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Speaking the Truth:
Preaching in a Pluralistic Culture

By Samuel Wells, Dean of Duke Chapel and Research  Professor of Christian Ethics
Abingdon Press, 2008
Paperback, 196 pages, $20.00

Reviewed by Peter J. Gomes

T o review Sam Wells’s Speaking the Truth is to encounter a strange and wondrous work. I was invited to take on this review, I suspect, because since 1974 I have been doing at Harvard what Dean Wells is now doing at Duke: preaching from a Christian establishment in a secular research university. Another volume of sermons is another attempt to put sermons intended to be heard into the relatively stable medium of print. A sermon occasions a transaction between speaker and listener different from that between writer and reader, and to confuse the two explains why so many volumes of sermons are disappointing: something is lost in the translation from pulpit to armchair. As one who labors to preach to ear and heart as well as to eye and mind, I know what can be lost. As one who has frequently been privileged to preach in the magnificent setting of Duke Chapel, I know the sermon is affected by architecture, liturgy, music, and the sheer mass of humanity. Expecting a book of sermons to be effective in the absence of that support asks much, for sermons are written in a given time, prepared by a given person, and preached to a given people. It always helps to know the setting and occasion of the message.

Peter Gomes and Sam Wells each serve university pulpits

Dean Wells seems to understand that, and this volume of sermons is no ordinary collection of spoken words. He prefaces each with the circumstance of its delivery, and explains how it is organized to achieve his goals. Most preachers haven’t the opportunity of explaining what they are doing and hope that the sermon speaks for itself; and while that once was true, we live now in a culture where the formal discourse of the sermon is rather old-fashioned. For many the art of listening is lost and the discussion of sacred things increasingly removed from daily discourse; hence the sermon is problematic. Most preachers are amazed that anyone is listening.

If one is mildly possessed of that thought, then preaching in a modern secular university will add to the surprise and anxiety. In places devoted to facts and research, who cares about faith and belief? The chapel may dominate the central space of the university, as it does at Duke and at Harvard, but this power of placement reflects the confidence of an earlier generation and can now be an embarrassment to preachers in such visible pulpits, as most know that the modern university listens to no one, let alone to a preacher.

Church-going may still be a cultural habit in the American South, and I am delighted, on my happy visits, to see the filled pews of Duke Chapel. Those who hear Dean Wells are not exposed to American cultural religion, however, if this volume of sermons is a sample of what he regularly says, for he is not an American but a British Anglican. Before his appointment to Duke Chapel he preached to modest congregations in England where church attendance is down, and the sermon as art form has still not recovered from the lampooning it took at the Edinburgh Festival’s “Beyond the Fringe” spoof of the vicar’s sermon on Jacob and Esau. England was an odd place to seek a preacher who could do the job required at Duke Chapel, yet the seekers found their man.

Samuel Wells’s sermons read well, although they hardly represent status quo preaching; they are serious, filled with substantial theological analysis, and short on anecdote and basic Bible. They assume an audience of critical thinkers who care for the full wealth of conviction and are willing to change and grow, and perhaps it is the dean’s status as a foreigner from post-Christian England that gives such lively urgency to his preaching the gospel in one of America’s foremost pulpits.

Universities and their churches are unique, and as a university preacher I was interested in Sam Wells’s sermons to students, especially in his orientation sermon for new students, in which he says that God is interested in their liberation. Going to college is often seen as an exercise in freedom, and to learn that God is interested in liberation — and in the liberation of students — is a welcome new discovery. The dean says:

“God wants to set you free. ...
This is why we go to university:
the better to be a part of the way
God is setting his people free.”

At the close of the sermon, referring to the phenomenon of the burning bush, he reminds new students that “God is on fire with love for you,” and invites them to feel that fire of love: “While you are at this university, may you catch fire with love for God. ...” Any new student hearing that invitation just might accept it, and might return to chapel.

The table of contents reveals the scope of the preacher’s ambition. He writes about matters that compel the attention of thoughtful members of the modern university, with the truth applied to those subjects and the truth of the Christian tradition introduced and applied as if for the first time. His discussion of homosexuality in his sermon “Speaking the Truth about Sex” is one of the best of that vexed topic I have read. For an Anglican to speak as he does suggests that all is not lost on that subject within that communion, and his opportunity to be heard in this country is better than in his own.

Samuel Wells is interested in rehabilitating fundamental concepts of the Christian tradition, and I would recommend his book to young preachers eager to learn what to say and how to say it, yet it is not a “how-to” book. No simple, sure-fire method is proposed; hard work is required that the reading will repay. Speaking the Truth is a good example of how one man takes seriously his assignment as a servant of the Word and attempts to make sense of his setting. We should all do the same, and with this volume of Dean Wells’s sermons as an excellent guide, that is speaking the truth.

Peter J. Gomes is the Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey minister in The Memorial Church, Harvard University.

Seeking the Identity of Jesus:
A Pilgrimage

Edited By Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Richard B. Hays,  George Washington Ivey Professor of New  Testament
Eerdmans, 2008,
Paperback, 336 pages, $28.00

The Word Leaps the Gap:
Essays on Scripture and Theology in Honor of Richard B. Hays

Edited By J. Ross Wagner, C. Kavin Rowe, Assistant  Professor of New Testament, and A. Katherine Grieb
Eerdmans, 2008
Hardcover, 720 pages, $70.00

Reviewed by Mary Hinkle Shore

Both of these volumes contain rich collections of close, theologically suggestive readings of Scripture that the students and colleagues of Richard Hays associate with his work. Because each has its own scope and focus, I consider them separately.

With each new release of a Dan Brown novel or another book exploring a noncanonical gospel, popular fascination with conspiracy theories peaks: What insights has the church silenced over the centuries about Jesus of Nazareth? Who was he, and why doesn’t the religious establishment want us to know him?

Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage is a collection of essays by 16 scholars from across the fields of biblical studies, church history, and Christian theology who hope themselves to know Jesus and, through their common work, to offer others a faithful introduction to him.

The essays are the result of a three-year consultation among the authors on the identity of Jesus, sponsored by the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, N.J. Participants in the consultation are from a variety of North American and British academic contexts. While their ecclesiastical backgrounds are varied, there is broad agreement among them on key points concerning their research methods and conclusions.

They agree that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are “indispensable to a faithful rendering of the figure of Jesus” (19), and that the four canonical Gospels are reliable witnesses to the identity of Jesus.

They are skeptical of claims that extracanonical texts add significantly to our knowledge of Jesus, both because of the late dates of their composition and because these writings were not, in the early centuries of the Christian era, widely deemed faithful to the identity of Jesus and the rule of the Christian faith.

The book opens and closes with essays co-authored by the editors. In between are three sections. The five essays in “Sources and Methods” include a contribution by William C. Placher, “How the Gospels Mean,” that is accessible to anyone who has noticed that the Gospels do not agree in all their details, and who wonders, therefore, about their reliability as sources for the life of Jesus.

Also noteworthy is the contribution here by Dale C. Allison Jr. on the limitations of standard criteria for determining the authenticity of individual sayings of Jesus. He argues for a more holistic approach: “memory, if anywhere, must be in the larger patterns” (87).

The section “The Testimony of the Biblical Witnesses” consists of essays devoted to the way that individual biblical authors construe the identity of Jesus. Here are essays on the identity of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, John, Paul, and Hebrews. The section also includes two essays on Old Testament materials (Jonah and the Moses tradition, as well as Isaiah) as they inform New Testament theology and Christology.

The third section, “The Testimony of the Church,” comments on the identity of Jesus in light of the church’s interpretation of Scripture, in its understanding of the Eucharist as well as other elements of its liturgy, and in the lives of the poor. Throughout the collection, but especially here, the authors find credible the proclamation that Jesus is risen, and they draw out the implications of that proclamation to ask how human experience offers insight into his identity.

Given this range of content, does the book belong in the genre of historical Jesus studies, or is it biblical theology, or Christology, or perhaps ecclesiology?

Working self-consciously across all these categories, the authors’ work will help readers — whether lay people or clergy, students or professors — to integrate our own often atomized education in these fields. We will know Jesus better for the witness of those ancient and modern pilgrims who have gone before us.

The 32 essays and one poem from The Word Leaps the Gap were presented to Professor Richard Hays on the occasion of his 60th birthday. The volume, with contributions from students, colleagues, and both of Hays’s children, enriches several fields of inquiry that Hays has published in, including canonical and literary readings of Scripture, Pauline theology, and New Testament ethics.

Several of the essays borrow elements of Hays’s methodology to extend his readings or to read new texts. Essays by Christopher Hays, Ross Wagner, John Barclay, Beverly Gaventa, and others build on Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. Essays from Susan Eastman, Bruce Fisk, and Katherine Grieb imitate Hays’s own interest not only in Scripture, but also in theater, poetry, and music.

Some of the essays interact directly with Hays’s work, disagreeing with parts of it. Stanley Hauerwas responds to Hays’s observation of his approach to exegesis as “rather freewheeling.” James Dunn extends his longtime conversation with Hays on the meaning of pistis Christou. Allen Verhey engages Hays’s rejection, in Moral Vision of the New Testament, of violence in defense of justice. Still other essays, while not in direct conversation with Hays, nonetheless offer engaging contributions to the field of biblical studies. E.P. Sanders, for example, clarifies his own answer to the question, “Did Paul’s Theology Develop?”

Essays are arranged more or less in the canonical order of biblical materials with which they interact, or, when the essays take up the history of interpretation, in the chronological order of the interpreters who are their subject. Readers will stay with this 700-page volume longer, however, if they start with a topic or an author of interest and then go on to another. Nothing is lost in terms of one’s sense of the book as a whole if it is approached this way.

The collection repays time spent with it, both by reminding us how Hays’s own scholarly work so far has enriched the fields of New Testament studies, biblical theology, ethics, and hermeneutics, and by drawing us into a lively continuing conversation on these topics.

Mary Hinkle Shore is associate professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn. Ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, she has served in both rural and suburban parish settings in North Dakota. She is the author of Signs of Belonging: Luther's Marks of the Church and the Christian Life (Augsburg Fortress).