Why Johnny Can’t Preach (4)

Part 3.

Another reason Johnny can’t preach is because Johnny can’t write. To make this point Gordon begins with an important survey of the way technological changes have affected communication. We take printed texts for granted. We blithely tell people to “read your Bible” with the assumption that it’s always been possible. In fact it has not. As Gordon notes, printed texts are a relatively recent development. Electronic communication has also changed the way we communicate.

He argues that just as we’ve become less able to read texts, so electronic communication has made us less able to read people. Electronic communication also “robs us for composition skills” (65). In contrast to the demands that personal correspondence once made upon us (67), telephone conversations “rarely have unity, order, or movement….” Good composition must have these qualities. “While ministers make some effort in the pulpit to avoid the worst colloquialisms, and while they have ordinarily learned to slow their rate of speech, in many other respects their sermons reflect the babbling, rambling quality of a typical telephone conversation” (66). This approach to preaching leads to a series of unrelated observations passing itself off as a sermon. Little attempt is made to distinguish the significant from the insignificant.

Gordon observes correctly that (for WSC at least) our seminary curriculum looks more like the pre-World War I pattern that assumed the sort of training in the liberal arts that seems rare for undergraduates today (68). At WSC we have attempted to meet this problem by adding “propaedeutic” (preparatory) courses in writing and public speaking.

My experience as a student and as a teacher confirms Gordon’s judgment. As a boy I enjoyed reading (when I was able to stop moving) and I wanted to write. By the time I got to public high school it seemed that none of my teachers were able to teach me how to write well. I remember one teacher yelling at me (literally) about my abuse of commas (she was correct) but she never explained clearly how commas should be used. What instruction in grammar that existed was less useful because we weren’t taught how the English language works.We were taught rules in abstraction. We were never required to learn another language. To be sure, a good bit of this was my own fault. I vigorously resisted learning grammar but I did so partly because my teachers didn’t begin to teach it to me until much too late. If childhood development really occurs in three stages: parrot, pert, and poet, then it is frustrating to children to try to teach “parrot” stuff to perts (the analytical phase) and poets (the rhetorical phase). That’s exactly what my public school (and many Christian schools) did and do. As a consequence, I did not really begin to learn how to write until college and I probably didn’t make any significant progress until after seminary.

Things seem to have gotten worse since I left school. Too many students arrive on our campus now with the intention of earning an MDiv or MA but without the proper background to do it. They are less well prepared than students were when I entered seminary. Thus we remediate, but can we fix ad hoc what should have been done in grammar school? In my case what began as a three-page handout at Wheaton College has become a 9-page handout and threatens to become a book some day.

Gordon is right to think about the effect of the telephone but judging from what I see he could have spoken to text messages (txt msgs) and “tweets” as well. Ironically, the text message is a regression to the telegraph; staccato lines bark information. These media only intensify the randomness of communication which, as Gordon observes, has such an unhappy consequence for preaching.

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  1. I like your 9-page handout. One item I would be tempted to add to it is the use (or mis-use) of noun “bunch.” It suppose that its improper use has become so common nowadays that it is no longer critiqued in this manner by teachers, but I recall being corrected many decades ago for abusing it. Nevertheless, it is not unusual to hear young preachers refer to “a bunch of guys” when they mean a group of men. Bunch originally applied only to fruit or vegetables.

  2. To play the devil’s advocate here though Dr. Clark, what good is it to be able to paint a masterpiece if no one can appreciate it? What good is the deep poem if no one can grasp its meaning?

    In other words, Johnny might not preach at the level he used to but he is able to communicate on a level his audience can understand.

    Granted, not all people are at the same level or understanding of the subject matter. An artist will always have educated art critics to examine his work. A poet will have other poets and authors to pour over his work. Same with the Pastor and theologians examining each other’s works.

    If the audience is full of “tweeters” however, then are we missing out on the purpose of preaching if we aim too high in our form?

  3. Yes, WSCAL does remedial instruction, both of which classes are very helpful, but 95% of the students get out of taking the speech class by giving a speech.

  4. Eddie has a point, but perhaps it is not as compelling as he thinks it is. Preachers often need to be appropriately informal. They should never be vague.

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