A Literate Ministry

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Consider, if you will, how difficult (and sometimes annoying) it is when you encounter computergenerated voice menus when you make telephone calls. The emphasis is almost always on the wrong syllable, the monotonic and a-rhythmic cadence is unnatural, and one would not care to listen to more than small amounts of it. If the present trends continue, all public speech may sound similar to this in the future.

In both 2004 and 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts released studies tracing the rise of aliteracy (not illiteracy) in the United States: the phenomenon of people who have the ability to read but choose not to. The second report said:

The story the data tell is simple, consistent, and alarming. Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years. There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans. Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates.”

To be an effective preacher, a certain kind of literacy is a necessity. But first, let me say what kind of literacy is not necessary. A sermon need not be flowery or “eloquent” in a manner that calls attention to its art; to the contrary, any sermonic habit, device, or art that calls attention to the style rather than the message is a liability, not an asset. This point was made ably a century ago both by Bishop J.C. Ryle and by the southern American theologian Robert Lewis Dabney.

Both Ryle and Dabney objected to the kinds of rhetorical ornamentation that caused people to notice the preacher’s style more than the message, and each suggested that such artifice necessarily intrudes upon earnestness and/or sincerity, which are hallmarks of all good preaching. So a minister need not and should not be literate in the showy, ostentatious, or obviously literary sense. A minister needs to be literate, however, in two other senses. To understand the Holy Scriptures, he must be literate in biblical content, history, and language. To communicate effectively, he must be literate in literature.

Expository Literacy: All true Christian preaching is expository. The minister’s words cannot be judged to be God’s proclaimed Word unless his words are manifestly derived from some text of Holy Scripture. Therefore, ministers need to be literate at reading texts carefully. Their preaching may be true, their exhortations proper, and their warnings appropriate, but if they are not based upon sound exposition of Scripture, all the hearer knows is the minister’s opinion. He has no way of knowing that the minister’s opinion is also God’s opinion. Such literacy is hard work and involves intricate questions of history, grammar, syntax, rhetoric, and even figures of speech. Moses Stuart, one of the early professors at Andover Seminary, recognized that expository literacy was utterly necessary for a minister: “How can we … listen to prophets and apostles, speaking Hebrew and Greek, without much learning and study? It is plainly impossible.”

In a culture such as ours, where even college graduates read very little, the NEA’s warnings about the culture are especially acute to the church. If we read little, and especially if we do not read ancient or difficult texts carefully, we are not likely to succeed in an expository calling.

Literary Literacy: Some readers of Tabletalk are familiar with the Levi P. Stone Lectures given annually at Princeton Seminary for over a century. In 1940, they were given by Charles Grosvenor Osgood, and later published as Poetry as a Means of Grace. Osgood did not argue that poetry was a “means of grace” in the technical, theological sense; rather, he argued that a minister’s usefulness in the pulpit would be determined in a substantial way by the poetry he would (or would not) read for the remainder of his life. Such reading, he argued, would have a profound influence on style (though not because a particular poet’s style would be imitated), but also on his perceptiveness and his vigor.

I cannot here reproduce everything Osgood said in his lectures, but I should remind that he gave the lectures fifteen years before the advent of commercial television. Sixty years before the NEA published its concerns regarding aliteracy, long before there were any serious cultural competitors with books, Osgood commended a life of poetry reading for those who wished to communicate well. One can only imagine what he would say today about our shallow vision, our infantile diction, our poorly-composed thoughts, or our pre-occupation with the trivial. Reading poetry cultivates both our sensibility of the significant and our instinctive appreciation and use of the aural properties of our language, since poets devote themselves to that very thing. Osgood’s counsel is more apt in our generation than it was in his. Ministers today, even more than in his generation, would do well to cultivate their literary sensibilities.

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