Preaching, worship, and reality

Posted on June 9, 2009

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(Further thoughts, relating both to my George Beasley-Murray memorial lecture, text available here in case anyone is interested, and to this post.)

Somewhere near the heart of the argument in my GBM lecture was the question, does preaching reflect reality or change it? To take the classic historical example, most of the Lutheran debates about the preaching of the law and the preaching of the gospel turn on the supposition that the preaching of the gospel is effective proclamation: an authoritative declaration that the hearer, merely by virtue of having heard the declaration, is now forgiven and reborn through the atoning sacrifice of Christ (which declaration, of course, demands the response of faith, and permits of no other response).

It seems to me that many of the recent ‘preaching wars’ have been between people who think preaching should reflect the realities of our lives as lived, and people who think preaching should reflect the reality of life as narrated in Scripture. (In Hans Frei’s terms, when preaching do we read the text into the world, or the world into the text?) I suspect that both are wrong: our life as lived is broken, fragmented, partial, unnarratable (‘fallen’) – it has no nameable reality. The only proper response to any proposed metanarrative is incredulity; we live in a theatre of the absurd, with no plot, no meaning, to interpret our various exits and entrances. In this context, preaching is an act of re-narration; it is a moment within God’s overarching salvific work of gathering up the broken pieces of life and world and, through Christ, weaving them into new creation, a moment in which the new story of life and world is written, and, by being told, is (at least potentially) actualised.

But this is not merely the announcement of the eternal reality, the unchanging truth, of things as revealed by the text of Scripture; as far as I can see, when it comes to created realities, Scripture is not very interested in unchanging truths. Rather, it is a series of announcements that God is doing a new thing – each new thing, of course, is perfectly congruent with what went before, but it is nonetheless, new, unpredicted, unexepected. The ongoing reality of salvation and sanctification is the weaving together of the broken fragments of our lives into a new story that can make sense. Preaching, thus understood, is a moment in which the Sovereign Lord is making all things new, it is the writing of names thus-far unspoken and unknown (Rev. 3:12) – the creation of hitherto-unimagined identities and meanings. It is, fundamentally, the effectual announcement that in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has determined that your life, also, will be changed decisively from this moment on.

(Theological aside 1: As some readers will realise, somewhere beneath all this is a particular account of the relation of created time to God’s eternity, such that election is something eternally real and so actual and happening at every moment in time. Call it ‘Barthian’ if you must, but it is splattered all over the earlier tradition if you bother to look for it (try tracing the doctrine of creatio continua for an extreme example) – as Barth well knew.)

(Theological aside 2: what, then, of Frei? He was, of course, describing an observed shift in hermenuetics when he came up with his memorable phrase (it’s somewhere early in Eclipse; I don’t have either book or precise reference with me); I suspect that the implicit ontology of the post-liberal theology developed by Frei, Lindbeck, and others might tend in the sort of direction I’m describing here, even if none of them would particularly locate the decisive re-narration in the ministry of preaching – Will Willimon has come closest to working it through in these directions, although with a more political slant than I’ve given here.)

If all this is right, then what of worship? Clearly, there is a liturgical place for both the narratings of reality that I have rejected: in worship we do recall and celebrate the eternal truths of God’s deity; and in worship we also hold the contingent and fractured reality of the world before God in intercession and petition. But is that all we do? Does worship change reality also?

The tradition of charismatic hymnody which was one half of the soundtrack of my Christian formation assumed, quite emphatically, that it does: ‘By the power of His blood we now claim this ground’; ‘Come and sing this song with gladness, as your hearts are filled with joy…’; and so on. There are strands of declaratory pronouncement in all traditional liturgy as well: the declaration of forgiveness following the confession; the epiclesis (in the Eastern tradition), or Eucharistic prayer (in the more Catholic end of the Western tradition); almost paradigmatically ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife’. In each case, the saying of the words is liturgically assumed to effect a difference in reality. Presumably petitionary or intercessory prayer assumes something similar. A properly-pronounced benediction also tends in the same direction (‘The Lord bless you and keep you…’ as opposed to ‘May the Lord…’).

In worship, the community brings the fragments of its several partial and shattered lives before the Lord, not because those fragments are interesting, or even nameable, but because in God’s presence and by God’s Spirit they may and will be made into something new. And so worship ends with dismissal: ‘As God’s redeemed people…’; ‘Go into all the world…’; ‘Our worship is ended; our service begins.’

UPDATE: The link to the GBM lecture text is now fixed. Apologies.

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