Review: “Why Johnny Can’t Preach” (Part I)

It’s been a while since I’ve done an honest-to-goodness book review on this site. Part of the problem is that I’ve been too busy with anything other than school and teaching to read much of consequence that does not relate to those two ends. Perhaps at some point I will polish up a few of the reviews I did for my oral exams, since some of those books would be quite interesting, at least to some.

But as I settle into the thesis stage of my MTh, I’ve resolved to keep reading outside my narrow domain of the Persian period reception of Lamentations, and consume a steady diet of New Testament studies (thus my recent quotation of Ben F. Meyer), philosophy of history (Ricoeur), political philosophy, my beloved hobby of economics, and even a little sociology (I’ve been reading articles about “Fat Studies”–Google it).

I also read a short book this week entitled, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, by T. David Gordon (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2009). Dr. Gordon teaches Greek and “media ecology” at Grove City College (formerly at Gordon-Conwell) and is ordained in the PCA. I heard him speak about this book on the Reformed Forum a little while ago. As a novice preacher pursuing ordination to gospel ministry, as well as an academic studying the reception and liturgical use of a book of Scripture, I was eager to see what Gordon says about preaching and what can be done to improve it.

Gordon’s introduction explains his purpose and tone. This book was substantially completed in 2004 while he was undergoing aggressive treatment for a stage-III cancer, from which he has since recovered (thank God), but at that time he urgently wanted to pass on a career’s worth of academic and ministerial wisdom. His goal is to convince his audience 1) that preaching in evangelical churches is very bad; 2) that the reasons for the dismal homiletical state of the church are the changes in technology, education and media of the past half-century; and 3) that something can be done about it.

Chapter one, “Johnny Can’t Preach,” makes his first point: preaching today is bad, and most Christians don’t realize it. Gordon displays his own rhetorical skill with such dramatic statements as: “As starving children in Manila sift through the landfill for food, Christians in many churches today have never experienced genuinely soul-nourishing preaching, and so they just pick away at what is available to them, trying to find a morsel of spritual sustenance or helpful counsel here or there” (17). Gordon’s (Protestant) conviction is that the congregant is bound by conscience to the Word of God, and so s/he is only bound to heed the preacher to the extent that the preacher expounds the Word of God–any other sermon is “religiously useless.” Most sermons, he asserts, either have no discernable point or have a point that is not demonstrably from the text of Scripture.

Gordon relies in this chapter on Robert Lewis Dabney’s seven “cardinal requisites” as expounded in Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric (1870; republished in 1979 by Banner of Truth). He argues that most sermons lack most of these essential attributes:

  1. Textual fidelity
  2. Unity
  3. Evangelical tone (“Does the sermon press the hearer to consider the hopelessness of his condition apart from Christ, and the utter competence of Christ to rescue the penitent sinner?”)
  4. Instructiveness
  5. Movement (“Do the earlier parts of the sermon contribute to the latter parts’ full effect?”)
  6. Point (impact)
  7. Order/Organization

The push in some churches for shorter sermons, or the use of media (PowerPoint, videos, movies) in sermons, he asserts, is really a symptom of the larger problem: preachers today can’t communicate effectively. The problem, Gordon argues, is the increasing aliteracy of the culture–hence the book’s title following the famous publications, Why Johnny Can’t Read (1986) and Why Johnny Can’t Write (1990). We don’t read or write texts anymore, and thus preachers cannot exposit texts or give coherent speeches. Because we can communicate so quickly via cell phones, texts, e-mails and IMs (let alone Facebook, which exploded soon after the writing of this book), we no longer read or compose discourses–everything is communicated through ten-second soundbites, Tweets and short comments. Also, communication is largely image-based; if “a picture is worth a thousand words,” why not just use images? Anyone who attends the presidential debates, or compares newspaper articles from the 1910s to those of today’s paper, or watches a half-hour sitcom, will have to agree with Gordon’s take on media (who echoes his influences: McLuhan, Ong, Ellul and Postman).

We have therefore, as Gordon argues in chapter two, lost the ability to read literature for its own sake. Our preachers, let alone our congregants, no longer read significant texts, prose or poetry. The biblical texts, rather than functioning as literary works that engage our minds and hearts and shape our thinking, have become merely “use[d] as mnemonic devices to recall what [we] already know” (49-50). Gordon points out that reading texts (particularly poetry) for its own sake “cultivates the sensibility of significance” (51). We learn to appreciate the gravity of God’s Word expressed in dense, thoughtful human words. “Mundaneness is, I believe, part of the curse of Genesis 3….Verse is a common-grace gift that enables us, through the fog of images and sounds, to again see ourselves and others as bearers of the image of God” (52).

Television, he argues, is rarely able to depict the realities of a fallen world and God’s grace, and “is at its best with the superficial and trivial” (53). This rang true for me: my frustration with TV drama is its serial nature which does not easily admit a narrative ending. Last year, I deliberately stopped watching one of my favorite shows, because I liked the way some of the story-arcs had ended, and didn’t really care about the cliffhangers that were left at the end of the season. I chose to end the story where I wanted to end it, and it bothers me (slightly) that it’s still on. The other shows I like are largely satirical takes on pop culture, which is sort of sad that the best pop culture can do when it comes to “significance” is to lampoon its own triviality.

(To be continued…)

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, exiled to the land of Phillies fans…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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6 Responses to Review: “Why Johnny Can’t Preach” (Part I)

  1. Rebekah says:

    This sounds like something I would want to read. It does, as you’ve said, have Postman written all over it. It’s been several years since I read “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” but I remember very clearly how he said that move from a text-oriented society to an image-oriented one has made it difficult for people to engage in prolonged discourse/argumentation. So people don’t read.

    It bothers me when people don’t seem to value education, especially education in the Bible. Yet more and more I feel like there’s this dichotomy drawn between the scholar and the layperson in the church and I believe it has a good deal to do with technology. Reading, which is now considered something that “smart people” do, was more commonplace before the advent of the television and similar technologies. Not that everyone was education before the TV, but there’s a reason the King James Bible has been so influential – people actually read it.

    Sorry, this thought is a little rambling. I’m just tired of people tolerating bad preaching/teaching because they don’t expect anything better or that “too much education” makes people uppity. I hear so much “scholar-bashing” from the pulpit – people saying stuff like “Well, I’m not a scholar, but I have heart and humility.” Great. If you’re so humble, why do you feel like you have to put down a fellow sibling in Christ?

    • thinkhardthinkwell says:

      Gordon makes the point that the average Civil War soldier was literate and could sit down and write an outlined, thorough, coherent missive. I dread hand-writing a letter, because I have to concentrate very intently on writing legibly, spelling correctly and composing thoughtfully and logically.

      Nice shout-out to the KJV in its quadricentennial, BTW.

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  3. Susan Giffone says:

    I am still surprised and dismayed when confronted with evidence that many people simply do not read. It’s as if a person told me that he does not eat. I cannot imagine this. How do they stay alive mentally? But, perhaps…. they don’t.

    This points to a related fact, and that is that there are those who do read. Should we have separate congregations for this “people group”? I have often thought that if I were amongst my own kind, I might not have to pick through the garbage dump….. not to dis my pastor, who does a good job. But his time int he pulpit is limited and he always has to preach to the middle. A middle which, we seem to agree with Gordon, keeps getting lower.

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