Doctrine that Dances – The preacher as ‘doxological dancer’

Guest post: Andy Draycott (Teaching  Fellow, University of Aberdeen)

In Doctrine that Dances: Bringing Doctrine and Teaching to Life (B&H Academic, 2008) Robert Smith Jr. makes an urgent plea for doctrinal preaching through the elaboration of two key metaphors: the doctrine-that-dancesdoctrinal preacher as the exegetical escort and the doxological dancer (review copy courtesy of B&H). Your alliteration alarmbells should already be alerting you to a distinct mode of speech, characteristic of the preacher, that colour Smith’s text; the book is packed with bon mots, illustrations and allusions, and delightful alliterative outlines.

For example, Smith returns several times to the Emmaus road story of Luke 24.  Once he suggests that preaching as doxological dance requires: the right face, the right embrace, the right pace, and the right space.  These the forlorn disciples do not have as they travel away from Jerusalem until they meet the risen Lord and are given to reflect on their experience after his disappearance (124-125). His overall case is this: the preacher, in clear exegetical fidelity to scripture, will lead worshippers as a fellow worshipper on the dance into and in the presence of God, for the purpose of their transformation by God (25).

Refusing to define doctrinal preaching he proceeds ‘towards’ it by description, drawing the reader in, with story and anecdote, to feeling (cardiological) and thinking (cranial) the task of preaching (8).  Smith is well versed in the academic discourse of homiletics and conversant (literally) with leading figures in his US setting.  (May I escape the accusation of churlishness in pointing out that Alister McGrath is British, certainly (50), but not English (56), and the former Archbishop is Donald Coggan (not Loggan, 50).)

I allow this otherwise shameful pedantry to stand as an indicator of the cultural distance between the English reviewer and the work reviewed.  I would not, for example, be able to remark on ‘countries where they do not initially serve ice’ in tea! (82)  My point is simply that  there is much to be learned by carefully and sympathetically hearing the heart beat of preaching, and teaching about preaching, from another tradition.  Smith’s home in the African American tradition of preaching offers up a sustained mining of its strengths for preaching more generally.  He consistently takes up scriptural examples, piling them on top of each other for emphasis. Related to this, one concern I have is that this allusive manner belies his concern for biblical illiteracy expressed elsewhere (54).  He emphasises a jazz-like openness to spontaneity sustained by a particular pneumatology.

I have a few qualms and suggestions. Suggestions first. My recommendation would be that readers first turn to the back of the book to soak up the two sermons that Smith provides.  These will give punchy illustrations of his concerns uncoupled from the difficulties of his more extended prose.  For it is simply the case that the sermon is primarily an oral/aural event.  It might be argued that where sermons are delivered as consecutive chapters in the preachers’ forthcoming book that the hearing church is sermonically sold short.  But, on the other hand, as in Smith’s case, where the book is shaped by the continuous anecdote, repetition, unsignalled jumps of logic and syntax in the argument – that may certainly be powerfully nourished and sustained by modulation of tone and pace of speech, eye contact and gesture in preaching- the reader is equally sold short.

Now on to a few qualms, and each relates to Smith’s mode of writing related to the reader. Smith’s prose reflects the spoken rather than written word, and this creates an odd effect for the reader. On one hand, there is a curious economy of the spoken word – it’s significiation is supported and enhanced by a rich language of tone, expression, gesture and movement which do not leap to the aid of the writer.  Conversely, the little that may be said still bears repetition.  This habit of speech can create emphasis and sustain structure and meaning (see Smith’s discussion of ‘ostinato'(149)). On the other hand, excessive repetition in Smith’s writing created a page-flicking insecurity in me as the reader, having to check my ‘deja-vu’ against what I supposed to be a contribution to a sustained train of thought.  This makes the book, ultimately much more serviceable as interesting individual chapters than as a sustained discourse.   The spontaneity of Smith’s account appears finally burdened down as if a poem has been translated into prose, in order to try to fit the requirements of a text book.  Smith’s material is too rich to be boiled down into such a mould.

I would love to have seen the shortest chapter 6 expanded with greater emphasis on the theological positions alluded to. In a discussion of ‘Maintaining Doctrinal Balance’ not only could ‘balance’ have been more interestingly linked into the dance metaphor (for a clumsy reviewer who can only dance in the eyes of his soon to be embarrassed daughter!), but the chapter cried out for more substantive discussion to provide ballast for the book as a whole.  We might have gloried much longer on the suggested importance of the meeting of Christology and Intratrinitarian community (139-140), not least to defend the suggestion that preaching is incarnational (49).

Smith places a very welcome emphasis on the holistic character of preaching with respect of the preacher and the integrity of life lived, and the necessary, even if underdeveloped, Trinitarian convictions that sustain this account. I would like to suggest that Smith affirms that any good preaching is doctrinal, but it also seems that there may be a whole host of other types of preaching amongst which doctrinal preaching takes its place (67).  If the publishing industry may seem to demand novelty, Smith is to be congratulated in prizing doctrinal fidelity through his own individual coinage of metaphor.  The reader is called to hear and respond appropriately – in worship.  If the book is deliberately short on neat answers it will warm the heart and challenge the mind of the reader eager to learn from a rich tradition that takes the doctrine held out by Scripture with cheerful seriousness.

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