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Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

Tuning the Preacher's Ear

How good reading helps good preaching.

Preachers who read widely get the same benefits out of it as the rest of us, but their needs may be more acute. Imagine standing up weekly in front of a mixed audience and speaking to it engagingly about things of final significance. God, sin, grace, the beauty of creation, life, death, justice, the kingdom of God, faith, hope, love, the death of Jesus, compassion, peace, comfort, the miracle of Easter, pilgrimage, aging, wonder, union with Christ, terror, alienation, hell, the joy of heaven, longing, betrayal, redemption—the list of topics on the preacher's agenda intimidates all but the foolish. And I've written only a partial list because the Bible is such a big book.

Now add that congregations send preachers to the Bible not just to dig up its treasures and lay them out on Sunday morning, but also to do so in such a way that, with the Holy Spirit blowing in the room, the minister's words may bring God's word to us.

This intolerable calling requires courage and humility. It requires a life full of God. It also requires that the preacher become as wise as possible. Even an expository preacher has to become a kind of sage, a person who is conversant on the range of biblical topics and who can speak on them to healthy spiritual effect. In this calling, the Bible itself is the preacher's first teacher. His experience of life helps a lot. So does the preacher's wide reading of fine writers—storytellers, biographers, poets, journalists. Reading them tends to make the preacher wiser, which is perhaps, beyond sheer delight, the principal reason for doing so.

Or maybe not. Maybe an even more basic reason for the preacher to read fine writers (or listen to fine speakers) is that they will tune the preacher's ear for language, which is his first tool. From the masters of language the preacher can learn conciseness, rhythm, euphony, and rhetorical devices such as consonance. He can learn to change up his sentence length and sentence functions. He can learn Ring Lardner's sentence, "'Shut up,' he explained."

From fine writers the preacher can learn one skill that lies beneath all the others. I mean diction. Diction includes pronunciation, and to learn it well, preachers need to listen to good pronouncers. We'd like our preacher to say "terrorist" instead of "ter-rist," and we'd like her to say "nuclear" instead of "nucular." In other words we'd like her to listen to some U.S. presidents more than to others.

But the other half of good diction is word choice, and from the masters of it blessings flow. Precision and coherence and transparency depend on it, of course, but so does everything else in a sermon. Saying good preaching depends on good diction is a little like saying good cooking depends on choosing good ingredients.

Here I'll focus on just two advantages of good diction: that it lets the preacher choose his rhetorical register, whether highbrow or lowbrow; and that it gives our preacher a whole world of power and beauty opened up by the evocativeness of the words he chooses.

To think about the preacher's rhetorical register, let's consider a few sentences from the title sermon in Barbara Brown Taylor's volume Home by Another Way:

[The three wise men] were all glad for a reason to get out of town—because that was clearly where the star was calling them, out—away from everything they knew how to manage and survive, out from under the reputations they had built for themselves, the high expectations, the disappointing returns. And so they set out, one by one, each believing that he was the only one with a star in his eye until they all ran into one another on the road to Jerusalem.[1]

The wise men, says Taylor, were "glad for a reason to get out of town." The phrase sits right in the middle of the formality/informality scale, so that in many contexts it will sound neither stuffy on the high side nor slangy on the low. Imagine possible alternatives. What if Taylor's wise men were "gratified at the opportunity to venture forth from their hamlet," or what if they "just got so hyper to be so outta there"? No, says Taylor, they are "glad for a reason to get out of town."

The register here is neither tuxedo formal nor tank-top casual. We might call it "upscale colloquial" or "business casual," and add that it will engage a great many listeners, which is why Taylor wanted to use it. Her good choice makes the sermon formal enough to be serious, and casual enough to be comfortable to wear.

To gain command of their pitch on the formality/informality scale, preachers can learn a lot from reading Robert Jacks' classic technique book titled Just Say the Word: Writing for the Ear (Eerdmans, 1996). Jacks tells us how to write for the ear, not the eye. He wants us preachers to prepare sermons that speak naturally, using dialogue and sentence fragments just as a person would in good conversation. Recommending something like upscale colloquial, Jacks cautions preachers against both high school hall-speak and an essay-like formality, expressed not only by means of the usual adverb suspects ("whence," "thence," "wherefore") but also by the use of so innocent a coordinating conjunction as "for." According to Jacks, we might not notice the awkward formality of this conjunction in a preached sentence till we stop to think about it. Our preacher says "Let us trust Jesus for we know he dies for us." We don't stop to think that in ordinary speech none of us talks like that. None of us says "Let's go to Grancino's tonight, dear, for we know their rigatoni is terrific."

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."

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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