Homiletics Conference: misusing the name of God for violent and divisive purposes

Societas Homiletica, the international guild of scholars in homiletics, held its biennial conference at Yale Divinity School Aug.  1 – 5, hosted by co-presidents Thomas Troeger, the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor of Christian Communication, and Lucy Hogan of Wesley Seminary, Washington, DC, and board member Nora Tubbs Tisdale, the Clement-Muehl Professor of Homiletics.

The eighty attendees came from Africa, Australia, China, Burma (Myanmar), Europe, India, Korea, New Zealand, and North America.  “The variety of cultures and perspectives deepened the participants’ understanding of the contextual nature of homiletics while at the same time enlarging their view of what it means to preach the Word of God in a global community,” said Troeger.

ConferenceThe theme of this year’s conference, “Picturing God in a Fragmented World,” emerged from a major issue that preachers and homileticians are encountering no matter where they are located, according to Troeger: the misuse of the name of God for violent and divisive purposes.

“Homileticians are having to engage this phenomenon in their scholarship and teaching as they prepare the next generation of Christian preachers,” he observed.

The conference featured three major addresses related to the theme by Yale faculty: Sally Promey, Emilie Townes, and David Kelsey, followed by formal responses and small discussion groups.
Following are excerpts from each of the addresses.

Sally Promey, deputy director and professor of religion and visual culture and professor of American studies. “Religion in Plain View,” drawn from her book project:  Religion in Plain View: The Public Aesthetics of American Belief

I am deeply interested in the social relations performed by display, the kinds of conversations that take place in a display’s presence and in interaction with it.  Display assists in making (sometimes even forcing) social spaces for negotiation about individual and collective identities, values, and commitments.  Religious display, of the everyday sort in which I am principally interested, is thus a performance of social commerce, a kind of conversation or exchange concerning interactions of people, objects, places, and cosmologies.  Exploration of these exchanges, and their roles in shaping visual and mental landscapes over time, perhaps most fundamentally describes my larger research project on this subject.  The public display of religion, though it clearly has other outcomes too, today plays a key role in pressing assertions of the nation’s plural character----and also in framing and shaping and constraining that pluralism in particular ways.


The public display of religion, as it generates social spaces of conversation and confrontation, participates in exploring and defining the shape of religious and civic commonality as well as difference, clarifying a fabric of concordances and overlapping commitments in tandem with distinctions and disagreements.  When American culture more publicly expresses its plural constituencies (in plain view), visible religion takes on an active cultural role:  rehearsing diversity and the obstacles to it, practicing pluralism…..and encountering resistances.  The increasing visual pluriformity of religions encourages us to imagine and to reimagine, in public and in private, the permeable social, geographic, and political boundaries that organize important aspects of daily human experience----and that contribute to shaping and reshaping the sense of what it means to be ‘American.

Emilie Townes, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Studies in Religion and Theology and associate dean of academic affairs.  Images of God in a Multicultural and Ever-Expanding World, Picturing God Through Culture

do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior?

this question is one that many of us have encountered in various settings—church, the street, camp, bars…

when presented in an aggressive and domineering way, it suggests—if not demands—an acquiescence that assaults and maims deeper engagement with other faith traditions and probably any possibility of tapping into God’s ongoing revelation

in short, an invitation to grace can quickly degenerate into persecution and a ruthless drive for converts—regardless

in the background of the christian triumphalism that often drives this question there is an appeal to the victory over sin, evil, and death by Jesus Christ

by our baptism, christians share this victory with Christ and the triumph becomes ours as well

this extension then proceeds to go too far when it suggests that this triumph includes victory over non-christians

in short, non-christians are evil if not satanic

this is the mean side of Christian triumphalism


colleagues, let’s stretch into our ministries (lay and ordained and beyond)--discover anew what a love of God and all of creation can and must mean when it is grounded in grace

walk around in it

sit down and play

with the holy sand

God has given you

for far too many of us

are skipping rope with paralyzing demons every day

that slip into an endless spiral of horizontal violence

without martin king's dream or malcolm x's nightmare

we must step into the places where the realities of diversity, difference, disagreement, harmony, hope, justice all exist

as we seek out and try to live in genuine partnerships that are diverse, thoughtful, challenging, and strategic

David Kelsey, the Luther A. Weigle Professor Emeritus of Theology

We must acknowledge that all our efforts to picture God are dangerous undertakings. Our efforts to picture God in times of cultural fragmentation and conflict are always in danger of inviting misuse of the name of God to legitimate violence. That danger can only be mitigated by avoiding ways of picturing God that domesticate God. It can only be avoided if our efforts to picture God to ourselves are guided by God’s own way of picturing God. God’s way of picturing God lies in the pattern of the movement of the life of one particular person, Jesus Christ, who is God’s image of God, as that movement is narrated in the Gospels. . . . In every case our picturing of God to ourselves will avoid domesticating God only if, in actual practice, our picturing balances off against each other stories that are parables of God’s freedom to be “other than” us and parables of God’s freedom to be  “intimate to” us. However, necessary as it is, playing off against each other and balancing different parables of God’s “otherness” and God’s “closeness” is itself inherently and inescapably dangerous. If the “balancing” fails, we picture God in one-sided ways that lead directly to domesticating pictures of God. If it succeeds, it pictures the wildness of God. But picturing God as wild, uncontrollable and unpredictable, is dangerous not only because it makes people uncomfortable but, more importantly, because we cannot tell ahead of time where it will lead us. God’s own picturing of God in the life of Jesus may allow us to picture God to one another. Indeed, it obliges us to picture God if we are to be faithful in our discipleship. But it can never make it safe to do so.