The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

“Why Johnny Can’t Preach”

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Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers by T. David Gordon

Presbyterian & Reformed, 2009 (112pp, pbk)

Why Johnny Can't Preach (Gordon)If there is even the merest hint of a righteous old curmudgeon (if that is not a contradiction in terms) lurking within you, this is the book to bring it out.  I found myself making comically old-fashioned noises of profound agreement (I believe that I may actually have uttered an “Harrumph!” at one stage) at many points in reading it.  It was written in 2004, when its author (a professor of religion and Greek, and teacher in humanities and media ecology) believed that his life might be about to end on account of cancer.  That accounts for the point and fervour with which it is written.

I recall being shown an essay during my undergraduate years, an essay being held up as an example of academic virtue.  It ticked a bundle of academic boxes, and its breadth of reference was indeed admirable, and its content undoubtedly passable, albeit only passable.  My grievance, urged passionately upon the tutor extolling its virtues, was that it was bad.  It was badly spelt, badly written, fairly poorly constructed across the board and awfully constructed in terms of individual sentences and paragraphs.  It was a rotten read.  “How,” I marvelled with a mixture of grief and outrage, “can that tripe be worthy of a first-class mark?  It is bad writing.”  I restrainedly raged against the strangled style and crippled communication.  I felt some justification in this, given that it was an English Language and Literature degree: surely to gain a reasonable mark you should be able to pick up a pen?  A similar sense of aggrieved outrage rises when I read of students pursuing higher degrees needing to be coached in the fundamentals of clear written communication, as well as when I perceive the ongoing dumbing-down of education generally, and theological education no less.  I feel it when I see an online syllabus for post-graduate seminary degrees that require an alleged doctoral level of competence and then proceed to give in baby language step-by-step guidance for writing critical reviews and papers.  I feel it when I sit down before a piece of published writing that is simply incoherent and inconsistent (to be honest, I get a stirring of it when I read a blog post littered with spelling errors and characterised by confusion – and I write that conscious of the fact that I am now bound to spell several wrods rong and perhaps write a sentence or two that tails off into nothingness without).  I feel it when I see a statement followed by a string of quotes, obviously supplied out of the conviction that this counts as persuasive argumentation.  I feel it when I turn to a study guide and find that the first question is of the type, “Briefly outline the first three paragraphs of this chapter.”  That barely counts as comprehension; it is more akin to simple regurgitation, and that of a bulimic nature, in which there is no intention to digest before bringing it all back up.  If you can simply harvest data, you are good to go.  There is no pursuit of genuine comprehension and apprehension, no meditative analysis, and no rigorous engagement with the material.

All that to say that it is balm to my soul when, at one point, a footnote in Why Johnny Can’t Preach lets out a strangled howl of outrage over students who not only do not care about accurate forms of spelling or grammar, but do not even have the decency to be consistently wrong through the course of an essay!

Such ranting aside, this book is concerned with something far deeper: the fact that much preaching in evangelical and Reformed circles is characterised by the same incoherence and inconsistency.  In writing this, I do not do so as one who would necessarily get the thumbs-up from Dr Gordon, and I would not want to give the impression that I imagine I would.  Nevertheless, I recongise that what proceeds from the mouth of the preacher is of infinitely greater significance that what proceeds from the pen of a poncy undergraduate, and all preachers would do well to contemplate what they read here.

The book is written from the perspective of a disgruntled and competent hearer.  The lament goes up that most pastors cannot preach even a mediocre sermon.  The symptoms of the disease are set forth, employing the cardinal requisites of a healthy sermon derived from R. L. Dabney’s Evangelical Eloquence together with a variety of admittedly ‘non-scientific’ testimonies.  There is some discussion of the cause and circumstances of the malady.  While the author does not wholly exempt seminaries from blame, he is quick to point out that the greater problem is the condition of the typical student on his arrival at seminary.  Drawing on the discipline of media ecology, Gordon suggests that a culture dominated by language has become a culture dominated by (moving) images, and hence increasingly aliterate as well as illiterate.

We then move on to diagnosis: the reason why our generic Johnny cannot preach is that he cannot read or write i.e. he has little or no sensibility for the close reading of texts, for composed communication, or for the genuinely significant.  The claim is that the dominant cultural media, and the associated training of the mind, militate against such vital skills.  Johnny has been taught to read for information or content, not for sense and pleasure.  He has never been taught to give attention to something.  What attention he has is fleeting, because he lives in a world in which the superficial and trivial is flying past and into him at astounding speeds, and he cannot distinguish what is significant and give it the time it deserves.  As one who struggles with the multiplied distractions of the interweb age, I can only underline the difficulty in attaining to a period of undistracted concentration, and training oneself to the same end.

In addition, texts, emails, and even telephone conversations, for all their advantages, mean that Johnny never needs to dwell upon composition, and rarely if ever concerns himself with structure, with the development of an argument and the building of rhetorical force.  There is no unity, order, and movement in his regular communication, and it is therefore substantially lacking from his pulpit addresses.

There follows a brief description of flaws of content.  The author rightly extols the virtue of the Christ-centred sermon (Clowney and Chappell are his stated models at this point, though Calvin peeks in at one point), and is careful to explain that by this he means thoroughly evangelical sermons that embrace the whole of Christian understanding and experience.  He compares such sermons with moralistic sermons, calling us to “be good and do good” and perhaps with a verbal nod to Christ at the end, as the one without whom we cannot accomplish these things; with “how to” sermons, reducing religion to mere technique; with introspection, seemingly designed to undermine, often by means of a scolding disposition, the assurance of the truest saints; and, with social gospel/culture war sermons, in which the impression is given that coerced external righteousness in a Christian or Christianised society is a worthy goal, apart from the regeneration of individual sinners.  He does nuance some of these charges, and the need for moral instruction and self-examination are, perhaps, more credible than he gives them credit for.  Nevertheless, the nature of a brief polemic perhaps explains the black-and-white character of this little book at this point.

Finally, there is a prescription in four parts.  Firstly, he suggests giving the preacher an annual review.  Here, I baulk a little at his likening the pastor to other professionals who also get an annual review.  However, I appreciate the point.  There is a place for regular review of one’s public (and even private) ministerial labours, but there needs to be an appropriate, qualified, wise and competent forum in which that review should take place.  The problem with simply submitting oneself to the whole congregation for assessment may not always be a fear of honest answers, but the health and capacity of those from whom answers are expected.  There are several other legitimate ways in which an earnest learner can obtain a considered and honest assessment of his gifts, and areas for improvement.

To develop the sensibility of reading texts closely, Gordon suggests, in essence, reading good poetry; to learn composed communication, he recommends the discipline of pursuing handwritten communication where possible (whether letter, journal, or some other form).  He also encourages the preacher to cultivate pre-homiletic sensibilities, as part of which he pleads with congregations to give their ministers time to develop the faculties they need to be more competent preachers.

There are certainly points at which the reader might wish to nuance certain elements of this process, or even recast them.  Nevertheless, the symptoms are hard to deny and the diagnosis rings profoundly true, even if the prescription does not command entirely the same level of agreement.

Two other qualifications should be made. Firstly, it is worth bearing in mind – and this is not addressed – that most congregations now have the same kind of cultural conditioning as woeful preachers.  This will affect their hearing.  I say this not as a shoulder-sloping exercise that allows the incompetent preacher to blame a congregation for their inability to receive his quite wonderfully clear and insightful sermons, but rather to highlight the fact that there is a lost skill of intelligent listening that ought to complement the skill of competent oral delivery.  Secondly, and again without wishing to undermine the thrust of the book, there is a danger of focusing on an eloquence that is merely academically sound.  Gordon is not pleading for classical rhetoric as such (at least, I do not believe so), but there is a higher and sometimes purer eloquence than that of the schools, an earthy directness and vigorous clarity that does not rest on academic excellence, though it usually exists in the genuinely intelligent.  Furthermore, the role of the Spirit in equipping and enabling a man, setting his rhetoric on fire, must not be overlooked.

Would-be preachers, preachers, and teachers of preachers would all profit from this book.  Educators also would do well to ponder some of these things.  There may be some necessary fine-tuning that individual readers will want to apply.  However, the book should be read for what it is: a brief, impassioned polemical piece desiring pointedly to identify a problem and address it.  The whole is fundamentally sound, and the end suitably achieved.  It is worthy of being received as such, engaged with, and humbly addressed in a preacher’s preparation and delivery.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 26 May 2009 at 17:21

One Response

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  1. Greetings Pastor Jeremy,

    What an excellent website/blog you’ve posted, my good brother. Looks like, among other gifts, you’ve become quite the hymn writer! As you know, Pastor McDearmon recently had one printed for his womanhood series. Keep up the good work and greetings to all the Walkers too!

    Your fellow-servant in Christ,
    Tony Carpenito
    Ballston Lake Baptist Church

    Tony Carpenito

    Monday 22 June 2009 at 01:31

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