Review by E.S. Kempson
For years now, talking heads on electronic screens have intoned, “We are in a post-truth world.” If so, what place is there for a religion whose savior claims to be “the way, the truth, and the life”? In Speaking the Truth: Preaching in a Diverse Culture, Samuel Wells speaks as one convinced he has found that place or that it is not far off.
Wells recognizes there are legitimate reasons that Christianity’s claims to truth arouse some suspicion, such as institutional betrayal of those abused in its care and faith becoming appropriated for social control and national projects. He shuns these failings but refuses to forfeit the preacher’s prerogative to speak of the truth.
To him this means communicating “how the transformation brought about in Christ permeates and overturns every detail of human existence” (p. xv). His prose lacks the nostalgic air or authoritarian tones of an attempt to reestablish a bygone Christendom. Instead, he exults that “released from the burden of chairing the conversation and prevented from dominating the conversation, the Christian speaker stands to find a new voice that offers a blessing” (p. 218).
Rather than theorizing ad nauseam, most of this book directly demonstrates the kind of proclamation he urges. The first eight chapters are collections of sermons under a particular theme.
The book also stands apart because he writes from a unique context: a priest of the Church of England who lived and worked in America as the dean of Duke University Chapel for seven years. This helped him understand a country, culture, and institution while retaining the fresh insight of foreign eyes.
Speaking the Truth is not merely a sermon collection. The sermons become an investigation into truth, preaching, America, politics, and the university while they cover most key Christian doctrines and trials of discipleship. Extended prose on preaching preparation and the American and university context bookend the work.
It would have been improved by a scriptural index, a topical index, and a contents page that lists the sermons within each chapter, as this would have served the dipping in and out reading to which the book is most disposed.
Anyone familiar with Wells’s writing will observe themes developed elsewhere emerge here. Some will notice that this book (published in the United Kingdom) is a reworking of Speaking the Truth: Preaching in a Pluralistic Culture (published only in the United States in 2008). His alterations accommodate the U.K. audience and the intervening decade, e.g., two additional chapters from his current context (St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London’s Trafalgar Square), an additional introduction, and stylistic shifts throughout.
This is an instructive book for preachers, in that it is readily equipped to serve those who wish to develop and expand their homiletical skills. Each sermon has a preface that explains not only its context but also his intended effect and method. Along with his brief lucid prologue on sermon-writing, this makes it easy to analyze and appropriate his approach.
It is no less an enriching book for pew-sitters. The sermon prefaces that provide preachers with models provide the lay reader with transparency; Wells shows all his cards and has no gotcha moments, which treats the inquisitive reader with respect and the disillusioned one with honesty.
Readers who struggle to articulate their faith with respect in a diverse context, especially at a university or who find American culture, politics, and religion baffling will gain fresh insight from Wells’s perspective.
E.S. Kempson is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, and a licensed lay preacher in the Church of England.