Book Review: A Manual for Preaching, by Abraham Kuruvilla
Abraham Kuruvilla, A Manual for Preaching: The Journey from Text to Sermon. Baker Academic, 2019. 336 pages.
What do barbecue and preaching have in common? More than you might expect. Abraham Kuruvilla opens A Manual for Preaching by comparing the careful work of pit masters for their customers to the detailed sermon preparation of pastors for their congregations. And he does so in a way that makes you want to get busy working on your process, enjoying the process, and serving those entrusted to your pastoral care.
This book builds upon and assumes the work of his previous volume, A Vision for Preaching, which lays out what he thinks preaching ought to be. Now, in A Manual for Preaching, he describes the how-to steps for acting upon his convictions. This was my first exposure to Kuruvilla’s work, but it was accessible enough that I could still profitably engage with Manual.
There is much to appreciate. He sets a high bar for what preaching is and how it’s to be done. And he lays out accomplishable tasks for how to go about doing it. This frees the young preacher who desires to improve but is paralyzed by the question, “OK, so what now?” Kuruvilla is specific enough to list website resources regularly, to describe the best way to use an iPad to preach, and to illustrate his pre-service routine when he guest preaches. The book oozes practicality.
I’ll mention just three of the contributions I found helpful:
1. A Call to Work Hard
From the outset, Kuruvilla sets the expectation that a preacher needs to work hard. He helpfully reminds us that it begins in the study—but not just the week of the sermon. He lays out a schedule for the 12 weeks leading up to a sermon series. He even shares what the balance between long-term and immediate preparation looks like in his own schedule. Adopting this long-range commitment to hard work benefits the preacher by deepening his understanding of the whole book and affording him more time to internalize it.
But it isn’t only here where he focuses on hard work. He rightly cautions against relying on commentaries too heavily. He repudiates plagiarism. He then shares his own sermon development in Ephesians and the Jacob story. All this gives great voice to his call to skip the shortcuts and “learn to do your own work” (8). What could be a more practical tip for improving in preaching?
2. Work for YOUR Audience
In a world where sermons are often designed for the listening pleasure of an anonymous YouTube crowd, Kuruvilla insists sermons must be for our specific audience, whom we should know as well as possible. This emphasis shows up throughout the book, and I found it to be a helpful reminder that—even when we’re discerning the “theological thrust” of a passage, crafting applications, or choosing illustrations—all must be chosen with our audience in mind. He fills out John Hall’s illustration, saying, “Sermons insensitive to the audience, imperceptive to its composition, and inattentive to its needs are as good as letters without addresses—good for nothing and going nowhere” (127).
3. Discern What the Text is Doing
What makes Kuruvilla’s work stand out is his chapter “Discerning Theology.” It is fundamental to how he progresses throughout the rest of the book. Here he pushes preachers beyond a common stopping point. Too often as preachers, we are content to find out what a passage is saying and to simply repeat, restate, or explain this to our audience. But he pushes us beyond this to find out not simply what the text is saying, but what it is doing.
He calls this the “primary interpretive goal of the one who plans to preach the biblical text” (31). He gives the example of telling someone, “You’re standing on my foot!” While we may thoroughly understand each word and the construction of the sentence, we can’t miss the point of the statement which is, “Get off my foot!” (31).
In preaching, we may know the literary structure and key lexical questions in Genesis 1 to the smallest detail. But Kuruvilla wants to know whether we know what the story is doing? How is it functioning to shape someone into the image of Christ?
Once the preacher has discerned this, he now knows the primary function of his sermon—to do the same thing the text is doing. This is particularly helpful because Kuruvilla pushes us to go beyond understanding information to using the information the way the Bible does, for the reason the Bible does. And just as helpfully, he pushes us to cut out what isn’t significant to the theological thrust. We are to pay attention to what is significant in doing what the passage is trying to do.
I have found this language of uncovering what the text is doing very helpful and have already been using it in my own work and in training contexts with others.
But with “Discerning Theology” being such a significant part of the book, a few places for further work surfaced.
IDEAS THAT COULD BE FURTHER DEVELOPED
Specifically, we might benefit from greater clarity and substance on defining the thrust of the passage and how to discover it.
He concedes at the outset that finding out what a text is doing is more of an art than a science. There is no formula for this. And he may be somewhat right about that. I’m not sure, however, that the implication is quite right. Surely there are things we can do to confidently find the thrust.
To that end, Kuruvilla suggests we need to begin by uncovering what the author is saying before we can understand what he is doing. In the process of understanding what the author is saying, he tells us to both “list every question you have about the text,” (32) but also not to “chase every conceivable rabbit in the text” (34). We are encouraged to distinguish between the significant and insignificant, but without sufficiently clear guidelines.
The suggested process becomes even more vague in the move to understand what the author is doing. The guidelines at this point are “engage even more deeply with the text,” in a circle of guessing what the author is doing, based on what we think the author is saying, and checking and trying again. Again, he says while there is some science, it is mostly art, yet he doesn’t give much help on the science (38-39).
Other advice is to “not give up too soon. Read the text multiple times; immerse yourself in it; grapple and wrestle with it; don’t let go till it yields its fruit” (39). These all seem to be vague commands to “do more!” and “do better!”—but without enough direction on how to do so. It might frustrate a reader who is convinced of the importance of uncovering what the author is doing. For example, it’d be helpful to point the reader to something like finding the organization of the passage, or to consider the setting of the original author and audience. I understand this is not an exegesis or hermeneutics book, but if this is as foundational as he claims, he could help his reader more with the process.
Kuruvilla also uses several new terms for key concepts he doesn’t quite sufficiently define or distinguish from existing terminology. This manifests itself in him coining terms like ‘Pericopal Theology,’ even though he concedes he is stretching the meaning of the term pericope (40). He calls the single-sentence statement of what the author’s doing the ‘Theological Focus’ (40). I struggled to see how the ‘Theological Focus’ is different from other similar concepts. Throughout the book, he dismisses Haddon Robinson’s ‘Big Idea’ as reductionistic. At the same time, he concedes the Theological Focus is “but a reduction of the theology of the pericope” (109). Though he spends an Appendix trying to differentiate his Theological Focus from the Big Idea, he seems to misunderstand Robinson’s work at points. The result is generally unpersuasive.
I also had a hard time distinguishing his view of preaching as “curating the text” from making an argument. This may be due to working from a view of “argument” that limits it to merely convincing someone of the plausibility of an intellectual proposition. While he suggests some of the ancient rhetoricians were not arguing from a text as we are (270), he also shows that classical rhetoricians were trying to move people by changing the audience’s emotions or actions (62). That he is trying to make an argument in his sermon seems to shine through at points. Preachers should do what they can to influence hearers by their experience of “text + theology” (sic), he says (129). So, while he may argue that his approach is different from a rhetorical approach to making an argument, it is not clear how.
The remainder of the book, which addresses topics like manuscripts, delivery, and other parts of sermon invention, are generally good. They include practical suggestions and guidelines like the proportion of parts in your sermon, familiar to advice from other books on the topic. Given the primacy Kuruvilla places on finding the thrust, he could abbreviate these later chapters and further develop this more central area.
In the end, A Manual for Preaching is a contribution which I’ve already found helpful and would love to see him develop. I suspect those who work hard and practice what Kuruvilla suggests, like a barbeque pit master, will serve their people well.