Volume 44 - Issue 2
Preaching as Reminding: Stirring Memory in an Age of Forgetfulnessby Jeffrey Arthurs
Many books on preaching appear to fall into one of two distinct camps. First, with tents carefully constructed, authors warm their hands over the fire of preaching content. These books ping-pong the terms “exegesis” and “hermeneutics” over the net again and again with the tenacity of Federer and Djokovic. They often do so in polemical fashion because they know content doesn’t have a monopoly in the market of homiletics.
They also know there’s a second group lounging down by the lake, roasting hot dogs over the smoke of preaching delivery. These authors, perhaps having recently read their first book on sociology, plumb the depths of culture, the affections of congregations, and the rhetorically rhythmic crescendo of conclusions. Both camps occasionally––often with subtlety––drop gum wrappers on the other’s plot.
Fortunately, however, Jeffrey Arthurs, professor of preaching at Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary, just so happens to own a large cabin in the midst of the campsites. His book, Preaching as Reminding, invites both groups over for dinner.
The thesis of Arthurs’s book might be captured in this sentence: “Stirring memory is one of the minister’s primary tasks” (p. 48). This assertion implies that content matters. Content matters so much, Arthurs contends, that the preacher doesn’t get to come up with it. His role is merely to remind the congregation of truths someone else wrote.
The first three chapters of the book outline a theological understanding of why we should remember certain truths, why we might often forget them, and the role of the preacher in facilitating the former. The second chapter includes thoughtful neurological explanations of the fall and the exacerbating effects of modern media on our fallen natures. If the preacher aims to remind, he needs to be reminded how easily we forget.
Throughout, Arthurs labors to emphasize that remembering is more than mere mental recall. Instead, memory “re–members disconnected things” (p. 14). Employing Peter, Paul and Moses, he details how often the Scriptures call upon God’s people to remember the character and/or deeds of their Lord. As the Lord’s Remembrancer, the preacher “re–members” two often disconnected things––the congregation’s affections and the congregation’s God––by stirring memory.
In quasi–Pauline fashion, Arthurs follows the theological framework established in the first three chapters with application in chapters four through seven. How might the preacher stir memory? Arthurs takes four chapters to discuss four ways: style, story, delivery, and ceremony. While “Sola Content” appears theologically noble, the communication of that content matters as well. Faithful preaching consists not only in what the preacher says, but in how the preacher says it.
For example, in chapter four Arthurs explores the importance of style. He does so, however, without separating it from content. Rather than aiming for spectacle––style calling attention to itself—effective style is like a pair of spectacles, an aid “by which we see something more clearly” (pp. 69–70). Arthurs, therefore, details the importance of using concrete and vivid language. Following his own advice, he pens this memorable sentence: “Vivid language rouses slumbering knowledge” (p. 66). If stirring memory serves as one of the minister’s aims, corralling the right verb or adjective might end up strengthening the exposition.
However, Arthurs rightly points out that choosing the perfect turn of phrase will not ensure faithful or effective communication. Because the act of preaching should never be disembodied, the particulars of delivery matter. Chapter six unveils the often heard (and always staggering) fact concerning nonverbal communication: when nonverbal factors conflict with verbal content, listeners overwhelmingly trust the nonverbal (p. 109). What this means, in terms of the book’s thesis, is that the morose sermon supposedly on joy will often fail to stir the memory of the congregation (p. 114).
Thankfully, this conclusion does not require the preacher to be transformed weekly into a public thespian. Rather, “To stir others, you must first be stirred. You can go no further in the act of delivery if this principle is missing, and in many ways if it is present, you need go no further” (p. 116). The truths to be preached must first affect the preacher.
The final chapter zooms out to reveal the role of the entire worship service in stirring congregational memory. In one thoughtful paragraph after another, Arthurs discusses the role of singing, public prayer, the reading of Scripture––and most convincingly––the Lord’s Supper in facilitating these reminders (pp. 134–44). This chapter is worth reading if only for the comical, yet stinging, chart Arthurs uses to critique the often laissez–faire approach to welcoming and dismissing congregations (pp. 138–39). According to Arthurs, those elements of the worship service ought to be leveraged also in stirring the memory of the congregation.
Given Arthurs’s thesis, one of this book’s many strengths is just how often he deliberately stirs the memory of his readers. Chapter one’s first word is “memory” (p. 11). Chapter two’s first sentence begins this way: “You will remember …” (p. 27). Chapter three’s first sentence references, or better reminds of, an illustration from the introduction (p. 47). Then the reader reads another eighty pages before Arthurs returns to that same illustration in the final chapter, where the first sentence begins, “Remember Jimmie …?” (p. 125).
Why point all that out? Because Arthurs hammers home his point by doing in this book precisely what he instructs the reader to do in the pulpit. When he writes about using vivid language, he uses vivid language. While instructing the preacher to employ effective imagery and illustration, he does so masterfully. The reader will also find historical references, thoughtful allusions to films, repeated interaction with C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, intelligent consideration of the sciences, and relevant personal anecdotes. In short, the author asks nothing of his readers that he doesn’t model himself.
To enumerate even half the strengths of this book, this review would need to double in length. Its weaknesses can be quickly detailed, however. The least convincing chapter of the book is chapter five on employing story in sermons, in part due to the potential risks of story largely being left untold. Having said that, part of the reason for chapter five’s relative mediocrity might be due to the surrounding stellar context of chapters four and six.
I was cautious about Arthurs’s slight aversion to using a full manuscript in the pulpit. Though he’s fair to those using extensive notes, he suggests taking no more than a sheet of paper into the pulpit (p. 121). But this begs a seemingly obvious question: How can someone who struggles to remember use vivid language and employ well–crafted sentences without more than a page of notes? Nonetheless, as someone who almost always preaches from a full manuscript, the fact that I felt the challenge of Arthurs’s point speaks to the persuasiveness of his argument.
The introduction to this review was, admittedly, an overgeneralization. Indeed, a number of authors have written helpful books on preaching that emphasize both content and delivery. But this reviewer is not aware of any as well-written and concise as this one. For Arthurs, both content and delivery truly matter. You don’t even have to hear him preach; his book is exhibit A.
South Woods Baptist Church
Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Other Articles in this Issue
The Doctrine of Scripture and Biblical Contextualization: Inspiration, Authority, Inerrancy, and the Canonby Jackson Wu
This essay explores the relationship between contextualization and an evangelical doctrine of the Bible, with a special emphasis on biblical inspiration, biblical authority, biblical inerrancy, and the biblical canon...