Friday, June 04, 2010

A few thoughts on reading "Why Johnny Can't Preach"

Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers

This is a challenging, relatively short (108p) book by T. David Gordon, that presents an impassioned plea about the contemporary state of preaching among generally reformed/presbyterian churches in the USA. Written at a time when Gordon was undergoing cancer treatment, and given a relatively low survival chance, it gives us the thoughts of a man who was beginning to confront his own death, and thus had things to say that he might otherwise not have said. For instance:

I've always feared to state publicly that, in my opinion, less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach an even mediocre sermon, lest I appear to be ungrateful or uncharitable. p11.

Gordon traces two major lines of thought shaped around the cultural and technological shifts in our cultures. The first deals with our declining ability to read texts. That is, to engage in sustained and detailed understanding of complex texts with an attendant concern for their manner of communication as much as their content. Poetry-reading would be the prime example. The second deals with our declining ability to compose texts. Gordon refers to the ubiquity of telephone conversations, for example, in reshaping our cultural practices so that we no longer, or rarely, are people who write anything of substance.

He then treats briefly of issues of content towards the end. The book is well worth the read, it only took me an hour or so, split over two train trips. I do commend it to all preachers.

Reflections: I suspect that the preaching scene in Sydney, Aus, is quite different to Gordon's, except to say that there is plenty of mediocre preaching here. Perhaps one difference is that the quality of average evangelical preachers here sounds substantially higher than there, while conversely there are very few great preachers here, if any.

I resonate with Gordon's key thesis: about the reading and writing of texts. In this I am grateful that I had a very literary-orientated youth. I read a lot of books in adolescence, studied creative writing, literature, and philosophy in my undergraduate, as well as taking up classics afterwards. Nonetheless, even I feel the 'press' of technology, not as an unqualified 'bad', but as a gain/loss equation. I'm more and more aware of how technological usages shape my thinking at both a surface and a habitual level, and so I'm trying harder to regulate and shape my own uses of technology. More and more I'm trying to immerse myself in sustained reading practices, switch of distractions, and become a better reader and writer.

I do have one minor quibble with the book, where on pages 62-63 he speaks of the Christians of the first 15 centuries having little to no access to books. Eg, "Some of our day is expecnded in reading, which far less than 1 percent of Chrsitians would have ever done before the fifteenth century." (p62) Now, while I agree with Gordon's overall point about the significant cultural shifts that oral->literate->printing technologies bring, I think he's wrong on the details of literacy and book ownership in Classical and Late Antique periods. Literacy rates were far higher than we commonly suppose, and higher almost certainly than the medieval periods. Ownership of some books was not the domain of the elite of the elite. While it is true that the elite were the educated and thus those trained in a literary culture, even upper and middle class people would write in the course of their lives and business, and Chrysostom even expects them to own books, and encourages them to purchase some of the scriptures.

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