July 12th, 2012

Fusion is a practice in sermons that attempts to establish a seamless unity between the biblical text and the congregation such that listeners discover their own reflection in the text and experience themselves to be enrolled in the biblical story. The term is adapted from Hans-Georg Gadamer, who said the goal of hermeneutics is a “fusion of horizons”, an overcoming of the gap between the biblical text and contemporary time such that the two horizons unite. His metaphor speaks of understanding a text in its own time and culture before venturing what it means for today.

Fusion has distinctive features in homiletics: (1) Fusion is related to the purpose and function of God’s Word as revelation and appropriately takes place in the sermon, not as a private act of interpretation. (2) Fusion points to something discernible in sermon language, not primarily to the phenomenon of understanding a text. The story of people in the biblical text becomes the story of the listeners through the two being brought together with the temporal and cultural gap between them dissolved. As in cooking or music, the two separate identities are not lost in fusion; rather, each is enhanced by the presence of the other. The preacher shows listeners their own reflection in the mirror of the text. (3) Whereas analogy treats the text as simile using like or as (“We are like the people in the text”), fusion is extended metaphor; the listeners need to enter the story in order to understand. (4) Fusion ideally brings listeners into relationship with God in the text. Biblical people are portrayed as having faith issues concerning doubt, sin, waywardness, injustice, and so forth, of the sort that most people experience. For all the real and important differences that separate them and us, for the preaching moment these are transcended and overcome. With fusion, faith unites then and now.

Fusion happens for David when Nathan tells him the story of a rich man who stole a poor man’s lamb to feed to his visitors and adds, “You are the man!” (2 Sam 12:7). Fusion happens when a child hears Jesus’ words as personal address: “Let the children come to me … for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Luke 18:16). Fusion is found in medieval art when biblical people are painted in costume of the day, yet fusion is more than just making a text contemporary: the focus is the listener’s life before God. Fusion is the creation of “then as now” or “now as then” when the focus is theology, matters of faith, and Israel as church.

Fusion happens in every tradition, for instance, when the words of annunciation spoken to Mary are heard by listeners as addressed to themselves or when Jesus’ road to Jerusalem (beginning in Luke 9 and ending on the cross) is portrayed as a road we know well—the road to all of our disappointments including our denial of Christ. The preacher’s challenge is to discern how the text’s story is the listeners’. To tell it so that “they are there” or “there is here” can be accomplished best if no scenery change or bridging words are used.

Richard Lischer notes that in much African American preaching the hearers are “enrolled in the world of the Bible.” The Bible mirrors their lives, even as life “mirrors or replicates the figures and stories of the Bible” (Lischer 201). Moses is not only a historical person, but he is also the present leader (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have been to the mountaintop”) leading them to liberation. Pharaoh lived in Egypt, but he also lives in the big plantation house.

In preaching about Naaman (2 Kgs 5:1-14), Carolyn Ann Knight moves seamlessly from his story to now; in other words, she does not suspend the story to talk about the congregation but leaves it in place so that listeners are present in the story:

[His assistants pleaded,] “You have been washing in the waters of Damascus all your life, but you have not been cured.”

Part of our problem, as we survey this sick situation, that has saturated our society, is that we have been washing in rivers where there is no healing and no power. We have been associating and aligning ourselves with people who cannot help us. You can wash in political rivers if you want, but that is not where your healing can be found. You can wash in economic rivers if you want, but that is not where your healing can be found. You can wash in sexual rivers if you want, but that is not where your healing can be found. You can wash in the biggest river, the pretty river if you want, but that is not where your healing is.

“Captain Naaman, why not follow these simple instructions and go wash in the Jordan?” (Knight, 49–50)

Fusion recovers for preaching something like a naive reading of the biblical text. What is its value? Does analogy not accomplish the same thing? Fusion treats the entire story as a metaphor of contemporary experience instead of one aspect of it, as is the case with analogy. Fusion can seem more imaginative and involving and may communicate the text at a deeper level. Finally, faith issues are the immediate topic with fusion. The preacher needs to make no special transitions to approach them.

Bibliography: Hans-Georg Gadamer. Truth and Method. (1975); Carolyn Ann Knight. “A Simple Solution to a Complex Problem.” Outstanding Black Sermons. Edited by Walter S. Thomas. Vol. 4. (2001); Richard Lischer. The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Word That Moved America. (1995); Paul Scott Wilson. Broken Words: Reflections on the Craft of Preaching. (2004).

This article is adapted from The New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching, Copyright © 2008 Abingdon Press. The complete digital edition of the NIHOP is included in a subscription to Ministry Matters.
comments powered by Disqus