years of studying Bible and Theology, I took a pastoral position in Bluefield, West Virginia. My shelves were lined with commentaries and I felt ready to preach. I felt I had mastered tools needed to understand the Bible and proclaim its truths. Initially I felt good about my preaching.
But as time progressed, I became increasingly disturbed by the contrast between my knowledge of Scripture and my lack of knowledge of the lives of those to whom I spoke. I had grown up far from Bluefield, and had little understanding of the lives of wealthy country-club church elders, a deficiency my education had not corrected. I could apply the Bible to myself, and to others in full-time ministry, but to almost no one else. I could talk about the love of money being the root of all sorts of evil, and I could explore resultant evils in the lives of Bible characters like Achan, Balaam, Gehazi or Judas. But I had no idea what kinds of evil the love of money might be producing in the lives of Mrs. Denton or Mr. Jenkins. I could quote James 3:16 that where you have envy, there you have every evil practice. And I could show how envy resulted in evil practices for Bible characters like Cain, Joseph’s brothers, King Saul, and the religious leaders who envied Jesus (Matthew 27:18)—but I had little understanding of what evil practices envy might be producing among teen-aged girls in Bluefield High School. And since my Christian community had frowned on Christians watching movies, I was unable even to explore envy at the movies—such as Salieri’s envy of Mozart in Ammadeus. I could see what was obvious, that Bluefield was divided by railroad tracks, with blacks and poverty on one side of the tracks, and whites and comparative wealth on the other. But I did not understand what patterns of human agency had produced and sustained what I saw.
The people I was with had very different backgrounds from my own. We had different life experiences, had been shaped by different cultural discourses, and pursued different life trajectories. I did not understand their fears, frustrations, temptations, hopes and dreams.
One day I picked up John Stott’s book, “Between Two Worlds,” in which he argues that effective preaching requires a deep understanding both of the world of Scripture and of the contemporary lives of those to whom we speak. Effective preaching builds a bridge of understanding across the chasm between these two worlds. According to Stott, only preachers who ground their sermons in deep and profound understandings of Scripture and also deep and profound understandings of the life-worlds of their audience, are able adequately to fulfill their calling. He suggested that many theological liberals ground their sermons in understandings of the contemporary world, but fail to ground their sermons faithfully in a biblical God-given message. Their bridges connect, he argued, with only one side of the chasm. But, Stott continued, evangelical preachers typically preach sermons grounded in Scripture, but which go “up in the air on a straight trajectory and never land on the other side. For our preaching is seldom if ever earthed. It fails to build a bridge into the contemporary world.”
My next sermon was to focus on the Christian response to death. Following Stott’s advice, I prepared both by examining Scripture and by trying to understand discourses and experiences of death which my audience would have been shaped by, and aware of. I read psychologists, literary scholars, and sociologists. I talked to people about death. I collected quotes from the local funeral home, from the then-current TV show “Fame,” from Woody Allen, philosophers, and novelists.
And when I preached my sermon, something startling happened. People of all sorts who had never spoken to me about anything personal, wanted to talk! And as we talked, what became clear was that the message, a biblical message, had touched them in a way my other sermons had not, because it brought the gospel meaningfully into engagement with their culturally shaped experiences, anxieties, discourses, and responses to death.
During my 18 months in Bluefield I became increasingly convinced that John Stott was correct to insist that effective ministry required deep understandings of contemporary human realities, but also increasingly and uncomfortably aware that I lacked adequate tools to consistently forge deep understandings of the human realities I was wishing to address through Scripture. Furthermore I understood Stott to be saying that my weaknesses were not mine alone, but were common to the evangelical community of which I was a product.
After prayerful soul-searching, I concluded that God would have me reorient my study plans away from further work in New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary where I’d been accepted, and towards the human sciences, with the goal of contributing to missiology. And so I pursued first a masters degree in social science at the University of Chicago, and then a PhD in anthropology at UC Berkeley. Today I have the privilege of teaching missiological anthropology in one of America’s leading evangelical seminaries.
But as I’ve immersed myself in missiology, I’ve been startled to find virtually no focus on the sermon. Missiology has whole programs focused on “intercultural education” — but not “intercultural preaching.” Scores of missiologists specialize in “contextual theology,” but none have made contextual homiletics their focus (but see below). The church growth school founded by McGavran steered us towards sociological dynamics as core to church growth and evangelism, rather than to the central event of a proclaimed message. Bible translation and intercultural communication have certainly been central to missiology, but the sermon itself, and the discipline of homiletics, has not been centrally engaged.
And yet the need is clearly there. Consider Billy Graham, who was asked in a Parade Magazine interview if, when he looked back over his long life, he had any regrets. If you were to live your life again, is there anything you would do differently? “Yes,” he replied, “I would have studied more. I would have gotten my PhD in anthropology.” Like John Stott, Graham discovered that as a preacher he needed an understanding both of Scripture and of the contemporary human worlds of his audiences.
Follow Graham, for example, to India, and listen to him preach a sermon he’s preached many times before – but this time to an audience of high caste Brahmins. It’s a wonderful story of a father’s love for a wayward son, who spends his inheritance in riotous living and, only when tempted to eat pig’s food, does he acknowledge his sin and return to his father—who hugs his son and calls for a robe and a ring. The audience loves the story, until the evangelist tells of a fatted calf being killed and feasted on. The formerly appreciative audience turns cold and hostile. The cow, they say, is like our mother, it gives nurturant milk. One does not kill and eat one’s mother.
We can perhaps appreciate the impact of the story if a foreign evangelist with a new religious message were telling Americans a wonderful story, but where at the height of the story, the hero inexplicably kills, barbecues, and eats the family’s golden retriever. That is, such a person would have failed to understand the American “sacred dog” complex – would have failed to understand the dog stories that shaped generations of Americans (stories of Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and Old Yeller), failed to understand American proverbs about the dog being a man’s best friend, that Americans like dogs in their homes, that they let them lick their faces or sleep in their beds, that they have dog cemetaries, dog doctors, dog hotels, dog therapists. That here you can sometimes mistreat people and get away with it, but mistreat a dog and even a professional football player goes to jail. Here there is no Kentucky Fried Canine. And while cultural entertainment relentlessly features people being killed in bloody ways, such entertainment carefully respects taboos on displays of violence toward dogs. Years ago my 11 year old daughter Shelly asked me to see the movie Dante’s Peak with her. The story features a volcano, a family, a dog, and a mother-in-law. As the volcano erupts and the family has to flee, the dog is nowhere to be found. The family has to leave anyway, and my daughter, a dog-lover was in tears. I turned to her, “Shelly, this is an American movie. That dog will not die. I promise!” And sure enough, by the end of the movie, the dog is alive and the mother-in-law is dead, and it is a good movie!!
People around the world are human in variable ways, shaped by variable cultural discourses, confronting diverse realities. Billy Graham, like John Stott, recognizes late in life that effective preaching requires both an understanding of the world of scripture AND an understanding of the human worlds of those to whom we speak. And this is precisely what missiology works towards.
In the Parade Magazine interview referenced above, Graham describes growing up in a Jim Crow American South where he fully internalized the racialized prejudices of his community. He describes how his Wheaton College major, anthropology, had a profound impact on him, helping him begin to understand his racialized world in a whole new way. And while Graham was somewhat ahead of the curve compared to most evangelicals of his day in recognizing and resisting the human evils of his racialized society, he now recognizes just how little he adequately understood the human racial realities that organized and channeled so much human evil. His regret in not getting a PhD in anthropology, if you read the interview carefully, was not really a regret about a degree, a PhD, or a regret that he was not a college professor rather than an evangelist, but rather a way of expressing his own subjective awareness both of how helpful he now recognizes anthropology to have been for his life as an evangelist, and of how much he now wishes that he had appreciated that earlier and pursued such understandings further and more carefully. In one sense, Graham’s regret can be read as a regret that he was not more of a missiologist.
When the question is asked, do you have any regrets, Graham’s answer should not be heard simply as an idiosyncratic regret of an individual. Graham may be thought of as the prototypical evangelical preacher of his day, honored at Wheaton and elsewhere for exemplifying the highest values of his community. And when this man reflects on his own weaknesses in engaging his contemporary racialized society, this is simultaneously a confession about weaknesses in the wider evangelical community —exemplified in the failure of evangelical churches during the civil rights era of the 1950’s and 60’s. And when Graham expresses a regret for not having deeper and more profound understandings of human realities, this may appropriately be read as a call for the evangelical community as a whole to develop deeper and more profound understandings of the human worlds in which we live and work.
A while back I asked a colleague who the most influential preachers of the twentieth century were. He replied that in very different arenas of influence, one in evangelism and one in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets addressing injustice, he guessed he would name Dr. Billy Graham and Dr. Martin Luther King. Very interesting choices– two men who grew up in the American South of the 1920s and 30’s on opposite sides of the color line. One who majored in anthropology, and the other whose undergraduate major was sociology – both of whom would repeatedly over the course of their lives point back to the strategic foundations these disciplines played in their own formation as preachers.
And yet, despite such powerful homiletical exemplars, homiletics has not had a sustained conversation with the human sciences and with human settings in quite the same way that missiology has. Both disciplines would benefit, in my view, from a sustained engagement with each other.
On April 21, 2012 homileticians (Vic Anderson, Greg Scharf, Woosung Calvin Choi) will gather with missiologists (Robertson McQuilkin, David Hesselgrave, Del Tarr, Rochelle Cathcart) in a one-day session focused on “Preaching and Culture: Contextualizing the Sermon” intended to begin such an interdisciplinary conversation. Rochelle Cathcart’s outstanding paper for this conference, “Culture Matters: How Three Effective Preachers (Tim Keller, Rob Bell, Father Pfleger) Engage Culture in the Preaching Event,” beautifully illustrates the value of a missiological engagement with homiletics. My hope is that this conference (and subsequent publication in the Trinity Journal) would help stimulate a more sustained and fruitful interdisciplinary engagement of missiology and homiletics that would be of benefit to both disciplines.