Charles Denison’s “The Artist’s Way of Preaching”

10 Mar

Denison, Charles. The Artist’s Way of Preaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006.

Book Overview

Charles Denison’s work on preaching builds on the tradition of the Ignatian method: how to use vivid imagination on two levels–the hermeneutical and the homiletical. First, one can use imagination when interpreting the biblical text; then second, make use of imaginative preaching when presenting the sermon to an audience. This may prove to be a helpful way to bridge those often-discussed ways in which to “bridge the gap” between the text and the sermon. In his new approach (that employs ancient methods), Denison believes that historical/critical interpretive methods are not necessarily inaccurate, or fatally flawed, but are merely are insufficient for the entire task. Perhaps the fact that he is making use of a pre-modern Church Father such as Ignatius is the point here; the church could do well to recover a method of imagination, mysticism and contemplation that existed prior to the Enlightenment and the rise of historical-critical biblical studies.

Denison critiques the very methods that have been the result of the last few centuries of hermeneutical and homiletical tradition. He argues that sermons, making use of time-honoured interpretive traditions, tend to result in forms that are both logical and linear. While they may have suited audiences in the past, such propositional sermons are connecting less and less with increasingly “right-brained,” postmodern audiences. He believes that listeners today desire to be moved through powerful imagery and creatively-presented biblical and personal narratives. Audiences are not necessarily wanting to be told what they should think and believe, and how they should behave based upon some verse-by-verse, explanatory exposition of a biblical passage. Moreover, as has been pointed out by other homileticians such as Fred B. Craddock, traditional methods of preaching not only explain the text, but apply it directly to the listeners’ lives also, thus quite literally doing all of the work for the audience.

Denison’s stated goal with his book, therefore, is to help preachers present the timeless truths of Scripture, using ancient methods but packaged in more current forms. The aim is thereby to move audiences emotively, and increase their levels of participation, both with the sermon and the biblical text itself.

Drawing on his experiences as a pastor and preacher—as well as his studies in psychology and Christian mysticism—Denison offers an alternative homiletic: connecting powerful stories with scriptural narratives. Each chapter of his book contains exercises to help preachers develop their powers of imagination, and practical ways in which to connect creatively with the biblical text. The book concludes with three sample sermons that demonstrate his methodology. This is clearly helpful, as oftentimes books on preaching can be too abstract; a few sample sermons illustrate the way in which Denison goes about both the hermeneutical and the homiletical tasks.

Analysis

There are some, depending upon their theological tradition, who may be wary of his use of psychology and mysticism for biblical interpretation and homiletics. Conservative evangelicals, for example, may feel uncomfortable making use of what might be viewed as a “non-traditional” approach to the text and the sermon—even though it is grounded in Ignatian methodology. However, listeners coming from a more postmodern worldview will doubtless benefit from his concepts, since there is an increasing desire among listeners for participatory sermons, as opposed to the more traditional one-way, downward and authoritarian propositional or deductive sermon styles.

Denison may have anticipated some of these critiques, however. For example, his “imaginative preaching” model is not completely open-ended (an approach which may trouble conservatives), but still contains elements of what may be considered more traditional interpretation and application. This may satisfy those who are somewhat wary of his imaginative methods. For postmodernists, though, his method may not go far enough by appearing to walk a “middle ground.” In the end, his approach perhaps will satisfy a few, but will not be tried by all that many preachers, who might feel that what he is calling them to do is simply too much of a stretch outside their comfort zones.

In the final analysis, however, Denison’s work offers a practical guide for preachers seeking to incorporate additional homiletical tools to their preaching toolbox, and to develop their latent powers of imagination and creativity for preaching.

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