Review: Finding personhood in the pulpit

March 31st, 2023

Ingenuity: Preaching as an Outsider by Lisa L. Thompson drew my attention initially because of the cover and title. Both extended an invitation to explore what I thought would be the author’s discussion of the experiences and implications of women of color preaching in cross-cultural and cross-racial environments. I also presumed that it might be a resource for church committees preparing to become a cross racial and or cross cultural setting; or had already achieved that classification.

From the outset it was clear this this book offered far more than what I anticipated. And while I struggled at times to follow Thompson’s line of argument, persistence has proven to be beneficial. While I would not recommend this for general use with a church committee, it is indeed a book worth adding to the denominational conversations around engaging in cross-cultural and cross-racial appointments; as well as syllabi for seminaries.

From the onset, the preface and introduction make it abundantly clear that Thompson will not handle the subject with kid gloves. Going against the grain of inviting a much wider audience, Thompson clearly identifies her audience as black women and explains why this is necessary. Though she is targeting a specific audience the author does invite others to participate in the reading from a perspective of learning, rather than assuming a voice to which they have no agency.

In the introduction Thompson speaks to how deeply perspective-shaped traditions overshadow and overwhelm the personhood of black women preachers occupying the pulpit as prophetic proclaimers. As a black woman preacher, it is liberating to have Thompson give voice in the first two chapters to the intersectionality between who we are as black women and how we wrestle with how we are supposed to show up as preachers. Linking the physical with the vocational was something I had never considered, particularly as it spoke to the adjustments we make as we assume pulpit responsibilities.

She does not shy away from the mannerisms and esthetics that have been associated with the black preaching persona of black male preachers; for instance how the crescendo to which male preaching voices aspire and the culturally identified “whoop”; all of which in some instances, Thompson notes, black female preachers have attempted to mimic, successfully or not. This mimicry is in response to an imposed assumption that this is how the black preacher preaches, regardless of gender identity.

How she describes vibration as the anticipated result of the delivery and the reception of the message implies a palpable rhythm to preaching that few recognize as intentional.

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In chapter three she illuminated the value and validity of our experience and how we “mine” that (the author’s words, not mine) for the sake of creating a message that is both relevant and resonant.

In chapter four, Thompson highlights that there is a particular gift of interpreting scripture through the lens of our identity, for the purposes of imagining and reimagining the texts, as well as engaging the movements of life that are threaded through the individual experience as well as scripture.

Later in this same chapter, the author speaks to how black women preachers assume the posture of speaking against the text, so that the tension between how the text has been misappropriated and how the text can speak to a renewed vision is not just identified but unpacked. The particular scripture used in the instance is the story of Tamar and Absalom, an account of brutality that is sometimes used as the rationale for the dehumanization of black women.

From chapter four until the end of the book, Thompson delves into the essence of preaching, which is the integrity and importance of sermon preparation. She expertly addresses the importance of preparation, going as far as to invite the reader to engage in practical reflection at the end of the chapter. Questions that I hesitate to say, might often be overlooked in the process of sermon preparation. Questions such as “what doesn’t make sense in the text,” or other questions in chapter five which speak to the possibilities of the text.

In the book’s final chapter, the author in some ways circles back to the introduction and opening chapters by reminding the reader of the preconceived expectations and assumptions of a sermon’s audience. She offers again how a glimpse of the preacher’s personhood is unveiled through the lens of the sermon as it relates to the scriptural text, personal and communal experiences, and the message hoping to be communicated. 

At no point does Thompson infer or imply a separation from scripture while sharing the relevance and relationship of personal and communal experience to the sacred texts. Thompson does not rely solely on her voice, but incorporates the preaching and insight of several black female preachers and preaching scholars.

There were several places in “Ingenuity” that seemed to speak directly to my experience as a black woman preacher. On page 27 Thompson’s claim that “when proclamation happens the entirety of our being recognizes its presence….” elicited a highlight and an “exactly”.  

It does take patience and perseverance to navigate the energy with which Thompson writes. You could almost envision her fingers never lifting from the keyboard, pausing only to prepare for the next thought to be manifested. 

As I stated from the beginning, this is not a book for the average congregation member, unless they are willing to open significant space to learn. It is a book that seminarians preparing for parish ministry or nontraditional ministry settings could benefit from. It is definitely a book any denomination that is committed to intentionally preparing congregations and pastors for cross racial and cross cultural appointments should add to their resources.

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