When I took a preaching class in seminary, I never expected it to be such a creative launching pad for me. We listened and watched all kinds of preaching and preachers and focused on different, and sometimes novel, ways of communicating both clearly and compellingly. I went on to take another course, with professor Chuck Campbell, on Preaching, the Powers, and Principalities. It was here that my imagination was further sparked to see and speak to the captivities and spiritual powers at play in our daily lives and in our congregations. One thing I particularly enjoyed was Chuck’s playfulness; in the midst of incredibly serious material he never seemed to take himself too seriously.
When Baylor University Press sent me a copy of Chuck’s (along with co-author Johan Cilliers) newest preaching book, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, I took the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss. Throughout the book there is a notable chorus, “The gospel is foolishness. Preaching is folly. Preachers are fools.” This is a fairly unusual, possibly threatening, but certainly scriptural, statement for the average pastor. An odd line in our job descriptions. The book certainly struck a chord in regards to preparing and delivering sermons, but also, because of its surprisingly multimedia nature, it struck a chord in regards to the arts and their ability to embody and communicate this “gospel foolishness.”
In today’s post, Chuck speaks about preaching’s ability to unsettle us, put us in a middle ground, and change our perception. At one point he mentioned the book’s very title changing before his eyes: from a noun to a verb, being the fool to being fooled.
The second post explores some of the similarities and engagements the book has with the arts. We wind up talking about everything from the music of Derek Webb to Stephen Colbert to the upcoming American presidential election.
Hopeful Realism: Some of your interest and expertise lies in what Scripture calls the “principalities and powers.” How have those interests developed in your work over the years?
Chuck Campbell: The work with the powers began when I was doing a lot of ministry with homeless people in Atlanta. I heard them use this language. I was, a full day to a day-and-a-half, overnight sometimes, on the streets with homeless people. I got to know some of the people and they would use this language. This material began to make sense of what I was seeing…nobody wants there to be homelessness, but it just kept getting worse.
Secondly, it started making sense “of me,” in addition to “to me.” It helped me understand my own sinfulness in a different way, in a kind of complicity and captivity rather than just getting up in the morning and saying, “I’m gonna go do something evil.” People in our churches don’t say that. They never leave and say, “Thanks for the sermon, now I’m gonna go do something evil.”
So it pushed me to explore that material as a way of thinking both theologically and ethically about my own understanding of sin, what I was seeing in my work with homeless people, and to a little lesser extent in ministry on Death Row. It was never theoretical to start with. As I kept reading and working it really became a focus in my preaching work. The new book is still dealing with it, but in some different ways.
HR: Where did this new angle, foolishness and folly, come from?
CC: Even in the Word Before the Powers there is a section on lampooning. Someone mentioned that I should look at jesters because that’s really what I was talking about in many ways. Then three things happened. I had a sabbatical and I read Dostoyevsky, who does a whole lot with “holy fools” in his novels. I started reading material on the history of jesters, tricksters, and holy fools. And I came across some material on the famous First Corinthians text on the foolishness of preaching [1 Corinthians 1:18-31]. These things started to come together. So this really did grow out of the powers material, one way of dealing with the powers being a sort of jester-like, lampooning fashion. And also there was a sense that potentially that was what Paul was doing when he was interrupting the work of the powers in First Corinthians.
HR: I was surprised how multimedia and especially how visual this book felt considering it is a preaching book. Right out of the gates, the beautiful cover, Picasso’s Crucifixion featuring Don Quixote, seems to set a sort of vision for the book. Then we’re introduced to a phrase like “bifocal vision.”
CC: I need to give credit to my co-author Johan, who is responsible for much of the visual arts in the book. He is an extraordinary artist himself. He always writes with some sort of visual art. I contributed some of the political cartoons. I’m excited it turned out this way. We wanted it to be a very interdisciplinary book with visual art, literature, cartoons and everything else in it, because that’s what preaching is. That’s what we have to do. We are always drawing on all these different pieces, even when we’re not Shakespeare scholars or experts.
The “bifocal vision” is a term from New Testament scholar J. Louis Martyn. It’s been a very helpful term for me and as you see in the book, it begins to shape the way that we look at the rhetoric of preaching as a kind of “bivocal” rhetoric that is trying to do orally what this bifocal vision does visually. Martyn uses it as an apocalyptic understanding of the gospel, especially in Paul, where the New Age breaks in, interrupts, invades, the old age. And yet of course the Old Age has not died and the New Age has not yet fully come. So the challenge is to be able to see both things at once.
Sometimes people might use the bifocal vision to be like glasses where you see close up and then you look with a longer vision for the fulfillment. As you may or may not have noticed in the book, we don’t take that route. We’re looking at both at once, here and now. In my mind, this is a more apocalyptic way, where the New Creation is already here; you can’t always see it but you can’t ignore it in the Old Age when you are seeing the pieces of it already here.
It is certainly a growing edge in the book: the rhetoric of preaching being “bivocal.” Having to say two things at once, both the Old Age and the New, without letting go of either one in a real sense. As I’ve thought about the sorts of stories and example that have been most powerful to me, they tend to be those kind. Another aspect of the bivocal rhetoric is simply to keep things from being settled. Where things are clear, rigid, and tied down. Some of the forms like metaphor keep things open, which is characteristic of this life between the Ages. This space between the Ages.
HR: Space seems to be another major motif of the book; this middle ground of “liminality.”
I underlined while reading, “there is no separating the folly from the wisdom or the scandal from the gospel. Jesus too keeps us unsettled; he invites us on the Way, he calls us to discipleship at the threshold between the ages and bids us to follow -and preach – one whom we can never master or control, but who ever remains elusive and disruptive.”
CC: This is a huge growing edge for me. And I’m still trying to live into it and figure out what it means for preaching. I preached on Tuesday in chapel and these sermons are still sweating blood trying to figure out how to do it. One of the things that has happened as a result of this book and might be an important word for a lot of us in the church today, is beginning to think of the gospel not as something that gives us a solid security or clarity or ties things down, but really as the gospel itself keeping us unsettled and “on the way.”
We live in a culture and a time where things are quite unsettled. So many cultures, and the church itself, is going through a kind of liminal phase. We’re not sure where things are headed. The danger there is to really want to assert and reassert a kind of reactionary clarity that grows out of fear. So I think one of the subtexts that surfaces is that Christians don’t have to be afraid of these times. We can live into them. It’s really our space, this sort of unsettled space. And we’re following the One who we can trust and we can see even in this tumult, the New Age breaking in.
This may not be new to anyone else. It strikes me that it’s often assumed that Christianity provides the security, clarity, finality, solidity…but I’m beginning to think it may be something different. Which might be some of the best, good news to free us from our fears that we can have as a Church.
HR: Along these lines, fragmentation is another dominant theme in the book. There’s a sense that our view of fragmentation should not just lie in something being broken, but as some sort of artifact of the future. That “faith means not to be in tact.” This is really challenging to me, but also sort of threatening.
CC: It’s unsettling. Another facet to fragmentation is being part of the Church where we’re not ever whole apart from these other fragments. That’s where some of my colleague’s writing in the book on ubuntu keeps that kind of dynamic between the individual and community going in some interesting ways.