|A Brief Review of The Word in This World:
Two Sermons by Karl Barth.
Kurt Johanson, ed.
Paperback: Regent College, 2007.
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Reviewed by Chris Smith.
There was once a phase in my life where I was reading anything I could get my hands on by Karl Barth. However, that phase has sorted of waned over the last decade and it has been quite awhile since I’ve read anything by Barth. Thus, I was delighted to have the opportunity to immerse myself again in some of Barth’s work, when Kurt Johanson invited me to review his new little book The Word in the World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth. Although Barth’s sermons are an essential part of this volume, they are almost equaled in significance by the supporting materials that Johanson has assembled alongside the sermons here, particularly Will Willimon’s introduction “Preaching with Karl Barth,” in which he examines these two sermons as exemplars within the larger context of Barth’s homiletic work.
The first sermon, “On the Sinking of the Titanic” was preached on Sunday 21 April 1912, the Sunday immediately following the oceanliner’s infamous sinking, when Barth was a twenty-six year old preacher in the town of Safenwil in Switzerland. Eberhard Busch notes in the book’s foreword that in this sermon: “[The] newspaper report leads the thought and is then also illuminated by biblical words” (9). The second sermon was preached on no less of a momentous occasion, in Bremen on 24 November 1934, a mere two days after the Confessing Church of Germany, in which Barth was deeply involved, had spoken out against the Nazi government. In contrast to the first sermon, however, the biblical text in this second sermon is primarily and it is in the light of this text (Matthew 14:22-33) that the events of the moment were understood.
Will Willimon does a superb job at bringing these sermons together and highlighting their significance:
It is fine for us preachers to try to speak to the culture, to try to make our sermons relevant to the needs of our people. But what does a preacher say when the sky is dark, very dark, and the temptations are so seductive, and the Enemy puts on a polite, benign nationalistic smile telling us that there are some sensible measures that need to be taken because our culture, our nation, our way of life are being threatened? In such a time, it is as if the preacher, in true service to the congregation, is driven to the text, the authoritative text that stands above our context, the text that speaks a word that we, in our fearful situation, could never speak ourselves. This is the birth of truly faithful preaching. And this is the witness who is Karl Barth (21-22, emphasis added).
And thus in these fine examples from Karl Barth’s work, we have in The Word in This World, a simple but profound introduction to homiletics. This volume would not only work well in an introductory homiletics class, but also would be a superb gift for those young people in our churches who are considering a call to the pastorate, or who have been charged with the role of preaching within a church congregation.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com