Book Review: Why Johnny Can’t Preach by T. David Gordon

Seventeenth century Puritanism produced some of Christianity’s most able preachers. Many of them received a university training that required the careful reading of texts in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. A language-based educational system prepared future ministers to find a home in biblical texts. If they tutored children of the affluent, they sharpened their expository skills.


(T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach. P&R, 2009)

The written text no longer dominates America’s educational landscape, and comparatively few students devote themselves to rigorous study of literature or ancient languages before entering seminary. Preaching suffers.

T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Preach engages the modern preacher by considering his ability both to read biblical texts and communicate compellingly their God-breathed truth. The minister’s work is demanding: he must not merely assert the point of his sermon; he must discharge “his duty of demonstrating that what he is saying is God’s will.” (18) Sadly, he may be unaware of his duty, or woefully prepared to discharge it.

A pre-homiletics book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach says little about the how-to’s of crafting a sermon but much about the literary sensibilities and habits of learning of a preacher.

The author, an ordained Presbyterian minister, teaches media ecology at Grove City College. As a media ecologist he explores our culture’s movement away from a language-based media to an image-based and electronic media, and how that shift affects the preacher and his preaching.

Two deficiencies mar contemporary preaching: Johnny, the preacher, can’t read (texts) and he can’t write. True, Johnny’s not illiterate. But reading the sports page, or the latest John Grisham novel, or even a history book is not the same as reading a text – and, especially an ancient text – carefully. Many of us read only for amusement or scan texts to acquire information. Speed-readers learn to ignore articles, prepositions, adjectives and adverbs in order to identify quickly main points. (43) In the process, appreciation for how the text is constructed is lost. (46)

“Reading texts demands a very close and intentional reading. One cannot omit a single line of a given Shakespearean sonnet; each of the fourteen lines plays a crucial role. Those who are accustomed to reading such texts read each line for what it contributes to the whole and how it does so. But those not accustomed to reading texts closely just look for what they judge to be the important words, and the concepts to which they ostensibly point, and then give a lecture on that concept – ordinarily without making any effort to explain the passage as a whole, to demonstrate how each clause contributes to some basic overall unity.” (48)

The faithful preacher pays careful attention to the biblical text.

A text, according to Gordon, is like like a door that ushers us into the author’s world, enabling us to examine it from his vantage point. Sadly, in the wrong hands, scripture becomes a tool to confirm our own prejudices about reality. (49) Think about books that offer Jesus as the model for the successful CEO, salesperson or guru of human potential. No need to trek from our world back to the first century to enter the mind of God as revealed through the words of the inspired gospel writers who wrote amidst the sorrows of God’s suffering people, their words capturing the aspirations of the faithful who wait faithfully, patiently for the advent of the promised Messiah. Our self-help author has no time or proclivity for that kind of study. “To employ C.S. Lewis’s way of stating the matter, they ‘use’ texts but do not ‘receive’ them.”(50)

Conspiring against the careful reading of texts is omnipresent electronic media. For the most part, it placards us with the  inconsequential, distracting, and trivial, and robs us of the “sensibility of significance.” (51) Gordon observes: “a culture that is accustomed to commercial interruptions every six or seven minutes loses its ability to discuss significant matters because it has lost the patience necessary to consider them.” (54) Such a culture produces ministers “who are not at home with what is significant; ministers whose attention span is less than that of a four-year-old in the 1940s, who race around like the rest of us, consequently distracted by sounds and images of inconsequential trivialities, and out of touch with what is weighty.” (58-59)

Life drives a hard bargain. The emergence and use of a new technology demands that we spend less time doing what we once did. Fewer face-to-face conversations, along with listening and looking and studying visible reactions to our words. We step into the pulpit, and may well be “blind to the visible response of the congregation because, as a culture, we get used to telephone conversations in which there is no visible response.”(64)

Largely gone, too, is writing letters. Unlike, say a telephone chat, writing a worthwhile letter demands “unity, order and movement,” (66) all of which are invaluable to good sermon construction.

Where does all this leave us? “A once-common sensibility (close reading of texts) is uncommon, and a once-common activity (composition) is now comparatively rare.” (67) How can Preacher Johnny be taught to preach? Before entering seminary, he should study where he is taught both how to read and the skill of “composed speech.” (96) A degree in English literature might be a wise choice for undergraduate students pursuing ministry. (101)

If Johnny is already in ministry, Gordon proposes:

1. An annual review that thoroughly evaluates the preacher’s sermons according to unity, intelligibility, and so forth. (98)

2. Cultivate the sensibility of reading texts closely. In addition to studying the scriptures in the original languages, the reading of poetry helps. (99-102)

3. Cultivate the sensibility of composed communication through note and letter writing and by writing for publication. Join a club devoted to honing public speaking skills and soliciting feedback from seasoned preachers. (103-105) Although it is not a preaching “how-to” manual, Why Johnny Can’t Preach contains a helpful review of Robert Lewis Dabney’s seven requisites of preaching (23-28) and an extended reflection on the content of preaching (69-93).

This book reminds me of deficiencies in my own preaching and ministerial preparation, and suggests remedies. Since good preachers are ordinarily the products of homes and/or churches that cultivate literary sensibilities, anyone who cares about children, education, and the future of pulpit ministry will find this book beneficial.

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