Peculiar Truth: Postmodern Preaching

William H. Willimon
Wednesday, May 30th 2007
Jul/Aug 2003

In one of his aphorisms, Nietzsche, father of all things postmodern, asks, "What if truth were a woman?" The question sounds sexist, but my Christ-conditioned ears hear more. What if truth was not detached, objective, free-standing, unconditional, and everything else that modern, Western folk have been taught to think of it? What if truth were more personal, relative, intuitional, corporeal, and personified? In short, what if truth is a crucified and risen Jew named Jesus?

In John's Gospel, Jesus says, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). He does not say that he has come to talk about truth, or that he has some interesting truth to share with us. He simply says he is truth. He also says that he is the way, implying to my ears that his truth is not only a person-personal-but also that it is a way, a journey, a movement to somewhere we would not have gone had we not encountered and been called by Mr. Way, Truth, and Life.

Postmodernity has wonderfully exposed the way that our epistemologies have been corrupted by Western, modern, democratic, and capitalist ways of knowing. We take difficult, thick, bubbling Scripture and boil it down to "Four Spiritual Laws" or six fundamentals or a few abstract, detached ideas about "what Jesus really said." Biblical Fundamentalism and the Jesus Seminar are two last gasps of modernity's attempt to contain Jesus. At the beginning of the modern period, Francis Bacon was clear that his methodology sought truth for purposes of control. Truth is what we discover in order that we might run the world as we damn well please, controlling things in such a way that we never need recourse to God either to explain the world or to make it work. Christians are currently in a process of rediscovering how very odd our peculiar notions of truth are in a world that has been dominated, at least in the West, by essentially atheistic ways of knowing.

How do we reach a postmodern world? What will preaching be like in postmodernity? When I began preaching, I thought that the modern world was my greatest homiletical challenge. What can we say to all these skeptical, critical, modern people from an old, culturally conditioned, Jewish book like the Bible? Postmodern proclamation, I think, will be less troubled to submit itself to the now discredited canons of modernity and more open to claims that originated in a time other than our own among a people other than ourselves-that is, the claims of Scripture.

Preaching in postmodernity will exploit the linguistic construction of all reality, as long as postmodernists understand that Christians do not believe all reality is a byproduct of human discourse. We believe that what is most real is the product of a relentlessly self-revealing God and the conversation this God has initiated with us at Pentecost. Whereas modernity believed that we construct our reality through our heroic personal choices, Christians know that we live in the reality constructed by the Word.

Too much of modern preaching saw a sermon as an attempt to elicit religious sentiments from individual hearers. Postmodern preaching will be more about formation than evocation, the formation of a countercultural linguistic community called "the church." Postmodern preaching will take Acts 2 as its model-that is, in terms of a word from heaven meant, not just to speak to the world, but rather to expose, unmask, and then to change the world through the generation of a countercultural community who now know something they could not possibly have thought up on their own. The promise is of the evocation of a new people, a counter polity offered "for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself" (Acts 2:39).

Even more important, it will be preaching that admits that it is derivative from and frighteningly dependent upon steady traffic between here and heaven. All faithful preaching begins as an act of a determinedly self-revealing God, Yahweh, who loves to talk, who delights in argument, declaration, epistemological conflict, assertion, and promise, who loves to create something out of nothing through nothing more powerful than words. It will be preaching that constantly points beyond itself to the Savior whom some recognized as Word made flesh. It will be speaking that worries more about obedience to the text than about the allegedly contemporary context of our speaking. It will trouble itself more over proclaiming the Word than over any lack of contemporary response. Realizing modernity's grave limits, it will be preaching that is willing not to be heard, understood, or grasped by affluent, early twenty-first century people. It will be preaching that delights in the convoluted thickness of the biblical text. We preachers ought never to forget that what Acts 2 wants us to call the gift of the Holy Spirit, is what the world attributed to too much booze too early in the day (see Acts 2:13).

Modernity, and the liberalism it spawned, enforced a closed epistemology in which all knowledge was self-derived, readily available to anyone, anywhere, who used modernity's methodology. It arrogantly claimed that everything in the world is capable of being known-or "grasped"-by anyone who is "reasonable." Nothing is miraculous, gifted, or unavailable to the knower, nothing essential must be added to the natural world from outside the natural world. Some have called this modern way of knowing "demystification." I prefer to call it modern closed-mindedness.

Christians know only because we have been addressed by a self-revealing God. All of our knowing is miraculous, a gift of God from outside the limits of our experience. Preaching has something to say to the world only because of God's grace. Preaching is heard, not because the preacher has succeeded at last in making commonsense contact with modern people, but rather because of God's miraculous intervention. Karl Barth (1886-1968) says that if you will always think of preaching as you are told to think of "manna" in Exodus 16, you will not be far from the Kingdom.

I remember an old preacher saying that at least two miracles happened that day at Pentecost. The promised Holy Spirit descended with power. Yes. Equally miraculous was that Peter preached. Peter, who could find nothing to say in the courtyard when confronted by the maid just a few weeks earlier (see Luke 22:54-62), stood up, raised his voice, and preached (see 2:14).

Preaching is still a sign and wonder (see Acts 2:43); a gift, miracle, irrefutable evidence of a sound from heaven; the only way this creative God creates new worlds.

Wednesday, May 30th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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