Reflection: The Word Before the Powers and Telling God's Story

   Where does the practice of preaching fit into the world of the Church today? How is it used, and of what significance is it to those who would listen? These are just a few of the questions that can be taken from a reading of Charles Campbell’s The Word Before the Powers. It becomes clear Campbell believes preaching is an ever important element of the Church’s ongoing formation and resistance to the powers at work within the world. Therefore, Campbell offers a unique approach to the task of preaching by presenting an ethic of preaching that “informs the church’s ethical reflection and moral life” (p71). This is a serious task with far reaching implications.

   Preaching takes on two great functions in accomplishing this task. First, simplistic preaching, preaching that is watered down to meet and conform to the status-quo, does not adequately take up the mission of ethical formation. It cannot; the status quo is bonded to the powers of the world. Preaching then must be intentionally used to shape a community of people ready and willing to confront the very real opposing forces of the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Secondly, when the Church allows for and is presented this type of preaching then the act of preaching itself becomes a tool used to contest those powers. Challenging as it might be, the preacher must be willing and able to recognize the powers working within the context of a congregation to effectively present the Gospel message.

   To that end, Campbell first outlines a world that finds itself in great distress. The world is dictated, managed and quite possibly consumed by the powers at work. It is necessary then to identify and define these powers. Campbell walks a great line within his work. It would be too far stretching for him to solely consider a fundamentalist notion of powers as merely “spiritual beings” (p15). Accordingly, he takes time to consider how the powers are “at work” within the day to day living and workings of so many people (p16).
The powers Campbell recognizes cover many areas of livelihood are thus termed “legion.” There is no number, no quantitative orderliness of the powers. What is most difficult about confronting the powers is that they are intertwined amongst each other. Each power builds upon another and can be strengthened by the other’s involvement. Biblical authors understood this characteristic and their contemporary counterparts are just as likely to witness the many facets of legion at work in their world.

   Continuing the effort to faithfully direct preaching into its most needed function, Campbell offers two other qualities of the powers. First, recognizing again that a mere fundamentalist approach does not sufficiently address the powers and a giant leap the other direction cannot encompass the array of spiritual issues needed for discussion, powers take both material and spiritual form. How are these powers at work? Preaching’s adversary, the powers work to fashion a culture personified by inequity, dishonesty and underlying oppression of individuals. The material side of the powers takes form in many of the social impositions placed upon so many by policy and practice. In turn, the powers’ spiritual aspect makes its impression all the more. What material shape the powers take intrudes on the livelihood of many people. Internalization becomes the spiritual form of the powers. People live out their alleged roles imposed on them by the powers. They are trapped.

   The first two characteristics of the powers, their range and forms, seem connected and almost easily identifiable. Campbell does not end his description there. He reminds readers of what might be a most striking feature of these malevolent forces: they are of God. The powers’ role is to “sustain human life in community” (p22). What has happened, evident by the other traits described, is that the powers run parallel to a broken, fallen world. By establishing a common understanding of the negative aspects of the powers Campbell is able to draw readers towards a clear view of how much damage is done through them. Concluding his argument by emphasizing God’s original plan for the powers demonstrates Campbell’s desire to authenticate the role preaching has in reestablishing the world as God’s people.

   It is in this context Campbell’s vision of preaching is presented. The world that people face and understand and are accustomed to is at odds with what faithful preaching has to offer. That is the reality the preacher faces. It was the reality of Jesus and his ministry. How can the contemporary church leader respond? For Campbell, the answer can be found in preaching—preaching that shakes the status quo.

   This is not much unlike the view John Wright offers in Telling God’s Story. For Wright, contemporary preaching has become comic. There is no confrontation of what Campbell would describe as the powers. Community life, the world God first established, is exchanged for shallow individualistic realities. What is most concerning is that modern preaching only enforces this. Actually, Wright is no admirer of most contemporary preaching dating back to the 18th century. The emphasis of the Church became only personal salvation and experience. Preaching following this format is merely therapeutic. Wright suggests “tragic” preaching be the norm for the Christian community. Preaching should be a tragic event in that is does not allow the status quo to go unchallenged within the life of the entire Church. When the Church becomes accustomed to this type of preaching the Church is turned back to the biblical narrative. Cultural norms are not imposed on Scripture. Rather, the biblical vision of community and faithfulness is demonstrated to the Church as a unique standard.

   Both Campbell and Wright seek to provide a fresh look at preaching that draws the Church into a challenging, transforming and faithful life. For Wright, preaching first played a significant role in the demise of the biblical narrative. So it must be that preaching is reconstructed to faithfully reflect that original narrative to a world that it has long provided with a false interpretation of the Gospel. For Campbell, it was the powers that dictate the norms of society that undermined the Gospel. Preaching, for Campbell, becomes a valid form of resistance against these powers by enabling the Church to recognize God’s intent for humanity, following the example of Jesus. What is most evident from both writers is the call to the preacher’s willingness and efforts to reclaim and retell God’s story. This is the top priority.

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