A (Sort of) Book Review: A Two for One Special

I am incredibly grateful for the high quality of education I received. I am proud to display my diplomas in my office. My seminary degree is from McMaster Divinity College. MDC provides a top notch, and affordable (since it’s a College within a publicly funded University) broadly evangelical seminary education. What makes MDC so great is the incredible quality of the faculty and staff. The professors I learned from are amazing men and women. I recently finished reading books by two of my former professors (by recently I mean within the past six months… finding time to write these reviews is tough at times). So, in the interest of full disclosure, these two reviews are of books by people I hold in high regard, so my appreciation of these works may be skewed by my esteem for these fine gentlemen, but I still think my comments are not at all inaccurate.

Phil C. Zylla. The Roots of Sorrow: A Pastoral Theology of Suffering. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012. Dr. Zylla is Academic Dean and Professor of Pastoral Theology at MDC. This book is culmination of many years of research and writing, as well as insights from 18 years of Pastoral and personal experience. I was so pleased to see this go to print, because, knowing Dr. Zylla, his heart for caring for the hurting, and his incredibly keen sensitivity to care needs, this book needed to be available to people. The content of Dr. Zylla’s courses on pastoral care needed to be in book form for a wide audience to benefit from.

Dr. Zylla frames pastoral care to those who suffer as movements. He begins by identifying types and sources of suffering, and laying foundational concepts for dealing with suffering. He argues that the pastoral care giver’s job is not to theologize or explain suffering. Zylla then examines various common explanations given to explain suffering in the world, and critiques each as ultimately unhelpful while the person is in the midst of suffering. He then moves on to examine the process of pastoral caregivers walking with the recipient of care through the stages of initial shock and speechlessness to lament, helping the person find words to describe and vocalize the suffering; and then the movement of the caregiver from indifference (aloofness) to compassion, solidarity with the person in their suffering; the the movement from loneliness to community, the means of avoiding the suffering within the suffering of being isolated while in distress; and then finally the movement from suffering to hope. This hope, Zylla argues “vitiates suffering”, and that “hope is subtler than its usual portayal in popular Christian belief as ‘triumph.’ It might rather be seen as dialectic with despair- hope teeters as it were, between despair and confidence.” (156)

Zylla has competently laid out a framework for becoming bearers of hope to the afflicted. He cautions pastors against trying to push grief too quickly or with an agenda, but to allow grief to move more organically from the initial shock to a place of hopefulness in the face of the suffering. He insists we allow space for silence, and simply facilitate and expression of grief from within, and join in solidarity with the person to assist in the movement towards healing and hopefulness.

Zylla is someone who has a very strong to commitment to carefully crafting words (one of his assignments to his students is to have them write poetry as an exercise to help appreciate the importance of using our words well). His composition is articulate, and one gets the sense each word has been meticulously chosen to deliver the most concise, and appropriate meaning. This books is a finely crafted piece of pastoral care artistry (and yes, that is a thing). It highlights the impact of beauty with words to effect transformation in readers/hearers. Not only does the content promote care with how we speak to those in the midst of suffering, and the potential dangers of misuse of words, the form of the book demonstrates the importance and helpfulness of carefully selected, and well phrased words of hope. A simple, prayerfully, and artfully crafted word of compassion, solidarity, and hopefulness can have a great impact.

The only criticism I could offer would be that I wanted a  greater quantity of interaction with biblical texts. Zylla under represents his abilities as an exegete. While the book is not meant to be an exegetical work, unpacking some texts might have strengthened the various arguments.

Overall, The Roots of Sorrow is a powerful, and helpful guide for any pastor or elder/deacon/leader involved in caring for those who have encountered affliction. This book should be on the required reading list for all students training for pastoral ministry, and should be on the shelf of each and every pastor’s study. It really is that good. I have a pretty high confidence in saying this will likely become one of the standard texts (if not the text) for training pastors in the practice of care for the grieving.

Michael P. Knowles. We Preach Not Ourselves: Paul on Proclamation. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008. It seems like the book is the book Dr. Knowles was born and bred to write. Dr. Knowles is Chair of Preaching and also Professor of New Testament. In other words, he has two specialties, preaching and the New Testament. He teaches preaching, ministry formation and practice as well as Biblical Theology (the results of his years of study and teaching being this book, which is also outstanding) and he used to teach intro to NT Greek. So, examining the manner in which Paul describes the act of preaching should be (and as it becomes obvious in this book) right in Knowles’ wheelhouse.

In order to narrow the focus, Knowles uses the first 6 chapters of 2 Corinthians to explore Paul’s theology of preaching. This book then becomes both a theological-spiritual commentary on 2 Cor. 1-6, and also a helpful guide to the practice of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By exploring the various images Paul uses (ambassadors, jars of clay containing great treasure, mirrors reflecting, faces radiating like Moses, etc.), Knowles argues that the act of preaching, as well as the message of our preaching must both be cruciform, that is cross-shaped. In our preaching, the message is of Christ crucified, but our preaching itself must also reflect this self-abasing work and deflect any attention away from ourselves, and then our unsuitability for our mission then confirms the message we proclaim- not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as slaves of our hearers for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 4:5). Christ’s death and resurrection is not only the content of our message, but also the pattern of our ministry (255). Preaching is “lived theology” (259). Both the content of our preaching, and the mode of preaching should testify the grace and mercy of God, especially as demonstrated through the narration of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Thus, the validation of our message, and our preaching ministry is not success by the world’s standards; influence, numerical growth, wealth, etc., but instead our validation is the “resurrection” of our hearers. The coming of the new creation, by the reconciliation of those to God through Christ is the testimony of the validity of the message and messenger. All the images employed by Paul to his Corinthian audience speak of Paul’s self-abasement to see Christ at work in the people to whom Paul preaches.

Dr. Knowles’ teaching on the practice of preaching has proven incredibly influential on my own ministry. I am greatly indebted to him for the way I approach a text for sermon prep, but also the delivery of a sermon- that my job is to testify to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. My job is not to be persuasive or impressive, but to be faithful to the point of death in witnessing to Christ. This book captures that brilliantly by tracing it through Paul’s description of his own ministry of preaching in Corinth. If you are studying 2 Corinthians, or thinking through your own practice of preaching, this book will prove incredibly fruitful. One can’t read this without being provoked, challenged, humbled, and driven to be better at the practice of being a faithful preacher. Knowles’ keen observation of the overlap of the content and shape of Paul’s preaching wonderfully encourages all who preach to rethink their practice in light of the content of the Gospel. This book is aimed at pastors primarily, but is fruitful as an academic study of the practice of preaching, as well as a helpful tool in the study of 2 Corinthians. Knowles shows how effectively he can wear many hats- both as an exegete, a preacher, and an authority in homiletic practice. I, without any reservation, recommend this book to any and all pastors, and theology geeks (there are some more technical bits which may prove difficult for the average reader or arm chair theologian).

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