Why Johnny Can’t Preach

A passage from Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, by T. David Gordon:

tdavidgordon“All of their sermons are about Christian truth or theology in general, and the particular text they read ahead of time merely prompts their memory or calls their attention to one of Christianity’s important realities (insofar as they perceive it). Their reading does not stimulate them to rethink anything, and since the text doesn’t stimulate them particularly (but serves merely as a reminder of what they already know), their sermon is not particularly stimulating to their hearers.

Further, since they read only for the overt content, they often actually misunderstand the text, thinking it is “about” something that it really isn’t about. Many of you are aware of the book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23; and if not, you’ve heard sermons suggesting that the Twenty-Third Psalm is in some way “about” God’s being a shepherd. This view is actually fairly wrong-headed. Shepherd is obviously a figure of speech, and as with other such figures, we should attempt to understand it as its own culture did. In the ancient Near Eastern culture, monarchs were commonly referred to by this image of a shepherd, and ancient Israel was no exception. But the Twenty Third Psalm is not an agricultural psalm, and it begins with a profound irony: King David, Israel’s ‘shepherd,’ acknowledges that Yahweh is his shepherd, his king. The psalm goes on to demonstrate that just as Israel’s royal shepherd celebrates and rest in God’s royal reign, so Israel should trust the royal Yahweh also.[1] Anyone with any literary sensibility, reading the psalm as a whole in its literary and historical context, sees this: but most ministers don’t, because their literary sensibilities are undeveloped. Or, as another example, they will puzzle over the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, concerned about its apparent blunders in labor relations, without noticing that the text is perhaps “about” something that is never overtly stated: either God’s free grace or, even more acutely, his grace in including in his redemptive work Gentiles in addition to Jews.

Reading texts demands a very close and intentional reading. One cannot omit a single line of a given Shakespearean sonnet; each of the fourteen lines plays a crucial role. Those who are accustomed to reading such texts read each line for what it contributes to the whole and how it does so. But those not accustomed to reading texts closely just look for what they judge to be the important words, and the concepts to which they ostensibly point, and then give a lecture on that concept – ordinarily without making any effort to explain the passage as a whole, to demonstrate how each clause contributes to some basic overall unity. A handful of great expository preachers do not read literature, but these exceptions are almost always people who have studied a good deal more than the ordinary amount of Greek or Hebrew, and they became close readers of the texts through this discipline of read verse or literature. Ancient, inflected languages require remarkable attentiveness to the smallest details; and thorough study of such languages cultivates a close reading of texts just as the study of verse does.

Culturally, then, we are no longer careful, close readers of texts, sacred or secular. We scan for information, but we do not appreciate literary craftsmanship. Exposition is therefore virtually a lost art. We don’t really read texts to enter the world of the author and perceive reality through his vantage point; we read texts to see how they confirm what we already believe about reality. Texts are mirrors that reflect ourselves; they are not pictures that are appreciated in themselves. This explains, in part, the phenomenon that many Christians will read their Bibles daily for fifty years, and not have one opinion that changes in the entire fifty-year span. Texts do not change or alter or skew their perspective; texts do not move them or shape them; they merely use them as mnemonic devices to recall what they already know. They have no capacity to expound a text, or to describe what another has said and how he has said it; and they retain only the capacity to notice when something in the language of another appears to concur with their own opinions. To employ C. S. Lewis’s way of stating the matter, they ‘use’ texts but do not ‘receive’ them.”

You can listen to a panel interview with T. David Gordon here, in which he has as much to say to the preacher’s audience as he does to the preacher.


  1. In his recent Worship lectures, Jordan takes this even further. Psalm 23 is actually a warrior psalm, and he likens the Lord’s preparing of David’s table before his enemies to the Lord’s command to Joshua to circumcise the Israelite army in full sight of the city of Jericho. In other words (my words), “I am incapacitated but you are still no match for my God,” or “I am at leisure, because the Lord can kill you with my thumb.” The creator of the universe is my king. I think Paul’s celebration of communion in Gentile churches was a similar provocation (Romans 11:11).
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