Why Johnny Can’t Preach

Last week our Lifeway Campus store asked me for a list of five favorite books that they could display in their store as recommended reading. They are asking various professors from our faculty to do this throughout the year.

I wanted an ancient work, which was easy to choose – Augustine’s City of God – everyone should read it. And then I added a few “modern classics” that are accessible and don’t have any good popular analogs: Helmut Thielecke’s Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, and C.S. Lewis’s Four Loves. I also wanted an example of a good new book, and on my desk was a terrific little volume I had just read, T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Preach.

Gordon asserts that we’re in a bad state with regard to preaching in our churches (presumably US churches) and he’s right about that. He thinks that perhaps less than 30 percent of preachers can deliver “an even mediocre sermon.” I think he is generous.

Gordon first explains that Johnny can’t preach and he is spot on about this, as they say. He offers good reasons for his assertion, including the fact that most congregations are simply not satisfied with the preaching they hear. I am aware that some will say that congregations are untrained and aren’t the best judges of preaching. I reject that notion. I think congregations are the best judges in a significant way. That is, ultimately I am most concerned about how the church receives the preaching of sacred Scripture. And I have the confidence that God’s people will sort out whether they are being fed or not. And, if you don’t believe Gordon’s assessment, be brave enough to ask the people to whom you preach what they think of your preaching. Give them the freedom to tell you what they really think. As someone who preaches in a fair amount of churches where I’m not the pastor, I’ll tell you what they think: While they love Johnny (usually), they too think Johnny can’t preach.

Next, Gordon offers a couple of important reasons why Johnny can’t preach. That’s because Johnny can’t read and Johnny can’t write. What Gordon is really getting at is that Johnny can’t think. Not because he isn’t able, but because he never learned to. And, again, I think Gordon has stated what is so obvious but what is so often neglected. The basic disciplines of reading and writing should be seen as a significant part of pastoral ministry, but they are no longer.

The reason they are so important is because they are significant means by which we reason and formulate communication as thinking beings. (Yes, I’m aware that there are non-literate cultures and that my assertion raises an interesting question about them. I also understand that divine revelation was given, in part, in written form so it could be read and heard – this is not an unimportant matter).

My one criticism of the book has to do with the subtitle “The Media Have Shaped the Messengers.” Gordon is involved in the field of media ecology and he brings interesting insights to bear about how media affects culture. He has good insights along these lines. My only beef is that the problem with preaching isn’t solely or even mainly to do with media. Johnny doesn’t read or write for reasons other than media.

The reason I object to these sorts of assertions, common as they are, is that I see not a few brilliant readers, writers, and, yes, preachers whose media intake is actually immense, and has been from early years. According the thesis that media is the problem, these folks should be “image-based” rather than “text-based,” but they’re not. I’m not certain what to make of that. As Gordon notes, this field of study is young and I gather we just need more time to sort out what’s actually going on here. In the meantime, I am hesitant to cast blame in such a way on “media.”

Visiting with an old college friend a couple of weeks ago, he said this book was one of the best and worst books he’d read in a long time. “Best” because it identified a problem and addressed it so well. “Worst” because it made him feel awful about his preaching. But, of course, because my friend cares about preaching well, he was glad the book made him feel so bad. Perhaps everyone who preaches would profit by feeling bad for a bit in order to become a better preacher. If you’re up for that, then read this valuable little book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach.

Guest Blog: On Disciplined Writing (3): Writing Praxis 101

By: John Burkett

Editor’s Note: John Burkett is Instructor of Rhetoric and Composition and Director of the Writing Center at SEBTS. He is a nice fellow who also has keen mind and pen. We at BtT invited him to write a follow-up to Bruce Ashford’s series, “On Disciplined Reading.” This is the third installment of three.

Writing Praxis 101: Audience-Message-Author.

Given our Christian confession (or “foundation,” for those who prefer a modernist term), what can we say about communication and more particularly about the symbolic action we call writing? When we gain a Christian perspective-attitude for writing, we “necessarily” transform our view of the three elements in any rhetorical situation, consisting of audience, message, and author.

First, as writers we become more concerned with audience, like the Apostle Paul was concerned with audience and shaped his message to his audience. Second, we become more concerned with the truth of our message, like the Apostle John loved the truth and took care to present words well (clearly, validly, winsomely) so that he would encourage God’s “children walking in truth.” Third, “you” as an author embark on a never-ending adventure that transforms who you are as you consider audience and message, like Luke’s adventure in the book of Acts. For, as Garrison Keillor has observed, “Writing is a means of discovery, always.” Discovery (classical “rhetorical invention”) means that writing is a thinking tool for generating ideas, ideas that shape not only our message and perhaps an audience but also the author. Since writing is a thinking tool that affects an author’s sanctity, many consider writing to be a “spiritual” discipline.

Audience First.

I would like to emphasize that writing can be a fun activity because it’s a social experience–communication in community. Writing can be a “fun discipline” if we keep in mind that we have an audience who cares about us and our thought life. This audience is our “dialogic self” (we are our own first reader), our God (the ever-present “super-addressee”), our direct audience if any (whom we directly address), and an indirect audience (someone we imagine who may read our work, such as a respected parent, brother, sister, mentor, or friend). For this reason, I suggest to my writing students that they should not write for the professor (because that is a recipe for mediocrity) but write instead for “someone whom you respect,” someone with whom you would not mind sharing your work. Awareness of audience transforms writing from a mere “assignment” or “recording data” into “expression” and even “communication” because we are participating in a meaningful social dialogue.

Questions Concerning Audience.

Are you (un)concerned about grammatical correctness? Then be more concerned with audience, and you will find the “strange” motivation to learn the conventions of written communication. Are you (un)concerned with clarity, concision, and style? Then be more concerned with audience and how your words will affect your audience, and you will find a clear and appropriate form for your sentences and message. Are you (un)concerned about your audience? Then be more concerned about your ever-present “super-addressee” or your respected “indirect audience.” “Above all, write unto others as you would have others write unto you.”

While not writing a handbook (for they are plentiful), I have sought to outline some helpful strategies for the “discipline of writing,” which I hope helps you become a more confident and competent writer who enjoys clear, precise, and correct prose.

A follow-up article may arrive later (discussing Christian perspectives of message and author). As always, I invite you to contact me in the Writing Center at Southeastern with your specific questions about writing.

Guest Blog: On Disciplined Writing (2): Theology and Writing 101

By: John Burkett

Editor’s Note: John Burkett is Instructor of Rhetoric and Composition and Director of the Writing Center at SEBTS. He is a nice fellow with a wickedly keen mind and pen. We at BtT invited him to write a follow-up to Bruce Ashford’s series, “On Disciplined Reading.” This is the second installment of three.

Theology and Writing Theory 101.

Contrary to popular opinion, writing is not a “subject” or a “course,” nor merely “expression,” but it is an art of communication. The words communication and community come from the Latin communis, meaning “common.” Written communication is a community art: learned in community, serving social discourse, and building bridges of understanding (first in ourselves and then between people) constructed by language in our everyday conversations. We may think of writing as concentrated (in both senses) communication.

God the Author and the Conversation of Mankind.

Applying an analogy from speech, I’ve said that reading and writing are like a conversation, meaning that writing is the “talking” phase of those conversations in which we have an interest. After “listening in” on a conversation by reading (and research), at some point you will desire to “talk back.” By writing, we enter the conversation, “talking back” or “answering” or “elaborating,” sometimes by dialoguing with an author in the margins of our book or by responding in a more formal genre.

Reading and writing are always dialogic, making writing the responsive phase of a dialogue or conversation. When I write, I am responding, considering an author’s actions and words–words being symbolic action.

Our dialogic drama begins with God as a Trinity and as an Author. We remember, of course, that Moses wrote as a response to the wondrous works and words of God, that the biblical prophets wrote as a response to their God-given burdens, that the psalmists wrote as a response to God’s promises and salvation, that the apostles wrote in response to the fulfilled promises in Jesus Christ and in response to the concerns of the churches, that the church fathers wrote our catholic creeds as a response to schisms, heresies, and concerns for grace and truth in their time.

In a more modest sense, I am writing in response to an invitation, also to the “literary crisis” that occurs every year in our country, and to a certain call of God, who desires his church family and his family’s elders to be proficient, if not excellent, readers and writers, interpreters and communicators.

The Holy Trinity and the “Dialogic Self.”

It is St. Augustine, that beloved professor of rhetoric, who intimately examines our dialectical psychology and epistemology in De Trinitate and who beautifully expresses his own “dialogic self” in his Confessions, in which he addresses God from beginning to end. Augustine presses dialectic to its extremity, suggesting that the conscious self is itself a dialogue–a dialectic between the human self and God and others in community. According to Augustine, our “dialogic self” is always already in dialogue with, and “possessed” by, another voice–namely (at some level) God.

Augustine is most profound when he examines our dialectical psychology and attempts to understand the divine through understanding the self in analogy (of being) to, in relation to, and in imitation of the Trinity. According to Augustine, the human self is an “imago trinitatis,” reflecting the inner sociality of our Triune God (see De Trinitate, books 9-15). Augustine’s Christian psychology is radically different from the modern, quiet, indivisible Cartesian self, based on a simple monistic substance. Rather, Augustine’s “dialogic self” suggests that the verbal dialogue within the self is the ontological individual-social condition, which is our foundation for understanding how communication and writing work.

Secular scholars are privy to our interior-social condition and discuss how our “inner sociality” becomes externalized in our writing. For instance, writing theorist Kenneth Bruffee states, “If thought is internalized conversation, then writing is internalized conversation re-externalized.” Bruffee, I believe, is correct, but as Christians, we can say more, for instance, suggesting that dialogue is a theological imperative because we are “hard-wired” with other-regard.

In our short study of theology and writing theory, we understand by informed faith that God is an Author (the Alpha and Omega), that God is a “social” Trinity, that mankind is created in the image of the “social” Trinity, and that man imitates God by authoring many conversations. This theological perspective humanizes the writing process and makes it a central part of creating and sustaining meaningful community (and “interpretive communities”).

Thus, to abandon dialogue–to neglect reading and writing–harms us more immediately than it harms others. Alternatively, when we engage ourselves and others by reading and writing, we engage in a meaning-making process that benefits self and others when done respectfully.