Interview with Jeffrey D. Arthurs on “Preaching as Reminding”

5007364_01Jeffrey D. Arthurs is the Professor of Preaching and Communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has a new book, Preaching as Reminding: Stirring Memory in an Age of Forgetfulness, coming out next month. You might know him from his previous two books: Preaching With Variety: How to Recreate the Dynamics of Biblical Genres and Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture.

InterVarsity Press was kind enough to provide me with an advanced copy to review (full review to come).

I read the book in two days as it captivated me as someone who is obsessed with the art of preaching and so I immediately asked for an interview with Dr. Arthurs so that I could discuss his thoughts with the author himself. He graciously agreed to the interview – I hope you enjoy it and I recommend you order a copy of the book sooner rather than later! 

Dr. Arthurs – first let me say thanks for agreeing to let me ask you a few questions about your upcoming book “Preaching as Reminding: Stirring Memory in an Age of Forgetfulness.” 
I enjoyed your use of neuroscientific research in regard to memory and find it to be a fascinating academic field myself with many overlaps into important theological conversations. As we move away from the “computer metaphor” approach to speaking and thinking about memory, do you have an alternative metaphor that you believe best matches the current science and is most helpful in regard to your thesis of preaching as reminding?

That’s a great question. You are a good interviewer! I hadn’t thought of this—a new metaphor—but maybe the one I used in the book captures current research on memory: a quilt (or is “sampler” the right word?) Our memories are made up of patches of clothe sewed into one coherent unit.

The subtitle of your book suggests that we are collectively a people tempted to be forgetful. Do you think this is a recent development, inherent to the human nature, or a mixture of both with perhaps technology and modern culture highlighting our propensity to forget things of ultimate concern?

I think it is most likely a mixture of both. The Bible is clear that humans are “prone to wander, Lord we feel it!”—we are prone to forget the God we love and his covenant. But our media saturated culture makes it increasingly difficult to concentrate, meditate, and retain what we have learned. Our phones jiggle, chime, beep, and flash, calling for immediate and brief attention. Our movies and videos jump, swirl, whirl, and sweep us into a fragmented multi-perspectival experience. If you want to meditate, slow down, and truly observe, go to the art gallery, not the movie theater. Plato worried that the  technology of his day—alphabetic script!—would ruin memory. He must be rolling over in his grave today.

On a similar note, there are many who increasingly feel that more traditional ways of “reminding” are not as useful now because of the technological and high-paced culture we live in. There is an increasing trend away from religious services that involve or center around a sermon or preacher. What are your thoughts on this development towards replacing a traditional speaker or preacher with more interactive and decentralized communication during services or events?

This is another good question and a big one. I feel that the Bible (NT in particular) gives us principles for worship services, not precise forms we must use. So worship leaders need to be aware of those principles and find ways to contextualize them in the crazy 21st century. Concerning the specific point you raise above—replacing a traditional speaker (I assume you mean monologic, authoritative teaching by an ordained officer of the Church) with decentralized communication: I’m a big proponent of using dialogue in preaching, but we must be careful to preserve one of the principles of NT worship—public teaching by a commissioned pastor. This is commanded in the Pastoral Epistles and is modeled by the early Church. If that can be done while using dialogue (and I think it can), then that probably helps contextualize preaching for the 21st century West.

In discussing delivery (expression, energy, emotion, and other nonverbal communication), as a tool for stirring memory, I couldn’t help but wonder how much this goes both ways in terms of the speaker and the audience (for lack of a better word). I’ve experienced times when I think my preaching quality was either increased or decreased based on the atmosphere and the energy/responses of the listeners. Do you agree that this is a two-way street? How can one best prepare and listen to a sermon – especially in hopes to help them deliver to the best of their ability? How do you deal with an audience that tends towards lowering your deliverability?

Great insight. Yes, energy and communication go both ways. The old communication model of Speaker—Message—Receiver is simplistic and mechanistic. In reality both “speakers” and “receivers” send messages. To be sure, the “speaker” is the primary sender, but receivers count! To prepare to listen to a sermon, pray for your own heart and for the preacher, reduce/eliminate distractions (e.g. turn off your phone), look at the speaker, concentrate with a view toward summarizing the sermon to someone who was not present, sharing your reflections as well as the bare content.

Can you recommend some preachers who highlight many of the skills you lift up in the book for someone like me who is interested in reading more excellent scholarship on the various components of preaching?

I would imagine that John Ortberg, Haddon Robinson, and E. K. Bailey are probably familiar to most readers of this blog. Lesser known, but worth reading, are authors Craig Oliver (Atlanta, GA) and Bobby Warrenburg (Beverly Farms, MA). Many African-American expository preachers (such as E.K Bailey and Craig Oliver) also employ many of the skills in my book successfully and admirably.

Dr. Arthurs, thanks again for talking to me. It was a pleasure.
Blessings on you and your work! 

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