Thursday, January 05, 2006

Book Review: "Just Words" by JAO Preus

The goal is not to reduce the Gospel to one of its words, but to proclaim it in its fullness, to use all its ways of being said. The goal is, in addition to proclaiming the Gospel as a divine, powerful Word, to proclaim it is a profound and richly textured human word. (p. 24)

To be fair, I should note that this was a book that was assigned as part of my Homeletics course at the seminary in preparation for writing our first sermon. What appears below is a review based on that context. In other contexts or for other purposes, the book may have a different impact. There are many reasons I would commend this book to others, it's stated goal of equiping people to effectively communicate the Gospel isn't one of them.

In his book Just Words, Preus outlines the various metaphors that the Scriptures use to relate the Good News of Christ to us. His purpose, "is to help all Christians not only to grasp and understand the Gospel, but also to proclaim and communicate it in its fullness, to hear it and say it in all its ways of being heard and said, through all God's beautiful words."

My biggest complaint with this work is that by not clearly separating his two purposes (understanding and proclamation), the book accomplishes neither purpose successfully.

I found myself initially liking his discussion of metaphor and language in general. However, I found the theme of universality in chapter 26 to be overly platonic in its conceptualization of words and language. In spite of his early discussion of the maliability of language, Preus apparently still holds to a rather rigorous association of signifier with signified. Rereading the section entitled, "The Meaning of Metaphor," and the fact that he begins with Aristotle's definition, I should have realized this earlier on.

In his discussion of the different scriptural metaphors for the Gospel, he seemed to be doing three things simultaneously but was not explicit about it.

First, he presented a real-life situation and how the metaphor under discussion intersected with that situation.

Second, he described a scriptural metaphor.

Third, he showed how the metaphor can intersect with "real life". This is different from "applying" the metaphor to the situation, as I note below.

My primary issue is not that these three steps are there. I believe they are the appropriate steps to undertake, generally speaking. My concern is specifically with how he goes about the second and third steps.

In describing a metaphor from scripture that aligns with the situation, he does so from all of scripture. Perhaps he is following the Franzmann res verba res concept of hermeneutics or he is trying to just provide a general overview. The result is that where his work succeeds in separating the metaphors in a generic sense, each metaphor still seems trite and generic. By blending all of the pericopes pertaining to a particular metaphor together, he takes off the sharp edges of the various pericopes. In essence, he still does what he laments that others do:

To blend all metaphors together, to take off the sharp edges of the various metaphors, may be something like the following:
Imagine ordering a nine-course dinner. The green salad is cool and crisp, the soup clear and tasty. The brightly colored vegetables are steamed just right. The steak and lobster are cooked to perfection. Flakey bread, soft and warm, is served with creamy butter. A bottle of fine wine complements the entree. Sweet dessert follows with rich black coffee. What a delightful experience! With so many colors, flavors, textrues, temperatures, the meal is complete.
Then imagine asking the waiter to throw all the courses into a blender and turn the knob to puree.
(pp. 36-37)

Each time that one of the metaphors is encountered in scripture, it has it's own unique contours. The "Light/Darkness" metaphor of Genesis 1 is different from the Light/Darkness metaphor of John 1. That's not to say there is no relationship between the two, but to say there's a relationship is different from saying they are the "same metaphor," which it seems Preus is saying.

His abstraction of the metaphors of scripture seems to carry over to his attempt to integrate those metaphors into real life. Each chapter begins with a real life situation and a description of how a scriptural passage containing the metaphor under discussion helped in that situation. But when it comes to intersecting the abstracted metaphor laid out in the chapter with reality, he does so only with an abstract reality-- which is no reality at all.

In my view, each pericope is a metaphor of its own. These metaphors do fall into various categories (some may call these "motifs") and recognizing this can be helpful to understanding the text under consideration. It can even provide additional threads for sermon preparation. However, Preus' book does a disservice by treating all of the pericopes of a given category as a single metaphor.

Preus' book does a good job at discussing these categories of metaphors. The brush strokes are broad, but that's to be expected when categorizing things. However, by not engaging the actual enterprise of "exegeting" a real-life situation and "exegeting" scipture and bridging the two, the work is of only marginal value in eqiupping people to communicate the Gospel effectively.

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