TOP THREE BOOKS: PREACHING

If there is anything the world needs it is . . . safe, clean drinking water.

But if there is allowance for two things the world needs, then the second one would be . . . freedom from war and violence.

Okay, those are both true, but somewhere in the top ten needs of the world I think one of them should be better preaching.  Having spent most of my life preaching, I am committed to the idea that homiletics matter and can change the world.  We just need better preaching.

By better preaching I don’t mean that every sermon a preacher may preach is a life changing event for everyone–no, that is impossible.  What I mean is that preaching as a whole is suffering from arrogance, insulated thinking, doctrinal narrowness, and neurotic churches.  Having grown up in a time when preachers were competent in their craft, I lament to see the kind of sloppy self-serving sludge (that will preach right there–four s’s in a row) that leaves people either bored to tears or wondering what just happened.

Not all preaching is like this (thankfully our pastor is as solid as they come), but a lot of it is and the worst of the lot seems to demand the most attention, substituting their particular brand of media whore for exegesis, prayer, and careful homiletics.  I don’t really blame the preachers, though.  They haven’t been taught any better and they think they are doing right.

Okay, the rant is over.  Now let me say what could help.  It would help if every preacher in America read and studied at least one, but preferably all three of these, my top three books on preaching.  If you are a preacher, read these.  If you are not, give a copy of one of them to your pastor as a Christmas present.

The Homiletical Plot, Eugene Lowry

Thirty-five years ago Eugene Lowry taught us about his ‘Lowry Loop.’  A good sermon moves, like a great narrative, from Oops (something is not quite right), to Ugh (why is this so), onto Aha (that moment when things are getting clearer as to a fix) then Whee (How the gospel and biblical text impact the issue) and then finally Yeah (denouement–what the implications for our daily live are).  This type of sermon style works for almost any kind of preaching a man or woman wants to do–it fits the great list makers, it fits biblical exposition, it fits topical, it fits narrative–anything you like, it flows.

Lowry's Loop
Lowry’s Famous Loop

The best part about the book for me is nostalgia, a bit.  It is so dated that some of his illustrations from television include the old Jack Klugman show Quincy.  Nevertheless his methods would help a lot of preachers.

Andy Stanley essentially swiped, in a good way, Lowry’s Loop for his book Communicating for a Change.  Except, for some odd reason, Stanley included the weird story about the truck driver.  It must have been to hide the Lowry connection.

Christ-Centered Preaching, Bryan Chappel

This book is boring.  This book is not riveting like Lowry.  However, this book is essential.  Christ-Centered Preaching teaches people how to work with the Scriptures and take the basic idea in the text and form it into something you could share with others.  Chappel’s book is more like a manual.  However, the manual is vital because until you can do the basics, you can’t do the really cool stuff.  A preacher must learn to walk before he or she can sprint and dance.  Part of the problem is too many are still crawling but they think they are pirouetting.

Preaching, Calvin Miller

Miller is the only author who will appear in these lists twice, but that is because he was so gifted that he wrote well on so many different topics.  Preaching might be his greatest gift to the church.  It outlines what he calls narrative expostion–pulling out he text’s meaning with the use of stories.  Over the years it has been my default pattern because it fits me, even before I ever read the book it fit me.  This book just taught me how to do it better.

This last text here also teaches us an important lesson I wish every preacher would learn.  The sermon has work to do, and the preacher’s job is to make certain that work gets done.  That work is communicating the message of the text to the people in a way they understand.  If the sermon fails on either end–understanding the text or communicating to people, then it is a flop.

Okay, so there are my top three books on preaching.  If you want a fourth, I strongly suggest Fred Craddock’s Preaching.  It is pretty awesome too.  While you’re at it, maybe pick up this wonderful survey of preaching styles called Patterns of Preaching by Ronald J. Allen.  Make certain you also get a copy of . . . I’m sorry.  I could go on forever with this list.

I’m curious–do you have a favorite preaching book that has helped you with the craft?  Please share so others can investigate it.

 

Lowry’s Loop image from www.dlbnn.com

TOP THREE BOOKS: FANTASY

This post was originally scheduled for next Monday.  However, some exciting things (like my new novel’s release) are taking precedence on Monday, so instead of bumping this one back further I decided to push it up to today.  I hope you will not mind.

The problem with fantasy, like the problem with science fiction, really, is that defining the genre is so blasted difficult.  Then there is the problem that these fantasy books often come in long series.  This makes it exceedingly difficult because a series can be over-the-top great but within the series there is not a single stellar book that would be the best.  I hope that makes sense to you, because it makes sense to me but I’m not sure it makes sense.  And yes, I realize the ridiculousness of that sentence, it accentuates my problem.

Okay, now having said that, here are my top three fantasy books.  As you read, please keep in mind these are not in any particular order.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Book Five of the Chronicles of Narnia), C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis
Lewis hard at work

I know that I will get push back on this one.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is everybody’s favorite.  I love it too, but there is something about Dawn Treader that is marvelous.  I don’t know if it is the rag tag crew, their odd discoveries, dragons, the speculation about heaven or that it is a tribute to The Odyssey but there is something about this book that makes it my favorite in the set.  Plus, it has one of the greatest first lines ever:  “There once was a boy called Eustace Clarence Srubb, and he almost deserved it.”

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

If you didn’t like my first pick, I know you’ll not like this one.  The world is filled with Lord of the Rings aficionados, including some of my very best friends, but for my money The Hobbit is a better book than any of those three.  Here are my reasons.  One, it is shorter.  The eventual finished product was longer than the first release, I grant that.  This demonstrates Tolkien’s perfectionist tendencies.  Shorter is better because it skips all that blasted elfin poetry.  Second, its more playful.  The Hobbit is really just a treasure quest tale.  Compare Gandalf  in The Hobbit with Gandalf in LOTR.  He is far funnier and whimsical in The Hobbit.  Third, LOTR is slightly predictable.  You can see it all coming.  The Hobbit, not so much.  These three differences is why I think The Hobbit movies are failing, they are trying to reduplicate LOTR but The Hobbit is a completely different kind of tale.

The Singer Trilogy, Calvin Miller

I will not have a “Christian Fiction” book category in these lists.  The main reason is my strong conviction that Christian literature doesn’t exist.  There is only literature.  Christian writers should strive to create works of art that stand on their own merit as they reflect a biblical worldview.  The Singer Trilogy (originally released as  three small books, The Singer, The Song, and The Finale) does that.  It is outstanding artwork and poetry that casts Christ as a troubadour singing an eternal song.  Calvin Miller was a teacher and hero of mine, but that is not why this book is on my list.  It is on my list because it is a great work.  That it is biblical is a bonus.

So these are my three fantasy book favorites.  What are yours?  What do you think of mine?  I’d love to know.

The Most Influential Books

Top Three Books:  Classic Fiction

Top Three Books:  Contemporary Fiction

Top Three Books:  Science Fiction 

 

 

ALL HEROES DAY AKA ALL SAINTS DAY

This is the last re-posting I’ll make during the week of “Hallows Eve.”  Next week I will return with original content; assuming I can come up with something.  A bit of sadness marks this particular re-posting as the only living member of the “heroes on the wall club” died a couple of months ago

C. S. Lewis As He Hangs on My Wall

I’ve spent some time this morning reflecting on the nature of All Saints Day and what it might mean for me; a Protestant who rejects using the word saint for anything other than a description of any Christ-follower; which is how the New Testament uses it.  The problem is I completely understand the human impulse to want to emulate other human beings.  I just think that perhaps the best word is not saint but maybe hero.  So on this All Heroes Day I am thinking about those who have served as heroes for me.  Their pictures hang in my study, just over the door.  They hang high so they can watch me do my work.   There are four of them.

C. S. Lewis.  Lewis was not only a great writer but a great thinker.  He reminds me of two things.  One, he teaches me to be creative in my writing and in my preaching.  The imagination is a powerful tool in doing the work of ministry.  Second, his brilliant mind encourages me to think through things logically and critically; particularly issues of how the Christian faith interacts with the world around me.

Ernest Hemingway.  Hemingway could never be characterized as Christian, but he still teaches me something that relates to my work.  Hemingway wrote what he knew and he wrote it precisely and concisely.  His stories, though fictional, are always anchored to his real world experiences.  This gives him credibility in his subject matter that comes through on the page.  I need to keep that in mind if I am to keep credibility in my daily life and my ministry.  I must stick to what I know and not pretend to be an expert on things I don’t know about.  When I write, I should center my stories in a setting about which I am conversant.

C. H. Spurgeon.  Spurgeon is still the Prince of Preachers even though he’s been dead a very long time.  Like Lewis, Spurgeon teaches me multiple lessons about my ministry.  One, he encourages me that being a Baptist is not a bad thing.  Second, he affirms that controversy is not bad either.  Most of Spurgeon’s ministry was bathed in one controversy or another and whenever there was a lull, he invented it!  Spurgeon was a very complicated man whom the Lord used to do wonderful things.  May I be as blessed.

Calvin Miller.  I’d never heard of this great leader until I attended Southwestern Seminary.  It was hearing him preach in chapel one day that I realized I could be me—who I was—and not a cookie cutter product of a bland seminary.  But as I learned from him at Southwestern and later at Beeson he opened my eyes to a fundamental truth that informs my sermonizing:  The sermon has work to do, and as the preacher my job is to accomplish the work which the text demands.  A non-preacher might not understand that, but it is easy to get sidetracked in the preaching task and lose sight of the fundamental work of the text, which must be accomplished in the sermon.

Photos of these four people hang in my study and watch me.  I will probably add Bonhoeffer sometime this year, and who knows the great cloud of witnesses may grow over the years.  These heroes keep me focused; and provide a path for me to travel.

O Almighty God, who has knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord:  Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys which thou has prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.  (BCP–Collect for All Saints Day)

LEARNING FROM NAVY SEALS

NAVY SEAL BOOK

A man in our church (thanks Mike) loaned me his copy of the book No Easy Day by Mark Owen.  It is the biography of a Navy Seal who was part of the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden.  I just started the book last Friday, and then I got bogged down with church (work always gets int he way of my reading) and so I am only about a third of the way through it.  What I’ve read so far is not about the Bin Laden raid but about the author’s experiences with the Navy Seals in training and in combat.

Page 26, though, had a paragraph that stood out, because it sounded like something I’ve said before, but in different context.  The author was detailing how he was scolded for making a mistake in the close quarters combat (CQB) drill at their Mississippi training facility and feared he might get cut from the Seal training.

His trainer told him that he had made the right move, but it wasn’t textbook.  He went on to tell him,

But here, we want textbook CQB and we want the verbage (sic) we asked for.  If you are lucky to complete this training and go to an assault  squadron on the second deck, trust me, you won’t be doing basic CQB.  But here, under pressure, you need to prove to us that you can do even the most basic CQB.

I’ve never done anything close to combat, but I understand the instructor so well.  I have said this almost exact same thing in the context of preaching.  As a preacher, I have my own style that has developed over the years and I have my way of doing things that I am comfortable with.  Sometimes younger (or, inexperienced, because they are not always young) preachers want to model their favorite preachers and go all creative and stylistic in their preaching but it fails to connect because they haven’t grasped the basics yet.  Before a preacher can be creative and adaptive he or she must demonstrate a mastery of the basics.  Bryan Chappell and Haddon Robinson must be studied, learned, and mastered before you can try to do your best Mark Driscoll, Chuck Swindoll, Calvin Miller, or Rob Bell imitation. 

I am all for creativity in preaching and try to do it as often as possible but there is no substitute for analyzing a text, doing your homework in the languages, devising a main point, fallen world condition, form for the sermon, writing transition sentences, and so forth.  Maybe I”m just turning into an old man but a lot of what I see passing for creativity is just sloppy sermonics that would earn an F if I were grading it.