Gregory E. Reynolds
The Divine Voice: Christian Proclamation and the Theology of Sound, by Stephen H. Webb. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004, 244 pages, $24.99, paper.
Rarely do recent books on homiletics contribute anything new to the discipline. A few decades ago one homiletician declared that every book on homiletics since Broadus is a rehash of his classic A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (1902 Dargan edition). That may be pedagogical hyperbole, but it comes close to the truth.
While Broadus has some excellent things to say about the use of the voice in the pulpit, he was not living in the electronic environment that we inhabit. The challenge of this new environment calls for the expansion of homiletical wisdom. In particular the critical insights of the new discipline of media ecology are capable of some significant contributions to the literature of homiletics. Stephen Webb's book is just such a contribution. It is an opulent resource for preachers who would like to think more about the unique nature of preaching as the powerful Word of God to his people. The mediation of our conscious lives by electronic media makes a significant difference in the way we understand our task as preachers and execute that task in the preaching moment. A nuanced appreciation of the power of the human voice will help us be better preachers.
I should like to break with the tradition of reviewers of saving criticism until last because I want to focus on the unique contribution that Webb makes to the importance of the human voice in worship and preaching. Webb has strong affinities with the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth. This is evident in the sheer number of references he makes to Barth. While the seriousness of Barth's theological errors in prolegomena, especially the doctrine of inspiration, and soteriology should not be overlooked, much of what he had to say about the importance and immediacy of preaching is of great value to preachers today, as we stand against the tidal wave of electronic substitutes. This is Webb's focus as he spends fifteen pages on "The Radically Rhetorical Barth" (167-181). Webb concisely states the classic orthodox problem with Barth's view of the Bible: "Barth's nuanced position is that God can cause the Bible to be God's Word, but the Bible does not intrinsically represent God's voice ... This is Barth's position: When we hear in the Spirit, Scripture becomes the Word of God, but outside of this event, it is not possible to say that Scripture is the Word of God" (173, 174). Webb cautiously distances himself from this position by describing it as a "negligent handling of the doctrine of inspiration" (173). While admitting Barth's problems with inspiration, Webb seeks to appreciate Barth's focus on the importance of the preaching moment. He claims that Barth affirms the importance of Scripture being written in order to protect the church against mistaking "its own voice for the voice of God" (177).
In several places Webb's speculations will raise orthodox eyebrows. Webb claims that the Son has "some kind of spiritual-material body" (191-197). He also hints at favoring women's ordination by referring to a preacher as "her" (116).
Webb is professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He was raised in a self-consciously anti-confessional tradition, and after a brief sojourn in the Lutheran churchpresumably when he wrote the book under review, since he refers extensively to Lutherhe officially came into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church in 2007. On his Web site he refers to himself as "a conservative Christian Theologian" (stephenhwebb.com).
Webb begins with a profoundly theological statement: "Christians believe that all sound has its origin in God because God spoke the world into being" (14). But the problem in the electronic environment is that "our hardness of hearing is compounded today by a cacophonous soundscape" (16). Webb's chief concern is "the proper relationship of the sound of worship to the voice of the sermon" (27). He calls this the "acoustemology of the church" (27). Like Walter Ong, Webb accents the importance of orality in the Christian life, worship, and preaching. And, like Ong, Webb often exaggerates the importance of sound over sight, hearing and speaking over reading. His section "Revisiting Walter Ong" reveals the influence of this media ecology mentor on Webb's thinking, and I think mostly for the good.
The book is peppered with provocative, pithy sayings about sound like "sound is the essence of personhood" (39). Claiming that speech is primarily a public act, Webb says "the voice, coming from within, turns us inside out" (58). The creation account proves that "sound precedes light" (47). Championing the superiority of sound over sight, citing Psalm 29, Webb observes, "The Bible is extremely modest about God's appearance ... but not about God's voice" (47). This concentration of interest in sound has a consciousness-altering effect on the reader, probing and getting us to think differently about sound and its importance in human life and preaching. Erasmus's alteration of the Latin Vulgate in John 1:1 signaled a significant change in conception of the word. In the phrase "In principio erat verbum" he replaced verbum with sermo, which means speech instead of word (131). Webb is clearly advocating a return to this Reformation trajectory.
Webb demonstrates a strong appreciation for the recovery of the Word in the Reformation era: "The Protestant Reformers taught that the invisible God is revealed primarily through the audible, not the visual" (42). He understands the Reformation as "Revocalizing the Word," with the emphasis shifting from Medieval images to preaching and the power of sound (105ff). "The Reformation was characterized by an outpouring of words in service to the biblical Word of God" (106). Focusing on the Puritan emphasis on the plain style of preaching, quoting The Art of Prophesying by William Perkins, he concludes, "To speak plainly is to be charged with telling the truth in the moment. The plain style puts the emphasis on a natural voice, but it does so with great enthusiasm for the drama of the Word" (124). This reminds me of what Broadus says after enjoining preachers to digest and make the truth they preach their own. He advises, "Speak out with freedom and earnestness what you think and feel."
One of Webb's most important themes is that theology serves the interests of proclamation (167). Proclamation in turn stands at the center of worship and involves God addressing his people. "Preaching is not merely preparation for worship; it is worship" (141). Luther's emphasis on the centrality of preaching in worship was a radical change from the Medieval concept. Luther insisted that the gospel should "really not be something written, but a spoken word which brought forth the Scriptures, as Christ and the apostles have done" (144). Preaching thus, according to Luthersounding very much like a similar assertion in the Second Helvetic Confession"must be viewed and believed as though God's own voice were resounding from heaven" (188). Webb devotes more than a dozen pages to Calvin's preaching (150-163). Calvin turned classical rhetoric from its ancient moral telos into an instrument of gospel proclamation in the interest of focusing on God not the preacher (155, 157, cf. 146, n. 37).
Webb has a delightful section on "The Joy of Public Reading," in which he displays a needed understanding of the nature of that reading. "Reading the Bible out loud is an act of interpretation" (209).
Until Gutenberg, the church was essentially a hearing (not a reading) church. The Middle Ages saw the image dominate. Now we are becoming a hearing and image dominated culture. Mediated sound and images now control our consciousness, and thus distract and disenchant us in ways that require our stewardship of the media. At the center of this ecology is the demand for a well-crafted use of sound in the church's worship. The way we sing, pray, and preach makes all the difference in binding the community of faith together in the gospel. But Webb does not diminish the importance of the written Word. "By turning the oral tradition of the apostles into scripts, the Gospels provided for a more permanent and thus more powerful rendition of Jesus' life, which guaranteed the confidence and efficacy of the church's spoken word" (68).
Taking all of this into account, I think the benefits of Webb's apologia for a theology of sound and Christian proclamation far outweigh the liabilities for the theologically discerning reader. This is a book rich in intellectual interest for the serious preacher.
Gregory Reynolds is the editor of Ordained Servant, and serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant, June-July 2008.