Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Book Review: Recapturing the Voice of God

This is an area of discussion much needed for today’s pulpits… unfortunately I wish this book had been postponed another couple months. We need people talking about this, but not talking about it poorly. Steven Smith’s Recapturing the Voice of God: Shaping Sermons like Scripture needed another pass with the editor, and a bit of interaction with some dissidents. All in all, I give this book a 7/10 or 3/5 (rounded down) because the content is there, but it’s not quite there, wrapped with bow.

Book thesis:
“The humble ambition of this book is to show a preacher or teacher how the genre influences the meaning of the text and give practical help for those who want to know how we can shape our sermons to reflect this meaning.

Smith writes to pastors and teachers with the caveat that this book is an introduction—and this is testified over-and-over again with recommended resources for further study at the end of every chapter, and a voluminous bibliography in the back. In fact, its sheer size may be a point of anxiety for the pastor who wants the few best resources to look into… not the whole gamut of scholarship since the 50s. Smith supports his thesis a bit vaguely at times—showing the Bible expositor how the genres of Scripture tend toward a kind of sermon structure best suited to re-animate the biblical authors meaning.

Smith loosely categorizes 9 genres into 3 major categories. Story contains OT Narrative, Law, Gospels/Acts, and Parables. Poem/Wisdom contains Psalms, the Wisdom Literature, and Prophecy. And Letter contains Epistles and Revelation. Again, they are loose categories with some overlap but Smith makes a pretty compelling case for categorizing them where he does. The macrostructure of Story applies to the genres therein (even Law—because Law is given in the context of narrative), and there are microstructures singular to the particular subgenres. Similarly with Poem/Wisdom (though there is great diversity between the Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Eccelesiastes, and Job). Truth be told, the Letter category seems a bit arbitrary since Revelation is all over the board, and the Epistles bear resemblance to the Prophetic literature.

Each chapter breaks down into Interpretation, Communication, and Structuring a Sermon; it ended with a sample sermon, study questions, and recommended resources. I found that the Interpretation section often asserted things without interacting with dissidents/counterarguments. And at the risk of wanting my cake and eating it too: I was surprised to find Smith prolonging his pen so often in the interpretation sections and swiftly passing through the Structure sections. Truly, you must understand the text before you know how to convey its meaning, but the Structure sections (the apparent thrust of the book) remains scant to my eyes. I think the readers would be better equipped if these sections included multiple examples of sermon outlines from the genre in question. Smith offers a sample sermon in each chapter, but the benefits could be multiplied if confused pastors could see the variety even a single genre provides… after all different texts reveal different structures. On the other hand, the study questions were at the perfect level of cognition—requiring enough thought to solidify the ideas presented without being obscure or menial. Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised with how well Smith handled some of the more complex or ‘scary’ genres: prophecy, Psalms, and Revelation; and yet I was dissatisfied with his mediocre treatment of Luke, Acts, and some epistles.

So let me get to my biggest dissatisfactions…
1.      Editing. I found an uncanny number of typos and inconsistent/confusing headings. But really they were all things that are entirely amendable, things that the college English professor docks you for because it shouldn’t have happened. I think just a couple more weeks before the book hit the printer would have given the time for another spell, grammar, and outline check and would have presented the book in a much more professional manner. Most of the content is there, but it’s still sitting in the store-given plastic bag, unappealing.

2.      The Introductory matters. Chapters 1-3 could use some revision. Again this seems like someone was on a time-crunch. Like the author had written the first draft and never got around to checking it out and revamping his arguments. Occasionally the author would give an example to ‘prove’ his point without telling you what the point was! We had no lens to interpret. At times he leaves his question ultimately unanswered—he gets into the discussion but leaves it vague; he seems to start writing about something only to end up saying, “But we all already know the rest” or “we aren’t going to talk about this.” And he seems to assume things he shouldn’t. This sort of ‘unworked’ feel pops up a couple places in the remainder of the book (e.g. 185 where he states, “Let’s deal with a few strategies,” but that is the final sentence of the section… and he doesn’t explicitly answer this in the remaining sections), but it is predominant in Chapters 1-3. In fact, I think the book would have been better if it simply had the Introduction followed by chapters 4-12.

All that being said, I have found this book beneficial for myself. I learned some things. I saw some things for the first time. I captured a pithy proverb or two about preaching. I am confident about a foray into the book of Revelation. And so I give this book 3 stars… recognizing its potential value, and hoping for soon updated editions… with a few of my suggestions taken into consideration.

I recommend it [the updated edition] to pastors who feel they’ve run themselves into a rut in the pulpit. The ones for whom every sermon seems the same with three alliterated points and the same conclusion each time. Unfortunately it’s the ones who haven’t realized they’re driving themselves into that rut that need this most and who are most unlikely to read it.

I also recommend  it to students of Scripture who aspire to the pulpit one day. And to teachers of small groups (though for this group I think it has least immediate application).
One of the benefits of this book is its introductory level—not just to sermon structure but to genre interpretation. I would show persons this book alongside Preaching with Variety by Jeffrey Arthurs and Preaching God’s Word by Duvall and Hays. Of course each book has its niche, and so should it be; this niche relates to conveying the text through appropriate structures. After all “we preach a text, not a sermon.”

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review; all thoughts are my own.

This review is crosslisted on Goodreads and Amazon.

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