Intro to Preaching: Book Review

This is the book review I wrote for my Intro to Preaching course.

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Book Review: Preaching as Testimony by Anna Carter Florence

Preaching as Testimony by Anna Carter Florence, is written for the explicit reason of asking readers “to rethink preaching in light of testimony…[and]…testimony in light of preaching.”[1] As Florence sees it, “testimony is our oldest model for talking about God”[2] but “is a virtually untapped resource” and its absence from homiletics “need[s] to be addressed.”[3] Aware of the ongoing debate regarding the complications of sharing too much personal information from the pulpit, Florence persuasively argues that we reclaim testimony as a form of preaching that is not autobiographical, but rather a telling of what the preacher “has seen and heard in the Biblical text and in life, and then confesses what she believes about it.”[4]

Preaching as Testimony is broken up into three parts.  Florence believes there are details of our preaching tradition that have been forgotten and as such, part one highlights three women preachers as an attempt to “wake up some of those details.”[5] Her choice of women is based on the fact that they were “amazing people” who were famous and had “written documents associated with them” to include “trial transcripts, letters, autobiographies, and journals.”[6] Just as these women were worth highlighting in the book, they are worth highlighting here.  Anne Marbury Hutchinson, was a Puritan woman who came to America from England in 1634 gave the New World a run for its money and ended up on trial for her actions when all was said and done.  Her crime?  Though the common people told others “she preaches better than any of your black-coats that have been at the ninneversity”[7] she was told by one of her judges that “you have stept out of your place, you have rather bine a Husband than a Wife and a preacher than a Hearer; and a Magistrate than a subject.[8] Sarah Osborn, born in London in 1714, came to Boston with her family in 1722.  A “penniless schoolteacher” for much of her life, “did not set out to be a spiritual leader.”[9] She was asked to teach slaves to read and study the Bible and she did.  She was asked to teach freed-slaves to do the same and she was happy to oblige.  Instead of seeking to be a spiritual leader, Osborne “set out to be a spiritual person” and as a result she became both.[10] A revivalist who wrote her own commentaries because she did not have her own[11] Osborne said “she had not so much overflowed her women’s sphere as simply enlarged it.”(p. 25).  Jarena Lee, the first woman licensed to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) Church, was an itinerant preacher for three decades.  The founder of the A.M.E., Bishop Richard Allen, was her mentor for some time and she published a book titled The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee.  Unfortunately after the death of Bishop Allen, the support for Lee dwindled and the arguments that broke out about women preaching as well as the publication of her book through the denomination’s book agency.

As Florence see it, “Hutchinson, Osborn, and Lee are beautiful examples of the way testimonial authority moves irresistibly from reading the text to hearing it, hosting it, and speaking it.  None of these women set out to preach the Word.  They set out to interpret Scripture, and in the process, recognized that there were things that needed saying.”[12] In studying the stories of these three women, Florence declares that women’s preaching is 1) Disruptive, 2) luminal, 3) proclamatory and prophetic, and 4) embodied.[13]

Florence opens this second portion of her book with the discussion of family stories versus family secrets.  While family stories “aim to empower and connect us” family secrets do not.[14] This theme of family secrets is carried throughout the rest of the book and Florence uses it to explore some of the things that may be “operating below the surface” and wreaking havoc on the way we preach.  In order to “wake up the secrets” as Florence describes it, she highlights four theologians, two men and two women, to discuss theories of testimony.[15] One of the “secrets” Florence addresses is the illusion of control.  Since preaching “cannot be the proclamation of absolute truth,”[16] it is rather “a proclamation of what we have seen and believed” or testimony.[17] After all, “listening to how another person stands as a human being before God is a holy thing.”[18] She discusses Paul Ricoeur’s claim that “Christian hermeneutics, or Christian interpretation, is not based in facts” but rather “in testimony, which is an entirely different interpretive framework.”[19] He discerns two aspects of testimony in his essay “The Hermeneutics of Testimony” and presents the idea that “testimony gives something to be interpreted and, at the same time, calls for and interpretation.”[20]

With part two dedicated to “waking up the secrets,” part three is focused on “waking up the preacher.”[21] In the beginning of this portion of the book, Florence acknowledges that many readers may get to this point in the book and ask the challenging questions of “So what?” and “Why should I care?”[22] To answer this question she declares outright that “testimony is what a preacher has left when everything else is gone.”[23] And this may be one of the biggest strengths of this book.  For those who are just starting off as preachers, Florence aptly addresses the process of becoming a preacher.  She even admits that at times, “something in me is reluctant to wake up the preacher I might become.”[24] It is only “when all the searches for absolutes (the right texts, words, interpretations, techniques, sources, authorities) come up empty, and the preacher has nothing left to fill and empower and sustain her [that] the preacher is ready to do the work of becoming a preacher.[25] And this is where testimony comes in.  As she sees it, “If we are primarily concerned with becoming more effective communicators…we subtly change the subject of our preaching to ourselves rather than the God we meet in the text.”[26] While communication is an important thing for young preachers to pay attention to and learn more about, it is essential to remember what is being communicated: an experience with God through the text.

For women, particularly women preachers, it seems that one of the greatest strengths of this book is (re)claiming women’s preaching traditions.  Florence writes of her discovery of “a historical vault” so to speak of “centuries of preaching women” and how it made her “hopping mad” to have never heard of these women because they had been “deliberately hidden.”[27] That said, this book is not just for women which Florence makes clear from the get go.  This is emphasized in her definition of “feminist analysis” as “an attempt to reveal power imbalances based on sex and gender in order to liberate both women and men from oppressive systems.”[28] As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”[29] So injustice to a certain segment of society is injustice to the entire society.

Florence’s inclusion of the question(s) of authority is also very helpful.  This is something she emphasizes when she writes about the lives of Hutchinson, Osborn, and Lee and this helps provide contextualized examples of the power dynamics at play.  Her section on the question preachers often ask themselves and others – “Can I say that?” – was also very helpful on this front.[30] Florence maintains that Hutchinson, Osborn, and Lee “had no desire to be aligned with powers and authorities, or to preach like those who were.”[31] It seems that the topics of authority and experience are tied together though it does not seem as though Florence makes this connection directly.  This may be one of the books few shortfalls.  While she writes that we must “let go of the habit of privileging one set of experiences over another”[32] she only indirectly considers the fact that not only are certain experiences only given to those in authority, but those in authority are required to have certain experiences which then secures or strengthens their authority.  And yet, “experience, as it relates to testimony, is an encounter with God”[33] thus, “We preach from experience for one reason, and one reason only: experience is where God meets us.”[34]

The only other weakness of this book may be that some of her writing presupposes a thorough knowledge of various preaching styles and traditions that a seminary student will probably not have.

In some ways, this book is probably best fit for the hands of someone with experience in preaching.  On the other hand, the nature of testimony itself seems to encourage the participation of those without much experience in hopes of helping people hone their skills in this new and different way along with the way(s) they may have grown up with.  For “preaching, as these women remind us, is the slow work of standing in one’s own life and in the Word of God and saying what one sees and believes, no matter the consequences.”[35]


[1] Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), xiii.

[2] ibid., 74.

[3] ibid., xxi.

[4] ibid., xiii.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] ibid., 3.

[7] ibid., 15.

[8] ibid., 15.

[9] ibid., 23.

[10] ibid., 23.

[11] ibid., 31.

[12] Ibid., 78.

[13] Ibid., 56-58.

[14] Ibid., 59.

[15] Ibid., 59.

[16] Ibid., 64.

[17] ibid., 65.

[18] ibid., 59.

[19] ibid., 61.

[20] ibid., 63.

[21] ibid., 109.

[22] ibid., 109-110.

[23] ibid., 110.

[24] ibid., xxix.

[25] Ibid., 110.

[26] ibid., 109-110.  Much of this paragraph is taken from this section of the book.

[27] Ibid., 111.

[28] ibid., 81.

[29] Jr. King, Martin Luther ed. Letter from Birmingham City Jail, ed. James M. Washington, A Testament of Hope (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1986), 290.

[30] Florence, xvi.

[31] ibid., 3.

[32] ibid., xxv.

[33] ibid., 68.

[34] ibid., 69.

[35] Ibid., 4.

Bibliography

Florence, Anna Carter. Preaching as Testimony. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.

King, Jr., Martin Luther ed. Letter from Birmingham City Jail. Edited by James M. Washington, A Testament of Hope. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1986.

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