Cornelius Plantinga Jr. Reading for Preaching: The Preacher In Conversation With Storyteller, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, November, 2013. 136 pp. Paperback, $14.00.
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Thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy!
Cornelius Plantinga Jr. is president emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary, as well as senior research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. The lectures that underlie this particular book were delivered as the Warfield Lectures at Princeton in 2012. They grew out of seminars in Reading for Preaching Plantinga led at Calvin.
This book is a brief read, but an important one, if you regularly teach/preach the Bible. In the span of 6 chapters and just over 120 pages, Plantinga makes a convincing case for the type of reading that a preacher should add to his schedule in order to add depth to his illustrative sermon material. As he explains in the preface:
In this book I want to present the advantages to the preacher of a program of general reading. Good reading generates delight, and the preacher should enjoy it without guilt. Delight is a part of God’s shalom and the preacher who enters the world of delight goes with God.
But storytellers, biographers, poets, and journalists can do so much more for the preacher. Good reading can tune the preacher’s ear for language, which is her first tool. A preacher who absorbs one poem a day (perhaps from Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac) will tune his ear, strengthen his diction, and stock his pond with fresh, fresh images. That’s before breakfast: after it, there’s a day’s worth of rumination on whatever the poet has seen of the human condition (x).
You may have noticed that Plantinga often uses the pronoun “her” when referring to “the preacher.” He also utilizes examples from preachers who are women. I found this somewhat oft-putting, but it did not detract from the overall purpose and aims of the book. Plantinga clearly doesn’t have an issue with women in the pulpit, and even finds them beneficial to his own preaching style. Those who don’t should at least be aware that this is a feature of the book, but note that he doesn’t argue for women to preach. He just kind of assumes everyone is on the same page with him.
He goes on to further extol the illustrative benefits of general reading. By “general reading,” Plantinga is referring to reading short stories, biographies, journalism, poetry, web and visual media, and many other sources. Ultimately, he sees this kind of reading leading to wisdom. This is a wisdom gathered over time, and will help preachers digs up their own stuff for illustrations. What he is really arguing for is well-developed illustrations, rather than simply pulling off anecdotes from a sermon website. A wise preacher is one who develops a storehouse of potential illustrations that can be pulled from later when the right time comes.
Beyond mere having a better stock of images and illustrations, reading the types of sources mentioned above improves your diction. Specifically, it develops your ear for how everyday people actually speak, something a systematic theology will not shed light on (usually). The preacher’s task often means converting valuable gold nuggets from study in the commentaries into a currency that will actually add value to the listeners. This is not easy. But, Plantinga makes a concise case for how steeping yourself in the sources of a general reading program can lead to be better communication patterns.
A shortcoming of this book, and probably related to its origin in lectures, is that there is not a depth of practical application. Plantinga makes a rather convincing case for general reading, and even offers a suggested reading list based on the books they’ve used in the Calvin seminars. I think it would have been helpful to add an additional chapter giving in-depth advice on how to implement a program into a preacher’s already busy schedule. There is a short note to readers at the end of the book toward this end, but it is barely 3 pages long. He does thankfully mentioned the importance of storing your findings into a database, but doesn’t go into detail about how a daily or weekly rhythm of doing this might work.
Because of that, this book is primarily best for readers who are convinced of the need to be keeping up with biblical and theological studies, but maybe not regarding stories, journalism, and poetry. For readers already on board with the need to have a general reading program, and are perhaps already doing so, there is not as much offered in this book. The value for those readers is probably the specific resources that Plantinga uses as examples and recommends at the end. As far as actually setting up a reading plan and implementing a illustration curating program, Plantinga only hints at directions, rather than giving a full blown map. Since this is something I’ve been doing regularly for a while now, I might offer some posts in the future about how I go about it myself. I would have liked for Plantinga to speak to this more, but perhaps it just wasn’t within the scope of the book.
In the end, this could be a good resource for a pastor who needs to start a general reading program. It will underscore the value of such a program and its potential for enriching the wisdom of the pastor’s messages. Further resources will be needed to think through how to implement a program, but this book makes a compelling case for the program’s existence in the first place.