Sticky metaphors and signature sermons
'God is Always Bigger: Reflections by a Hopeful Critic' by John Bowen.
John P. Bowen, Emeritus Professor of Evangelism at Wycliffe College, Toronto, has given us a gift in his collection of sermons, essays, and reflections titled God is Always Bigger: Reflections by a Hopeful Critic. That was his goal as a theologian who is a self-described “collector type” – collectors must give away their collections to avoid miserliness. The gift is not only in the specific message of each sermon and reflection, but also in showing us the breadth, creativity, and imagination that makes a theologian like Bowen both reliable and relatable.
The reflections are divided up into seven sections. In the first section, “Signature Sermons,” Bowen shares the sermons and texts that he has been most drawn to over the years. In these sermons we see Bowen’s deep desire to encourage people to follow Jesus, to dethrone the idols in their lives, and to embrace the mystery of God who is always “bigger than I thought, more mysterious than I thought, more uncontrollable than I think I hoped.” Other sections, such as “Facets of Spirituality” offer challenging thoughts on a wide variety of topics such as the usefulness of Ignatian spirituality for non-Catholics and the benefits of pietism. The final section, “Good News about Evangelism”, focuses in on Bowen’s valuable work as a Professor of Evangelism – a title, he admits, that carries a lot of baggage for people both in and outside the church. His reflections in this section show us the ways in which he has devoted his life’s work to redeeming that title, to equipping students and laity alike to put the evangel (good news) back in evangel-ism.
Throughout this collection, each reflection is preceded by a short explanation of the context where it first appeared that help to frame the message for us readers. For example, we see that Bowen is self-conscious to save his most in-depth explorations of Koine Greek for seminary audiences. Then there is a whole section of “Sermons for Special Occasions” including a daughter’s wedding, a mother’s funeral, and a visit from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Wycliffe College. On their own, these short contextual notes offer a valuable insight into Bowen’s theological life: communicating the good news of the gospel is always contextual, and part of the work of the preacher and theologian is to exegete their context.
In the very first sermon, “The School of Jesus” based on Matthew 11:28-30, we get a glimpse of what makes Bowen’s collection remarkable. He takes the somewhat abstract, churchy concept of “discipleship” and helps us to see it through the more concrete, everyday metaphor of a trade school. By using this metaphor, he challenges the idea that disciples were students who just sat in classrooms and listened to lectures. Instead, disciples may be better understood as “apprentices” who were on the road with Jesus, and who learned by watching him. Listeners and readers are then invited to enrol full-time in the trade school of Jesus. He uses metaphors regularly to give his listeners and readers concrete hooks on which they can hang abstract or unfamiliar ideas. Another example is his description of “Vacuum Cleaner Churches.” Like a vacuum cleaner, these churches suck people into all the activities and ministries within the church community at the expense of equipping folks for their outward-focused missionary work in the world. These are the kinds of sticky metaphors that permeate Bowen’s preaching and writing – they have stuck in my mind and kept working on me long after reading.
Another remarkable characteristic of Bowen’s preaching and writing is his imaginative use of dialogue. One example comes from a talk given on the “Five Spiritualities in the Body of Christ” where, instead of charting the differences between theological accents, he gives them each a name (Samantha Sacramental, for example) and puts them into a conversation with each other. This helps listeners to embody the experiences and values of each theological accent instead of keeping these differences in the realm of ideas or neatly delineated on a chart. It is a valuable skill that students of preaching, especially, would do well to take note of.
Bowen draws widely from different writers and thinkers, and fans of C.S. Lewis will be especially delighted with the regularity that his writings and stories make appearances throughout the book. This is not surprising, since Bowen and Lewis seem to share a deep awareness for how story and metaphor speak to us and shape us. As with the work of Lewis, there is much to be learned from the content of this collection as well as from the engaging mode of communication. These things and more make Bowen’s contribution a gift and delight for pastors, students, theologians, and any follower of Christ who desires a generous and challenging encounter with a God who is always bigger than we dared to hope or imagine.