Monday, February 20, 2017

"Preaching" by Tim Keller: A Review

In the end, preaching has two basic objects in view: the Word and the human listener. It is not enough to just harvest the wheat; it must be prepared in some edible form or it can't nourish and delight. Sound preaching arises out of two loves - love of the Word of God and love of people - and from them both a desire to show people God's glorious grace. And so, while only God can open hearts, the communicator must give great time and thought both to presenting the truth accurately and to bringing it home to the hearts and lives of the hearers. (14)

If I were to make a "Mount Rushmore of Modern Preachers" (might make for a interesting future blog post) no doubt Timothy Keller would be on that list. Keller is unique among expositors. Though he is as strong as John MacArthur and Alistair Begg in his breaking down of the text, what makes Keller unique is his ability to apply the gospel to common cultural narratives. It is for this reason that I was eager to read his book Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism.

The book largely avoids textbook discussions though it is there. Keller does define and encourage his reader to engage in expository preaching over other methods. However, Keller is clear that other forms of preaching, like topical preaching, are just as legitimate as expository. This is a small point, but in my experience, a number of preachers, particularly within the Reformed tradition, believe that expository preaching is the only form that God approves. It is refreshing to see someone in that same tradition suggests otherwise.

Nevertheless, Keller looks primarily at three issues: the art of preaching, preaching to the culture, and preaching empowered by the Spirit. The first section is the most technical section and it is here one will find the standard preaching discussions. Central to his view of preaching is preaching Christ crucified.

I suspect it is the second section, preaching to the culture, that will draw the most readers. There is no one more qualified than Keller to speak to this issue. He helpfully walks the reader through a number of the primary cultural narratives and how to address them in our sermons from a gospel perspective. This section alone is worth the price of the book. One of the best examples of this regards his illustration of the Anglo-Saxon:
An even more serious problem is that an identity based on expressing ourselves - without listening to outside dictates - is actually an illusion. A popular exponent of the sovereign self was Gail Shehy in books like the seminal Passages in 1976. She insists that you can become yourself only when you can look inside and express yourself apart from any "external valuations and accreditations." This is patently impossible.

Imagine an Anglo-Saxon warrior in Britain in AD 800. He has two very strong inner impulses and feelings. . Living in a shame-and-honour culture with its warrior ethic, he will identify with that feeling. He will say to himself, That's me! That's who I am! I will express that. The other feeling he senses is same-sex attraction. To that he will say, That's not me. I will control and suppress that impulse. Now imagine a young man walking around Manhattan today. He has the same two inward impulses, both equally strong, both difficult to control. What will he say? He will look at the aggression and think, This is not who I want to be, and will seek deliverance in therapy and anger-management programmes. He will look at his sexual desire, however, and conclude, That is who I am.

What does this thought experiment show us? Primarily it reveals that we do not get our identity simply from within. Rather, we receive some interpretive moral grid, lay it down over our various feelings and impulses, and sift them through it. This grid helps us decide which feelings are “me” and should be expressed - and which are not and should not be. So this grid of interpretive beliefs - not an innate, unadulterated expression of our feelings - is what gives us our identity. Despite protests to the contrary, we instinctively know our inner depths are insufficient to guide us. We need some standard or rule from outside of us to help us sort out the warring impulses of our interior life.
And where do our Anglo-Saxon warrior and our modern Manhattan man get their grids? From their cultures, their communities, their heroic stories. They are actually not simply “choosing to be themselves” - they are filtering their feelings, jettisoning some and embracing others. They are choosing to be the selves their cultures tell them they may be. (135-136)
In the final section, Keller addresses preaching to the heart that is empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is difficult and every preacher can confess frustration of  preparing sermons only to see little change in the hearts of their people. This is a section of the book that is pastoral, theological, and worth returning to over and over again.

Overall, this is an excellent work that every preacher should add to his library. Keller is unique among preachers and is beloved by young ministers for a reason. This book shows why.
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