Books reviewed by James Woodward

Living ordinary life in a spiritual way

The Fire Within:sermons from the edge of exile, Allan BoesakThe Fire Within: sermons from the edge of exile, Allan Boesak. Wild Goose Publications: The Iona Community. 2004. 170pp. ISBN 978-1-905010-38-7

Allan Boesak is a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa. In the period before the ending or apartheid in his country, he was a well-known figure in the movement for change: after all, non-white leaders in that church were not figures you expected to come across!

Today South Africa has changed beyond recognition – for good, and in some ways for ill – and in the process, over that time, Allan Boesak has rather faded from public view. After all, what does a revolutionary do once the revolution has come about?

Now, however, under the auspices of the Iona Community, we have a new collection of Boesak’s sermons. We are not told of their precise provenance – date, location and audience: and that is a weakness, for a sermon is given to this audience rather than that, on this occasion rather than that, and what are we to make of an utterance that is sent out to as many auditors as will become readers and try to receive it?

So that is point one: what is preaching but the faith offered, with such skill as one can muster, to these people rather than those? It is a meeting of, one trusts, someone close to the Scriptures and the faith they embody and give rise to, with an audience that he or she is one with and trusted by them to address them for their good. There is also a trust that interest will not depend on levity or mere humour, though it may not exclude them, and that platitude will be so moribund as to kill most hearers. So of course to know a bit about the audience is of the essence for the preacher, and, here, for the reader. In that sense, a printed sermon, bald of context, is up against it.

In the example before us, all one can say is that these are solidly Reformed, scriptural sermons, closer to their biblical texts than some found in other communions and therefore rather traditional in tone, for good or ill. And many of them are based on Old Testament passages which lend themselves to a certain style of vivid oratory – and again, of a kind less common in some other churches. Moreover, there is not much of a flavouring, even cryptic, from the world of biblical scholarship, notoriously difficult as it is to gather into sermons, except perhaps by guile.

So are these sermons broadly traditional in manner and content? Well yes, they are. They are very intra-mural; and you must enter into the scriptures preached on in order to ‘hear’ them. Well, that may be what you expect and need. But there is not much for a wider audience; so why precisely does one print them and send them out upon the wider world? For an English reader and even devoted churchgoer of a particular biblical slant, these sermons are not notably ‘special’ and seem to belong to a certain kind of milieu where pulpit rhetoric retains an attraction in its own right.

In this particular case, however, there is a kind of controversial poignancy. Shortly after the end of apartheid, Boesak underwent a period of personal trial and disgrace, spending a year in prison on suspicion of theft and fraud. These sermons, he tells us, bear the marks of this ordeal when his whole standing was in question, especially as a preacher. More than that, it has been hard for him to get into the position of being a controversial figure among his former colleagues in the work of seeking liberation. It is not for us to judge, and this book is certainly not a contribution to the task; but it is as well to be aware of the context, of which the Preface gives us some account.

James Woodward