The Preacher’s Formidable Task, and One Way to Tackle It
I almost always read non-fiction when I sit down with a book. What drives this is, in part, my insatiable (and sometimes over-active) desire to learn something new about the world. But of course it is untrue that only non-fiction can teach. The best poets and storytellers can offer as true insight into human nature as the best psychology text.
It is this former group of writers that Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. wants preachers to read, in his Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists (Eerdmans, 2013). After all, preachers have a formidable task each weekend, which Plantinga articulates with not one ounce of exaggeration:
Where else in life does a person have to stand weekly before a mixed audience and speak to them engagingly on the mightiest topics known to humankind–God, life, death, sin, grace, love, hatred, hope, despair, and the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Who is even close to being adequate for this challenge? (xi)
Plantinga immediately engaged me in this way. He both reassured me as a preacher and convinced me from the beginning of Reading for Preaching that I ought to have my nose in fiction more often–and to add biographies to my non-fiction reading. The Holy Spirit “sows truth promiscuously” (ix, via Calvin), so we who presume to be preachers do well to read widely and “get wisdom” on all of life. From here we can employ our insights to more effectively shape our language–just like poets do, saying “a lot in a few words” (xii)–since language is the preacher’s “first tool” (x).
Based on lectures and workshops around the same themes, Reading for Preaching divides into six short and highly readable chapters:
- Introduction to the Conversation
- Attentive Illustrations
- Tuning the Preacher’s Ear
- Whatever You Get, Get Wisdom
- Wisdom on the Variousness of Life
- Wisdom on Sin and Grace
What Preaching Is, What Reading Is
Preaching for Plantinga is “the presentation of God’s Word at a particular time to particular people by someone the church authorizes to do it” (1). The preacher’s job is to “not just repeat a text, but also to outfit it for the hearing of a congregation.” (Sometimes more challenging than it sounds.) In order to do this, Plantinga suggests that preachers “get into the interrogative mood and stay there a while” (vii-ix). He calls on them to ask about biblical texts “everything you can think of, including about the tone of voice of the speakers in the text” (102).
And he gives copious examples of how to both ask questions of biblical texts and use wisdom found from non-biblical texts to do it. One of the book’s great strengths is its use of stories, characters, and motifs from works like Grapes of Wrath, Les Miserables, Tolstoy short stories, a biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, and much more. In every case Plantinga shows the reader (a) how wisdom may be found in the text and hand and (b) how to apply it from the pulpit.
This doesn’t mean Plantinga wants preachers to read fiction just for the sake of finding good illustrations. That would cheat both literature and preacher. But the preacher can find wisdom everywhere, if she or he is looking for it. Plantinga shows how even a conversation with a long-winded neighbor helped one attentive preacher understand humanity more fully. To that end the book concludes with a few words on having a good system for storing and retrieving illustrations. Many future sermon illustrations will come up in unexpected moments and need to be filed and saved for later.
It is out of his own wealth of illustrations that Plantinga has drawn–he says as much. Especially in later chapters I had the feeling of reading illustration upon illustration, but this is offset by the masterful way in which Plantinga links complicated fictional characters, for example, to abiding truths about life in Christ. He shows more than he tells. He is a gifted illustrator and writer, which makes the book a joy to read.
The book would have been greatly enhanced by a Scripture and especially Subject Index, since there are so many illustrations I will want to return to.
Plantinga offers some good cautions, too. The goal of a sermon should be doxological, helping train the congregation’s eyes on Jesus. Overly poetic sermons with the goal of being “pretty” won’t do.
Needing to See the Risen Lord
Sunday morning comes without fail, each week–“right about the same time, too,” as one of my minister friends says. Again, here is Plantinga on the preacher’s challenge and call (and invitation!):
A preacher needs to be a sage to speak responsibly from the pulpit week by week. She has to have something worth listening to on some of the mightiest subjects in the world, including how the universe looks to a Christian, who human beings are, the human predicament, God’s gracious address to the predicament in Jesus Christ, the resulting prognosis for our world, and, along the way, much else. Fortunately she has our community’s book to draw from, which is wonderful except that she now has to bridge from Scripture, which is a multiplex ancient literature, to her own particular context and engage an audience there that is certain to be mixed in some formidable ways. (107)
The preacher has to be a little crazy to tackle all this. Or else, like the Apostle Paul, she needs to have seen the risen Lord. In either case, once embarked, the preacher will need to get wisdom with all deliberate speed. (107)
Plantinga cautions: “Naïve preaching is a kind of malpractice” (102). Reading widely–and paying attention to life!–is a good antidote for this. So is prayer and that encounter with “the risen Lord.” Sometimes sermons really do write themselves. And–reading aside–it’s for one primary reason, at least that I can figure: if the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is the same Holy Spirit that Jesus breathed onto the disciples and gives to us… does not that same Holy Spirit breath through us, and even speak through us preachers?
All I can say is Thanks be to God!, because I could never be (and would never dare to even try) a preacher if that were not true. Plantinga, I think, would agree.
Where to Get It
Here is the book trailer: