Several scholars enthusiastically support the modern preacher learning and then applying the skills of ancient rhetoric when they seek to bring forth a sermon. We often forget the way we speak the words are often as important as the words we speak. But, to move this further along, there are times that words well spoken, pulled directly from Scripture, will promote the power of Scripture more assuredly than the finest rhetorical skill of a well-crafted sermon. After all, the sermon is but an imitation of the ideal, Scripture.
There is a story that has stuck with me — that I try every now and then to emulate. There was once this preacher who, going blind, realized he must memorize his sermons. So faithfully, throughout the week, he would memorize his sermons so that no one would notice. One Sunday morning, he suddenly got disjointed and instead of his memorized sermon, the old preacher began to rehearse the book of the Prophet Amos, much to the chagrin of his congregation — who did not notice the rehearsal, but thought it another sermon. However, this sermon was much more powerful than the others and it caused a change in the congregation. Why? Because there are times Scripture itself is powerful enough without explanation, if delivered well enough, to entice the soul to God. This is the reason beyond the Lectionary and something we have forgotten as we await the sermon. Sometimes, just hearing Scripture is itself a revelation.
To live up to the biblical command of reading Scripture in public (1 Tim 4.13; the earliest accounts of worship services, preserved by Justin Martyr include obedience to this command), professor Jeffrey D. Arthurs has written a work well in line with the communication instructor’s desire to better afford the reader with some real skill. Pulling from the great preachers of today, such as Fred Craddock and Eugene Peterson, Arthurs begins by arguing for the public reading of Scripture, something beyond the often perfunctory Lectionary readings fitted between the announcements and the sermon on a Sunday morning. His central premise is that “(w)hen the bible is read well, it can minister as deeply as a Spirit-empowered sermon.” (14) This is not new, as the author reminds us as he takes us through early history, even until J. Edwards, of the devotion to hearing Scripture.
This is where his particular skill at communicating comes in handy. See, the author is not merely a devout lover of Scripture, but so too trained in speech and in the art of communicating. He can draw from Plato, from oral interpretation theories, and from the very tangible notion that regardless of any attempts to the contrary, it is impossible for the person in a dialogic stance to not communicate. He states this rather simply, saying, “You cannot not communicate.” (42) If we understand that concept, then we are ready to prepare ourselves. He lists several steps in this process as well, including using pictorial books to bring Scripture to life, for us, before we attempt to do the same for others. Of a special interest to this reader is Arthur’s use of science, such as mirror neurons (49), in describing how a properly prepared reader speaking well can cause contagion.
The book itself is divided into seven courses, using the almost overused metaphor of a meal to structure his book. Beginning with the argument (and history of the argument) for public reading. He moves to preparation, which includes the audience. From thence, Arthurs begins to describe the meat of the matter, focusing on appearance and voice. These things are important. As he demonstrates in the companion DVD, the body language of the speaker is an active part of the projection and reception the spoken word. He then adds two sections, one on creative methods and the other on group reading, to allow for some flexibility in reading Scripture, so that the reader and the audience can discover their gifts. The appendix includes sample scripts for group readings.
For those interested in simply hearing Scripture, this book is an important one because it combines both a love of Scripture and modern communication techniques with the belief that well speaking Scripture can be as, if not more, transformative than the sermon, an (in my opinion) unfortunate staple of Protestant worship services.