Now & Then: A Faculty Dialogue

Now and Then 1

Teresa L. Fry Brown, professor of homiletics and director of Black Church Studies, has been on Candler’s faculty for 19 years. Ted A. Smith, associate professor of preaching and ethics, joined the faculty in 2012. They recently sat down with Candler’s Alumni Board to talk about teaching, preaching, and the future of homiletics.

Ted Smith: I’d like to start out by recognizing that you are the first African American woman to obtain the rank of full professor at Candler School of Theology. [Applause.] I’d love to invite you to reflect on that milestone. It’s a personal achievement, but it’s also a milestone in the life of the school. What advice would you give African American women who are entering academic careers or the church and to all of us who are at earlier stages of our careers?

Teresa Fry Brown: Being here is a milestone, particularly as we’re looking toward the 100-year anniversary of the school. It speaks a lot about the history of Candler. But it also speaks about how one’s academic rigor can trump race and racism. My mother always taught me to make sure when you achieve something, you leave the door open for someone else. I would love for whatever I do here—whether it’s being tenured or becoming full professor—to help other women and people in other racial or ethnic groups understand that their academic rigor can take them places societal norms say they cannot go. What I say to all of my advisees is: You understand what your call is about. No one else can answer the call but you. Try not to let anyone put you in a box to say, “This is who you’re supposed to be.” Regardless of your ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, being in the academy is hard work. It’s a ministry, and it means you don’t turn off when you go home. One of my sister colleagues in ministry says that when she’s not writing, she’s thinking about writing. When we’re not teaching, we’re thinking about teaching. This is a life calling. When people ask me about my call, I say, “My call is to teach, preach, and write—in that order.” The church didn’t always understand that. Neither does the academy at times, but I know that’s my call, and one has to live into one’s call. I cannot imagine my life not teaching. I cannot imagine my life not writing or preaching. And so that’s why I’m here.

TS: Your vocation seems to be playing out right now through multiple roles—professor of homiletics, director of Black Church Studies, and elected historiographer for the African Methodist Episcopal [AME] denomination. How do those roles come together for you? Or do they not?

TFB:  I love learning. My grandparents taught me that the way to get anywhere in the world is to learn as much as you can, and then to share that. So in my head, everything I do feeds the same place. It emanates from the same source, and then it intertwines. In order to be a professor of homiletics, I have to know what’s going on in the church. I don’t think that the academy and the church are isolated entities. What I learn, what I teach in the classroom, I also live that out as a preacher. I’m involved in Black Church Studies because my denomination is a historically black denomination in the African American church. I think it’s critically important for all students to know the origins, theology, and ethics of their denomination because that feeds into their preaching. Being the AME’s historiographer and executive director of research and scholarship brings me back to teaching, researching, and writing, but also back to encouraging people on the ground and in the church—outside of the academy—to continue to study and to produce. When I die, I want something left behind other than my clothing. I think it’s critically important for people to know what came before them—and to work in the present, but also leave something for the people coming next. Sometimes students think they’re the first ones who have ever pastored a church, or written a sermon, but there’s a wonderful homiletical history to look at. Be aware of the trends. A lot of the trends are recycled historical models. That’s how I think all of my roles come together.

TS: Your vocation seems to be playing out right now through multiple roles—professor of homiletics, director of Black Church Studies, and elected historiographer for the African Methodist Episcopal [AME] denomination. How do those roles come together for you? Or do they not?

TFB:  I love learning. My grandparents taught me that the way to get anywhere in the world is to learn as much as you can, and then to share that. So in my head, everything I do feeds the same place. It emanates from the same source, and then it intertwines. In order to be a professor of homiletics, I have to know what’s going on in the church. I don’t think that the academy and the church are isolated entities. What I learn, what I teach in the classroom, I also live that out as a preacher. I’m involved in Black Church Studies because my denomination is a historically black denomination in the African American church. I think it’s critically important for all students to know the origins, theology, and ethics of their denomination because that feeds into their preaching. Being the AME’s historiographer and executive director of research and scholarship brings me back to teaching, researching, and writing, but also back to encouraging people on the ground and in the church—outside of the academy—to continue to study and to produce. When I die, I want something left behind other than my clothing. I think it’s critically important for people to know what came before them—and to work in the present, but also leave something for the people coming next. Sometimes students think they’re the first ones who have ever pastored a church, or written a sermon, but there’s a wonderful homiletical history to look at. Be aware of the trends. A lot of the trends are recycled historical models. That’s how I think all of my roles come together.

What about your work, Ted? Your bio says that you work “at the intersection of practical and political theologies.” What do you mean by that?

TS: Policies matter for politics. But that’s not the kind of “politics” I mean. The dimension of politics I’m most interested in is what Charles Taylor calls a “social imaginary”—thatNow and Then 2 sense of what we think is possible; the ways things make sense or don’t make sense; the ways ideas and practices connect us to one another. That level of politics happens especially through repeated activities—ritual and liturgical acts of various kinds. And in America, that level of politics has happened especially through preaching. So it’s really interesting to bore into those rhetorical forms and the tropes that have defined American preaching and ask what they tell us about our social imaginaries. For example, when every sermon ends with something for you to do, it constructs people as agents who can make their own worlds. To take another example: What does it mean if, in your vision of the moral, there is some kind of standard—God’s law—that stands above the earthly laws we know? Looking at sermons with those kinds of questions in mind opens them up to conversation with the most basic issues in politics.

TFB:  Interesting. My doctoral work is in social transformation, so I’m intrigued by how we as preachers are aware of the imperatives in the biblical text that talk about not bothering anyone, those that talk about liberative practices of God. I’m interested in how we are able to listen to the voice that no one else wants to hear, and how we are responsible for what we preach—not just what the biblical text is, but what is surrounding the biblical text that is killing people on Sunday morning. And conversely, what is it that surrounds a biblical text that’s life-giving? When do we move from performing a sermon to living a sermon while we’re preaching it? How do we embody faith? That’s what’s exciting to me about approaching the political from a different standpoint, because I’m very clear that whether it’s on Candler’s campus or in a pulpit, I’m political when I show up because I don’t meet the standard.

There’s a “death of preaching” movement going on that believes there’s no reason to have a sermon, and we don’t need to have face-to-face communication. What are your thoughts on that?

TS:  There are a couple of deep impulses in American religion. One of them is egalitarian: Why doesn’t anybody else get to stand up there and preach? Why should any of us listen to this person? Another related impulse stresses that we have direct access to God. And if we have direct access to God, why do we need somebody else to talk to us about God? Thus when cynicism kicks in, it’s often about leadership and the faces of an institution. It’s easy to focus our cynicism on preachers and the preaching act. I think there have been these impulses in U.S. religion for a long time. They would point towards ending preaching—and yet, preaching is one of the great cultural forms of this country, so I can’t really see it going away. I think there’s always going to be a place for this old kind of witness, this focused witness. There has to be a separate voice for at least a little bit of the time. It could be in community, it could be in dialogue, but there’s going to have to be that kind of voice that can only happen in preaching. It’s a different kind of speech.

Now and Then 3TFB: I don’t think it’s the content that they see as the death of preaching so much as it is the distribution of the Word. I come from a dialogical tradition, and what I’m talking about is monologue preaching. I think when one person has all the power, it’s like they’re standing on Mount Sinai and preaching down. I think it’s important to understand that we’re in a community conversation, and not only one person knows everything and can dictate everyone’s behavior. I also think that preaching can be enhanced by technology. I preach a Good Friday service at Trinity United Church of Christ every year, and last year a young lady who was with me said, “Where is your phone? You need it for tweeting,” and I said, “But I’m paying attention to the service,” and she said, “But you’ll see everyone else talking about the service on Twitter.” They’re tweeting the whole time the service is going on, and they’re getting responses. That works there. I’m not good at that, but it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. There’s always been some other way of enhancing sermons, and if people process an entire sermon in 140 characters, I’m okay with that. I think we have to be open and flexible to a variety of ways of preaching.

TS:  There’s a way in which preaching is always dying and being reborn. I think it always needs new cultural forms, it needs to adapt. But I may be a little more ambivalent about technology. I’m thinking especially of social media, which is what people tend to mean right now when they are thinking about preaching and technology. Absolutely, I think there’s a place for critical and thoughtful use of it. I worry, though, about the kind of consciousness that can be sustained in 140 characters. And I worry about the kind of consciousness that can manage that stream. It’s an old-fashioned worry, maybe, but I worry about the possibility for rumination, the possibility for the kinds of depth of consciousness that get closed off.

TFB: At the end of my intro to preaching class, I ask students to tell me their projections for preaching in the 21st century—what’s good about it, what’s horrible about it, and how they would re-imagine preaching from their standpoint. So what would you say is good about homiletics? And how would you modify it? What do you see as a trend at that would work for you going forward?

TS: One of the things that’s really good about it is that increasingly diverse students are coming to seminary. They’re coming here, to Candler. I find that more of our students have experience across cultural boundaries, inhabit multiple cultural worlds. And I find they are ready—more ready, I think, than even maybe 10 or 15 years ago—to put pieces together for a deep collage of hybrid preaching. That’s my great hope—that this will be a renewing force. This is not to say that the kind of deep, institutionalized inequalities and injustices that mark our society have been overcome. But there is an easier transfer across cultural lines than there has been in the past, and I think that can be mutually enriching.

To me, the biggest challenge for preaching right now is the way in which it too often gets locked in to what Charles Taylor calls the “immanent frame” in which we are the authors of whatever things are going to happen in this universe. Whether that happens in a prosperity gospel, or in saying a “here’s how you can be a good person and have a great relationship with your kids” kind of thing, or even in the key of social justice, that’s shrinking the theological imagination of preachers. That’s what I really worry about, and I think the task for homiletics right now is to help preachers break open a fully, robustly theological imagination.

TFB: Cheryl Thompson Gilkes says that an unforgivable sin in African American culture is bad preaching, and I think that’s true. I think since we’re all imagining what the biblical text is really about, we are all imagining ourselves as part of a people’s history. It’s essential that we continue to understand this is a people’s history. There’s not one way everybody has to preach in order to be accepted as a preacher. There’s no separation of sacred and secular. Everything is preaching if we are people of faith. Preaching doesn’t take place only on Sunday morning during the hours of your service. Our engagement with humanity is a proclamation of the Lord, and so when I think about preaching going forward, I would love to talk about being genuine. We are not preaching because the light is on and it’s star time, we’re preaching because we want to recover souls. Many of our students come already stamped with an idea what preaching is, and you can’t tell them anything different, and so the struggle is to broaden their ideas about what preaching is, where preaching takes place and which voices are preaching. In reality, we’re still in a culture that doesn’t allow some people to preach. What does that say about the persons who are managing pulpits? What does that say about the possibilities of expression, of your belief and faith? Whether this is the first century or the twenty-first century, it’s recovering the vitality of proclamations, recovering the totality of the story and not the ten stories that people always want to tell. How do we prepare preacher and congregation and world for a variety of voices and variety of styles? That would be my hope going forward in preaching: that we move out of the 1950s and 1960s lockstep “this is preaching” and look at how marvelous and broad this endeavor can be. This is my prayer going forward. This is my social justice thing—that nobody would be barred from ever proclaiming the Word of God.