Why Johnny Can't Preach

T. David Gordon
Tuesday, September 1st 2009
Sep/Oct 2009

The editors of Modern Reformation have kindly asked me to write a bit about my new book Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers (P&R, 2009). The title is a double theft. The “Why Johnny Can’t” part is stolen from Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do About It and Arthur Whimbey and Myra J. Linden, Why Johnny Can’t Write: How to Improve Writing Skills; and the subtitle is stolen from Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism: “The medium is the message.”

Each theft is significant, if not entirely morally upright. Two significant books published within about twenty-five years of each other (1966 and 1990) traced the decline of two significant cultural practices (reading and writing), raising questions about how this happened. How it happened, of course, was largely this: a previously typographic culture, whose primary medium was books, had become, after the mid-twentieth century, a post-typographic culture, whose primary media were image based and/or electronic. But if our culture as a whole cannot or does not read or write as it once did, how does this affect preaching, which requires the careful reading of ancient texts and the compositional act of producing a sermon?

The second theft is also important. Marshall McLuhan’s famous (albeit slippery) aphorism surely contains some truth: the medium is the message. That is, the presence of certain media in a culture alters that culture’s cultural habits and alters individual sensibilities or consciousness. For example, compare the time of my childhood (pre-Sony Walkman) to my daughters’ childhood. When my family drove each weekend from Richmond to the Chesapeake Bay, we often sang folk tunes and well-known hymns in the car during the trip. When contemporary families travel together now, the only “together” part is physical. Each will be podded, cocooned in a world of his or her own music. Music is now private rather than shared, and music is listened to rather than performed. The fundamental social nature of music has changed almost entirely, utterly altering its role from that of all previous human cultures; and this change has occurred very rapidly, without argument. Commerce thrust its tools, sword-like, into our culture and we, heedless of McLuhan’s aphorism, welcomed the thrust. The medium, that is, had a remarkably profound effect; and if the purpose of a message is to have an effect, then the medium was a “message.”

So, my concern was and is to examine how this shift of dominant media, with its resultant change in cultural and individual capacities and sensibilities, has affected preaching, the distinctive medium of one religious subgroup in our society. The painful part of the book, the beginning part, includes a chapter on the assumption in the title: Johnny Can’t Preach (at least, not as he once could or did). There is no reason to explain why preaching is poor if preaching isn’t poor. An early chapter of the book consists of the reasons and observations that have led me and many others to conclude that preaching, in our moment, is ordinarily mediocre at best.

I expect to encounter some resistance to this premise from ministers who are already tired of people complaining about their preaching. The last thing they need, from their point of view, is someone siding with their critics. But the matter is too important, too vital to the church’s health and mission to be silent on it. If preaching really is in decline, few things could be more important to discuss. When my physician told me in 2004 that I had Stage III cancer (25 percent chance of survival), I didn’t want to hear this diagnosis. However, if the diagnosis was true, my only chance of recovery depended upon accepting the diagnosis and acting upon it. So also with the church. If preaching is indeed ordinarily poor, if preaching is not doing what it needs to do, then the health of the patient-the church-demands that we face the diagnosis squarely.

Part of my diagnosis is simply to employ Robert Lewis Dabney’s “Seven Cardinal Requisites of a Sermon,” from his Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric. Briefly describing Dabney’s seven requisites (unity, order, movement, point, instruction, exposition, and evangelical tone, or Christ-centeredness), I argue that few sermons today have all seven; many, indeed, have none of the seven. Another part of the diagnosis consists of the all-too-frequently-heard observation about ministers: “He’s not a great preacher, but….” This is the most common statement people have made to me in the last thirty years about their ministers. Whether on the East Coast or the West, in the North or South, this is the almost-universal comment I hear from people. It’s a polite way of saying that the minister has many good qualities that are sincerely appreciated, even though his preaching doesn’t help much. Imagine saying about a chef, “He’s not a great cook, but…”; or about a mechanic, “He can’t fix my car, but…”; or about an author, “He can’t write, but….” In no other area would it be acceptable to say such a thing, yet it is routinely said today about ministers.

Johnny Can’t Read

The substantial part of the middle of the book addresses the two causes for the impoverished state of the contemporary pulpit, causes already well documented by the two books I referred to earlier: Why Johnny Can’t Read and Why Johnny Can’t Write. Many MR readers are familiar with the 2004 report of the National Endowment for the Arts, indicating that reading is in significant decline in our culture (Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America. Research Division Report #46, National Endowment for the Arts). In January 2009, the NEA released another report, indicating that the reading of poetry is especially in decline. According to their report, in 2008 only 8.3 percent of the adult population had read a poem in the previous year, down from 17.1 percent as recently as 1992. In fifteen years, the already-small percentage had been cut by more than half.

The consequences of such cultural changes are significant in their own right, as we continue to descend into a kind of electronic-media-borne Philistinism. But I leave it to others to lament that cultural tragedy (e.g., Martha Bayles, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, and John H. McWhorter, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care). My lament, as a churchman, is for the church and her pulpit. What are the consequences of reading little, of reading less literature, and of reading even less poetry?

Reading/skimming for information is not the same as reading a text. When we speak about reading a text, we speak about reading something in which how the thing is said is considered to be a true part of what is said. We read Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” or his “The White-Tailed Hornet” as much to appreciate the craftsmanship as to discern what he is saying (which, in his case, is rarely an easy task itself). To distill either of these poems into a one-clause “point” of the poem is to miss the point. So, reading literature, and especially reading poetry, trains us in the sensibility of reading carefully and contemplatively, of appreciating not merely what a text supposedly “is about,” in its minimalist sense, but appreciating what is actually said.

This kind of careful reading of texts has obvious implications for a ministry that, in its basic nature, is expositional. Although Marshall McLuhan referred to the book era as “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” his student Neil Postman referred to it as “The Age of Exposition.” McLuhan designated that culture by the inventor of its dominant medium; Postman designated it by the cultural practice that this dominant medium fostered: exposition-the explanation of and arguments about texts. Such a cultural medium (Gutenberg’s printing press) fostered such a cultural activity (expositing texts).

On the rare occasion that I have heard someone cite Frost’s “good fences make good neighbors,” I remind them that the statement is not Frost’s own point of view but the view of the narrator’s neighbor. It is one of only two lines in the poem that is repeated and the other is: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” which is also the first line of the poem, written from the narrator’s point of view. That is, I argue with their reading of the text, and I do so by citing the text. Postman’s point is that this was a commonplace activity in a textual, expository, typographic culture. Reading texts carefully, mulling them over, and arguing about their meaning are activities of a particular kind of culture. A text forces its thoughtful readers to defend their reading of it or, at a minimum, to justify their reading of it. And those reared in such a culture pick up this cultural habit of reading texts carefully and discussing/debating what given texts affirm or deny.

All true Christian preaching is expositional; the point of every legitimate Christian sermon is properly derived from the text itself. Every sermon should justify or defend a particular reading of a particular text before deriving theological or practical conclusions from it. But in a culture where people rarely read texts, in a culture where people “skim” books, looking for overt information, exposition disappears.

There is an extraordinary dearth of exposition in today’s pulpits. It is rare for an expository argument to be made in a sermon; indeed, some people even object to the presence of expository argument. Once, while pastoring in New Hampshire, I met with a couple who found my preaching objectionable to determine if there were ways I could improve. After some gracious small talk, I asked what specifically bothered them about my preaching. The wife said: “Well, your preaching is too philosophical.” This surprised me. I didn’t recall ever mentioning any philosophers in any of my sermons, and I actually have not even read as much philosophy as I would like. So, I indicated that I wasn’t sure I understood what she meant by “too philosophical.” Her husband then explained: “We’ve been in PCA churches for almost thirty years now, and all our previous ministers simply told us what to do or what to believe. But you always try to show us from the Bible what we should do or believe.”

For this couple, exposition was simply a waste of time. Apparently, they approached sermon-listening as they did the grocery aisle, as a matter of picking and choosing what one likes or dislikes. They wanted simply to hear the minister’s opinions and decide for themselves whether they agreed or disagreed. But they didn’t care to know what the Bible said about anything, at least not in a sermon. Well, I obviously could not accommodate them, because-with Robert Lewis Dabney in the nineteenth century or Haddon Robinson, Joey Pipa, or Bryan Chappell in our own moment-I believe that authority and exposition go hand in hand. No exposition, no authority. The only way a sermon becomes God’s authoritative declaration to his creatures is through a patient demonstration that the point of the sermon is justly derived from the text.

Some complaints, however, about “expository preaching” are legitimate. On the one hand, there are those who read a verse, make some comments about it, then read another verse, make some comments about it, and repeat the process until they run out of verses. Such preaching does not perceive or communicate the text as a unit. Each verse, arbitrarily designated with a number by medieval scribes (some of whom could not even translate the Greek texts they copied), is taken as its own unit, and the congregation is subjected not to a unified sermon but to a disjointed group of sermonettes. On the other hand, there are those who enter the pulpit with virtually every exegetical note they made in the process of their study, and then regurgitate all of this material in a disorganized exegetical lecture, rather than a true, unified expository sermon.

True expository preaching avoids both of these errors. It preaches the natural literary units of Scripture, not the arbitrarily numbered verses of the medieval scribes. And it only offers the amount of expository argumentation or evidence necessary to demonstrate that the point of the sermon is justly derived from the text-nothing more. Dr. Vern Poythress of Westminster Seminary taught this by saying: “Give your people bread; not the bread factory.” A culture that was accustomed to reading poetry needed little help with exposition. They were trained to read texts carefully, and it became second nature to them to do so, and to derive reasoned and reasonable judgments about the author’s meaning.

Poetry also trains the sensibility of the significant. When not addled by narcissism or narcotics, poets do not write about the trivial. Poets do not write about hula-hoops or “The Biggest Loser.” Why expend the laborious effort at craftsmanship that poetry requires merely to observe what is trite? Television, by contrast, is essentially trivial. It either has triviality as its overt content or, on the rare occasion it attempts to address what is consequential, it does so in a trivial manner. Imagine, for instance, The NewsHour on PBS doing a ten-minute television spot and calling it “in-depth coverage.” Most of us know perfectly well that a significant matter of public policy can hardly be defined or introduced in ten minutes. Only by television’s preposterously silly habit of “covering” news items in fifteen or twenty seconds can a ten-minute discussion be considered “in-depth.”

People who watch large amounts of television, therefore, tend to become tone-deaf toward significance. They rarely see it and therefore do not notice it when it does appear. But the Holy Scriptures routinely deal with matters of the gravest consequence. Almost nothing in the Bible is trivial. The Bible contains the narratives of the two Adams, with all their freighted consequences, consequences that a poet such as Milton grasped perhaps as acutely as any. Ministers who spend substantial time watching television become like the culture of which they are a part. Everything is ironic, nothing is important. Such ministers, even when they read passages of Scripture fraught with profundity or weight, are unable to perceive the profundity or sense the weightiness. They-like the bustling, commercial, trivial culture of which they are a part-are tone-deaf to all that is significant about human life poised precariously between God’s judgment and grace. As Wordsworth put it: “For this, for everything, we are out of tune; It moves us not.”

A final benefit of poetry is the way it develops diction. Preaching, like poetry, is an essentially aural phenomenon. We don’t “see” a sermon; we “hear” a sermon. When oral language is well employed, the communication is aided not only by the use of a well-developed and apt vocabulary, but perhaps even more so by the cadences and rhythms. There is a natural and appropriate tendency for the pace to quicken as we move toward our major subpoints, and an equally natural and appropriate tendency to retard the pace, or even pause, as we articulate the weightier matters. It would require far too much to do all of this consciously; it is the natural by-product of an individual whose own diction has been shaped by exposure to those who have great command of oral language. Reading a poem well, for instance, requires that one read it many times. Typically, I will read a poem silently at least two or three times before reading it aloud. When reading it aloud, I am forced to make decisions about tone, about pace, about rhythm. A skilled poet leads the reader gently and skillfully in this endeavor, because his wise choice of words seems “natural” to the reader.

Charles Grosvener Osgood’s Poetry as a Means of Grace is composed of chapters that were originally delivered in 1940 at Princeton Theological Seminary as the Stone Lectures. The Stone Lectures are a very significant reality. Abraham Kuyper’s well-known Lectures on Calvinism, for instance, were originally given as Stone Lectures in 1898. That Osgood was invited to give the lectures says a good deal about how highly regarded he was. In these lectures, he urged seminary students to commit themselves to becoming lifelong readers of poetry, because of the inestimable benefits it would have on their preaching-and he did this fifteen years before commercial television appeared, and probably thirty to forty years before television replaced reading as the primary medium in our culture. So, if Osgood expended so much effort to attempt to persuade ministers to read poetry in 1940, imagine how much more effort he would expend were he alive today in a culture that is almost illiterate by the standards of his culture; that is, our generation of preachers needs the benefits of reading verse far more than Osgood’s generation did.

And yet precisely here some of my readers of Why Johnny Can’t Preach are unconvinced, albeit courteously so. This is my fault in the book-not Osgood’s-for not spending more time recounting his reasoning and arguments. Many of my readers agree with me negatively (that television watching is not going to develop good ministers), but are hesitant to agree with me positively (that few things would do more good than for ministers to be lifelong readers of verse). I am delighted, however, that several of my readers have informed me that they have found copies of Osgood in used bookstores and are reading him. [Editorial note: Osgood’s book can be found online via popular book distributors.]

Johnny Can’t Write

My second substantial thesis is that Johnny’s inability to write has negative consequences on his preaching also. Ours is no longer a compositional culture. Ask a college student today how often he wrote a “composition” in high school, and he will look at you as though you were a Greek professor. He doesn’t even know what the word “composition” is, unless it is a musical one. But my late father told me that when he was in high school, he wrote compositions weekly in every class except mathematics. In my generation, I also composed, though less often in school than my father. In my four years of college and for three years at seminary, I wrote my parents a letter every week (to which I received weekly replies). Each week for seven years, I had to assess the previous week, make some decisions about what, if anything, important had happened, and then decide in what order to arrange my narrative of those events in a letter. I was composing. I was making the decisions all composers make about what to include or exclude and where. In the process, like my father before me, I was unwittingly developing the sensibilities of a thoughtful composer, sensibilities utterly lost on those who communicate with their “friends and family” via cell phone.

A sermon, obviously, is also a composition. The minister asks the same questions any composer does: Should I include this or not? Should I exclude that or not? If I include these three things, in what order should I put them and why? But for many ministers today, the only time they compose is when they compose a sermon, so they are less adept at the practice than were their predecessors. Their sermons do not have what Dabney called “order”-earlier points do not necessarily prepare the way for later points. Things that should be there are excluded, and things that should not be there are included.


Why Johnny Can’t Preach develops these matters more fully and addresses a few others before concluding with a chapter on how things could improve. If my voice adds anything to the chorus of commentators on the contemporary church, it does so because I bring a media-ecological perspective to the question. From that perspective, it is inevitable that when Johnny’s ability to read and write declines, his ability to preach will decline also. And the matter will worsen with the widespread prevalence of electronic technologies that cultivate the habit of scanning rather than reading, and the habit of IM-ing or text-messaging incomplete sentences. Until or unless individuals make countercultural choices and cultivate the sensibilities necessary to preach well, the matter will worsen.

Photo of T. David Gordon
T. David Gordon
T. David Gordon (PhD) is a retired professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College. He has contributed to a number of books and study Bibles, published scholarly reviews and articles in various journals and periodicals, and his books include Promise, Law, Faith: Covenant-Historical Reasoning in Galatians (Hendrickson, 2019).
Tuesday, September 1st 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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