Review: The Beauty of the Word

January 11th, 2012

Those of us who sense the obligation to preach do so in full knowledge of our inability to preach.

This thought, borrowed from imminent theologian Karl Barth, is both the problem and the privilege James C. Howell tackles in The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching (Westminster John Knox, 2011). From the outset, Howell recognizes the complexity and at times contradictions that make preaching such a vexingly wonderful part of pastoral vocation.

Howell, a teacher, writer, and senior pastor at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., talks about preaching not as a lab exercise conducted in a sterile environment, but as a messy, life-giving enterprise closer to childbirth. A sermon is not a thing in and of itself, but a moment in time that brings together the real life of God with the real lives of people. The preacher, Howell often points out, is Cyrano de Bergerac, ferrying notes between lovers who are looking for a way to meet.

In order to convey these love letters, the preacher must understand more than words on paper, whether her own, that of commentators, or even the biblical text itself. Howell insists that preachers find “something big and true to say,” something that truly matters. Shallow thought and platitudes may pacify some congregational members, but they  will not accomplish the task of setting forth the gospel.

In order to address this larger task, Howell breaks apart the preaching work into parts recognizable from any preaching handbook: text, language, occasion, delivery, and so forth. Rather than slice them into neat how-to blocks for sermon construction, however, he weaves them together so that no strand can be separated from the others. His skill with both structure and language enable him to point out specific parts of preaching without losing sight of the task as a whole.

That is not to say that Howell’s latest book is not practical. He urges preachers to take specific steps to improve their preaching; repeatedly, he encourages them to broaden their understanding of not only the world of scripture, but of the world outside of church in which most people live every day. He also includes chapters on how to handle feedback and failure. The last section of the book sets preaching in the context of the larger life of the congregation, which includes real-world issues like administration and funerals.

One of Howell’s most passionate arguments is for depth in understanding both word and world, and for proclamation that reflects such depth. He contends that our world is so saturated with BS (his term, taken from a book by Harry Frankfurt) that people have come to expect and accept ideas that are shallow or insincere. Preaching must be a countercultural act, one that recognizes the immediacy of the moment and so makes an offering that is really worth listening to.

Like the sermons James Howell hopes his readers will ultimately deliver, The Beauty of the Word is a passionate exploration of what it means to preach. Anyone—lay or clergy—who faces down the obligation and inability that comes with preaching will be able to find in its pages both helpful instruction and passionate insistence that the gospel be shared in the best possible way.


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