I’m not a pollster but I suspect that many fresh out of seminary types immediately begin their preaching ministry with a series in one of the epistles (I did). They then preach a series about the church and then return to preach another epistle. Call it a hunch but I suspect it’s close to the truth.
The post's core assertion is that no books have been written, at least in our lifetime, on the subject of preaching NT narrative. The above passage highlights what author Paul Lamey assumes is a trend at least among recent seminary grads. I'm going to go a little further and say it's not just a trend in recent grads. I'm going to confess that I have a hard time thinking of a time I've heard the NT preached as narrative in person(not including the prolific access we have via the internet to a huge number of sermons). Gospels or Acts. I'll also confess that I don't generally think of theology, or of the practice of knowing God, in terms of what's on display in the Gospel narrative.
This isn't a blog about preaching, nor is this post. So keep following me... I've been on the subject here at the blog -- over-simplifying things a bit -- of Jesus as a man. That the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, came into history and acted as God-revealer to humans who are contained in physical flesh. That we need to see, hear, and be presented with revelation in real time, not an abstraction, not merely the statement that "God is good." God sent Jesus into history because immortal, invisible God-only-wise is just that, invisible. Outside of perception.
Jesus is visible and knowable existentially. If there's a way to convey Gospel truth to beings encased in flesh, it's to present it in flesh. That is, existential shift can only happen when the "message" is really a being that is existentially like those to whom the message is being brought. What is the problem with preaching epistles without narrative? The answer is simple: the epistles don't describe the event, they describe the theology of the event. Or at least that's how we use them. I can't love the doctrine of election(sorry Calvinists). But if a MAN elected me, I'll probably love HIM. The historical fact of Jesus' humanness is crucial to the transformation of our humanness. He did after all refer to himself as the Son of Man more often than Son of God. As Michael Spencer over at Jesus-Shaped Spirituality showed me, more importantly than that Jesus is God, the Gospels display that God is Jesus. If the Gospel is ideas, we just get our ideas transformed. If God "floats" a theology of grace my way in the form of a really sophisticated philosophy, I'll probably get high on it for a little while, and something might indeed change, but some major things aren't going to change, particularly things tied to my existential human condition.
The Gospels and Acts record the historical event of the Gospel, in the real time, enfleshed person of Jesus Christ, who's not here any more(see two posts ago). The epistles describe the nuances of the event(the man, more specifically), they interpret it for us, give us a way of thinking about it. That's why thinking and preaching that is exclusively mines epistles(or the Gospels used as philosophical texts rather than historical narrative), quickly floats into the clouds. How many times have you heard someone, on a mad run to try and describe truth perfectly in words, go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of hyper-qualifying each assertion and then even qualifying qualifications to try to hone the statement in accurately. Yes, I've done it too. It's philosophy, for all intents and purposes. Not Christianity. Disengaged from Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, theology and practice are simply a fruitless scramble to try and articulate what can't adequately be articulated in words. We go after concepts like "not legalistic" or "obedient" or "dependent on God" as if we can describe our activity or mindset. We can't. They are attributes of Jesus, and thus can only be described and entered into properly with him as reference point. Disengaged from the Son of Man, they are no less than eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge.
Take the subject of the Holy Spirit. This has been the source of a great deal of confusion for me personally in the past. How about the phrase "walk in the Spirit." Exactly what does that mean? Divorced from context, nothing, because we can't see, feel, control, manipulate, or manage the Holy Spirit. But frequently that phrase will get thrown out there as if it's practically helpful. It's not. :) Now the "woman of the city who was a sinner," of Luke 7:36-38, who broke open a jar of expensive ointment for Jesus, and washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, she was walking in the Spirit. What exactly was going on there?.... well, she saw Jesus and reacted with affection. She certainly didn't see the Holy Spirit, or set out to walk in the Spirit. And she didn't see theology, in the sense that many in Protestantism think of it. She didn't see her transformation or faith or salvation, she saw a Man. And in light of what this particular man was doing, she did what humans do-- loved the other human.
Let me use another illustration in closing: what does Compassion International put on its ads in the hopes that you will sponsor a child? Faces. Faces of children, particularly. So that you will feel sympathy, or compassion, or love, all of these and more. So that you will be compelled. Humanness compels, because it is what most deeply resonates with ourselves. We are designed to love the other person, most fundamentally. As N.T. Wright put it, we're not saved by believing in justification by faith, we're saved by believing God in Jesus.
I have no idea if that's where Paul Lamey was going with it, but that's where I went with it.