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Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.


Tuning the Preacher's Ear

How good reading helps good preaching.

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I'm not suggesting that if the preacher masters upscale colloquial, that's the only register he needs. Everything depends on context. A campfire talk to middle school kids might be more casual. A speech at the hundredth anniversary of the congregation might be more formal. In any case, the preacher's reading can give him some rhetorical options. He'll want to read storytellers for dialogue, maybe including Jonathan Franzen for contemporary college-educated patterns, and also some of the action and detection types like Elmore Leonard and Lee Child for a little more spit and vinegar.

Published storytellers are good at their job in part because they know how people talk, and the preacher who wants an ear for colloquial dialogue can learn a lot from them. Contractions, sentence fragments, slang, dialect—or grace and elegance—it's all there. If our preacher has a sharp enough ear for dialogue without reading storytellers, God bless her and her natural gifts. But many of us can use some outside help.

Speaking of which, Elmore Leonard once published ten rules for effective writing, including rule 4: "Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said.'"[2] Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said' Elmore Leonard said gravely. The preacher will take heed. Else on Sunday morning we get, "You hypocrites," Jesus said sternly. "You brood of vipers," he said accusingly. Adverbs give us what's already obvious, or, on the other side of the street, what isn't obvious at all and ought to stay that way. Do we really want our preacher's adverbs to tell us how Pilate asked his famous question? "What is truth?" Pilate said amiably. "What is truth?" Pilate said enthusiastically. Or ironically. Or sarcastically. Or who knows, except that he said it interrogatively, and now we're back to what's obvious.

"Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said.'" That's the fourth commandment. Elmore's tenth commandment for writers, including our preacher, is this: Leave out the part that people will skip.

Preachers can tune their ear for colloquial language by listening to people talk, and by reading dialogue in good writers. That's colloquial language. On the other end of the formality scale, the preacher wants enough exposure to classical rhetorical forms to have them in his repertoire and ready to go when called for. Take this example from the eulogy by Ted Kennedy for his slain brother Robert: "My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."[3]

This form is called symploce, and it's very old and delightful. In symploce you hold the beginnings and ends of the units constant and change the middle in each repetition:

[He] saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

Saw-saw-saw, it-it-it. The rhetorical pitch is heightened here by the grammatical structure, not the vocabulary. Most of the words are one syllable, and none is fancy. Yet, as my colleague James Vanden Bosch has pointed out to me, the rhetorical structure all by it itself signals the command of the speaker and the weight of the occasion. The preacher who wants similar command can read great speeches, of course, but also great essayists like Orwell or even editorialists who may reach for a classical form when the occasion is weighty enough.

Good diction lets the preacher control her register, and adapt it to her preaching context. And then, of course, good diction gives a preacher the power to evoke, to suggest, and therefore to move our hearts.

The wise men, says Barbara Brown Taylor, were "glad for a reason to get out of town." Each thought he was "the only one with a star in his eye." All were called "out from under the reputations they had built for themselves." And "they all ran into one another on the road to Jerusalem."

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