A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Taylor Geurin
Douglas Sean O’Donnell and Leland Ryken have greatly served preachers and their congregations through this foundational work about the preaching of various literary genres. This was very much the work of the student and teacher in tandem. O’Donnell, the former student of Ryken, was given ultimate freedom to craft this work with the help of writings on each genre given to him by Ryken in addition to Ryken’s numerous works throughout the years (14). This provides somewhat of an unusual feel to the reader as it is clearly O’Donnell’s pen with much of both O’Donnell and Ryken’s thoughts.
From the start, the authors provide their two main goals of the book. First, they desire that pastors keep the literary dimension of a text in the foreground of their expository sermon. Secondly, they desire that sermons move from abstract, proof-texted messages to sermons that are fresh, relevant, and true to the text (23). The whole trajectory of this book is leading preachers to honor the literary elements of a text in a way that communicates the truth of the text with vibrancy and clarity. The authors hold true to these two goals throughout the book as every section includes a discussion on the literary genre itself, followed by the practical outworking of the genre in expository preaching. Put more simply, each chapter tells us how to read a genre and how to preach a genre (23).
The book is divided into six sections which cover the “what” and the “how” of six different literary genres –Narrative, Parables, Epistles, Poetry, Proverbs, and Visionary Writings.
In explaining the preaching of narrative texts, the authors do a great job of simply reminding their readers to let stories be stories. This first section was perhaps both the strongest and the most needed for preachers today. As O’Donnell and Ryken remind us, humans universally resonate with stories. With this in mind, “Don’t underestimate the power of comprehending and communicating God’s uniquely designed stories to people made in his image (29).” Preachers should let stories be stories and let setting, plot, and characters have their worthy footing in the preaching of these stories. Preachers should also allow the story to lead to the theological theme(s). We should not insert a theme that the story is not giving us!
Secondly, in the discussion on parables, readers are given ten helpful steps that move us from context to observation, meaning, and application. These steps help preachers take a story that Jesus told 2,000 years ago and preach it to a congregation in the 21st century while capturing the same theological themes that the original audience would have caught (If they had ears to hear!).
As the authors transition to a discussion of epistles, they first tell us what the New Testament epistles are not. They explain that the epistles are not sermons, treatises, or essays (106-107). Instead, epistles do not have a single thesis but cover multiple topics (107). “Every paragraph has a flow of thought, so find that flow and follow it in your sermon (124).” Put simply, a sermon’s theme, flow, and trajectory should match that of the epistle’s passage.
In chapter four, the authors share their thoughts on the preaching of poetry. Readers are given various helpful overviews of different literary techniques employed by the Psalmists that will need to be understood by the preacher for the sake of faithfully communicating the truth of the text. O’Donnell and Ryken also make the point that poetry is meant to be felt – not just read (168). Emotion is a part of poetry and therefore, should certainly have a place within the preaching of poetry.
In chapter five, readers are given a look into the preaching of proverbs. The authors do a good job of explaining that they aren’t just discussing the book of Proverbs (while obviously, that is a heavy location of proverbial sayings within Scripture) but are instead covering any moment in the Bible where a proverb is utilized. One of the most helpful points made was that a pastor who is preaching the book of Proverbs should use a thematic approach when deciding on a passage to preach (211). Many portions of Proverbs lack a linear thematic continuity (by design!), so it would not be wise to try and preach these sections as a linear text.
Finally, in chapter six, O’Donnell and Ryken dive into the preaching of visionary writings. There are three major reasons for visionary writing given by the authors: To give hope to the hopeless, rebuke for the unfaithful, and to present truths in “unexpected and absorbing ways (236-238).” The authors certainly give us great reason to announce the hope that these visionary passages provide. These writings, particularly Revelation, give the weary believer hope for a future set forward by God. “Our congregations too need to exhale! Encourage them. Show them how. Set before them—as some face discrimination and marginalization, others relationship rifts and financial losses, and some death itself—their glorious Savior and their brilliant future” (281).
O’Donnell and Ryken end the book with somewhat of a prayer that congregations would grow in their love for God and His Word as the preacher grows in the knowledge and communication of that Word and its various literary features (284-285). Preachers study the text deeply; not so that they can get an “A” on their sermon or gain the applause of congregants, but so that they can help their people grow in their love for God and His Word. This is a practice that carries implications that penetrate the very heart of our congregants.
I see this book serving two helpful purposes. First, this would be an incredible book for a seminary preaching course. It provides a worthy introduction to the preaching of biblical genre. While many in these courses will have surely had a hermeneutics class to explain the interpretation of genre, this book takes the critical step of faithfully moving from hermeneutic to homiletic. Secondly, this will serve the seasoned preacher as a helpful resource to return to. I could very easily see myself returning to a specific chapter of this book as a certain sermon series leads me to a genre I have not preached in some time. For example, when I do a sermon series on Proverbs, I would be wise to begin my study by refreshing myself on how to faithfully read and preach the proverbial sayings of scripture. This can serve as an excellent refresher course throughout the preacher’s ministry.
There is no shortage of books coming out year by year on the topic of preaching. I believe that O’Donnell and Ryken’s book has found a firm footing as one that is a worthy read for any student of preaching.
Pastor of Connections & Young Adults, First Baptist Church Benton, Arkansas
PhD Candidate, Theological Studies – Preaching, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Buy the books
THE BEAUTY & POWER OF BIBLICAL EXPOSITION: PREACHING THE LITERARY ARTISTRY & GENRES OF THE BIBLE, by Douglas Sean O’Donnell and Leland Ryken