Saturday, February 18, 2012

Book Review

Mr. Jones, Meet The Master
Peter Marshall, New York, London & Glasgow: Fleming H. Revell Co., 192 pages, Hardcover

A review by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Sometimes it is edifying for us preachers to read, watch or listen to the pulpit giants of the past. One such preacher was the Scottish born Peter Marshall, who immigrated to the United States and went on to become the pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and chaplain of the U.S. Senate from 1947-1948.
   Popular among his parishioners, who were comprised of folks from every walk of life, as well as respected by many of his contemporary colleagues and experts in the field of homiletics—Dr. Marshall is ranked as one of the top twenty preachers of the twentieth century.
   This volume consists of a biographical introduction by his wife, Catherine Marshall; a collection of twelve of Dr. Marshall’s sermons preached at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church; and prayers that were offered in the U.S. Senate. The sermons are produced in the same format as the original manuscripts—which he preached from in the pulpit. Often, for emphasis, and easy viewing, portions of the sermons are written in a series of successive indented lines like this in his first sermon, “Disciples in Clay,” speaking of Peter: “Blustering
he does not strike us as material for the ministry.” (p. 36) This format, in its written form, also gives the reader an impression of Dr. Marshall’s poetic inclinations.  
   As for the content of these sermons, the reader soon learns that Dr. Marshall was a master of rhetoric, highly proficient in the English language, he had the gift of witty turns of phrase, that at times could be: poetic, idealistic, earthy, folksy, practical, insightful, and inspirational. To tease your curiosity, here are a couple of my favourite examples:
   In his sermon, “The Saint of the Rank and File,” waxing eloquently about the disciple Andrew: “You see, it is the Andrews after all who carry on the work of the nation and of the church. For after all the five-talent men and women have flashed like meteors through the skies leaving behind a trail of glory after their great gifts for organization after all their visions and their plans they depend upon Andrew to do the job.” (pp. 59-60)
   In his sermon “The Grave in the Garden,” here is his arresting description of a contemporary scientist: “And you feel quite funny—almost ridiculous—for you have your microscope in your hand your measuring tape your litmus paper your biology textbook your test tube and your college diploma. In the half-shadow in the womb of time your microscope glitters like a diamond. Your tape measure gleams like a line of gold. Your litmus paper is a purple ribbon from a royal standard. Your test tube, a sliver bugle to sound a note of triumph, And the noise and confusion of unbelief has died away.” (pp. 113-114)
   The sermons, by today’s standards, are lengthy—most of them are over ten pages. The language employed by this pulpit giant is somewhat dated—reflecting the U.S. during the first half of the twentieth century. One can argue with the biblical exegesis and theology of these sermons. However, ultimately Dr. Marshall’s sermons and prayers are classics in the sense that they capture the reader’s imagination as they invite, instruct and inspire him or her to go deeper into the living encounter with God and neighbour. For that, I am most grateful!     

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