Preaching Radical and Orthodox

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Alison Milbank, John Hughes, Arabella Milbank
  • London, England: 
    Hymns Ancient and Modern
    , October
     2017.
     144 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780334056416.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Edited by Alison Milbank, John Hughes, and Arabella Milbank, Preaching Radical & Orthodox is a collection of sermons from a “who’s who” cast of distinguished academics and clergy persons, as well as select up-and-coming preachers such as Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer and Arabella Milbank associated with the school of theological inquiry known as Radical Orthodoxy (RO). The sermons journey through the Christian liturgical calendar from Advent to Trinity Sunday and Season and beyond. 

For those unaware or in need of a refresher, RO is a movement in Christian academic theology that began in England in the 1990s with figures such as John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward. Distinguishing itself from other “liberal,” “transcendentalist,” and “neo-orthodox” strands of theological inquiry, RO understands itself as orthodox because it leans heavily upon interpretations of creedal, patristic, and medieval Christianity to derive its assertions. It is self-styled as radical with respect to at least three methodological approaches: (1) returning to patristic and medieval Christian resources and the “Augustinian vision of all knowledge as divine illumination,” in order to (2) “criticise modern society, culture, politics, art, science, and philosophy with an unprecedented boldness,” and (3) through such engagements, to rethink the tradition of Christianity (John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward, Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, Routledge, 1999, 2-3).

Indeed, what is proclaimed in the edited volume of sermons coheres strongly with the collection of essays that introduced RO to a wide readership. In a message entitled “Music is What Matters Most,” The Rev. Dr. Andrew Davidson, Strawbridge Lecturer in Theology and the Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, appeals to Irenaeus of Lyons and his vision of how Christ ultimately draws all of human life together in God to position music strictly as a witness of divine hope. Music does not in any way save of its own accord (36). In another sermon entitled “A Wondrous Exchange,” The Rev. Rachel Greene, former Chaplain at Trinity College of Cambridge University, looks to Gregory of Nazianzus to clarify how Jesus ministers in solidarity with human life. From there she moves to a critique of substitutionary atonement whereby the crucifixion is understood only as a sacrifice for human sin (78). For Greene, the saving of Jesus becomes most real in the ways that he also experiences the suffering and burdens of those whom he desires to redeem—victims and perpetrators. In their preaching, Davidson and Greene deploy the methods of RO to correct aesthetic idolatry and Christian doctrine with patristic wisdom. 

While Sam Wells endorses Preaching Radical & Orthodox somewhat sensationally—“These passionate and powerful sermons are as intense as Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, as intimate as Elijah bidding farewell to Elisha, and as thrilling as Mary meeting the risen Lord”—readers will find the collection a homiletical summit of what is arguably the most formidable Christian theological movement of its generation as it now enters into a third decade. 

What seems curious, however, is the shared last names (surnames) between editors and contributors, and the dedication to the recently deceased Hughes. The volume feels like a family affair and as much a dedicatory piece as a preaching-based expression of RO Those aspects need not be seen as limitations, and my comment here is not meant to be unkind. Hughes was only thirty-five years old when he passed away and the editors, contributors, and he are without a doubt incandescent. But one wonders if the sermons assembled in this volume do more than exemplify RO preaching, for they locate countercultural and faithful preaching almost exclusively from the remarkably elite—those affiliated with notable universities, seminaries, and Anglican and Episcopalian parishes.

Jacob, Elijah, and Mary were undereducated Hebrews who turned reality upside down in their engagements with God. The sermons here double down on station and class as the factors most able to elucidate the mysteries of Christian theology. While Irenaeus of Lyons okayed power and wealth as tools that could be used to glorify God, Gregory of Nazianzus refused to be named bishop and renounced his family’s fortune in order to provide for the poor. That kind of orthodoxy and radicality seems faint if present in the current collection. If one crucial task of the volume is “to uncover the real and salvific opportunity for the revelation of God's purpose for his world” (3), missing too are preachers, institutions, and churches that hint of the apocalyptic vision of the future for followers of Jesus: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robe brilliantly, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9). Yet reading Preaching Radical & Orthodox alongside another sermon collection like Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and Their Sermons, 1850-1979 (Jossey Bass, 1997) from Betty Collier-Thomas might be one way to create a transnational homiletic dialogue in a primarily English-speaking classroomAlternatively, one might see Preaching Radical & Orthodox as another threshold RO work or set piece, showing readers fresh and intricately sculpted Christian proclamations that point toward frontiers for more moxied preaching in the name of God.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gerald C. Liu is Assistant Professor of Worship and Preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alison Milbank is Associate Professor of Literature and Theology at the University of Nottingham, and Canon Theologian of Southwell Minster.

John Hughes was Dean of Chapel of Jesus College Cambridge, and one of the Church of England’s most promising theologians until his death in 2014.

Arabella Milbank is an ordinand at Westcott House and is completing her postgraduate studies in English and Theology at the University of Cambridge.

Keywords: 

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