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Book Corner April 2011


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

by T. David Gordon

New Jersey: R & R Publishing, 2009


Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl            

The author, T. David Gordon, describes in rather biting detail why today’s preachers cannot preach.  He examines this issue by addressing what the media guru, Neil Postman has termed today’s media ecology.  Gordon is Reformed by background and one schooled in the classics of the literature and language associated with the Western literary tradition.

Gordon looks at a 19th century homiletician’s list of what constitutes a good sermon.  It is hard to disagree with the list put forward by Robert Dabney, which includes: textual fidelity, unity, evangelical tone, instructiveness, movement, point, and order. (emphasis the reviewer’s).  For the historical homiletician, Dabney’s work is entitled Sacred Rhetoric: or a Course of Lectures on Preaching (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1870).

Gordon uses the list to show how the following factors have waged war against the production of decent sermons today.  These include the ways contemporary media short circuits in-depth use of written and spoken English; the lack of training to read texts in-depth; sermons which are no longer Christ-centered and the general lack of an annual review for preachers, wherein poor preaching could be addressed.

Moralistic preaching is also accurately pegged as an issue which has replaced Christ centered proclamation. “Whenever the fundamental purpose of the sermon is to improve the behavior of others, so that Christ in his redemptive office is either denied or largely overlooked, the sermon is moralistic….People have come to associate preaching with moral improvement (or moral scolding); they do not associate preaching and a proclamation of the fitness of Christ’s person and the adequacy of his work to save to the utttermost those who come to God through him (p. 80).

This work is brief and excellent.  Anyone in the homiletical classroom as a teacher will witness to what Gordon is asserting.  This can also be read as a lamentation:  while all of his points deserve attention, one has to wonder if the increasing secularization of American culture generally has eroded the pulpit to the degree that proposed remedies may not help.