Book Review: Preaching Parables to Postmoderns, by Brian Stiller

Review
03.05.2010

In this book, Brian Stiller, president of Tyndale University College and Seminary, Toronto, offers guidance on preaching the parables in the contemporary world. He regards parables as particularly useful in this context because, rather than teaching in a direct, didactic fashion, parables offer narrative-like views of the world which challenge the listener in more subtle, yet more disturbing ways. Parables involve less a transmission of information and more a transformation of the reader or the hearer.

The book is an interesting mix. To focus on the good first: the careful reader will find many insights into the biblical text. In chapter 3, for example, Stiller offers his own views on ten parables, offering particular help on how the preacher should analyze them in sermon preparation. He examines the text, draws out the various twists and turns in the parable’s plot, reflects on how the parable might give a church access to “postmodern” ears (of which more later), and then offers exegetical and homiletical outlines as well as reflections on homiletical applications. Then, in chapter 4, he provides four sample sermons as examples for the reader.

These chapters certainly make the book a helpful addition to a pastor’s library. Yet I have some hesitation concerning Stiller’s continual need to emphasize that he is writing for postmoderns, a need which shows up in the title and throughout the book.

The treatment of postmoderns has a second-hand flavor. There is nothing wrong with that in itself; the problem is that Stiller repeats some typical shibboleths about postmoderns which need to be challenged. Thus he premises his discussion on seven characteristics of the postmodern era, all of which are highly questionable:

1. Postmoderns reject reason as the only avenue to truth. Well, yes, but has anyone ever really argued that reason is the only avenue to truth. Poetry, for example, is not the preserve of postmoderns, nor was it rejected by the Enlightenment (Goethe being a great example).

2. Postmoderns reject truth as objective. Agreed, but there is a distinction between “objective” and “neutral” which needs to be made. A Christian can—indeed, must—concede we’re not neutral toward the truth—we can only speak from our perspective—but an objective truth exists nonetheless. Stiller’s argument at this point would have been more cogent had he at least acknowledged this distinction and, with it, the fact that many moderns knew their knowledge was not “neutral” (cf. Kant, Marx, Freud, to name but three). One can reject the postmodern attack on objective knowledge without being required to subscribe to a naive belief in the neutrality of knowledge.

3. Rejecting authority as “will to power” leads to seeing history as a distortion, written by those who wield power. This may sound facetious, but having worked as a professional historian for some fifteen years, I cannot begin to describe how marginal history is to the real centers of power!

4. Postmoderns reject the notion of metanarrative. But here’s the rub: Christianity is metanarrative. To fail to set the parables within the metanarrative of the Christian story may be the reader’s choice, as Stiller says; but, if Christianity has any transcendent validity, one cannot avoid the conclusion that this is a wrong choice.

5. Postmodernism rejects the Enlightenment’s view of the autonomy of the individual for more communitarian approaches. Again, a valid point as far as it goes, but the Enlightenment developed numerous concepts that were key to much of its philosophical content, that were far from individualistic in nature, and which clearly stand in continuity with this allegedly more recent communitarianism—for example, the concepts (and language) of race, class, and nationality. This basic point must surely qualify dramatically any simple generalizations about Enlightenment individualism.

6. Postmodernity emphasizes the culturally conditioned nature of the world and views language as a prison. Stiller never makes it clear how this “linguistic prison” view really connects to what he is trying to do with the parables.

7. Postmodernity rejects the optimism of the modern era. Highly questionable. Many of the great modernists (Conrad, Eliot, Huxley) were profoundly pessimistic. Modernism’s optimism (and that generally a middle class phenomenon; not too many child laborers or chimney sweeps in the Industrial Revolution, I suspect, were very optimistic) is too often overplayed as a means of making the contemporary era seem exceptional and discontinuous with the immediate past.

Other comments on postmoderns are also strange. We are told that ethics are particularly important to postmoderns (45), and that that postmoderns are preoccupied with human rights (55). I doubt that ethics and human rights can be grounded in the kind of postmodernism described by Stiller. Both require believing in some kind of metanarrative, some universal concept of “human nature.” To the extent that postmoderns are preoccupied with these things, to that extent they remain children of modernity.

In the end, I was perplexed by the book. There was plenty of thought-provoking material on the biblical text and the task of preaching, but there was also a rather contrived view of postmodernism that seemed to have little connection to the book’s practical advice. Maybe I’m cynical, but I wonder if publishers are to blame, putting pressure on authors to add the “p” word to their titles in order to shift more copies?