Editor’s Note: While The Foolishness of God is published by The North American Anglican Press, this review was submitted independently, and it was not solicited by the journal.
J. Brandon Meeks, The Foolishness of God: Reclaiming Preaching in the Anglican Tradition. Omaha, NB: The North American Anglican, 2020. Vii+207 pp. Paperback $14.99.
Near the end of my graduate school days, a pastor I love and respect told me he thought I’d make a good preacher. ‘After all,’ he said, ‘you’ve taught so many classes and given so many lectures.’ It was surely meant to be a compliment, but it also revealed that in his mind a sermon was akin to an academic lecture; the goal of the preacher, by this fellow’s lights, was to argue persuasively and convincingly so that the audience would leave the church with the right beliefs.
I start with this anecdote to draw a contrast with The Foolishness of God. J. Brandon Meeks has written a short, dense book on preaching — on its necessity, its dangers, and its opportunities. In it he lays out a vision of Anglican preaching that is highly compelling, in which preaching is much more than a holy lecture. In Meeks’ vision, preaching is a high honor, a dangerous opportunity for the one called to preach. It deserves to be done well. I don’t preach, and I often feel frustrated by the sermons I hear, but this book made me crave good preaching. I recommend this book without reservation to all Christians, not just Anglicans.
Like many American Anglicans — including Fr. Wesley Walker, who wrote the foreword to this volume — I grew up in a low church, non-liturgical context. I was raised a Baptist of the independent, fundamentalist persuasion, and Sundays were for preaching. Every single Sunday I heard at least one hour-long sermon. Heaven and Hell were presented to me each week, and I was told that because of Jesus’ sacrifice I was able to make a choice between the two. The problem was that I already had. As an eight-year-old Baptist, I prayed my sinner’s prayer and asked to be baptized as soon as possible. I had done what the preacher had told me to do. I had chosen Jesus, and I was going to Heaven. The altar call was not what I needed to hear.
But now I am an Anglican, and while I have heard some good sermons since my confirmation, these are the exception rather than the norm. Often sermons are exhortations to a good life with little mention of Christ crucified. Or they are charming, if a bit boring, stories from the priest’s life peppered with a few Greek words from his seminary days.
I have lived and worshipped in churches which feature the kind of preaching that inspired Meeks to write this book. Meeks is critical of preaching which forgets that many in the pews are already Christians, but he’s also critical of preaching which neglects to mention that Jesus is in fact the Word that dwelt among us. And he is absolutely right to take such a stance. But focusing on the criticisms he levies would be unfair to Meeks and his book. The Foolishness of God is not primarily a book of criticism. While Meeks begins with a description of the dire state of Anglican preaching, he quickly moves on to how Anglicans can reclaim their proud heritage of good preaching. That is where we find the wisdom in The Foolishness of God.
I have tried to think of a way to summarize Meeks’ message, at least as I understand it. After a bit of time, I have settled on this: A good preacher must tell God’s story, and he must tell it well. Good preachers craft narratives, but these narratives are fused into the one great narrative that God has authored. All of creation is a story; it begins when God decides to speak. There is a climax and an ending. A preacher retells this story to his congregation.
This emphasis on narrative does not occupy the bulk of The Foolishness of God, but I believe that thinking about narrative and its role in preaching illuminates the rest of the book. I want to focus on this, and in particular, I want to connect Meeks’ comments on evangelical preaching with his early emphasis on telling a good story. And to get to that point, I want to talk about St. Augustine.
Augustine is perhaps the West’s most famous convert. Despite being raised in a Christian home and catechized from a young age, Augustine famously did not convert until his adulthood. Even those of us who have not read his Confessions know the basics of the story. While leading a notoriously sinful life and struggling with the claims of Christianity, Augustine heard the words ‘Take up and read.’ Some tellings of this story neglect to mention what he went and read — they say he read from his Bible, perhaps, but they don’t make much of the particular passage. It was a short passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans; in my translation of the Confessions it reads, ‘Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.’
While it has always been a part of Christian ethics that one ought to avoid temptations of the flesh and indecency, it does not seem right to say that this is the core Christian message. (Meeks writes well on weighing the importance of parts of Holy Writ, and I think he would agree.) The core Christian message is that Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, became man, was crucified and was raised from the dead, and because of this we are invited to become heirs of God’s Kingdom. And yet Augustine finally decides to convert based on a warning of St. Paul’s against immoral living, not from reading a clear proclamation of the Gospel. For readers, this is a source of confusion. Who converts to Christianity because someone tells them to live a clean life? What has happened here?
Augustine’s conversion and Paul’s role in that conversion only make sense in the context of the narrative of the Confessions, the narrative of Augustine’s early life. Readers know what has come before, and so they can understand the scene. Augustine converts because God, through the writing of Paul, is speaking to him and for him. Augustine now sees the error of his ways, and he makes a decision. When we understand the story of Augustine as told in the Confessions, we can properly understand the power of the Word of God in Augustine’s life. We can see the power of the text which all preachers are bound to preach from, the Holy Bible, and we can see that this power expresses itself in sinners’ lives in some unexpected ways.
We cannot know the story of everyone who is sitting in the pew. Some will have been born and raised as Christians, baptized as children and brought up in the faith. Some will be new Christians. By the grace of God, some will be taking tentative first steps into the faith by sitting in the back row. It is difficult, if not impossible, for each sermon to speak to each hearer’s particular experiences. And a good preacher shouldn’t try to do that. Instead, a good preacher can take comfort in knowing that God will speak to whom He chooses to speak. This is the holy, awful honor of a preacher: to be the one who proclaims the good news to the assembled body.
I want to suggest that proper evangelical preaching is preaching which invites the hearer into a new kind of life. This new kind of life is one of faith and repentance; it is the Christian life. Some of our audience will already have taken the first steps into this kind of life; they have confessed that Jesus is Lord and they have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Some will have fallen away, and each time they hear the good news they are given a chance to repent and return. Some will hear the Gospel for the first time and realize that this is the life they want. A good preacher tells them a story, and then he tells them how they can make this story their own.
Meeks says that ‘it is a mistake to preach conversion in a Christian congregation as though they had not turned to Christ in this fundamental way,’ and I agree. That is the mistake of the Baptist preachers of my youth. And he says that it is ‘just as big of a mistake to preach sermons that pat the backs of lukewarm Christians,’ and I agree. That is the mistake of many Anglicans today. But a narrative approach to preaching, I believe, offers a middle way. We are living in a story that is still being told. The story of creation, redemption, and recreation is ongoing; a good preacher stands at the pulpit and tells that story, and he can tell the congregation that this is not just a story, but rather the story and their story. Each member of the congregation is invited to see themselves as a character in this narrative. And Christian preachers have the added benefit of knowing the ending: Christ returns and reigns forever. The choice we face right now, in this part of the story, concerns what role we wish to play in the Kingdom of God.
So much more could be said about this book. My comments have focused on just two of the essays contained within; a more thorough review could discuss the role of beauty and poetry in preaching, Meeks’ wonderful explanation of the liturgical year, or his discussion of typological readings of the Old Testament — and there would still be so much more to say. To all who preach and to all who listen, I recommend The Foolishness of God.