Building “Mobility” into the Craft of Preaching
The author of Speaking Parables and Speaking Jesus, Rev. David G. Buttrick is the Drucillia Moore Buffington Professor of Homiletics and Liturgies Emeritus in the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University, where he has served on the faculty since 1982.
Rev. Buttrick has also served on the faculties of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, St. Meinrad School of Theology, the seminaries of St Francis and SS. Cyril & Methodius in Pennsylvania, Southern Baptist and Lexington Theological in Kentucky and the Iliff School of Theology in Colorado.
A much-in-demand speaker, Rev. Buttrick has published in numerous journals and magazines. He has written or edited some 14 books, including his landmark work, Homiletic, in 1987, and was chief writer and editor for the Presbyterians’ Worshipbook (1970) as well as a member of the Catholic Bishops’ Committee on the Homily.
His accomplishments are detailed in Who’s Who in Religion, Who’s Who in Education, Who’s Who in America and the Dictionary of International Biography. A Festschrift “In Honor of David Buttrick,” Preaching as a Theological Task, edited by Thomas Long and Edward Farley, was published by Westminster/John Knox in 1996.
We met with Dr. Buttrick in his study in his home in Nashville. The room, not large, is crammed floor to ceiling with books and artifacts reflecting his long career as a pastor, academician and professor. We began the conversation with a reference to one of his latest books.
HOMILETICS: Let’s start with Preaching the New and the Now.
BUTTRICK: The title was originally The New and the Now: Preaching God’s New Social Order — or something like that. But some advertising guru decided we needed to have the word preaching in the major part of the title. It makes no sense.
HOMILETICS: In this book you say that the “time has come to refocus the church’s preaching.” What do you mean by that?
BUTTRICK: It seems to me that the theme of the kingdom of God was always what Jesus was preaching. No question. So within the early centuries you had the preaching of the kingdom of God and then preaching about Jesus as he, who in one sense, inaugurates the kingdom. So you get the preaching about Jesus and you get the preaching of Jesus. And this was with the church for centuries.
Twentieth-century preaching lopped off the kingdom of God; it was considered theological liberalism. In fact, late 19th-century, post-David Strauss, theological liberalism figured that was about all they could preach — the teachings of the kingdom of God.
And then you had both Neibuhr boys — brothers — dropping the notion of the kingdom of God. To Reinhold, it was utopia and to H. Richard it represented a kind of optimism that was misguided and ungrounded.
HOMILETICS: Although didn’t Reinhold say once that the church needed those kinds of optimists?
BUTTRICK: No, not really. So in one way they reject the kingdom of God and revert with neo-orthodoxy back to an Augustinian/Reformation tradition. Fine. But they lost something. If you look at the synoptic gospels, they’re all about the kingdom of God. The 20th century lopped it right off. They regarded it as the L word: liberalism.
Therefore, the Christian faith lost something. It lost its eschatology, partly. And if you lose eschatology, something weird happens. You start preaching a “past-tenseness.” Like the mighty acts of God, or whatever it might be, but a kind of past-tenseness.
HOMILETICS: You’ve called it “nostalgic triumphalism.”
BUTTRICK: Certainly that describes the preaching of the 20th century, in some perverse sort of way. Therefore, it became personalistic and it became almost rigidly biblical with the rise particularly of Karl Barth out of the neo-orthodox tradition. It’s a matter of reclaiming, not losing, the Augustinian tradition as part of Christianity.
But the book is about recovering this social dimension which we certainly lost.
HOMILETICS: What might affect the form a sermon might take, like for example, how the culture affects that form, or one’s theology of preaching —
BUTTRICK: — Both, in a sense. In the book On Preaching, I wrote, the one my wife says makes a dandy doorstop, I argue there out of a kind of concern for biblical preaching — although the last chapter says there’s all kinds of preaching — that’s almost disappeared in the 20th century. The rise of Barthian biblicism, the only way to preach is from the Bible, yet often methodology contradicted the Bible.
I guess if I added anything new in my book it was the idea that biblical passages in themselves betray a movement of thought, whereas traditional homiletic, particularly coming out of the 19th century and into the 20th century, was static. Point-making. Three points and a poem. The homiletic was a static homiletic, whereas the biblical passages have movement. Parables have plot.
When Paul writes, there’s a rhetorical movement, often like a conversation. So you have all these wonderful ways to preach, and a certain rigidity, objective reason behind the forming of a 20th-century homiletic tradition.
So when I got started fooling with all this stuff, I started a little research first to find out the best I could what happened. I kept finding stuff that said that tradition homiletic no longer works, something else is happening.
One of the big features is the idea of movement of thought. How do you do that in preaching? Instead of having a fixed topic and then objective points about it? The question is how to do create language that moves in consciousness and forms and changes people.
HOMILETICS: And for that you have to understand how a listener processes information.
BUTTRICK: Sure. So I became interested in this. And it seemed to me that it lent itself to biblical preaching, or any kind of preaching.
HOMILETICS: But if you have a theology of preaching in which you feel that the sermon is a conduit through which you pass on cognitive information, that’s going to affect how the sermon takes shape, is it not, as opposed to a theology of preaching that understands the sermon to be an event or experience?
BUTTRICK: Right, obviously that will affect the form. And a number of things will affect this. Whom do you think you are preaching to and why? That becomes a big question. Are you preaching to convert every audience? Are you preaching, if not to convert, a “faith-seeks-understanding” sermon, which you might find typically, say, in the Anglican tradition a bit more than some? Who are you preaching to? I argued that you are preaching to a “being-saved” community in the midst of the world.
Therefore, preaching involves a sophisticated pattern involving whom you are preaching to and why you’re preaching.
Preaching has been defined in all sorts of ways in the 20th century. One was therapeutic, following Harry Emerson Fosdick, a very nice human being. [laughs] I knew him as a kid. He used to buy me chocolate sodas which I’m not fond of, but he was convinced that every kid should like a chocolate soda. That was that. He was a good guy and a fine preacher in many ways. A little thin on theology, generally. But he certainly marketed a kind of triumph of the therapeutic. Preaching — personal and therapeutic.
Another avenue was Barthian biblicism. So you had two models in the 20th century, which came together with a desperate concern that white congregations have right now, trying to hold their social position. Preaching takes place in the service of institutional preservation, I guess. A very peculiar notion. It’s not our business to preserve an institution; for one thing it’s too dull a notion.
But what happened, I think, was that in many churches the big third point in the sermon wasn’t God anymore, it was community. Very peculiar. As if that’s the heart of the gospel. The community is just as corrupt as any other community.
HOMILETICS: Speaking of this audience which you describe as a “being-saved” community, every pastor knows that within the “being-saved” community there is an enormous range of cultural and generational differences. Some pastors are preaching to a primarily Gen-X congregation, for example, people who already have watched untold thousands of hours of television and have grown up during the emergence of video gaming and computers.
BUTTRICK: Television is a product with a different consciousness, we know that. And it’s created a different consciousness. Two-way street. In other words, consciousness is not a fixed entity. It has its history. Obviously, linear history with the printing press, it produced one kind of consciousness. With the electronic media, you’re getting a different kind of consciousness. But maybe the consciousness itself will produce the change.
I’m very uncertain that you want to use a lot of visual media in preaching. McLuhan, brilliant, who seemed to argue that the more media the better, Walter Ang comes along later, even more brilliant, certain media do things better. Visual stuff, for example, drives you into your own subjectivity and separates people. If you and I go to a movie, we’ll walk out of the movie and be silent for quite a while. Go out and have some refreshment and then talk about the movie. Notice how it locks you first in your own individual and personal subjectivities.
HOMILETICS: But as a preacher speaking to a Gen-X audience, just using this as an example, wouldn’t I be more likely to use a narrative form stuffed with metaphors and images than if —
BUTTRICK: Depends what you’re preaching about and on, something that works with narrative. My good friend [Gene] Lowry argues that everything can be turned into narrative. I think not. Sure, if I am preaching parables, I might let the rascal move along like a parable, episodically. There are other things that aren’t right for that.
The problem of the visual is that it doesn’t unify a congregation into one mind being addressed by God. Getting back to Ang, he would argue that language does that better and that language gets better through self-understanding than through the visual. I think that’s probably true.
Liturgy itself is visual. So why not? That’s fine. But it isn’t at that point an address, it isn’t speaking. It’s such a different kind of thing.
Right now, contemporary forms of worship are kind of strange. I went to a church a couple summers ago — I won’t say where — and there was a lot of visual, souped-up stuff, and I realized that the one word I wasn’t hearing (I heard a lot about Jeez-sus) but I never heard the word God. For 45 minutes I never heard the word God. I heard an awful lot of psycho-babble, and I heard a lot of rather dated biblical research. Pretty strange.
HOMILETICS: Aren’t there many churches where you hear a lot about God and little about Jesus? Christology’s nonexistent.
BUTTRICK: I don’t know. I don’t hear much about God anywhere these days. Gee-willikers! [laughter]
HOMILETICS: I’m the son of a preacher—
BUTTRICK: I am too.
HOMILETICS: I was just going to mention that. You’re the son of a preacher. What did you learn from your father?
BUTTRICK: My father [George Buttrick] was a very good preacher.
HOMILETICS: I know that.
BUTTRICK: But you know, when he hit his seventies, he suddenly called up and said, “I’m going to change the way I preach.” Which he did, systematically.
HOMILETICS: In what way?
BUTTRICK: Well, he moved toward a mobile system rather than the static thing of sections, outlines. A deliberate move on his part. Fascinating.
Which, given the fact that he spent his whole life developing something, was I thought pretty courageous. He was a remarkable man. A bright mind. Right into his mid-80s he was reading a couple of a books a week, and he used to call up and say, “Have you read so and so?” and if I said “No” he said, “What’s the matter with you?” [laughter]
HOMILETICS: But can you put your finger on anything — did the mantle fall —
BUTTRICK: No, I have a brother Bob who popped out of the womb wearing clerics; he wanted to be the minister, be the preacher, to actually duplicate father’s career, which was a big mistake. I didn’t. I kind of dropped out of the church; there were too many other interesting things to do about high school age and so I just sort of quit.
HOMILETICS: I won’t ask you about what kind of things. [laughter]
BUTTRICK: Yeah, well, even in college, I did go to church a couple of times, but there was this girl who was sort of swell looking, yet devout, so I had to go to church with her a few times, but generally I didn’t.
I had a big fellowship to go to Yale in English but at the last minute I showed up at Union Seminary telling them that I didn’t think I needed a darn thing, but could I sit in for a year. So I sat in for a year. Kind of interesting. Two or three people got a hold of me. Paul Sherer who decided I was going to be a homiletician long before I knew it. Paul Tillich. A guy in Christian Education, Lewis Sherrill, they all got a hold of me. And I stayed.
HOMILETICS: And your father approved?
BUTTRICK: He kept out of my life that way. My father was real good about that. My father, you remember, had to run away from home to become a minister. My mother, I’m sure, wanted every little boy of hers to be a minister. But it’s sometimes important not to follow your mother.
So I didn’t, certainly. I had no intentions that way. I ended up doing it. I was in a parish. Chose the parish deliberately, right out of seminary. I was called to three parishes, one with 500 members. But I chose a church which at the time had about 35 members in a building that seated about 500. They sloughed some membership somewhere along the line. I loved it because the side door came off of the hinges, and I thought, “This is for me.”
HOMILETICS: The side door?
BUTTRICK: Yeah, in the old building, a wonderful old building which we got rid of. Some guy a year later said, “You won’t be here long.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “No one has been here for as long as three years.” I said, “Pick a number.” He said, “Seven.” I said, “I’ll be here for seven more years.”
I was. Built a big congregation. Then I started getting calls to go teach. I wrote stuff on the side, never told the people about it;you don’t what to do that. And I preached in university chapels, and again, never told the people about that, they wouldn’t have liked it much. I turned down one job in homiletics and I went and worked for a board and agency where I was bored and agencied to death. That wasn’t for me.
Then all of a sudden, I got a call from Pittsburgh Seminary, Princeton Seminary and Amherst. And went to Pittsburgh. There 14 years. And I then, in a kind of a little protest action, I resigned and ended up in a little Catholic school—
HOMILETICS: St. Meinrad’s.
BUTTRICK: Yup. That was kind of interesting. Vanderbilt tried to get me in the 60s and the 70s, and now here I am.
HOMILETICS: Your father wrote The Parables of Jesus, and 70 years later you’re writing Speaking Parables: A Homiletics Guide.
BUTTRICK: Actually, he later wanted to pull that book off the market because the scholarship was out of date and he didn’t want to mislead preachers. It didn’t happen.
HOMILETICS: So is your book volume two?
BUTTRICK: I am fascinated by the fact that theological liberalism retained the teachings of Jesus, being very unsure of things like the virgin birth, miracles, etc., etc., at the end of the 19th century there was a big focus on the teachings, which included the kingdom of God, which was then dropped. So we lost the focus on the language of Jesus until about 1980.
So my book was based on that particular body of literature prompted by what was called the Parable Seminar. Very different understanding of parables than my father would have had.
BUTTRICK: Well, the parables were not simple stories of everyday life. They were surrealistic to begin with and they didn’t have single meanings. Again, there is a mobility there. They are very sophisticated stories; that’s because it was portrayed way back in the 19th century by a great scholar, Utiker, who argued that these are simple folk stories to make simple the mysteries of God. He kind of pictured Jesus as a rural Lutheran, folk preacher. But Jesus is a Jew and the Jewish parable tradition is highly sophisticated, full of intricacy and surprise. Very complex.
These parables are the same way. They are not simple stories of the everyday life of a bum. I worked on 33 of them, and I figured that 28 out of 33 were basically surreal. Riceour uses the word extravagance. He doesn’t mean hyperbole. He’s talking about something beyond that. He’s talking about the surreal.
Let’s take this case. You got a woman baking bread. These little bread box clay ovens. She’s using a temple bread formula. Women couldn’t do that. She’s hiding stinky leaven in it. That’s not yeast. The new translations all say yeast. Absolutely wrong. It’s leaven, which is the moldy bread, okay. And by the way, Leviticus says God doesn’t like that smell so for heaven’s sake don’t offer it to him. And leaven is everywhere in the Bible a symbol of evil. It is never anything else. Fascinating. Okay?
So, she is hiding some leaven in some temple bread formula, holy bread formula, and she’s baking it in this small oven. And she’s using about 60 pounds of flour! That’s enough for a couple of bread trucks, you know? That’s surreal! It’s impossible!
Almost all of them are bizarre. They are not stories of everyday life at all. They’re very strange stories. And if you think about it, theologically they have to be. These are parables of the kingdom of God. Then the idea that they’re stories of everyday life won’t do at all; they have to disrupt everyday life and be a different kind of life.
So that was the difference, following the more recent scholarship. And as far as I can see, they are, with the exception of the few texts having to do with pieties, they’re all addressed to the corporate sense of the congregation; they’re not personal ethics at all. That changes things completely.
HOMILETICS: Tom Long, when he reviewed your book, Speaking Parables, takes you to task — loves the book — for what he calls your “negative view of the church,” the “good Jesus, bad church” dichotomy.
BUTTRICK: I don’t think that’s fair. I think that my view of the church is to say that we’re all sinners. The difference is that in the church we’re forgiven sinners. What we preach is not the church. Thank God! We preach God! And for us broken children of God, that’s a good thing to preach. We invite people to come into this broken community, blessed by God, but it is not “come to the church, we are the new people of God.” No.
HOMILETICS: He says that you argue that the church today is a church that the parables would roundly condemn and seek to destroy or bring down.
BUTTRICK: Well, no, I don’t think that’s the way to put it. The parables are going to “bring down” our understanding of the world we live in, in terms of the fact that they’re trying to replace it with the model of the kingdom of God. The church is included in that, but it ain’t the kingdom. And lately, to me, there’s a promotional preaching of the church that I’m kind of scared of, to tell you the truth. I wrote that little book The Captive Voice, and there’s a section on that. Insofar that we’re all broken sinners on our way to “being saved,” the beauty of the church is that’s it’s a community where people are “being redeemed.” But God’s redemptive purposes operate in all sorts of places. That’s about it.
HOMILETICS: Can we think of Jesus as a preacher? If so, what kind of a preacher was he?
BUTTRICK: Red hot [laughter]. Insofar as the attributed language of Jesus in any sense reflects his preaching — looks like it does in places (other times when you look at it you’re inclined to go with scholars who say, “Gee, somebody in the early church dropped that bomb in there) — he was epigrammatic, the parables are brilliant, ergo, yeah, he was a brilliant preacher.
HOMILETICS: The apostle Paul?
BUTTRICK: He claims he isn’t very good. And he may not be. But he was tremendously innovative in the translating of the gospel out of the thought forms of the Jewish world — which are his thought forms — into something that can speak to the Gentile world. Just astonishing.
HOMILETICS: Long time since I’ve been in Preaching 101. I’ve forgotten a lot of what I learned.
BUTTRICK: It’s been a long time since I’ve taught it.
HOMILETICS: What should I recall, revisit?
BUTTRICK: I think we’re in a very tricky position right now in a lot of areas. Let’s begin with the technical areas. The consciousness has changed. It looks to me like the way meaning forms in consciousness is a bit different. More than a bit. So homiletics should begin to focus more and more on the technical rhetoric of the gospel for a new consciousness. I’m not sure we’re doing that. We’re in for an epochal change; language changes like crazy and we’re going to have to change along with it.
But we can no longer use a language of objectification or point-making. I don’t think that works. And we’ve got to take into account, as I said, mobilities. There’s a lot more to discover and if I had to write another Homiletic, I’d change some stuff.
It’s very tricky. It’s always been a discipline. It’s not an art form. It’s a craft. And you better learn the craft. I don’t know that we teach that very well. I think the field of homiletics is working harder and harder and getting smarter and smarter. But it’s a craft. It’s not a form of self-expression; it’s a kind of gift that you give to your neighbors.
I’m more and more concerned with point-of-view. I tried to struggle with a chapter on that in Homiletic; first book to ever deal with that —
HOMILETICS: — What do mean by point of view?
BUTTRICK: It’s a literary category.
HOMILETICS: Well, I know that —
BUTTRICK: But you can apply it obviously to rhetoric. It’s speaking as if you’re in certain angular positions toward what you’re speaking about. Creates a different kind of language depending where that is. If you and I were sitting in church together and we fade out every now and then — which happens — we blame ourselves. We’re very foolish, it’s almost always the preacher’s fault; the preacher screwed up and so I drifted.
The two reasons I drifted most often were: the connective design of moving from Idea A to Idea B. Right in there. If that’s not done properly, I’m going to drift. And it usually isn’t. Takes much more power than people realize.
The other thing is point of view shifting. Apparently that’s trickier now. If you go back to old movies, the cameras are fixed and the actors move around them. Nowadays, the cameras are all over the place with different angles and points of view. That’s happening in consciousness as well. That’s the other reason for drifting off. If preachers are not careful, they shift points of view without realizing it, and goodbye congregation.
HOMILETICS: Or, as you said, they put the camera on a tripod and keep it there.
BUTTRICK: If I had to rewrite Homiletic, I’d write another chapter to get that more carefully explained.
HOMILETICS: Many preachers have a favorite canon of Scripture or a canon within the canon. For example, some will only preach from the gospels, and never from the Old Testament.
BUTTRICK: One of the research things we did a few years ago was to discover that 72 percent of the pastors were preaching from the gospel lesson 72 percent of the time. That’s a disaster. I myself read the Scriptures. I love the Scriptures. And I read every day, I read passages until something new knocks me cold — something I’ve never seen before.
When I first began preaching I preached largely from the Pauline epistles because I had a teacher who made me love the Pauline epistles. And I had a teacher of the gospels who was somewhat tedious. I think that’s too bad; we need the epistles, and above all we need the Old Testament. Right now, in Christian churches across America, it’s disappearing. And I find that tragic.
HOMILETICS: What are the benefits of preaching from the Old Testament?
BUTTRICK: Look, Jesus was a Jew. And his mind was a good Jewish mind, formed in Judaism; his faith was trademarked: Made in Israel. The first 11 chapters of Genesis, for example, provide a kind of basic understanding of humanity and of God’s creation that runs through the whole Bible; it isn’t changed by the New Testament. And the law at its best is a gift of God; again, it isn’t changed by the New Testament. I do not find that I can understand, particularly in its political and social dimensions, the gospel apart from being grounded in the nice, earthy, good Old Testament. Period. That’s crucial.
I’m teaching black students right now. You can see the exodus tradition is in their minds at all times. The average white church — forget it. Salvation is something else. I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t liberation, in the same way.
I worry about preaching right now, I genuinely do. I worry about America right now. How do you preach to America right now? How do you preach at a time when Christianity is split wide open? What is Christianity? There’s very little accord. A divided America. A divided Christianity. Subdivided at times with racial divisions. Fortunately, Christianity undermined the Roman Empire; we can only hope that Christianity will undermine the American culture.