Why Johnny Can’t Preach (3)

Part 2.

The next section of the book is an analysis of one aspect of the problem: Johnny doesn’t read well. This problem has been diagnosed for many years. I see it frequently. The rise of electronic texts, which is valuable in many ways, actually works against close reading and high levels of comprehension. Thus, as I’ve mentioned before, I have begun to encourage students to print out assigned electronic readings. I encourage them, with limited success, to take notes by hand.

Gordon distinguishes between reading for information (as one might read a technical manual) and “reading texts.” Scanning for information ignores how a text gets to the information and simply looks for the bottom line (43). Reading texts, however, is as interested in how a writer got to his conclusion as in the conclusion itself.

To illustrate the difference Gordon appeals to the nature of Shakespeare’s sonnets or the poetry of Robert Frost. The art of the achievement is as important as the message. Americans tend to read for content. He contrasts the workmanlike history of Stephen Ambrose with the more carefully crafted prose of David McCullough (44-45), Perry Ellis, George Marsden (among others). We read the latter for style (and content) but the former mainly for content. Ministers, says Gordon, tend to read for information or amusement but not for art (46).

This approach to reading texts has influenced the way preachers read the Bible. The scan it. They speed-read it looking for data. They tend not to ask questions about the structure of the passage. Under this approach to reading Scripture a sermon on God’s love from John 3:16 does not sound materially different from a sermon from Rom 5:8. The particular, i.e. this text gets swallowed up by the broader theme.

The cost of this sort of “reading” is superficiality. He points to Philip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. Ps 23 is not an agricultural psalm. It is a royal psalm. It takes a certain degree of literary sensibility to read the shepherd metaphor in Ps 23 properly. In other words, the artless, boneheaded reading of texts leads to poor exegesis and that leads to superficial sermons built on a wrong premise (48; “boneheaded” is my adjective, not Gordon’s).

Such superficiality leads us away from reading texts properly, reading them in order “to enter the world of the author and perceive reality through his vantage point” (49). The artless reader “uses” (C. S. Lewis) rather than receives texts (50).

Ironically, the more modern one is, the more rushed, the harder it is for him to read poetry and yet, quoting Sven Birkerts, “the more you need to be rescued from the twentieth century; the more you need poety.”

Poetry is significant to Gordon for the same reasons it was significant to the classical tradition: it was the key to rhetoric. Learning was said to come in stages: grammar, logic, and rhetoric or, as Dorothy Sayers put it, “parrot, pert, and poet.” We learn the stuff, how the stuff works, and how to speak about the stuff. It is this last stage of learning where Gordon finds us failing.

Poetry and serious reading of texts requires time and patience. The dominant medium of our age (television) works against those virtues. Television is about motion (53-55). The “hegemonic discourse” (David Denby) of our age is not that of “the greats” but of David Letterman et al (55-57).

We are swamped by the inconsequential which is producing in us an ever shortening attention span. This media culture will not produce thoughtful, careful, attentive readers of texts.

The great seriousness of the reality of being human, the dreadful seriousness of the coming judgment of God, the sheer insignificance of the present in light of eternity—realities that were once the subtext of virtually every sermon—have now disappeared, and have been replaced by one triviality after another (59).

Part 4

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. This is a very important issue- one in which we would choose to ignore. Thanks for bringing it to our attention once again. Sermons are supposed to be God’s very words spoken within the midst of the congregation in a collective manner. It is supposed to augment our faith. Too often the sermon is not captivating and I find myself wondering off in thought. This should not be so.

    The remark by Lewis really struck me- the artless reader uses rather than receives texts. I think we need to develop the art of reception once again. God wants us to receive Him on Sunday mornings- some do this better than others. I appreciate your attempt to help us do this better. I think this is very important.

  2. Read poetry is good advice, perhaps write poetry is better.

    The odd thing is that the art of using texts is not a modern art, even Peter wrote of those who would twist scripture… the problem is hardly new, though maybe the art of recognizing that this is a problem is dying.

  3. The irony here is that this is an electronic text. ;^)

    Dr. Clark, do you suppose that this dilemma is perpetuated by the current school system we find in America? Where teaching to a test is commonplace and students are encouraged not to grapple with and understand, but merely spit back out (parrot as Sayers said) and move on?

    Or could it be that those who learn primarily through tactile and audible means are not being taught as they need to be? Just thinking out loud here…

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