If you thought you were dying and could write one book what would it be about? T. David Gordon’s answer to that question was his jeremiad Why Johnny Can’t Preach. Gordon penned the volume in 2004 while undergoing eleven months of treatment for cancer and facing a twenty-five percent chance of survival (presently in remission). He was not sure if he would live through the year and was driven with a sense of urgency to express thoughts on preaching that he had desired to write for thirty years (10-11).
Gordon presupposes that contemporary preaching is poor and is of the opinion that “less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach an even mediocre sermon” (11). His critique is focused on conservative evangelical and reformed churches (his constituency) and while he acknowledges there are great preachers today his burden is for the average Christian family in the average pew on an average Sunday (14). In 1966, the landmark volume, Why Johnny Can’t Read (Rudolf Flesh) was published and was followed in 1990 by Why Johnny Can’t Write (Linden and Whimbey). According to Gordon’s argument, Why Johnny Can’t Preach is the logical corollary because if Johnny can’t read and write then it is just a matter of time until he can’t preach.
Gordon specializes in media ecological studies of how the contemporary dominance of image based and electronic media have altered the thinking of American culture in the transition from a typographical based culture. He believes that for preaching all of the change has been negative. The volume begins with a chapter that offers an anecdotal argument for the fact that Johnny can’t preach. Chapters two and three unfold Gordon’s thesis, Johnny can’t preach because he cannot read texts and because he cannot write. In both of these areas he contends the problem is atrophy.
Fewer people read, even fewer read literature, and fewer still read verse. Technology has robbed us of much important face to face communication and the priority of clear, well composed written thought. Inconsequential reading, thoughtless babbling, and text message compositions do not prepare preachers to read the biblical text or to write a sermon for oral proclamation. Gordon perceptively notes that the result of Johnny’s inability to read and write is a failure to distinguish the significant from the insignificant (67). This failure is devastating for the task of preaching which is rooted in recognizing the weighty, significant, and consequential. In the fourth chapter, Gordon calls for the content of preaching to be Christ-centered in the tradition of Dabney, Clowney, and Chapell. Most notable is his contention that the only key to a return to Christ-centered preaching is learning to read and write so the preacher can regain a sensibility of the significant, therefore realizing nothing is more significant and central than Christ (92).
Gordon believes the situation is desperate but not hopeless for Johnny as a preacher. He argues Johnny should pursue a degree in English literature instead of religion or Bible and study as much pre-twentieth century poetry as possible. He avers, reading verse and great novels helps reverse modern tone deafness to consequentiality. Gordon also suggests pastors have an annual review and consistently practice composed communication to develop pre-homiletical sensibilities.
This is an important book because it directly and passionately states the problem of much contemporary preaching in conservative evangelical pulpits. Much of the banal, self-oriented, cliché-ridden, how-to preaching found in conservative pulpits is not simply a choice of style but the default hermeneutic for a generation who cannot read texts closely or write well ordered compositions. Therefore, the preacher is inhibited in his ability to think through and communicate the significance of the biblical text. Thus talk of the biblical storyline, organic unity, unifying theme, or interpretation and application mediated through Christ is an unknown tongue to many. It is easier to profess the inerrancy of the Bible but read every passage as though it is all about you, jumping immediately from every text to your life.
Though Gordon overstates his case at times and admits he is speaking from a particular perspective and not giving “the full story” (10). The essential case he is making is true and yet it is the very thing that has been left largely unsaid in regard to evangelical preaching. One minor critique is Gordon’s emphasis on English literature and the study of pre-twentieth century poetry for one’s ability to render a faithful, close reading of the biblical text, and consequently an accurate preaching of the text smacks of a form of academic elitism. Gordon undervalues the power of knowing and being saturated with the biblical narrative itself. The Scripture is an amazing collection of diverse genres of literature. Church history is replete with Johnny’s who like the apostles were formally “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13) but who were drenched in biblical texts, steeped in biblical poetry, and good writers because of their familiarity with the divinely ordered composition of the Bible. Because they were so familiar with the Bible they knew it possessed a metanarrative that centered on Jesus, and they could preach. Anyone who reads Gordon’s book and embraces his central message will be a better preacher as well.