It's not too often that you read "Hogwash!" in a scholarly book review. But that's exactly one of the comments that Tim Sensing, a professor at Abilene Christian University, makes in his review of the book A is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church, by Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren, and Jerry Haselmayer. Sensing's review appears in the most recent issue of Restoration Quarterly (Volume 51, Fourth Quarter 2009, pp. 251-253), and it serves as a model of one of the functions of good scholarship: to drive out bad scholarship.
According to Sensing, A is for Abductive is a dictionary type book that "advertises itself as a primer for people desiring to discern the thought processes of churches that are responding to postmodern culture." The book includes entries like "I is for Icon." But Sensing doesn't have to go beyond the very first entry, "A is for Abductive Method," to find what he calls "enough fodder" for his review. In that first entry, the authors cite the work of philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, and advocate an approach to preaching that, instead of analyzing, looks to create an image or compose an experience. Sounds sexy, doesn't it?
But as Sensing points out, not only are the authors guilty of mere assertion, they apparently didn't bother to read the work of C. S. Pierce: you know, the work that supposedly provides the theoretical foundation for what they're saying. They do cite a 1970 dissertation dealing with Pierce's theory. So Sensing read the dissertation and compared it to A is for Abductive. What he found was "no basis for associating Pierce's understanding of the logic of scientific discovery to the abductive method presented by the authors." In short, Sweet, McLaren and Haselmayer have completely misappropriated C. S. Pierce, and are, at least in this case, patently guilty of a name-dropping sort of pseudo scholarship.
Meanwhile, Sensing points out, all of the sudden everyone's getting all "abductive." For example, a recent article by Paul Windsor, "A Space to Occupy: Creating a Missional Model for Preaching," (Stimulus, Vol. 13, no 1 : 20-25) cites A is for Abductive as though it were a genuine authority.
Carl Savage and William Presnell do much the same thing in their book Narrative Research in Ministry: A Postmodern Research Approach for Faith Communities (Louisville: Wayne E. Oates Institute, 2008). Sensing notes that Savage and Presnell cite A is for Abductive "to make claims about narrative research methodology. Relying on the authors' pseudo-work leads them to assert that the essence of narrative as the primary voice of theological research in ministry is 'non-logical.'" (This is where Sensing has to say, "Hogwash!"). He closes with, "Those footnoting this work contribute to the dissemination of ignorance."
Upon reading this review, I was reminded that some of the best preachers I've ever known didn't know much about communication theory per se. But they did love the Lord. They modeled, imperfectly, what it means to live for Him. And they understood a few things about how to convict and persuade people, how to show them the hope that is found only in Christ Jesus and build them up in faith. Most of that know-how came as a result of their deep study of the Bible and a passion for preaching God's Word.
I know, to some ears that might sound a bit sappy, nostalgic, inadequate. I can only protest that maybe that's part of what's behind the loss of vitality in American church life today. There can be no doubt that major shifts are taking place in American thought and life. I don't understand much about that. What I do know is that nonsense masquerading as Christian scholarship or "the next big thing" isn't the answer. How 'bout you?