Sunday, 2 November 2008

Preaching As Testimony, Anna Carter Florence

This is a postmodern, feminist homiletic that almost made it into my list of the top three books on preaching. Almost,
but not quite.

Here is Florence’s proposal: “For postmodern Christians preaching in the testimony tradition is a vibrant and powerful way to proclaim the liberating Word of God into a new context.” (xxvi)

And here’s how she defines her terms: testimony - “both a narration of events and a confession of belief: we tell what we have seen and heard and we confess what we believe about it.” (xiii); preaching in the testimony tradition: “the preacher tells what she has seen and heard in the biblical text and in life and then confesses what she believes about it.” (xiii)

In making her case Florence tells the stories of three of the many neglected women preachers of the past: Ann Marbury Hutchinson, Sarah Osborn and Jarena Lee. She then draws on the theological and hermeneutical proposals of Paul Ricoeur, Walter Brueggemann, Mary McClintock Fulkerson and Rebecca Chop.

The book concludes with two practical chapters. The first of these is superbly written. It makes very imaginative and stimulating use of both Mary’s response to the annunciation and Peter’s response to the other Mary’s testimony of the resurrection as a way of addressing the fears and struggles of being and becoming a preacher (one who lives in and lives out of the Word). The second offers some very specific and imaginative suggestions for how to encourage a deep engagement with the text – such as carrying around a copy of the text to read in the various places we usually find ourselves throughout the week and then taking it to a place with which we are unfamiliar, in which we are uncomfortable, and reading it there.

Here’s why I liked the book so much:
  1. Florence takes on board issues about universality, power and truth claims raised by postmodernity. In particular she addresses questions about the authority of preaching ultimately locating this in the personal commitment/engagement of the preacher; as preachers “we must seal our lives to our words.” (xviii). Striking that a feminist author should point out that if we take etymology seriously, then to bear witness in this way takes balls – testimony…testis…testes.
  2. The reminder that testimony has often been the characteristic mode of speech in marginal communities, those that do not have recourse to authoritative legitimation of their words beyond their own particular, embodied witness. Echoes here of two other books I like a lot Brueggemann’s Cadences of Home and McClure’s Other-Wise Preaching.
  3. The way in which the book is itself testimonial. Florence writes with conviction and guts; she moves, she invigorates. This is a book that can stir up the love of preaching by humanising it, by insisting it be embodied by the preacher.

Here’s why it didn’t displace Fant’s Preaching For Today, Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet or Long’s The Witness of Preaching (all of which have things in common with Florence) from the top of my list.
  1. I could never quite get away from the feeling that this book started out as a specifically feminist homiletic that ended up broadening out into a thesis with implications beyond feminism per se. While Florence acknowledges this process I’m not sure the she manages the metamorphosis as well as she might have done; I kept on feeling the join between the two as I turned the pages.
  2. I’m still not sure what difference this makes in practice to the one who listens to sermons. I really, really could have done with some examples of what an actual testimonial sermon sounds like, preferably in the form of a URL to take me to some audio files of Florence preaching (the reflections on the annunciation and the resurrection where soooo tantalising). Or, failing that, I would have made do with a couple of sermon transcripts.

As it is then Preaching As Testimony doesn’t hit the very highest of heights but it definitely gets into my top ten.


Phil B said...

Could you give a bit more detail about what this might sound like. Testimonial preaching "sounds" like it could be putting too much of the preacher's personal thoughts in there.

However, it could also mean the delivery of the authoritative testimony of the Word of God, without the distraction of the preacher's personal experience.

Which of these options does it lean toward?

Glen Marshall said...

The smart answer is probably neither.

It's definitely not about the pchr just telling stories about themselves or sharing their own ideas. But neither is it a disembodied, neutral, depersonalised depiction of biblical content. Such a thin is neither possible nor desirable.

It's definitely speaking about the Bible but it's also a recognition we cannot escape from our own perspective; preaching is, and must acknowledge that it is, about what I have seen in the text.

Nor is this to eschew the value of an educated informed engagement with the text in favour of a "well it seems to me" approach. The speaking of what we have seen in the text and and what we believe about what we have seen there only happens after the deepest of engagements with the text. The approach to this that Florence proposes takes the text far more seriously than many classical approaches to expository preaching.

See if this quote helps:

"Pchg ... is the slow work of standing in one's own life and in the Word of God and saying what one sees and believes, no matter what the consequences." (4)

If it doesn't help, read the book (ordered of course via my "I reccommend"widget).

As to what difference this makes to what the finished sermon actually sounds like, compared to sermons that emerge from other approaches, is precisely my frustration. I would have liked an example or two. Perhaps I shld have a root around and see if I can find any audio files of Florence preaching on t'interweb.

Phil B said...

"Pchg ... is the slow work of standing in one's own life and in the Word of God and saying what one sees and believes, no matter what the consequences."

Hmm, I'm going to have to think about that one. It still seems much too subjective to me.

Glen Marshall said...

The point is that subjectivity is unavoidable. How can you be objective about God? Neither God nor God's Word are objects. Pchg is inescapably relational.