Category Archives: Preaching

Leaving the Chaplaincy at St Mary’s College: Looking back…


I began serving as Chaplain to St Mary’s College at Durham University at the start of 2013. By this summer’s close, my tenure will end. When I began working full-time at St John’s College at the start of this academic year as a lecturer and tutor in theology and ministry, Mary’s allowed me to reduce my hours to a meager 3.5 per week—this is not enough time to do justice to the chaplaincy post. It is time for someone else to rise to the task.

I am tremendously grateful that the leadership at Mary’s has allowed an ordained Baptist minister (from  America of all places!) to provide pastoral support to students and to lead the fortnightly worship services alongside the beloved Chapel Choir. For the entire Mary’s community, I give sincere thanks.

Some of the Challenges…

In reflecting back over the past two and a half years, there are a number of challenges I can recall. Obviously, it was extremely difficult taking on this post while finishing a book that I was (perhaps insanely) writing while simultaneously writing a PhD thesis. And yes, it was quite challenging for a free church minister to lead Evensong and Communion services following a worship guide based loosely on the Book of Common Prayer (though I admit to preaching longer than the standard Anglican expectations!).

I think the greatest challenge, though, was the lack of time for getting to know well a wider range of students.

I have led two other university ministries. I was full-time in both of those posts, and I remember pounding my weekly calendar full of more one-on-one meetings than humanly possible, all for the sake of building genuine relationships with students. Seven hours per week (and the 3.5 hours per week this past year) are just not enough to allow for such an intense schedule of meetings. And here in the UK, a minister has only 3 years—rather than 4 in the US—to reach out to students before they fly off into the “real world.”



Some of the Joys…

The chaplaincy work afforded some unique joys as well as challenges, of course.

Though I am solidly “free church” in my roots and theological persuasions, I am so delighted to have been allowed to minister within a liturgical worship context. The insider perspective has been so enriching for me, theologically and ministerially.

I joke about being long-winded as a preacher, but in fact, the chaplaincy post has made me less so. Though I still preached 15–20 minutes at Mary’s (quite a bit longer than the standard), I prepared those messages acknowledging time constraints that free church folk often do not need to worry about. In doing so, I think I have been forced (happily) into a practice of tightening my homiletical speech. There is an economy of sermonic wording I hope to maintain (though I will still likely gravitate to the 30 minute mark!).

I have also been introduced to an entire new world of music. The European choral tradition (that includes some extraordinary Russian composers as well) is something for which I will always be no more than an auditory novice. I will likely remain more comfortable with the praise choruses and hymns of the British and American Evangelical traditions. But I will from now on search YouTube during Advent for worshipful choral performances in England’s hallowed chamber halls.

Some Memories…

I do not want to forget the camaraderie I have enjoyed with fellow staff at St Mary’s and with the other University Chaplains. I do not want to forget being corrected about how to properly pronounce “Van Gogh” at a high table formal dinner. I do not want to forget preaching in Durham Cathedral for the Carol Service, or the laughter with students over my mishaps in leading a liturgical Eucharist service, or the shared sense of painful grief at a memorial service for a student we lost to tragedy.

So… St Mary’s College: Thank you. This “chaplain” will miss you.

Should Preaching be Entertaining?

I asked in the previous post if preaching should be entertaining.

My thinking is that preaching must ultimately be, like the Christian Scriptures, engaging. That is, preaching must arrest the mind, heart, soul, and strength (to borrow from the Shema—Dt 6:4) and compel a reimagining of reality and a reanimation of our lives.

In this act of engaging, preaching may well be entertaining.

As noted earlier, Christian critiques of entertainment media need to be more nuanced. I write in the opening of TheoMedia that all media was once religious. This is because “media” are means of communication and self-revelation, and for ancient and modern-day Christians communicative initiative begins with the Triune God. The concept of “media” goes back to this one phrase:

“Let there be…”

God spoke, and thereby employed “media”—specifically, the medium of speech. And by that medium he created the multi-media world of creation. Our God is a multi-media God.

So we need to be careful with our negative connotations of “media.”

Entertainment media, however, has rightfully earned itself a bad wrap in many respects, like when it seeks to engage an audience by appealing to our shallow fancies and our unhealthy curiosities. Sermons that merely titillate to maintain a congregation’s attention are little different from television studios who throw in gratuitous sex and stylized violence to maintain an audience.

This is not the job of Christian preaching. Entertainment is not its goal, but engagement. At the same time, it is okay (and perhaps right!) when engaging preaching entertains us.

But this is not “entertainment” that, as mentioned above, arrests our attention by appealing to base interests and shallow fancies.

What should most arrest our attention is truth. What should hold our concentration is a compelling vision of the Triune God. What should awaken our interest is the urgency of sin and injustice. What should seize our minds and hearts should be Christ crucified and the cosmic scandal of a burst open tomb.

And these realities and convictions are what Christian preaching must offer through the medium of speech.

Preaching will be entertaining at times. It will also be unnerving. And if we are plying the homiletical craft faithful to the subject matter, then it will grasp and hold the attention of those who have ears to ear.

Next Post: “Everything is Bad for You… Including Preaching.” A look at how HBO’s The Newsroom and NBC’s Parenthood model a new mode of television that informs the craft of preaching.

When A Sermon Mystifies more than Explains

I love preaching. It darn near kills me, but I love it.

In trying to be a better preacher, I am thinking more intently and prayerfully about the practice and theology of this curious, holy, frightful, and joyful discipline.

One of the temptations I have found in sermon preparation is that of providing a full explanation of the text (or topic) at hand. Most of my preaching is “expositional” (meaning that I am working with a specific passage of Scripture). This means that my material is helpfully confined within the set parameters of the text. If I preach a “topical” sermon, the parameters are usually much broader: if I am addressing the issue of “money and possessions,” for instance, I feel pressured to exhaust the “whole counsel of God” on the topic found in the Bible. An impossible demand for one preacher and one sermon.

It is also impossible to exhaust the richness and depth of just one text, no matter the set parameter of verses.

I think I used to operate under the idea that preaching is ultimately didactic, that exposition is ultimately explanation. My idea of a good sermon was that it had to exhaust the meaning of a text and supply a comprehensive explanation of its entire meaning.


Preaching is certainly didactic (meaning that a sermon teaches something). Preaching is certainly explanatory. But in a Christian framework, teaching and explanation never result in the intellectual mastering of the subject matter. This is because the Subject Matter of a Christian sermon is the Triune God. And our Triune God cannot be fully explained; he always exceeds our didactic (teaching) capabilities. He cannot and will not be mastered… intellectually, or in any other way.

A sermon must ultimately present the Triune God of the text. Preaching is a revelatory means of God’s self-presentation through a mortal voice. So it is okay if a sermon leads more readily into worship than into intellectual understanding. It is okay if the sermon mystifies more than it explains.

Now, if you know me at all or follow this blog even a little, you know I am not interested in promoting any sort of anti-intellectualism or encouraging a mystical, gnostic conception of faith absent of rigorous theological thinking and vigorous ethical living. Sermons should certainly explain and enrich intellectual understanding.

But with that disclaimer, let me say it again: it is okay if a sermon leads more readily into worship than into intellectual understanding; it is okay if the sermon mystifies more than it explains.

In fact, a sermon that fully exhausts and entirely explains a text (or at least presumes to do so) may actually be a failure.

This is because such preaching may give the congregation a false sense that they have now mastered a passage, that they can tick it off as “done” and then move on to master other texts. A sermon that presumes to explain an entire biblical passage (or topic, as the case may be) teaches something dangerous: that our sacred Scriptures are a repository of limited knowledge that can be sufficiently grasped and mastered by mortals.

What a disastrous idea.

And what an awful message for a sermon to convey.


2012 Music Review: Twelve Favorites

Over the past several years I’ve gotten in the December habit of compiling lists of my favorite music releases.  While I was in seminary taking preaching classes, I sought out an exercise that would help me enjoy, evaluate, and communicate texts in a creative way to an audience.  Since, at the time, all I was doing was reading and reading and writing and writing about biblical and theological content, I used music reviews as a way to hone my skills.  For about two years I wrote reviews for a small indie music blog out of Macon, GA called the Blue Indian (here is 2010 and 2011).  It was in this time that I realized if you could charitably and critically evaluate content that you sometimes did care deeply for, and some that you just didn’t “get,” and still make a compelling presentation to an audience, you had done most of the logistical tasks of preaching (which is what I wanted to work on).

So I present to you my list of twelve (a cheap way to continue to expand my list and delay decisiveness once more each year) favorite records that came out in 2012.  A brief disclaimer: these are my favorite records of this year, not necessarily the “best.”[1]  They might not be your favorites and for that I don’t apologize.  I may be skewed or inconsistent.  For instance, I’m well aware that half of these selections are from the South (including VA).  I’m also aware that I’m a sucker for M. Ward and the Avetts and unlike the Mumford boys (who came up big last year), they’re near locks on any favorite list I’ll likely write.  Again, I don’t apologize for this, everyone needs these kinds of go-tos.

I don’t have a fixed criteria for this evaluation.  Some of these albums and artists operate within a decisively Christian confession and view of the world, others quite the opposite, and many wrestle somewhere in the middle.  Some tilt towards the traditional, some towards the experimental, most hold both in some sort of tension.  Some are household names, while others share the fate of prophets in their respective hometowns.  I’ve included a Spotify playlist of this list in its entirety as well as a playlist featuring a single song from more than 40 (just wait until the year 2040!) notable releases.  I’d also love to hear, in the comments, some that I may have missed.  Cheers on a great year of music to have enjoyed and blessings on what I hope shapes up to be another.  -CEB

Band of Horses // Mirage Rock
Band of Horses // Mirage Rock

12: Mirage Rock (Columbia)

Band of Horses

These bearded bards have smoothed out some of their previous rolickers into a milder but really interesting album.  They’ve dusted off the legendary Glynn Johns (father of Ethan) for his first production gig in nearly three decades and it really pays off.  You can really hear the Carolina hills amidst the Wilsonian harmonies.

Bowerbirds // The Clearing
Bowerbirds // The Clearing

11: The Clearing (Dead Oceans)


The earthy duo from Upper Air has expanded in number and so has their sound.  This record, grouped with the most recent offerings from Bon Iver, the Rosebuds, and Megafaun, would make for a really oddly cohesive April Base box set: ranging from ambitious and bombastic to charming and homespun.  Between the recurrent wildlife vagabonding and Phil Moore’s strangely entrancing songwriting meter, you are bound to get sucked in by the bare beauty and precious vulnerability of this music.

The Welcome Wagon // Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices
The Welcome Wagon // Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices

10: Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices (Asthmatic Kitty)

The Welcome Wagon

This time around Pastor Vito Aiuto and wife Monique cobble together a less-overtly Sufjan Stevens-infused collection of hymns and spiritual songs.  Again, the covers are outstanding, ranging from Crowder to the Cure.  The hymns are imaginative appropriations of some lesser-known texts, and Vito has continued to prove himself a worthy auteur and purveyor of surprisingly sacred music in the vein of a Brooklyn-hipster-Reverend Gary Davis.

The Avett Bros // The Carpenter
The Avett Bros // The Carpenter

9: The Carpenter (Universal Republic)

Avett Brothers 

The Avetts were in a pickle on this one.  After working with Rick Rubin on I and Love and You and simultaneously getting flack from longtime fans longing for the mountain-punk of their beginnings and getting lauded by a much much larger audience, this album, their seventh full-length studio record (and 14th total release!) bore many of the pressures of a sophomore album.  Somehow they managed to do it.  In the midst of immense scrutiny and personal and familial trial, they produced a record with genuine warmth of sound and lyrical depth.  In my mind, The Carpenter resists conflation with the Mumford phenomenon (though similarities abound and some might disagree), due in part to the band’s willingness to explore (and fall flat in some cases) while frequently tipping their caps to unabashed influences like Townes Van Zandt and Doc Watson.  These influences lie very near the surface but don’t seem as forced or forceful as the literary and biblical allusioneering of their comrades.

Bill Fay // Life Is People
Bill Fay // Life Is People

8: Life Is People (Dead Oceans)

Bill Fay

This record came out of nowhere for me.  I had heard both Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) and Damien Jurado cover “Be Not So Fearful.”  But Bill Fay was as obscure to me as he actually is.  Tweedy, himself, makes an appearance on Fay’s first album of new material in 41 years. Fay returns the favor with a cover (almost in latter year Johnny Cash fashion) of Tweedy’s “Jesus, Etc” in one of the finer moments of the record.  “The Healing Day”  offers a cathartic, eschatological anthem for fans of Cash, Billy Prince Billy, Wilco, and Nick Cave.

M. Ward // A Wasteland Companion
M. Ward // A Wasteland Companion

7: A Wasteland Companion (Merge)

M. Ward

For being a spliced-together collection of songs from the road, Companion sure doesn’t sound like it.  While decidedly less lo-fi than his earlier records, and conspicuously featuring indie sweetheart, Zooey Deschanel (the “She” from his other notable project), “Clean Slate” and “Pure Joy” could fit in on an anthology of his best and most characteristic.

Kathleen Edwards // Voyageur
Kathleen Edwards // Voyageur

6: Voyageur (Zoe Records)

Kathleen Edwards

This past fall, I’ve countlessly heard, from both sides of the aisle, the bemoaned, “if so-and-so wins the election, I’m moving to Canada.”  Canadian Kathleen Edwards diffuses this by threatening the inverse on the lead track of Voyageur and then shows her hand on this “empty threat.”  Voyageur succeeds through heartbreaking lyrics and vocals, and daring and skilled arrangements.  Even in some of her less poignant moments, she manages to pull off sounding sincere singing about sidecars and pink champagne in a way rivals Kim Kierkergaardashian‘s ability to combine crass and contemplative.

Father John Misty // Fear Fun
Father John Misty // Fear Fun

5: Fear Fun (Sub Pop)

Father John Misty

Best described as a trip, Fear Fun, is part Josh Tillman travelogue and part apocalyptic fantasy.  Woven strands of reality and fiction are incarnated in hazy Laurel Canyon fare.  The result is remarkably more interesting than either the lush harmonies of Tillman’s former gig as drumming Fleet Fox or his intense but often monotonous singing-ax solo fare.  With the album, he chopped off his hair, and was seemingly and suddenly imbued with newfound frontman swagger.  I’ve wondered on more than one occasion if this could this be a neo-Robert Johnston scenario?  While confusing at times, hilarious at others, and shrouded in darkness even in its sunnier moments, FF has to be considered one of the oddest and most enjoyable albums of 2012.

Floating Action // Fake Blood
Floating Action // Fake Blood

4: Fake Blood  (Removador/Harvest)

Floating Action

Black Mountain experimenteur Seth Kauffman teamed with Jim James of My Morning Jacket and toned down some of the sitar from last year’s wonderful but difficult Desert Etiquette to arrive at his most complete work since his solo album Research.  This “conservatism” suits him well, as a little restraint helps the supreme nuance come out in fewer and less labored listens.  The title of the record stems from his observation and frustration at the pervasive ability of “fake blood” (art that doesn’t hurt to make, but safely appears so) to sell records and make fans.  This epitomizes Seth’s ability to surprisingly craft and juxtapose.  After all, when asked about surprising interests and influences, he once listed Saabs, Paula Abdul and Karl Barth in the same sentence.

Alabama Shakes // Boys & Girls
Alabama Shakes // Boys & Girls

3: Boys & Girls (ATO)

Alabama Shakes 

“I feel so homesick.  Where’s my home?  Where I belong or where I was born?” questions Brittany Howard on “Rise to the Sun.”  Her ability to repeatedly package such existential wonderings in, to borrow a buddy’s descriptor, such “gronky” (here think something akin to Led Zep, Janis Joplin, Chuck Berry, Ike Turner… a funky sonic patina) containers shines.  Throughout this sparkling debut, the Shakes prove that while there is nothing new under the sun, its revolution around the earth and its faithful reemergence can endlessly illumine what we already know in surprising and quite enjoyable ways.

Matthew E. White // Big Inner
Matthew E. White // Big Inner

2: Big Inner   (Hometapes/Spacebomb)

Matthew E. White

Not since Illinois has it been so cool and engrossing to listen to an album that sounds, at times, like a glorified high school marching band jam session.  Like Sufjan’s masterpiece, Matthew E. White (who’s arranged for the Mountain Goats, the Sounds of the South tour and whose backing band has richly ornamented the huge sounding and hugely successful eponymous Bon Iver record) has proven that once you dive in you find the brass and fanfare is actually secondary.  Listen and you’ll be rewarded with a rich lyrical tapestry.  The sacred and the profane touch at times, their threads crawling over each other, combined though not indistinguishable.  At times you wonder if White is miming Randy Newman or Qoheleth as he muses about the sun’s hiding place on “Steady Pace.”  Or when he takes up the slave-song meme of crossing the “Brazos” and explodes into a more than 5 minute long, album-ending chorus of “Jesus Christ, he is our Lord!  Jesus Christ, he is your friend!”

Damien Jurado // Maraqopa
Damien Jurado // Maraqopa

1: Maraqopa (Secretly Canadian)

Damien Jurado 

After warming up with a handful of cover songs and Jurado’s previous release, Saint Bartlett, the Jurado/Richard Swift production tandem has hit full-stride with Maraqopa.  Sometimes enigmatic and others jangly and humorous, the amount of texture, attention, and the nuance kept me listening to this record throughout the whole year.  While his sound has evolved, his writing has remained constant.  He pens “I heard you call my name.  You were outside the door.  How did I not hear you before?” on “This Time Next Year” a parousia anthem whose opening doo-wop chimes are broken up by surf-guitar distortion.  Lines like these are sneaky.  In some ways they underwhelm, but Jurado has developed a penchant for writing such startlingly simple lyrics that lack any semblance dullness or pretension, but manage to strike the hearer as stark and unalloyed.


[1] Stanley Hauerwas, upon receiving the honor of “Best American Theologian” in 2001 by TIME Magazine responded, “Best is not a theological category.”  Likewise, I’m not sure “best” is always a great or suitable category for artistic works.

Preaching Fools: A Conversation with Chuck Campbell on Preaching, Folly, and the Arts (Part 2)

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. 

Preaching FoolsWhen 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 Friday’s post, Chuck spoke 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.

This 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:  So as preachers, it is an interesting position we’re in.  Most people don’t want to hear that settling is a bad thing.  In fact, most of the time becoming settled, is “arriving.”

I think there’s a good analogy with pop music.  Is there any chance for pop music?  To hatch a message that counters the dominant culture and ideology in a form that is so dictated by tastes and wants.  We know what we want to hear and we know when we hear it.  It’s a closed loop.  How do you break in to that loop to speak in a language that is acceptable and interesting but say things that are potentially inflammatory or unsettling.

Chuck Campbell:  Unsettling doesn’t necessarily mean inflammatory.

HR:  Well, not necessarily inflammatory, but unsafe.  Pop music is the safest of genres.  It doesn’t change fast or much.  It doesn’t cut very hard against what is dominant.  How do you feed people the Bread of Life when they love a steady diet of junk food?

CC:  Love?  Well they’re used to it.  We think we know what we want to hear.

That’s a huge question, let me try to throw a few things at it: We try to say fairly clearly in the book that this is not the only image of the preacher.  We don’t want to claim that.  There are clearly times in people’s lives where a different kind of word may be necessary.  Though, I’m even wondering if in a situation of grief or loss, where life is quite liminal, if being unsettled is not a totally negative thing there.  But I haven’t sorted that out pastorally.

The other side is, I think we have the tendency to automatically assume this kind of preaching is troubling; whereas I would like to think of it as inviting into a kind of adventure.  Something that is much more interesting than simply being secure.  I’d like to frame it in a positive, graceful way.  Sure, there is going to have to be interruption, but a lot of times that is  similar to the kind of interruption to our captivity to the powers; which is killing us!  And a lot of people know it’s killing them.  I think there are a lot of Christians out there ready for the Christian faith to be something a little more interesting than we make it sometimes.  Maybe people might be more open to a vision of the faith that is a little more unsettled, that is moving, that is on the way…

And this is also a way to counteract the sort of Christianity today that lives in a sort of reactionary fear.  We talk in the book about “circling the wagons” and “iron theologies.”  There’s a lot of that going on in places and not just Fundamentalist places.  Liberals can be just as rigid and draw those lines just as hard.  It’s where these kind of ideologies happen that it does call for a sort of disturbing interruption.  I don’t think those [ideologies] are what we’re about as Christians.

HR:  I began to wonder about art as a medium, not just “high art” like Picasso, in the book there are political cartoons…

CC:  …Banksy…

Image courtesy of Banksy.

HR:  How did he not show up at the Olympics? [CORRECTION: He did!]

CC:  Or in the book?!  How did that slip by us?

HR:  It’s really interesting that you mentioned reading Dostoyevsky as a fuel for this sort of imagination.  Rowan Williams, who talks wonderfully about Dostoyevsky, writes about the “gratuity of fiction,” which I think applies to art more generally, in ways like the unsettling effects of foolishness and parody. 

“The gratuity of fiction arises from the conviction that no kind of truth can be told if we speak or act if history is over.”[1] 

There’s so much in the book about the form of the fool.  I think there’s a great analogy for the arts’ ability to incarnate, in some sense, the form of something while injecting surprise and challenge, especially alongside the sermon.

CC:  When I was inaugurated into a chair at my former school, one of my very first lectures was on this material.  That was ten years ago that I began work on this stuff.  I did this thing on naked street preachers and for that occasion Brian Wren, who is a hymn writer, wrote a hymn on the fool for that.  It is quite playful and very interesting in that regard.

Some other times we’ve tried to do services with jazz musicians, the perfect art form for this kind of liminality and movement and improvisation.  I love to work with musicians that can come up with the kind of art that can unsettle things.  For instance, just playing very different music while you’re celebrating Communion can completely change the expectations that we sometimes have at that table.

HR:  There’s a Christian musician, Derek Webb, who seems like a particularly apt contemporary example of this.  He has this song titled “Freddie, Please.”  I’ve heard him describe his process as trying to write what he might say if he had an encounter with Westboro Baptist pastor Fred Phelps.  After he realized that that wouldn’t be a very good song, he changed courses and wrote it as an encounter between Jesus and Phelps.  What’s most interesting and surprising is that he sets it to a 50’s Doo-wop love song.

CC:  The thing I really like about that and the thing that I’m really wrestling with, one of the dangers that can happen with the powers themselves, is that you can become so reactionary to them.  Your life can become a kind of resistance that begins to be shaped by them, because you are always only reacting to them.  So they’re setting the agenda.  Even if you resist, you can inadvertently be caught up in them.

The thing that a song like this does, and what humor more generally does, is it breaks down the binary.  It does something so creative and surprising that it opens up a very different kind of space than just “me against you.”  And it’s interesting that Jesus is the one who’s singing.  Jesus is the one who does that.

One of the books that we refer to over and over in the book, Trickster Makes the World by Lewis Hyde, actually says that contemporary artists, musicians, and visual artists are the tricksters of our time that do this sort of interrupting.  It seems to me, that while our book is a book about preaching, it is definitely applicable to people doing liturgy, music, and art.

HR:  Speaking of contemporary jesters, I’d love your take on Stephen Colbert.

CC:  We mentioned him in a footnote in the book.

What he did with Congress, that’s what fools do…they wind up speaking the truth.  They have people off-balance and unsettled in a way that they can be heard.  One of the things I like about him on his show is that he’s an amazing example of “bivocal rhetoric.”  Everything he says has two meanings.  It’s all basically irony in a sense.  While he’s saying one thing, he wants you to hear something else.  In that way, he’s much more complex than John Stewart.  Stewart, in his humor comes at it directly, whereas Colbert has this double-voiced piece going on.  This is why the book has a long chapter on carnivals, saying that we need to learn from these characters and how they work.  These characters are here.  They are around.  We need to pay attention.

In terms of Christians, Will Campbell is one of the real interesting people doing this.  And actually, I just got this article on P_ssy Riot in the Chronicle for Higher Education as “holy fools.”  These women’s closing statements are brilliant and incredibly theological.  I was shocked at how theologically engaged they were and how they knew pretty much exactly what they were trying to do.  Even though the dance itself is silly, there really is a lot going on.  Characters like that are all around.

HR:  A last bit of encouragement and advice for us foolish preachers in the thick of a highly contentious American election season?

CC:  You talk about an environment where we have two walled-off sides, how do you disrupt that?

As I usually say, the Powers are never just individuals.  I think that the best preaching we do on these political things is not endorsing a particular candidate, but rather speaking to the powers that are holding us all captive.   That might be deeper than even an issue.  It’s going to be difficult, because there are economic powers, there are environmental powers, all related to these really huge issues.  Pastors are going to have to be the fools to help congregations perceive things in some wholly new ways, because right now nothing’s happening.

[1] Williams, Rowan. Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008. 46.

Preaching Fools: A Conversation with Chuck Campbell on Preaching, Folly, and the Arts (Part 1)

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. 

Preaching FoolsWhen 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.”[1]

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.”[2]  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.

[1] Campbell, Charles L., and Johan Cilliers. Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2012.  104.

[2] Ibid 46.

Celebrity Culture, the “Speaking Circuit,” and John the Baptist

I am one of those tortured-soul types.  And this post is an invitation into one of my ongoing struggles.  (“Welcome all you suckers to Struggleville” as my friend Bill Mallonee used to sing).

The struggle I am writing about here is more than a personal struggle.  This is a church struggle.  The issue is this:

How can we avoid the kitsch and the dangers of celebrity culture when God has assigned a public platform for so many members of the church? 

The question is important for both those who lift their voices publicly, AND for the church which gives them a platform and lends the ear.

I am struggling with this because I am an author.  As an author, I have this overriding sense that God has supplied a message that needs a public hearing.  But marketing techniques, strategies for “building your platform,” and trying to bag multiple speaking engagements can feel like dodgy enterprises.

I remember having coffee with a marketing pro while my first book was circulating between editor and copy editor as an unpublished pdf file.  She told me it was time to start making calls, time to get the word out, time to knock on the doors, utilize my networking skills and call on all my contacts: if you believe in your message, you have to get it out there, and that objective requires marketing.

This “marketing pro” is not a slick ad-woman with a knack for cut-throat business dealing.  She is a Godly, sensible person committed to getting the messages of God through certain authors to the church.

But did anyone ever have a heart-to-heart with Jeremiah and tell him he needed to beef up his networks and start Tweeting like a maniac?


But… Yet…

Here is the thing: the Bible is full of people to whom God gave a public message and to whom He assigned a public ministry.  And in 6th century BC Judah and in 1st century AD Athens, there was a culturally accepted apparatus in place for how someone aired public messages in public.  Jeremiah could stand on the Temple steps and Paul knew to ascend the Areopagus.

I have been thinking about entering what folks in the know call “the speaker circuit.”  It feels presumptuous even to write that, and the phrase “the speaker circuit” makes me cringe with awkwardness.

But… Yet….

I really believe in Faith Without Illusions.  I remember those long hours writing on cynicism, revisiting my own disillusionment, praying and studying with such urgency—and all these practices were endured for the sake of finding and producing some cultural artifact (a book) that by the astonishing and ironic power of providence would be helpful to the church. And as I work on this second book (‘TheoMedia’) the excitement and urgency is no less.

Then again, when Jeremiah had a fire in his bones, he didn’t have a product to sell.

And it is quite unlikely Isaiah would have done much book signing while sitting nude outside that Jerusalem gate.

Now, I am not celebrity-material in personality or appearance.  I am a marketing flop, not a marketing pro.  I have tweeted about my book once.  I blog about it very rarely, and I feel a little weird about having the image of its cover on the  column to the right.  But the fire is in the bones, crackling within the pages, and perhaps it is irresponsible not to get the thing out there on the Temple steps and in the ears of those lingering about the Areopagus.

But how does one faithfully lift a voice in the public square without endorsing celebrity culture or co-opting the personality-driven tribalism so prevalent in the church?

Dear Church/Campus Ministry/University,

I am a gifted speaker and a published author.  I would love to share with your congregation/students what God has placed on my heart.  Please consider booking me for one of your upcoming church/chapel events so that we can all benefit from these insights together.


Itinerant Speaker

I used to get letters like these quite often when I served in pastoral ministry.  And they always turned me off.  My book is on the stuff Christians do that make us cynical.  And this sort of thing can get my own cynical juices flowing.

But… Yet…

Many of us have been divinely appointed to the public role of lifting voices, whether through preaching or writing.  So how should it be done with integrity and with a cautious resistance to the trappings of celebrity culture?

I have some friends who do this speaker circuit thing for a living, and I trust them.  I just really trust them.  I can look to them as models. The one I will make the most influential model, however, will be John the Baptist as he is portrayed in the Gospel of John.  For the Fourth Evangelist, John the Baptist showed up, loudly pointed to someone greater, and then faded away….   That is the demeanor captured in the painting above where the Baptist juts his long, lanky finger out toward Jesus.

More on that in the next post….