Book Review: Why Johnny Can’t Preach

T. David Gordon had terminal, stage 3, colorectal cancer and decided it was now or never for him to write the book that had been brewing in his mind for the past 30 years. So his book sounds a lot like a prophet with nothing left to lose. And his topic? The shipwreck that is conservative, evangelical preaching. The cause of this shipwreck: preachers are consuming types of media which deaden their minds toward understanding texts. And this has resulted in two tragedies: preaching that’s done quite distant from the actual words of the text (poor exegesis) and preaching that rarely holds up Christ as the object of our faith, hope, and love.

Johnny Can’t Preach = Johnny Can’t Read

cover of Why Johnny Can't PreachGordon’s critique of poor exegesis forms the backbone of his criticism of preaching. It also shows the self-conscious titling of the book to reflect the landmark ’60s book, Why Johnny Can’t Read. Why Johnny Can’t Read explained that because “Johnny” (Johnny Q. Public’s son) is no longer consuming textual content but is listening to radio and watching TV, he is losing his abilities to read and think clearly. Gordon thinks this is still the case and contends that preachers, just like Johnny, have lost (or never gained) the ability to read and think clearly. And since they can’t read texts critically, they are therefore unable to read the Scripture critically—that is, with an eye for exactly how the passage was constructed, where the author is going and where he’s come from, the logical connections between each word, each sentence, each paragraph, etc. Most preachers read for a general wash of the content but have no idea how to bore down into the structure of a given passage. They have this deficiency because they get most of their information by watching TV or surfing the internet. And even the ones who do read read only for content wash—they just want to know what happened in this newspaper or history book or how they should file their taxes or change a spark plug. They never learn to read for the structure of an author’s thought and the precision of his language. They are therefore ill-equipped to unpack the structure of a biblical author’s thought.

A tangentially related issue, and one Gordon treats at length, is the epidemic of non-Christological preaching (where the person, character, and work of Christ are the main point of every sermon). His critique—in my opinion—is some of the most powerful stuff in the book. Rather than rephrase what he said, I’ll just quote him:

Such Christological preaching feeds the soul and builds fatih. Faith is not built by preaching introspectively (constantly challenging people to question whether they have faith); faith is not built by preaching moralistically (which has exactly the opposite effect of focusing attention on the self rather than on Christ, in whom our faith is placed); faith is not built by joining the culture wars and taking potshots at what is wrong with our culture. Faith is built by careful, thorough exposition of the person, character, and work of Christ.

I believe that as people’s confidence in Christ grows, they do, ordinarily and inevitably, bear fruit that accords with faith. Thus, there is no need for some trade-off here, or some alleged dichotomy suggesting that we need to preach morality if we are to have morality. No; preach Christ, and you will have morality. Fill the sails of your hearers’ souls with the wind of confidence in the Redeemer, and they will trust him as their Sanctifier, and long to see his fruit in their lives. Fill their minds and imaginations with a vision of the loveliness and perfection of Christ in his person and the flock will long to be like him. Impress upon their weak and wavering hearts the utter competence of the mediation of the One who ever lives to make intercession for them, and they will long to serve and comfort others, even as Christ has served and comforted them.

…the dominant theme [Luther] heard again and again was “do this; don’t do that.” Then go and listen to the typical sermon in the typical evangelical or Reformed church, and ask what Luther would think if he were present. Luther would think he was still in Rome. Perhaps somewhere in the sermon is some mention of Christ; perhaps at the end as an obligatory comment, “And of course we couldn’t do this apart from the grace of God in Christ”—but such a lame comment cannot rescue an essentially moralistic sermon and make it redemptive. One cannot expend thirty-eight minutes describing the difference between right and wrong, and then rescue the sermon in the final two minutes. Not only is the hearer already numb by now, overwhelmed and overcome by the recognition that his life is out of accord with God’s wishes, but he has grown weary by the message, and hardly even notices when the minister pulls Christ, like a rabbit out of a magician’s hat, from the black hole of the moralistic sermon at the last minute.

Gordon’s remedies are two-fold:

  1. Make poetry analysis an integral part of your mental exercise.
    It’ll sharpen your mind to read for careful thought structure rather than just general content wash.
  2. Bring your sermons away from moralism and congregational introspection and bring them to gaze at the marvelous completed work of Christ.
    Let Christ be the object of your sermon and the people won’t need week after week of condemnation about how they’re not good enough Christians. Christ is our righteousness. Preach that and you won’t have to worry about morality.

I highly, highly recommend this book.

3 Thoughts.

  1. For me this book was a good reminder that there is no “12 step program” or how-to book for Christianity. Sometimes we forget that in the deluge of specific books on specific problems (marriage, family, culture etc) It really does need to come down to CHRIST and Him alone. We can’t fix problems with better methods.

  2. Wow, this sounds awesome. Thanks for reading it & letting us know about it!
    Are you going to start offering reading classes? 🙂

  3. Jeff, I also read this book—but you beat me to blogging about it. I’ve been thinking, thinking, thinking about the medium of the Internet and what I’ve seen it doing to me. Hopefully TV’s negative effects have worn off after ten years, but this (relatively) new medium has its own dangers I never stopped to consider before I jumped in. Gordon’s book was a pungent (even strident—and I don’t blame him one whit) refresher of a truth I need to keep fresh. It was a call I want to reissue when and where I can. Highly recommended.

    Do you ever read Wheaton prof Alan Jacobs’ blog “Text Patterns”? He does a lot of this kind of reflecting, and he’s both a techie voice and a literary one. (His Original Sin was just a wonderful read.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *