This book is designed to help preachers find and use the riches of the Psalms for preaching.
The authors address the perception that the Psalms often go neglected in preparing for one of the central acts of worship: preaching. McCann and Howell demonstrate that the Psalms offer the preacher broad, rich possibilities for the congregation’s engagement with the Scripture. Each chapter concludes with a brief sample.
Reviewed by Kristen Bargeron Grant, pastor, Pinnacle-Mt.Zion United Methodist Charge, Pinnacle, North Carolina
Preaching the Psalms by J. Clinton McCann, Jr. and James C. Howell
One of the gifts of the liturgical renewal of recent years has been the resurgence of the Psalms in the worship of many mainline Protestant churches. For the most part, however, the Psalms are viewed by pastors as liturgy to surround the Word – calls to worship, prayers, musical responses to scripture lessons – rather than as the Word itself to be proclaimed. In Preaching the Psalms, J. Clinton McCann, Jr. and James C. Howell seek to change that attitude among preachers, to plead a case that “the Psalms should be preached, that they can be preached, [and] that the life of the church is impoverished if we do not attend to the Psalms in our proclamation of the Word of God” (p. 15).
They structure their argument around three questions: Why, How and What? In the first section, “Preaching the Psalms: Why?” the authors approach the question of whether the Psalms should be preached by showing that they in fact have been preached from the beginning and throughout the history of the church. Much of this first section is a fairly detailed account of this history, with examples ranging from Augustine to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Barbara Brown Taylor. If nothing else, a preacher might be shamed into taking a stab at the Psalms simply by being introduced of this great tradition! The examples are rich and instructive, illustrating not only how these preachers treated individual texts, but also how their engagement with the Psalms shaped and enlivened their understanding of Scripture as a whole. Though the number of examples and quotations provided sometimes obscures rather than illuminates the authors’ argument, the reader is left with no doubt that that Psalms have an established place in the pulpit.
However, it was the latter sections of the book that, as a preacher, I found to be the most helpful. Perhaps this is because the real barrier to the preaching of Psalms is not so much that we doubt that the Psalms should be preached, but rather that we are not sure that we can do it well. In a culture that is largely poetically illiterate, the genre of the Psalms can be unfamiliar and intimidating. The section “Preaching the Psalms: How?” provides the timid preacher with a variety of clear pathways into the Psalms. One can plumb the depths of a single image – a dwelling place, a city ruined, a shepherd. Or the preacher can trace the path of the movement of the whole psalm, from lament to praise, from confusion to understanding. These approaches are nicely illustrated in Howell’s excellent sermons on the Psalms, which conclude most of the chapters in the book.
The final section, “Preaching the Psalms: What?” outlines some theological issues which are recurrent in the psalter, issues which cut to heart of the anxiety endemic in our culture. The psalmists ask “Where do human beings find happiness?” and “Why do bad things happen?” just as we do. However, as the authors demonstrate, the answers that the psalms give to these questions are always God-centered and deeply challenging to the prevalent self-centered worldview. Some readers may be surprised to find the psalms offered as a resource for counter-cultural thinking and preaching, but the authors’ careful attention to the theological progression of the Psalms reveals this crucial word that they have to speak to our times.
In Preaching the Psalms, McCann and Howell have offered preachers a challenge, but they have also provided us with a helpful guide to discovering all the treasures of the Psalms, for singing, for praying and for proclamation.