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Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.


Tuning the Preacher's Ear

How good reading helps good preaching.

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This is evocative writing. It makes you ponder, makes you wonder, makes you yearn a little. The good writers are masters of turning a phrase, turning a clause, turning a sentence—all because again and again they choose one word instead of another.

"He was so careful of the truth that he used it sparingly."
(Ross Macdonald)
"I grew up in the shadow of a big bookcase." (Baudelaire)
"He was tubby and coarse-featured, with bulbous eyes and bristly hair mown short by a barber with a heavy hand."
(Michael Thomas)

And here's Steinbeck in East of Eden: "I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gray mountains full of sun and loneliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother."

For the evocative power of fine diction, consider also the essayist Edward Hoagland, a naturalist often compared to Thoreau. He's the sort of keen observer who appears never to have forgotten anything striking he's seen outdoors, which is a lot to remember when you've been outdoors all your life. Hoagland spots outdoor wonders and so helps us preachers refresh our love of God's good creation and our inclination to celebrate it.

But Hoagland also possesses a sovereign command of the English language, and the preacher can therefore learn some diction from him. Early in his autobiographical essay titled "Small Silences,"[4] he tells of moving to a Connecticut farm at age eight. The farm had "a little brook running" through it, which made wonderful sounds, "thocking and ticking, bubbling and trickling." The brook rippled, but it also mirrored, and it would tug on a boy's fingers or feet when he dipped them in.

For their egg supply, Hoagland's parents kept a dozen brown hens, and then bought a New Hampshire Red rooster "to trumpet their accomplishments." The red rooster didn't go off in the morning mechanically, like an alarm clock. No, the rooster knew that in the night eight hens had laid eight eggs and that at dawn it was time to celebrate at least eight times. So the rooster would raise his beak and "trumpet the accomplishments" of the hens.

Let's say our preacher notes the trumpeting, and some months later is preaching from one of the visions of shalom in Isaiah. Might there be a place in his sermon to extend the prophet's dream of perfect peace, harmony, and delight in creation by suggesting that in this blessed state the red roosters graciously crow over the accomplishments of the hens?

Of course, but the trumpeting rooster is valuable to the preacher even if never mentioned explicitly in a sermon. The reason is that good diction in writers inspires preachers to imagine possibilities of their own. The preacher's ear is tuned by absorbing excellent language, even if unconsciously. He's like an articulate child from a family of articulate speakers, except that the preacher's professional family includes Marilynne Robinson and Edward Hoagland and Katherine Paterson and John Steinbeck and so many others.

I need to add that the powers of language the preacher picks up from listening and reading are means, not ends, and that the preacher is called not just to linguistic craft but to faithful proclamation of reconciling grace in Jesus Christ. The power and glory may happen, but not so much because the preacher wanted them to. They happen because of the mighty and mysterious work of the Holy Spirit.

And so it was on August 28, 1963, a day forever to be remembered in American history because the power of a preacher's evocative diction and the movement of the Holy Spirit combined within the greatest sermon ever delivered to the nation. In this sermon, Martin Luther King, Jr., preached righteousness from the prophets, and he did it without apology and without disguise. He was a preacher to the nation that day, who sounded his sermon refrain and then sounded it again. "I have a dream," he said. "I have a dream today."

Longing was in that word, and frank recognition of sad reality. Hope was in that word, and imagination. A different word chosen for the refrain and we wouldn't now be remembering the speech. "I have a dream. I have a dream today."

Jean Bethke Elshtain has speculated that American civil rights history might have gone quite differently if King had stood before the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, and cried out, "I have a personal preference." "I have a personal preference today."[5]

Good diction, combined with good thinking, can give the preacher clarity and all its children. Good diction can give us preachers an apt rhetorical register and lively narrative movement and conciseness and a whole wide world opened by the deliberate choice of this word instead of that one.

"I have a dream today."

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., is president emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary and, starting August 1, 2012, senior research fellow, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. His book Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists, scheduled for publication by Eerdmans in 2013, served as the basis for his Warfield Lectures, delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in March of this year.

1. Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way (Cowley, 1997), pp. 28-9.

2. "Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle," The New York Times, July 16, 2001.

3. Full text at americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ekennedytributetorfk.html.

4. In Sex and the River Styx (Chelsea Green, 2011).

5. "Everything for Sale," Books & Culture, May/June 1998, p. 9.

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