Book Review: The Beautiful Sermon

The Beautiful Sermon is the first volume of the Conversations in Preaching series that is put out by Concordia Seminary Press and edited by Dr. David Schmitt. It is written by Dean Nadasy, a former homiletics professor at Concordia Seminary who has also served roles as a parish pastor and LCMS District President.

The problem that The Beautiful Sermon seeks to address is that “We have separated preaching from the aesthetic” (15). Inexorably linked to reconciling this divorce between preaching and aesthetic is the use of images in sermons. Words paint images in our mind whether we intend them to do so or not. Therefore, we should attend to this reality and do it well. However, when The Beautiful Sermon speaks of images, it predominately has actual images in mind: photographs, paintings, stained-glass, etc. 

Before Nadasy addresses the how and why of using images in a sermon, he first gives a “condensed history of aesthetic theology” which he likens to “roller skating through a museum” (26). He focuses on Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Jonathan Edwards. This condensed history is done well and accomplishes the goal of situating the rest of the book into a conversation the church has been having for over fifteen hundred years.

The meat of the book is in chapter three, which is titled “What Makes a Sermon Beautiful?” (41). The answer is Jesus Christ. A sermon’s beauty comes from the presence of God, is Christocentric in nature, and appropriately applies the gospel of Jesus Christ to real questions and needs. Having established where a sermon’s beauty comes from, Nadasy identifies six areas that “sap the beauty out of the gospel” (46). From here the reader discovers other key aspects of preaching that accentuate the beauty of Christ, such as the liturgy that the sermon is situated within, the Scriptural text that is used as its basis, the relationship of the pastor and his people, and also the importance of preaching to both the head and the heart. Throughout this chapter, the Road to Emmaus serves as the “text” that models all the techniques and insights that are listed. 

At this juncture, the use of images within a sermon comes to the foreground. Nadasy identifies five goals for importing images into the sermon. They are (1) to tell the textual story and its meaning, (2) for the sake of hearer depiction, (3) for affect, (4) for their light, (5) for their own story. Caveats are shared along the way, as is the assurance that “The preacher does not need a degree in art education to make use of the visual arts in sermons. What is needed, though, is a commitment to visualize sermonic language and moves for the hearer” (77). 

Chapter five is all about images of Jesus Christ. From funerary works in the catacombs to the work of Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, and Francisco de Zurbarán, Nadasy unpacks the meaning, insights, and nuances of various images of Christ, inviting the reader to consider the devotional and homiletical possibilities of each one.

A brief chapter follows that supplies a number of image-based sermon structures, and the book concludes with three sermons by Nadasy that incorporate the use of images. Each sermon is accompanied with his own running commentary.

This book was a short and edifying read. To the pastor busy writing sermons (and I qualify), this book was written for you, and it was written in a style that allows you to actually read it between sermon-writing tasks. 

I would strongly recommend this book to any pastor, especially to pastors who haven’t read a homiletics book since they left the seminary. It will refill the creativity tanks for those preachers who feel like they’ve been running on empty for years, and it will energize pastors to tackle the preaching task with joy once again.

THE BEAUTIFUL SERMON: Image and the Aesthetics of Preaching. By Dean Nadasy. St. Louis: Concordia Seminary Press, 2021. 148 pages. $19.95.