Peculiar Speech by William Willimon is almost 15 years old, but it remains a storehouse of quotable observations on the interrelationships between preaching, the church, scripture, and baptism.
[Page numbers for the 124-page paperback edition are in brackets.]
Willimon says the purpose of Peculiar Speech is to “look at preaching through baptism”  and to “explore what it means to preach among the baptized.”  For him, the issue at hand is, “What difference does it make to our preaching that all of us there are preparing for baptism or else trying to figure out what happened when we were baptized?”  Willimon wants to know, “Do we really appreciate the baptismal, liturgical quality of our speech?” 
Willimon provides important insights on different kinds of speech and their respective communities. He notes that when the church labels people according to Freudian psychology, e.g., “homosexuals,” it is adopting the speech of an alien community . To him, the diversity fad is society’s way of putting a “happy face” on cultural fragmentation . Linguistic accommodation focuses on method rather than content . “To categorize preaching as distinctive baptismal speech is to part company with [the] advocates … of accommodation….”  Willimon sees the search for a universal speech that will relativize group differences as hopeless . Christians come into existence via a story that is not universal . Christian communicators needlessly struggle with the false dilemma of either (1) accommodation or (2) irrelevance . To Willimon, the real choice is not to make preaching relevant to the congregation, but to make the church relevant to baptismal speech. In speaking of the historical importance of distinctive speech, Willimon says, “…if…[ancient] Christians could have been linguistically assimilated, then they would not have needed to be murdered.”  Willimon identifies Newbigin’s model for missionary communications as a valid way to make preaching relevant while also noting that it could lead to a misunderstanding of Christian proclamation as simply a plea for people to be better behaved [87-88].
THE IMPORTANCE OF PREACHING:
Willimon’s attitude is that in the assembly the preacher should speak to the church as a called people, not to the outsiders or to the disinterested insiders [ix]. He agrees with Buttrick in seeing the preacher’s speech as (1) being shaped by how he views the congregation  and in turn, (2) shaping the faith-consciousness of his hearers . Powerful preaching has confidence in the power of the biblical story to evoke a new people . Congregations have a double-consciousness of being in the world but not part of it. Preaching fails if it addresses only the “world” side of that consciousness . A strict sequence of texts for preaching, e.g., a lectionary, counters the impression that one simply preaches what is on one’s mind . Preaching has power to shape the hearer and the community . The good news of Jesus is more interesting than modern myths . It is “news” because it can’t be discerned naturally– we have to be told .
THE IMPORTANCE OF BAPTISM:
Willimon’s reflections on the nature and importance of baptism are compelling. He says, “…in baptism, we are subsumed into a story of water and the word.”  “Water set next to the word, next to this story, is called baptism.”  As Luther says, “…baptism is not merely water, but water used according to God’s command and connected with God’s word.’”  “The theology of the church is the church’s attempt to speak of the change wrought in itself through baptism.”  To paraphrase Willimon, the earliest heresies were heresies against the baptismal formula [5-6]. Baptism recapitulates God’s creation of the world from chaos . Baptism denies the Kantian claim that the untrained, unsubmissive mind can apprehend the good . Opposing ways of construing reality are “drowned” in baptism . Absence of baptismal identity in a congregation encourages a therapeutic view of preaching . Baptism is a gift of God that should enlarge our faith, but the church has trivialized it [54ff]. People change in accordance with a five-step process, which Willimon sums up as “something like baptism.” The church receives the baptized into full communion through “a series of hospitable acts” .
THE IMPORTANCE OF BAPTISMAL PREACHING:
Willimon is true to the thesis in connecting preaching with baptism as the following quotes illustrate: “Preaching is best conceived as an act of worship, the precedent of and a commentary upon baptism.”  “To speak among the baptized…is to enter into a world of odd communication and peculiar speech…the images are all baptismal.”  Forgetting the baptismal context of our preaching, we risk distorting the gospel into an intellectual dilemma:”  “…[B]aptismal preaching [brings]…into view the significance of our baptism with words.”  “To preach among the baptized…is to operate within a domain of distinctive discourse. A distinctive identity arises from this distinctive community of discourse.”  (Willimon correctly notes that Christians differ from rationalists in that the former are honest about the narrowness of their speech .) “Preaching is a baptismal act when it asserts that the Christian life is available only to those who submit to dismantling and rebirth, to conversion.”  “Baptismal preaching will frame the congregation’s life in terms of the cosmic re-creation God is bringing about.”  “When a preacher disposes of baptismal speech in favor of [some other kind of speech]… he has not thereby transcended the community-bound nature of language… he has merely moved, in speech, from one community to another.” 
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CHURCH:
Of course Willimon’s wider interest is not just baptismal speech– it is the church. Accordingly, he sees the church congregating, not to be entertained, assured, etc., but because it is called [x]– a congregation is more than an audience . He observes that “inadequate ecclesiology is often at the bottom of our ineffective hermeneutics.”  “A sound mind is one that is conditioned and nurtured by a community. In baptism, we admit the unworthiness of our present mind.”  “The question is not, ‘Will we be socially conditioned?’ The question is, ‘Will the society shaping us be true or false?’”  The church is both source and destination for Christian proclamation . It is a witness to the sovereignty of Jesus as Lord . According to Willimon, “Niebuhr’s pessimism is so thoroughgoing, perhaps, because he has little place for the church in his theology.”  “All truly Christian ethical positions presuppose a baptized community that make those positions credible and possible.”  The political nature of the church and of baptismal speech grow out of the Greek conception of “polis”– the making of a “city” .
THE IMPORTANCE OF SCRIPTURE:
The Bible is another prominent category in Speech: Willimon says, “The Bible ought to be read with interests appropriate to biblical creation and purposes.”  It has a vested interest in creating and critiquing the church . The baptized are not free to go searching for a “better” text . Scripture should shape experience, not vice versa . “We’ve become hermeneutically suspicious of biblical experience and uncritically accepting of our own.”  The gospel creates the church-world dichotomy. If not for the gospel, we would not know the church, the world, or ourselves. . Yet, radical subjectivism is not the cure for historicized and intellectualized interpretation . Scripture originated from and calls forth a people .
THE PROBLEMS OF INFANT BAPTISM:
Although a Methodist, Willimon offers some strong criticism of infant baptism. For example, “Infant baptism became the sign of the disintegration of our rites as well as our self-respect.” [60ff] He does, however, stop short of a blanket rejection of the practice by suggesting that images of adoption should replace images of decision when talking about baptism . In suggesting this, however, he merely shifts the burden of decision making to others. Hence, he can logically say, “Baptism without conscientious preparation and celebration is not made right simply by more explanation….” Despite his apologetic maneuvers however, one is left with the impression that Willimon is not pleased with infant baptism.
THE PROBLEMS OF INDIVIDUALISM:
Willimon objects to community as simply a way to enhance individual lives . Christianity is not unique in its need for conversion– people have been converted to individualism  and they must be converted away from it. The notion of tolerance is an Enlightenment invention for people who lack the basis for genuine community . Individualists substitute the alleged tyranny of the group for the assured tyranny of the self . In an individualistic society, “think for yourself” is really an appeal for conformity . When Christianity became legal under Rome, its focus shifted away from community (the political) to the personal [104ff]. The advent of printing had a similar effect because scripture was then affordable by individuals . Modern society still reflects the neglect of community and the promotion of individualism. True individuals, however, are those who know who they are – a status that can only be achieved in the context of a free community. The alternative is a forced community made up of isolated individuals who are easily controlled by the state. The modern focus on the family ignores the historical tension between the church and the family [119ff].
THE PROBLEMS OF DEMOCRACY:
Democracy assumes “the consciousness of the ‘common man’ (or woman) is innately valuable regardless of its formation or lack thereof.”  Christianity has an elitist, particular view of morality in contrast to the modern Kantian view, which is democratic and universalistic .
Although Willimon is reacting to the negative consequences of the liberal Protestant mindset, he still reflects that mindset in many ways. Examples include his (1) attitude toward gender issues , (2) penchant for using loaded terms such as “social justice” , (3) insertion of “sexual orientation” into the thought of 1 Cor 12:13 , (4) use of “thou shall not kill” as an argument against capital punishment , (5) uncritical association of racial discrimination with gender discrimination , (6) conflation of the church with the U.S. government , (7) failure to distinguish public policy from Christian proclamation , (8) description of the U.S. as a “sect” with “murderously defended borders” , (8) description of the Magi as “Iraqis” , and (9) defense of quotas in government policies . All of these things are safe things to say in Willimon’s environment, but they alienate those who would like to see “racism, sexism, etc.” deconstructed back into more traditional categories of evil.
Willimon’s doctrinal assumptions are not prominent, but they do surface occasionally. Examples are (1) the necessity of the Spirit to enliven the text , (2) an assertion that biblical reports of baptism emphasize meaning rather than mode , and (3) his defense (perhaps half-hearted) of infant baptism.
Certain philosophical assumptions are worth noting. On the nay side, Willimon discounts (1) the adequacy of personal freedom , (2) the innate goodness of individuals , (3) the value and efficacy of democratic institutions , (4) universalism , (5) the notion of a neutral public arena to which Christian speech must be adapted [77ff], and (6) natural revelation as a sufficient way of knowing God . On the yea side, he offers a useful assertion in proclaiming the “world” to be “a social contrivance” . His claim that the notion of universal ideas has been defeated in our age  is debatable.
Speech was published in 1992 and since that time, some of its illustrations have become dated. Nevertheless, it continues to be an entertaining, thought-provoking, instructive, and insightful source of information and inspiration. Preachers, teachers, and students of Christianity should read it for a deeper appreciation of worship, community, and Christian conversion.