June 18, 2009

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

With Why Johnny Can't Preach, T. David Gordon levels a crushing indictment against the current state of the American pulpit. The book is interested in two media-ecological questions. First, how has the the move from language based media to image based and electronic media changed our sensibilities? Second, how has this change in sensibilities changed today's preaching (16)? Having served as both a pastor and professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Grove City College, Gordon is well qualified to examine the present state of preaching. This examination is what happens when a seminary professor reads Jacques Ellul.

The first chapter makes the case that there is indeed a problem in American preaching. Gordon not only draws on his own experience of bad preaching in various church settings, he cites members of pulpit committees who have given up hope of finding a pastor who can also preach well. In terms of method, Gordon uses Robert Lewis Dabney's "Cardinal Requisites" as an evaluative tool and argues that these "Cardinal Requisites are Manifestly Absent" from today's preaching.

What then is the problem? If preaching does indeed largely lack coherence, form, and point, why is it so lacking? Gordon uses chapters 2 and 3 to answer these questions. His answer: Johnny can't preach because Johnny can't read texts (chapter 2), and Johnny can't preach because Johnny can't write (chapter 3).

Now many will object saying that preachers can, of course, read (usually). But Gordon responds arguing that there is a difference between reading for information and really reading a text. There is a difference between reading what a text says and reading how it is written. Gordon claims that present day readers almost always read for information or content and almost never for "the pleasure obtained by reading an author whose command of language is exceptional" (44). The problem is that when preachers try to read the Bible the way they read everything else, then they are bound to misunderstand the nuances of the text failing to see what is really going on. Gordon claims that those unaccustomed to reading a text closely often just look for important words and the concepts associated with them only then giving a talk on that concept. This sort of study will not yield preaching that is grounded in the text and which understands how the grammatical and syntactical elements in the text contribute to the text as a whole. Exposition is grounded in the preacher's ability to read a text closely and appreciate its nuance and shape. If the preacher only scans for information, then he will not be able to faithfully exposit the text.

This inability to read texts, Gordon argues, is a direct result of the media culture in which we live (50). The quick paced nature of electronic media necessarily undermines the slow and laborious task of close reading. Significant things take time to communicate, but the quick pace of electronic media and the 7-9 minutes between commercials is hardly capable of conveying anything of significance. The shift in media from word to image has caused our culture to move from the significant to the trivial. Basically, Gordon says that Johnny can't preach because Johnny lives in a TV saturated society which has fried his brain and made him unable to fathom the great significance and richness of God's manifold and great glory which is to be the content of authentic and faithful Christian preaching. The result, according to Gordon, is mindless how-to preaching which absolutely fails to convey the significant things in the mind of God.

The second and briefer part of Gordon's critique is the claim that Johnny can't preach because Johnny can't write (chapter 3). In short, in this fast-paced culture, we babble on telephones rather than taking time to carefully compose our thoughts. Gordon points out that, in the past, people had to communicate by letter. This caused them to think carefully about what they had to say and to compose it with thoughtfulness. People don't write letters anymore. Instead, we talk on the phone and do not think carefully about that which we speak. Thus, the telephone robs us of composition skills (65). What is the impact on preaching? Gordon says, "Today, we have become a culture of telephone babblers, unskilled at the most basic questions of composition; and it is simply too much to expect that a typical member of such a culture can be quickly trained to deliver well-composed, thoughtful sermons" (67).

What then are we to do? How shall we reclaim the pulpit for thoughtful and enlivened exposition of the Word of God? One of the first things Gordon suggests is to cultivate pre-homiletic sensibilities. This means study of language and literature. One learns to read well by reading well. That is, one learns to read and think by reading great writers and thinkers. If you want to be a preacher, Gordon recommends studying literature first. This will equip you to think well. Also, study a highly inflected language like Latin or Greek. This will teach you how language works and develop your ability to read and compose.

All in all, this is an outstanding and timely book. Much more could be said about this brief book (not least with regard to Gordon's chapter on the importance of Christological content in preaching). One of the most important impressions one takes away from this book is the weightiness of the task of preaching. Yes, the author advocates the study of literature and classical languages as a preparation for the task of preaching. We, however, in our fast paced culture, want to rush straight off to the preaching without adequate preparation. We think that the study of Greek is a waste of time that keeps us from getting on to the real ministry that awaits forgetting that if we cannot read Greek, we cannot read the New Testament but only translations of it (not to mention Hebrew and Aramaic). Preaching is a great responsibility. The preacher should be well trained and well prepared. An essential part of that training now includes the reading of Why Johnny Can't Preach. Every preacher should read this book...at least twice.

June 3, 2009

Hindrances to Evangelism

Evangelism is a central part of faithful Christian living. We are commanded to make disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt 28:18-20). This necessarily includes clear communication of the gospel which is God's power for salvation to all who believe (Rom 1:16-17). When faced with the opportunity to talk with someone about Jesus, we often shy away. There might be any number of reasons for this, but I think one of the central reasons is fear. We don't share the gospel with people because we are afraid. This is not necessarily unfounded fear either. Just read Acts. The Apostles were threatened with severe punishment for speaking about God's action in Jesus. Declaring the universal claims of the sovereign God is risky business. It will even get you killed in some parts of the world. Most Americans never face that kind of risk when doing the work of evangelism, though. For us, its mainly fear of rejection. What will this person say? How will they receive what I want to say? Will I be seen as a religious fanatic? Will I be looked down upon socially? These are all valid and genuine feelings. But their validity does not mean that we should allow them to hinder our doing what our Lord has expressly commanded us to do. I found myself experiencing these types of feelings just last week. I was having a discussion with a lady when she asked me what denomination I was a part of. I replied that I was United Methodist and felt the nudge of the Holy Spirit to continue the conversation by asking what denomination she belonged to. Here was the opportunity I had longed for. Here was a golden opportunity to get into a discussion on Christianity and the gospel. Immediately, hesitation set in, and I asked myself the kinds of questions outlined above. I sat silently feeling shame that I had not taken the opportunity to talk to this lady about Jesus. Fortunately, God is gracious and provided another opportunity later in the conversation. We went on to have a great discussion about the claims of Christ and the significance of his death and resurrection. She was not a follower of Jesus when I left, but by the grace of God she will be one day. One sows and another reaps.

The thing that I am having to learn, and that all Christians need to learn, is that evangelism is about caring more about others that I do myself (Phil 2:4). Do I care more about my fears and insecurities or the eternal destiny of the person in front of me? Do I care more about my social reputation or about obeying the commands of my Lord? Do I care more about my needs to cater to my fear or about the need of the other for a savior? Evangelism means loving others more than I love myself and not being hindered by fear of what others may think about me.

June 2, 2009

A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking

Not afraid to offend the sensibilities of sentimentalist Christians, Doug Wilson claims in A Serrated Edge that satire is a thoroughly biblical form of proclamation and argumentation. Wilson demonstrates that biblical authors used satire and mockery as a godly way of demonstrating the foolishness of their target's transgressions. Many readers will be shocked at Wilson's frank fun-poking; at least a few readers will be refreshed.

Wilson, a pastor and educator, surveys both testaments to make his case that satire is a biblical form of argument. The reader will be reminded of the familiar story where Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal suggesting that their deity is either out of the office or catching a quick nap. Isaiah points his jabs at the fool who carves his deity out of the same fire wood he uses to cook his dinner. Neither did the New Testament writers shy away from satirical language. Paul didn't hesitate to voice his wish that the circumcision party would finish the job and castrate themselves. And lest the reader think the gospels are safe from satirical content, Wilson points to Jesus' critique of the religiosity of the Pharisees who are leading people in darkness like the blind leading the blind. Jesus warned that it would be easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. For a modern paraphrase, try to imagine a monster truck fitting down the drain of your bathtub. And don't forget, says Wilson, Jesus dismissed the theologians of his day as having graduated from Bag of Snakes Seminary (12). Indeed, claims Wilson, satire pervades scripture and is held out as a godly form of rebuke. (12).

As said, this book will offend many. Wilson points his serrated literary edge at what he calls modern evangelicalism's "axis of treacle - Christianity Today, The Christian Booksellers Association, Wheaton College and its environs, Colorado Springs and its environs, Thomas Kinkade and Jerry B. Jenkins" (13). And speaking of Jenkins, Wilson likens the well known work of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins to the "Hardy Boys in the Apocalypse" (8).

Wilson will undoubtedly be criticized for criticizing other Christians. But he claims that, "Love that refuses to defend that which is loved is not biblical love at all" (115). And Wilson loves the glorious heritage of the Protestant Reformation, which he sees as tarnished by modern evangelicalism. Thus, he aims to defend historic evangelicalism by aiming biblical and satirical argument against those who would bring shame upon the house.

For those who find this type of thing refreshing, you can find more satire at Canon Press. Wilson's Contours of Post-Maturity: InterVarsity Press Comes of Age can be found for free on Google Books. I personally recommend Nathan Wilson's Right Behind: A Parody of Last Days Goofiness which can be obtained for as little as 1 cent at Amazon (of course, shipping will cost you $3.99). Though I have not read it, some will surely appreciate The Mantra of Jabez by Douglas Jones.

I end with a quote from A Serrated Edge:

"This is inescapable. In a sinful world, giving offense is one of the central tasks of preaching. When the offending word is brought to bear against those who have shown themselves to be unteachable, they are written off by that offending word. When this happens, or there is a threat of it happening, the natural temptation is to blame the word instead of taking responsibility for the sin that brought the rebuking and satiric word. Employing a scriptural satiric bite is therefore not 'rejoicing in iniquity' but rather testifying against hardness of heart.  This is why, in every controversy, godliness and wisdom (or the lack of them) are to be determined by careful appeal to the Scriptures and not to the fact of someone having taken offense. Perhaps they ought to have taken offense, and perhaps someone ought to have endeavored to give it" (102).

June 1, 2009

A Call to the Pro-life Movement: Condemn the Unlawful Killing of Abortionist Doctor

The murder of late term abortionist Dr. George Tiller yesterday was a grievous thing. I am resolutely and unwaveringly pro-life; however, murdering those who disagree is not an acceptable way of proceeding with conflict and debate. Scripture clearly gives the governing authorities the responsibility to protect the innocent and punish the wicked. It is unjust for an individual citizen to take this role upon himself. It is the case that the governing authorities in this nation have rebelled against God in their refusal to outlaw abortion and justly punish those who persist in its practice. This failure does not mean that the person who murdered Dr. Tiller, or anyone else for that matter, has the right to usurp the authority divinely given to the governing authorities. The pro-life movement must come forward and resolutely condemn the action of this cold-blooded killer who has, like the pro-abortion doctor he murdered, demonstrated his own rebellion against biblical mandates on justice. This action will only serve to impede the pro-life movement. Pro-life advocates ought to distance themselves from this illegal action.