Book Review: The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition, by Douglas Sean O’Donnell & Leland Ryken
Douglas Sean O’Donnell & Leland Ryken, The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition: Preaching the Literary Artistry and Genres of the Bible. Crossway, 2022. 304 pages.
My wife recently helped me evaluate my sugar intake. As it turns out, I was ingesting more sugar than I realized. Taking a step back and looking over my food and drink choices revealed a not-so-rosy picture. My diet was lopsided and needed correction.
Similarly, as a preacher, I have noted a lopsidedness, where I naturally gravitate towards preaching certain Bible genres and not others. I even find myself intimidated by certain genres because of cultural distance or lack of experience. I have preached many sermons in epistles, but only a handful from poetry. For me, the more linear the book, the better.
But not all Bible genres come packaged in the straightforward, logical fashion of an epistle. Moving from one genre to another can feel like trying to walk on the moon after being used to Earth’s gravity.
So how might a pastor like myself become more competent and confident in dealing with the full breadth of the literary styles of the Bible?
Enter Douglas Sean O’Donnell and Leland Ryken’s The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition. This book is written to help pastors pay better attention to all “the literary dimensions of the Bible” (23). Their hope is to rescue preachers (and congregations) from “sermons filled with merely abstract theological propositions and proof-texted moral applications” (23). Calling and equipping the pastor to take “the literary approach” is, therefore, the authors’ main thrust of the book.
They offer seven reasons to take the literary approach:
- It is essential to good preaching.
- It helps avoid reductionistic preaching.
- It respects the varied forms through which meaning is communicated.
- It helps congregations relive the text as fully as possible.
- It brings awareness and appreciation of the artistry of God’s Word.
- It opens the entire canon for exploration and exposition.
- It adds freshness and enjoyment to reading and preaching.
The authors help pastors take this approach by walking through six major genres in six chapters—narrative, parable, epistle, poetry, proverb, and visionary writing. Each chapter is neatly divided into two main sections. The first deals with analytical and literary tools for understanding the genre; the second with practical insights for preaching the genre.
Everything from story arcs in narrative to parallelisms in poetry are expounded upon. Several charts and graphs—like one on 13 different types of proverbs—also serve as helpful visual aids.
An immediate advantage of the book’s structure is that one need not read it sequentially. The reader can easily parachute into any chapter on a genre they’re interested in and will not lose much by having not read previous chapters.
I found it to be an easy read, and where it delves into complex ideas, the authors simplify and make them accessible.The authors employ wit and humor, which the reader will undoubtedly find refreshing—all the while leaving the reader confident they are reading men who take God’s Word seriously and believe in its power to change lives.
The book draws from a decent amount of scholarship and is full of great quotes from different sources. What one gets, therefore, is not just the voice of the two authors, but that of a plethora of biblical scholars and preachers of the past and present. O’Donnell also gives several glimpses into his own sermon manuscripts to illustrate how he employs some of the preaching insights offered.
Beyond providing practical tips for preaching a genre, the book gave me insights applicable for all preaching. The meditation on eloquence given in the “Preaching Epistles” chapter was gold.
Jonathan Edwards wrote that the goal of his sermons was to raise the affections as high as possible so long as the affections were raised to that level by the truth. Is that your goal in preaching? I have no doubt that you care about the truth when you preach, but do you care about how that truth is communicated? Do you preach both substantive and stylistically beautiful sermons? (142)
Some chapters’ overlap in applicability may cause one of the book’s drawbacks; some ideas felt a tad repetitive. For example, the suggestion to use contemporary examples/illustrations in preaching appears more than once in some shape or another. A similar explanation on parallelism also occurs in the chapters on poetry and proverbs.
Another potential drawback may arise in that some pastors may not feel comfortable with a few of the practical preaching suggestions. One that stood out as a potential point of disagreement was O’Donnell’s encouragement to tell personal stories. He gives an example from a sermon that could be seen as him making himself out to be a hero. Some pastors may find that distasteful or self-promoting.
However, these drawbacks are minor in nature and do not take away from the value of the book.
This book will serve as a faithful companion that the preacher can consult from time to time to refresh his mind on the literary touchpoints of the genre he is teaching.
Pastors will also find this book handy in raising up men in the church to better handle God’s Word. Because of the neat arrangement of the material, the first half of each chapter could be employed for discipling a congregation in their own individual Bible study. The material therein is relevant for every Christian. Thus, pastors could use it to prepare a six-week Bible study class for instructing the congregation on understanding different biblical genres.
Lastly, for the pastor without formal seminary training, this book will be particularly useful because it provides good introduction into the major biblical genres that he must inevitably deal with in his ministry. At the end of each chapter, there is a list of resources to help pastors build their own library for each genre covered. This provides a good path forward for those who might desire to delve deeper into the topics covered.
The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition has already given me a new degree of confidence in wrapping my mind around those Bible genres I previously felt uncomfortable with. I am eager to get to work, and I pray the book energizes you as well.