Reviewed by Eric Price
The privilege of regularly proclaiming God’s word can produce a sense of burden to avoid monotony of content. Preachers who feel obligated to discover original insights in their study each week will find relief and encouragement from this wise and winsome book. Jeffrey Arthurs, professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, shows that “the stirring of memory” (4) – rather than transfer of content – is central to preaching. He explains a biblical understanding of memory in chapters 1-2 and its implications for our theology of preaching in chapter 3. He then suggests communication strategies in chapters 4-7 to help preachers be effective reminders.
Biblically, remembering is a holistic commitment to right living in light of the past. “The proof of memory is fidelity” (56), so Christians are compelled to obedience when they remember the God who, through Christ, has forgotten their sins (24-25). When God forgets our sin, he chooses not to treat us as we deserve. When we remember God, we let his acts of mercy control our emotion and volition.
A preacher stewards communal memory. Moses (Deut 6:20-24, 26:6-9), the Psalmists (Ps 114:3-5), the Prophets (Jer 7:9, Amos 2:10), Paul (Rom 15:14-16), and Peter (2 Pet 1:13-16) called people forward in faith by looking backward to God’s actions on their behalf. Contemporary preachers should likewise stir memory to produce worshipful obedience.
Prior to offering communication strategies, Arthurs addresses potential objections to his focus on emotion and delivery techniques. He helpfully reminds us: “The choice between logos and pathos is not either-or but both-and. The affections must be anchored to truth, and truth must ride the wind of the affections” (59). Because of this, the choice between focusing on biblical content and focusing on communication strategy is not a zero-sum game; the vehicle of communication enables biblical content to be taught and understood holistically.
Arthurs offers four rhetorical strategies to aid the ministry of reminding – style, story, delivery, and ceremony and ritual. Style pertains to language and is important because the means of communicating a message impacts the message itself (66). For example, vivid, sensory language enrolls the listeners in past events and awakens their hearts to present implications. Metaphor, repetition, and rhythm make sermons musical and impact the emotions.
Story is “a whole-brain mode of communication” (89) that involves the brain’s neural networks, which are the hardware of memory. Narratival communication brings fact to life, historical events into the present, by reaching the imagination.
Delivery pertains to issues of non-verbal communication, which often communicate more than words do. In verbal communication, “the sender’s perspective does not match the listener’s perspective” (105). This is a challenging reminder for those of us tempted to dismiss non-verbal considerations as mere “playacting” (103).
Finally, ceremony and ritual involve other aspects of corporate worship and church life, namely the Lord’s Supper. Partaking of the bread and cup is a participatory, tactile event that has an immediacy to it which preaching does not.
With this book, Jeff Arthurs shows how one’s theology of preaching informs ministry praxis. In my judgment, reminding is an aspect of preaching that is too often overlooked in homiletical literature. Recognizing the important role of reminding is also a corrective to an overly cerebral view of preaching that equates biblical exposition with running commentary.
Arthurs’ study is richly integrative. He draws from diverse fields, such as biblical theology, neuroscience, church history, and rhetorical theory. Yet his presentation never becomes fragmented; the seamless integration flows smoothly from theory to practice. While many of Arthurs’ preaching suggestions are not new, they resonate freshly when understood in light of theology and rhetoric. He explains them in a way that shows they are not simply the pet hobbyhorses of preaching professors. Rather, they are means of helping biblical truth seep its way into the listeners’ souls.
In practice, there may be some unintended consequences as preachers seek to implement Arthurs’ suggestions. Two cautions in particular come to mind. First, as valuable as the book’s delivery suggestions are, such techniques must never supplant the Holy Spirit as the source of the preacher’s confidence. Arthurs rightly warns us of this when he says that the Holy Spirit guides preachers and uses their words as means of reminding (64). When reminding others, we ourselves need to be reminded that we are conduits of God’s power, not the source.
Second, preachers who seek to implement Arthurs’ suggestions must be careful that they do not inadvertently adopt a “preaching persona” that appears unnatural or forced. The maxim “know thyself” applies here; people with different personalities and dispositions will implement his suggestions differently. A mild-mannered pastor who tries to dramatize his sermons in a way that is unnatural to his personality will probably distract from the message of the sermon. I would suggest that preachers who are experimenting with different sermon structures, vocabulary, and delivery styles solicit feedback during preparation and after the sermon in order to make sure their means of communication facilitate rather than hinder their message. One’s own preaching tradition will also impact how one implements Arthurs’ guidance. Those from a Reformed tradition which emphasizes a “plain style” of preaching may be hesitant to adapt some of his delivery suggestions; conversely, preachers from the African-American tradition, which is comparatively more oral in style, will find that their tradition already exemplifies many of Arthurs’ suggestions.
As a book written with scholarly content and an accessible style, Preaching as Reminding is well-suited to a variety of audiences. It would be helpful supplemental reading for an introductory homiletics class, although I suspect it will be most instructive for students who already have basic homiletical foundations. Upper-level preaching electives – particularly classes on preaching narrative and poetry – would be a natural home for this book. In some cases, it may even fit in undergraduate classes on rhetoric, since Arthurs draws from rhetorical theory and shows how it impacts ministry. Pastors and others who teach the Bible regularly – or aspire to do so – will be its greatest beneficiaries. Those privileged to proclaim God’s word sometimes need to be reminded why they preach. Arthurs helpfully reminds us of our calling – to preach for life transformation – and guides us through ministry praxis to fulfill that calling more effectively.
Eric Price is a ThM student in Pastoral Theology/Homiletics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Buy the books
Preaching as Reminding: Stirring Memory in an Age of Forgetfulness