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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.

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