“If today’s church is the victim of the eclipse of the biblical narrative, we might find a key to retrieving the biblical narrative in the formation of the people of God” (John Wright, Telling God’s Story, 78). This is exactly what Wright sets out to do in the third chapter of this text as he calls for a rhetoric of turning, or repentance, in our preaching. Such a rhetoric “seeks to turn a congregation from one narrative world into another, to renarrate the world at the deepest convictional level of a congregation, moving them from narratives of the individual and the nation into the narrative of the people of God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit” (79).

To do so Wright explicates the centrality of the church in the biblical narrative reminding us that the church is part of God’s covenant with Abraham “through the faithfulness of Jesus in anticipation of the coming completion of God’s rule through all creation” (82). As the church lives in this state of “already, not yet,” it must understand that it occupies the continuation of God’s story in history. In this instance it is helpful to think of the “Tradition” of the faith. Tradition simply means that something has been handed down from one generation to another. Paul calls the church the pillar and support of truth; the church upholds and embodies truth in its living out the story of God in the world. As generation after generation are re-born into Christ, into his body, the church, people are constantly being immersed in the life of the church which is continually handing down the teaching and faith of the Apostle’s which is the story of God in the world. As Wright says, “the church literally lives within the biblical narrative, whether it wants to or not!” (83) If I may insert a thought: this is one reason why it is necessary for our worship to tell the Story. If we are not immersing our congregations in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ; in the creation, incarnation, and re-creation of all things; if we are not re-telling and re-presenting the saving acts of God in history, then into what are we forming our people? May song, prayer, water, symbol, Word, bread, and wine make us disciples into the people of God, a royal priesthood and a holy nation.

In their quest for the formation of the church, the preachers of twenty-first century North America are facing an “epistemological crisis” (85). The cognitive-propositional models of preaching that “give congregations moralizing instruction or propositions to assent to in a rational, logical order. . . .” are problematic in that “the narrative convictions of a congregation remain unengaged. . .” (85) Wright continues insightfully, “information might accrue on top of convictions like layers of varnish on an old piece of furniture. Such a rhetoric provides no means to encounter the deepest convictions of a congregation. The preacher builds on top of the convictions that the congregation already has. Christianity becomes a belief or moral system for cognitive assent” (85). The main issue of such a model is that “preaching leads a congregation to agree with the Scriptures rather than embody them” (86). In the worst case scenario, such preaching leads to Biblians instead of Christians. But how do we avoid such malformation of the church? Return the rhetoric of turning.

In rock climbing, one is always trying to reach the summit or a new vista, but oftentimes there are obstacles in the path. To move around the obstacle, the climber must anchor in a sturdy place, move horizontally beyond the obstacle, and then continue the ascent to the summit (see Wright’s knowledgeable analogy of rock climbing, pp. 77-8, 86-7). In developing this rhetoric of turning, Wright encourages preachers to utilize “moves” instead of points in their sermons. To turn one needs to move from one place to another, but in three steps. Wright uses the analogy of rock climbing in conjunction with his usage of moves instead of points.

The first job of the preacher is to express the natural, “the status quo move,” to affirm the basic conviction of the congregation (91). Many times these are issues we take for granted, and they are usually things that the culture has formed into us. “Challenging this formation requires that we identify with its power yet be able to show why such a presupposition is not natural but is formed by interests that seek to undermine the long-term viability of life for those who live by them” (93). Once the status quo is established, the congregation is introduced to the tragic moment, to the possibility that our lives have been ordered by something other than God’s narrative: “discovering that the tragic has shaped us is good news for Christians, for God offers humans a better way as participants in God’s story” (97).

The preacher must then move gently into this tragic moment with a transition paragraph. Here the preacher “declares false the convictions formed by the society at large” (104).

Then for the last move in the turn the preacher “pivot[s] the congregation to a better way, the way of discipleship by living within the biblical narrative” (104).

In concluding the chapter, Wright reminds that “a homiletic of turning is nothing more than the homiletical structure practiced by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘You have heard . . . but I say to you . . .’” (104).

Wright is certainly not uninformed in his diagnosis and suggestion for a homiletic of turning or repentance. As a worship pastor, one of my passions is to continually discover how the liturgical event forms us. Obviously the preaching of the word is one climax of the gathering, but I am also concerned with the music the people sing. Is it congruent with the biblical narrative? Is it forming the people into God’s story, or is it de-forming them into the image and likeness of the dominant culture whether that is the popular culture of North America or the culture of that particular church? Perhaps being instructed by John Wright in rhetoric will continually inform my leadership in music.

 

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