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The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence

The End of Words:
The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence

Richard Lischer
James T. & Alice Mead Cleland Professor of Preaching
Eerdmans: 2005
Hardcover, 180 pages, $18

Reviewed by William H. Willimon

When pastors refer back to their seminary days, they tend to identify themselves by the professor who taught them to preach.

“I was at Duke in the Thor Hall years,” says one. “John Bergland formed my preaching style,” says another.

The End of Words is testimony to the homiletical formation of nearly three decades of Duke divinity alums in the “Lischer Years.” Rick Lischer is not only a gifted, eloquent, utterly biblical, exuberantly theological preacher, but just about the best teacher of preachers in the church today.

The Beecher Lectures gave Lischer the opportunity to distill his homiletical wisdom into an eloquent extended meditation upon the preaching task- The End of Words. Jesus Christ strode into the world by way of words, and still does every time someone dares to preach. The Gospel was speech before it was act; the Gospel is speech as act. The Christian faith is a peculiarly auditory, acoustical affair. Jesus was a preacher who engendered a whole nation of preachers we know as church.

Beginning with a truism (“preaching is hard”), Lischer shows why preaching is particularly difficult today. It is a joy to watch this renowned master set Gospel-induced talk in the context of a mass media-dominated contemporary culture so awash in words that it finds it hard to hear the Word.

Advertising is our dominant rhetoric, so woe to the preacher who takes the advice of many homileticians who see rhetoric as the adopted parent of preaching. The modern world uses talk not to get to the truth, but to avoid it. Technology promises us control and power. We are so impatient with the time it takes to tell the whole, dangerous story of Jesus that we attempt to render the Gospel in Power Point. Numbed by verbiage in service to a consumer culture, our ears are deadened to the news that could save. A violent world can’t bear to tell the truth about itself, covering its sin with cliché, government press releases, public relations spin, and outright lies. The Gospel enjoins us to call things by their proper names. One of the greatest gifts that God gives us is the grace to tell the truth.

Lischer’s treatment of preaching as the normative locus of biblical interpretation, and his hermeneutics of trust are a masterful reflection upon the role of the preacher as trustworthy student of Scripture. The chapter on preaching as story-and the sermon as a narrative event over time-shows the fruit of a lifetime spent wrestling with this theme. The preacher dares to tell the story again, and again and again, a story that is all the more powerful in its loving repetition.

“Preaching is the ultimate vocation,” declares Lischer, a torment at times, to be sure, but the paradigmatic vocation of all Christian vocations. Any preacher who reads this loving, confident tribute to the homiletical vocation will stand just a bit taller in the pulpit next Sunday. I sure did. Schooled by Bonheoffer’s vivid sense of Christ present in preaching, and Luther’s larger-than-life theology of the Word, Lischer begins and ends this book with a declaration of the ultimate triumph of the Word, particularly the word of reconciliation: “Who will speak a word of peace if not the preacher?”

Thanks to a talkative God for this book, the work of a fine teacher of a great company of Duke preachers.

William H. Willimon was, for more than 20 years, a professor at Duke Divinity School; he serves as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. Abingdon Press will publish Conversation with Barth on Preaching this May.

The Da Vinci Code
From blockbuster novel to the big screen

Biblical scholars Richard Hays and Bart Ehrman agreed that the blockbuster novel The Da Vinci Code, released this May as a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks, trades fiction thinly disguised for historical fact.

The two professors discussed The Da Vinci Code April 25 at Duke Divinity School before a standing-room-only crowd in Goodson Chapel.

When he talks with his students, said Bart D. Ehrman, James A. Gray distinguished professor and chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at UNC at Chapel Hill, he tells them: “The way to learn about medieval history is not to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If you want to learn about the history of early Christianity, don’t read The Da Vinci Code.”

Richard B. Hays, George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at the divinity school, said the novel is “deeply confused theologically on two counts.”

If, as Brown claims, the early church conspired to cover up the humanity of Jesus, said Hays, “It sure did a crummy job, because our Gospels all drive toward the central plot element of the crucifixion—of Jesus dying weak, powerless, helpless as a victim on the cross. The Gospels do give us a Jesus who is a human being and subject to human weakness.”

Biblical scholars Richard Hays and Bart Ehrman discuss The Da Vinci Code at a public forum April 25 at Duke Divinity School. The 7 p.m. event was moved to Goodson Chapel to accommodate an overflow crowd.
Bernand Thomas / Durham Herald-Sun

 Biblical scholars Richard Hays and Bart Ehrman discuss The Da Vinci Code at a public forum April 25 at Duke Divinity School. The 7 p.m. event was moved to Goodson Chapel to accommodate an overflow crowd.

Second, said Hays, The Da Vinci Code’s claim that the church suppressed the divine feminine is confused. “Christian tradition has insisted that God is not gendered-that man and woman are both created in the image of God. The image of God entails both male and female.”

Hays' numerous articles and books include The Moral Vision of the New Testament, which was selected as one of the 100 most important religious books of the 20th century.

“I still believe what one of my teachers, a great Scandinavian New Testament scholar at Yale, wrote about this question: If we believe that the authors of the canonical Gospels falsified or misunderstood their master when they were writing these texts, then we literally know nothing about him and we are free to give fantasy free rein,” said Hays. “That, in fact, is what has happened in a lot of contemporary scholarship-fantasy has been given free rein.”

Ehrman pointed to numerous mistakes throughout the novel. He added that he does not consider the claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married a mistake because there is no way to prove or disprove it. “But it is a highly problematic claim and probably false,” he said. Jesus could have been married, and to someone other than Mary Magdalene. “The question is: Is there any evidence? No. There’s no evidence.”

Ehrman is the author of more than 20 books including Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. He helped authenticate a nearly 2,000-year-old manuscript of the Gospel of Judas unveiled recently by the National Geographic Society.

The talk was sponsored by Duke Divinity School, Duke Chapel, Duke Socratic Club, Graduate Christian Fellowship, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Navigators, Westminster Presbyterian/UCC Fellowship and the Congregation at Duke Chapel.

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