Book Review: Calvin Miller, Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition

Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition. By Calvin Miller. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006. 0-8010-1290-2, 285 pp. $21.99 hardback.

Calvin Miller is professor of divinity and pastoral ministry at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. Preaching is a basic homiletical textbook with emphasis on narrative style. It is the most recent of over forty books from his pen. If a member of EHS can buy only one more book this year, let it be Millerís Preaching. Miller is a wordsmith and an out-of-the box thinker. Taking a cue from Craddock, he shuns stuffing pages with long quotes. Endnotes give quotes, guidance for further study, and credit where it is due.

Miller gives us nine chapters in three groupings. Part 1 Analysis: The Exegesis of All Things, has four chapters. Chap. 1, ‘Who’s Talking’, exegetes the preacher who should be a person of faith, of information, a mystic and a shepherd. Chap. 2, ‘Whoís Out There?’ deals with audience analysis. What do they believe, etc? Chap. 3, ‘Whadda Ya Hear Me Sayin’? is about ìsubstance analysis . . . relational analysis (and) spiritual formation analysis. Chap. 4, ‘So What’s to Be Done Now?’ addresses sermon application. Most people would rather listen to sermons than act on them. Each chapter includes worksheets designed to develop the skills discussed.

Part 2, Writing the Sermon. Three more chapters take us through the stages of sermon preparation. Chap. 5 deals with the text, title, theme, pacing and preparing. ‘The sermon must not speak for God, it must allow God to speak for himself’ (pp.101-102). ‘A great thesis’, says Miller, ‘is kindergarten in its clarity and Harvard in its force’ (107). Distinct from the thesis, Miller recommends the ‘motif’ as a kind of rhetorical call that keeps the sermon on track (108-109). The motif for a sermon on Balaam becomes ‘Disobedience to God is a reckless path.’

‘Pacing’ is the matter of sermon intensity, balancing passion and relief in sermon content and in delivery. ‘Preparing’ readies the preacher’s own mind and soul as well as the message. The chapter also gives guidance on the use of supporting scriptures and a brief treatment of preaching in series.

Chap. 6, ìDigging for Treasure,î is all about the art of exegeting scripture. The sermon may begin in the Bible or in the congregation. ‘Long ago I learned that more than half of any pastor’s congregation come to church broken and in the grip of some life issue that is eating at their well-being'(127). Preachers are advised to preach the text confessionally. Live in openness with the flock, but never betray or embarrass anyone. The preacher’s own testimony about the text should be transferable to the hearers.

Stories are the stuff of persuasion. One of the most creative features of the volume is Miller’s guidance on how to give narrative presentation to a biblical precept. He knows that the congregation holds both left-brained and right-brained listeners. In chap. 7, ‘Imagining the Argument’, Miller calls for the text to control all sermon narratives. How can that happen? Metaphor and narrative spring from word study. A word from the original language of the text or from the definition and history of English words may suggest narratives. Building story characters is also an important part of narrative. Some homiliticians want hearers to be free to draw their own moral from a story; Miller insists that the point be crystal clear.

Part 3, Preaching the Sermon, is two chapters on delivery. This is about one-sixth of the whole work. Both chapters sparkle with humor and practical guidance. In ”Delivering the Sermon’, (chap. 8), Miller encourages a natural style with passion but without imitating our heroes. Passion is not volume but intensity of feeling. Mary Magdalene’s Easter morning visit to the empty tomb remarkably illustrates ‘six purveyors of passion’ (pp. 184-85). ‘Seven axioms of delivery’ include nitty-gritty details such as illumination of the pulpit and working with sound technicians who like to play with the volume control.

Chap. 9 continues the delivery theme. In stressing the altar call as a place of encounter with God, Miller admits, ‘I realize that the word altar used by a Baptist homilitician scares Episcopalians to within an inch of their Edwardian confession’ (p. 202). He delivers a trainload of practical advice on everything from body language to creating community.

An appendix on ‘Mentoring from the Contemporary Masters’ selects one indispensable element of sermon form or style identified with each of ten homiliticians: Robinson, Pitt-Watson, Chapell, Taylor, Long, Stott, Lowry, Buttrick, Coggan, and one more. Miller is brass enough to put himself on the list at the end, because he does not find anyone else stressing the altar call as an essential element of form in sermons.

Austin B. Tucker

About The Author

Most of my life has been as a pastor of Southern Baptist churches. Preaching, teaching and writing have been the major emphases of my ministry. It has long been my prayer that my mature years might be given more to teaching and writing. Especially do I want to help young pastors in sharpening their preaching and other ministry skills.