Editor’s Note: What follows will hopefully serve two purposes. First of all, it is a review of the book Preaching Fools by: Charles Campbell and Johan Cilliers. Secondly, I hope it will serve as a reminder that in a post-christendom society in which the message of Christ is being pushed to the margins we must all (whether preacher or not) learn to present the gospel in a way that it can be heard. And this way is probably by embracing the foolishness of the gospel, that while it may seem foolish to the wise, it actually has the power to change lives. Enjoy the read…
What is the role and purpose of preaching in the contemporary world, the contemporary church? For centuries the church stood at the center of civic life and the preacher was in turn an important figure in society. Simply because of the role he held, the preacher, was looked to as a voice of wisdom and knowledge for many both inside and outside of the church. However, with the passing of culture into a post-Christendom time period, the role of the church and in turn the role of the preacher has been diminished. Many, especially those outside the church but even many of those inside the church no longer look to the preacher as a source of wisdom or a position to be honored. While the preacher’s role used to be to remind the congregation and society of the truth they already know and believe, many now question whether there is truth at all. So what is the role of the preacher? Perhaps it is to preach a “foolish gospel” that actually undermines the power and wisdom of the world and leads to real and sustained life.
In their book Preaching Fools: The Gospel As A Rhetoric Of Folly Charles L Campbell and Johan H. Cillers compare the role of the preacher to the classic role of a fool. A fool not in the sense of one who is silly or ridiculed, but as one who uses metaphors, timing, innuendo, or irony to make their point in a way that will be heard. In this sense the preacher is no longer one who stands reminding hearers of the truth they’ve always believed but instead comes in the back door with language in a way to get the truth heard by the audience. The audience is thus taken by surprise and is enabled to encounter the truth in a new light.
“The gospel is foolishness. Peaching is folly. Preachers are fools.” (1) Campbell and Cillers not only use this line to begin their book but also as a theme running through the heart of the work. Playing off of the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians, the authors remind the readers that the message of the cross is foolishness to the world. It doesn’t make sense that God would die on a cross. Death on a cross is never the answer to victory or power. The cross is defeat, humiliation, the end. Yet Jesus uses the cross, the very thing that was meant to humiliate him and prove he was not a king, as the moment to proclaim his Kingdom come. Self-sacrificial death on a cross makes no sense in a world of power and control. Loving and serving your enemies makes no sense in a culture of domination and class systems. Turning the other cheek makes no sense in a society obsessed with strength and might. The message of the gospel is foolishness and anyone who would stand up to proclaim it is a fool. And that is exactly the role of a preacher, to play the role of the fool. To highlight a message that makes no sense within a greater culture. To dare to proclaim a counter narrative as one worth believing in and following. And to lead others into the foolish good news.
If preachers are going to get their message of foolishness heard, the method of proclamation must change. No longer can it be assumed that everyone in the audience believes the same thing. Therefore Campbell and Cillers argue for some new emphasis in peaching. The cross must stand at the heart of the message. As John shares in Revelation, it is only a crucified Messiah who is worthy to open the scroll. It is a crucified Messiah that has the power to change lives. Preachers must also utilize a message of rhetoric that is “subversive to the world’s conventions, rationalities, and myths.” (118) Through laughter and lament, metaphor and irony, stories and illustrations, the preacher can actually unmask the lies of the greater culture and declare the truth of the gospel. Only Jesus gives meaning to life. Only the ethic of Jesus produces good results. Only by dying to self can one truly live.
Preaching Fools has provided a great challenge for preaching. In a time when much of the greater culture is pulling away from church and organized religion, Campbell and Cillers give preachers a way to move forward. In a post-Christian culture, we must recognize that the message of the gospel is foolishness. Yet it is that very truth of foolishness that allows it to be heard. Preachers need to embrace the role of a fool, and not be afraid to present a counter cultural message in a way for it to be heard. In a way that it subverts the assumptions of the world to present real truth.