Review: The Preacher as Liturgical Artist


Trygve David Johnson, The Preacher as Liturgical Artist: Metaphor, Identity, and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ. (Cascade Books; Eugene, OR), 2014.

P.T Forsyth once claimed that “with its preaching Christianity stands or falls.” In an age where many bemoan the effectiveness of preaching and lament the fall of Christianity in the West, Trygve Johnson, Dean of the Chapel at Hope College, wants Christian preachers to stand and stand tall. In this timely and insightful book, he explores the importance of metaphor and identity for the life and work of preaching.

While many books attempt to teach new techniques or skills to improve preaching, Johnson argues that the problems and anxieties preachers regularly face goes deeper. We need new metaphors to describe preaching. The problem of preaching is more than what preachers do, but who they are and what they understand themselves to be. Johnson argues that metaphors have the power to shape experience and are deeply connected with how we form our identity. Before introducing the new metaphor of The Preacher as Liturgical Artist, Johnson analyzes the dominant metaphors that shape pastoral identity.

The Preacher as Teacher, stemming from Augustine, has taken a radical shift in modernity to focus on the human skill of the preacher. Through the power of rhetoric, the preacher either persuades or fails to persuade the hearer of the truth of the gospel. The preacher is thrown back upon herself to create change in the hearer. The Preacher as Teacher, in modernity, suffers from a lack of emphasis on divine agency in preaching and an overinflated trust in the power of rhetoric.

The Preacher as Herald, epitomized in Karl Barth, envisioned the preacher as a town crier speaking on behalf of the King. The herald was not important, only the message was important. This metaphor led Barth and others to reject rhetoric and place all the emphasis in preaching on God’s action.

Johnson introduces The Preacher as Liturgical Artist as a way forward. Drawing on a rich theology of the vicarious humanity of Christ, illuminating the creative preaching of Christ, and reviving classical understandings of artistry, Johnson sees the role of the preacher to work artistically for and with Christ. This homiletical identity allows the preacher to bring their full gifts to the work of preaching, while maintaining the primacy of God’s speech and action.

I saw three key strengths in The Preacher as Liturgical Artist. First, metaphors shape our pastoral identity. Focusing simply on technique when addressing preaching is to treat the symptoms without truly diagnosing the problem. It may work for a while, but rarely brings long-term health. Instead, Johnson wants to center the identity of the pastor in the ongoing work of Christ. This frees the preacher from anxiously trying to ‘make the sermon happen’ and yet frees her to creatively use all her gifts for and with Christ. While in my first year of ministry, I have often asked, “How do I preach this text?” I have more often asked, “Who am I as a preacher?” By focusing on identity over technique, Johnson treats the root of issues with preaching and invites the preacher into a freer and fuller pastoral life.

Second, The Preacher as Liturgical Artist is rigorously theological. Johnson shows a deep grasp of the theological tradition in his engagement with Augustine, Barth, and Torrance. In centering Christian preaching in the vicarious humanity of Christ, he shows the kind of imaginative artistry that he holds up in the best of preaching. Johnson has shown mastery of the tradition and artistry in offering back more than he was given. The theological depth of the book gives his preferred metaphor firm ground to stand on.

Third, The Preacher as Liturgical Artist reframes the notion of ‘artist’ along more classical than romanticist lines. In contrast to images of the artist as the tortured genius who pours forth eloquent self-expression from the privacy of his loft, “the most significant artists have been those who first mastered an aesthetic tradition, and then made a contribution within their respective discipline as a service to the wider community” (177). Johnson connects his understanding of artist with the classical depiction of an ‘artisan’ or ‘craftsman,’ who must apprentice himself to a tradition before being given the chance to offer his unique contribution to the discipline. Johnson’s vision of artistry is challenging, but encouraging for those of us who were never categorized as artistic or creative in school. This wide, traditioned vision of artistry includes all those who do the hard work of mastering a discipline.

Overall, this is an important and much needed book. I would recommend it for all those who preach or feel called to preach. It will be particular helpful for those just beginning the preaching journey, where homiletical identities are still being discovered.

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