Thursday, May 07, 2009

Why Johnny Can't Preach

I had seen Dr. T. David Gordon's provocative little book, Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, in the catalogs and was eager to read it. My interest was heightened by some Internet chatter about the book and the comments others had made to me about the book. So, when the Seminary bookstore finally got it, I picked it up and just finished it. I think I can give the book no higher praise than this: Dr. Gordon may be a curmudgeon, but he is right.

And he is right on two major counts. First, Gordon is right to pin the reason why Johnny can't preach on the cultural forces that have affected the way ministerial students and young ministers read texts and compose arguments. Most of us in the educational world bemoan the inability of many of our students to produce basic outlines, shape rudimentary arguments, or craft reasoned essays. Some of us even go so far as to give students a basic framework in the syllabus for writing the essays for which we look and yet it is shocking how students are unable to follow even such suggestions.

This is an aside by way of example. In one syllabus, I have: "the first three paragraphs of your essay are introductory, so tell me who wrote the book, where does the author teach, what does the author say are his reasons for writing the book, and finally what is his argument; in the next two pages, summarize his argument in three major points; in the next two pages, evaluate his argument in the light of class readings and lectures; in the final paragraph suggest whether you liked the book and whether you would recommend it to another." You would be surprised how few students can even follow this basic formula for a book review essay.

Further, many students cannot read texts closely. As a teacher, some of my most disappointing classes have been electives run seminar style, based on the close reading of primary source texts. When students are unable to reference "chapter and verse" from Kuyper, Edwards, Bushnell or Hodge, pointing the class to a particular page, summarizing the point, and advancing the argument, it devolves to me having to do that for the class. In the end, many of these electives become my own running dialogue with the text with the students listening in. This may provide a nice modeling opportunity, but it is disappointing--because I hope to learn from the students, which doesn't happen when I do all the talking.

Some of the Covenant Seminary faculty have talked about whether we need to rework the MDiv curriculum to include a first semester professional seminar, which would cover things like "how to read a book" and "how to write a paper." Clearly our cultural forces and our educational system are failing to give our students the tools and sensitivities necessary to read texts well and compose clear arguments. And, as Gordon notes, this will inevitably affect the way men preach.

Second, Gordon is right that the content of preaching must center repeatedly and insistently on the person and work of Jesus Christ. His discussion of the evangelical content of preaching in chapter four is priceless--he diagnoses four alternative types of preaching (moralism, how-to, introspection, culture warrior), demonstrates the difficulties, and points back to robust Christ-centered exposition. And while I may quibble with one point--namely, when he observes that the pulpit is almost never the place to enforce moral behavior or raise questions for the complacent to examine themselves (pp. 90-1); I wonder then what he would do with the imperative sections of Paul's Epistles--the main point does not lose its force.

A thoughtful and thought-provoking book, it was well-worth the two hours it took me to breeze through the 100 pages or so. But the points that Gordon raises will be with me for weeks, months, and even years to come. In fact, I think I need to go now--I'm going to buy Shakespeare's sonnets and have myself a good read.


transforming julie said...

I appreciate your synopsis of Dr. Gordon's book. He was a guest on this past Sunday's The White Horse Inn. Sunday was my first hearing of Dr. Gordon and found it very interesting what he had to say. Now, after reading your blog, my appetite is really wet to purchase his book.

nickg said...


I'm commenting more on your aside than on your thoughts about the book--but I completely agree that CTS needs to offer some remedial instruction on reading, writing, and argumentation. Even though it's unfortunate that time in graduate school should be taken up with concepts that should have been grasped during time as an undergrad (and, really, as a high schooler), the year I spent working in the seminary's writing resource center proved this need to be real.

But as you, and apparently Gordon, point out, it's a problem more widespread in our culture than just among our seminarians, so I don't want to pick on CTS alone. I also work at a private liberal arts college here in St. Louis, editing doctoral dissertations, and the same problems are present with these students. What is scarier--these are doctoral candidates in education, so most of them have been teaching in our local schools for some years. How can they teach what they don't know?

lesnewsom said...

I would add one more to Gordon's list of alternative types of preaching: the inconsequential running commentary. Surely this serves his larger point that our generation has not yet learned to do the hard work of *applying* texts.

Anonymous said...

Without wishing to be overly brutal, is there not an argument that you should not be doing an MDiv (lower bids might be made!) if you need instruction on reading a book and writing a paper?

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Nick: you are right; the issue is not our students particularly--I just used them as the example at hand. Rather, the issue is the larger educational system and the cultural transformations we are experiencing.

Hi, Wanderer: the friends that I have who teach in graduate programs in various fields (history, especially; but b-schools and law schools) note the same trend. Don't hear what I'm not saying: there are some wonderful students who are well-equipped; but there are also an increasing number of people who didn't get what they needed. FWIW.

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