Like Playing the Piano with an Oven Mitt

September 21, 2010 — 1 Comment


My interest in preaching over the course of my first three years could be described in one word:


Ok, so it’s a hyphenated word, but you get the idea.

However, I can’t graduate without 2 semesters of preaching, so with only 2 semesters left to go, I had to dive into the world of homiletics (i.e. the art of preaching).

I was a bit disappointed that we were assigned the same textbook I had in undergraduate preaching (which was possibly the worst class I took at that school), but also liked the fact that I wouldn’t have to buy it again. It is after all a pretty standard treatment of preaching, and reading through it a second time has proved helpful.

In a sense, preaching is much like writing (which I like) and so some of the mechanics that go into a good sermon transfer into doing good theological writing. I was interested then in doing some more reading, and that’s how I ended up reading Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. At $6 right now over at Westminster’s bookstore, it’s worth every cent, and here’s why.

The reason Johnny can’t preach is two fold:

  • Johnny can’t read texts closely
  • Johnny can’t write worth a flip

On top of that, if Johnny can get those two problems remedied, he usually can’t then communicate his close reading of Scripture in a way that sticks with the audience. So, the main problem is Johnny’s hurried and unfocused reading abilities, which is closely tied to his inability to shoot off much more than an email with much coherency.

The reason for this, in the author’s estimation, is that the media (not the news media) in our culture (i.e. new technologies) have so shaped the average Johnny going to seminary that even with a top rate preaching department, he still doesn’t usually learn to actually preach a coherent sermon. He comes into seminary lacking the basic skills in reading and communication that 2 semesters of preaching can’t remedy. On top of that, most seminary curricula are structured assuming a Johnny who has received a classical education, but that is rarely a safe assumption.

In a way, what the author is arguing for is a pre-seminary solution. The average Johnny, whether or not his seminary curriculum includes it, needs to invest time in learning to read texts closely (the author recommends a major in English for those considering future pastoral ministry and time at seminary), taking note of their subtle features and paying real close attention to every last word (or as Jesus might have said, jot and tittle). He needs to also become more literary. He needs to tread in literature, not to emulate it per se, but to at least be conversant with how great authors and speakers have communicated their ideas.

On the one hand, preaching is expositing the word of God and does rest in the Spirit’s power to apply it to the hearts of the hearers rather than our clever ways to communicate it. But on the other hand, the Bible is a beautifully written literary work of art, and not handling it properly in presentation is like trying to play piano with an oven mitt.

Sure we might get the gist of it, but wouldn’t it make more sense to play unencumbered if you had the option?

All that to say, I would highly recommend looking into this book if you either interested in preaching, or disgruntled at the lack of good preaching out there. I would not however recommend giving a copy to your pastor, but if you do know any young seminarians, this book and its cousin would make a great gift.

Unless of course, their name is Johnny…


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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