Walter Brueggemann opened the festival by preaching on the story of the shibboleth from the Book of Judges. When the liturgist read the text and said, "The Word of the Lord," this room of 1,800 preachers laughed.
Brueggemann said it is an absurd story but went on to talk about the foolishness of the cross that is wiser than all our masteries.
He spoke of "God's self-emptying vulnerability." This contrasts with our culture's dominant narrative--"the dominant way cannot keep its promises," he preached.
"The foolish, the weak, and the poor--those are the marks of true life."
Worship concluded with the crowd movingly singing "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." One of my favourite things about this conference is the hymn singing, because preachers really like to sing hymns.
The lecture to follow was by Rob Bell, but it was largely a disaster. He was relying upon a technological presentation, but it was almost thirty minutes before the technology worked, so he engaged in a mind-numbing and at times infantile comedy routine. This disappointed me, as I heard him preach in 2004 and thought it highly intelligent.
His task was to discuss how the creative process of preaching. "We signed up to start fires," he said. The sermon should "set in the middle of culture." Also "create hunger for a food that people didn't previously know they were hungry for." The way to do that is to be constantly engaging the world with curiosity and wonder so that God is constantly giving you material that you might use in a sermon.
Since this is already something I do, and that I suspect most good preachers do, it didn't tell me much. Plus, I had heard a much better presentation of the same idea, though related to writers, by the novelist Nicholson Baker at Yale in 2015.
Whereas last year the social justice themes dominated from opening night with Leonard Pitts, this year got off to a weaker start.