Book Review: Reading for Preaching, by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.
Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists. Eerdmans, 2013. 136 pages. $14.00.
At this point in my life I write a lot and preach a little. My job involves reviewing, editing, and writing books, so you could say I’m a professional reader, but an amateur preacher.
That’s why I’m a little skeptical of my own bias toward a book like Cornelius Plantinga’s Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists. “Of course!” says the writer. “Preachers should read more! And more widely!” But should they really?
Yes, says Plantinga, president emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary. Why? To sum up the book with a phrase borrowed from it, a preacher should be the kind of person on whom nothing is lost, and reading widely helps (72).
“Helps” reflects the book’s refreshing modesty. Plantinga wants preachers to read widely—that is, outside the fields of Bible and theology—for a number of reasons: to find illustrations, yes, but also to tune their ears to the power of well-chosen words, and to meet wisdom in street clothes (chs. 2-6). Yet his recommended yoke is light: one novel, one biography, and a fifth of a book of poetry each year, with a weekly visit to the Arts & Letters Daily website thrown in (42).
In Chapter 3, “Tuning the Preacher’s Ear,” Plantinga covers “clarity and her best children” and four aspects of diction: rhetorical pitch, narrative movement, economy, and evocativeness. In his analysis of one model sermon’s rhetorical pitch, Plantinga commends a register that “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.” This pitch “makes the sermon formal enough to be serious and casual enough to be comfortable to wear” (49).
This is sound advice elegantly stated—which I could say of just about the whole book. But my point in drawing attention to rhetorical pitch is that this is an issue more preachers could afford to critically consider. The same goes for the other stylistic tools Plantinga probes. Words are the preacher’s raw material, and most preachers could use help learning how to mine their potential.
But great writers don’t just know their way around words, they know their way around the world. This too can assist preachers with their daunting weekly task of pressing God’s Word into the reluctant corners of people’s lives. To take just one example, Plantinga sifts a sequence in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in which a grizzled short-order cook had compassion on a migrant family, but cloaked that compassion in a curse barked at the waitress as he ordered her to give them a loaf of bread. Plantinga observes: “Compassion with a curse because maybe compassion is a soft virtue, and people who let themselves show it, even for a moment, then want to take revenge on their softness and brace everything up with a reassuring curse” (123).
The existential insight Plantinga displays here is exactly what it is needed for searching sermon application. Thus, Plantinga’s goal isn’t for preachers to stuff their sermons full of Steinbeck:
Everything depends on whether the quotations and phrases serve to make the gospel of grace sound more urgently alive or whether they serve merely to make the sermon more aesthetically pleasing. When the sermon is over, does the preacher want hearers to say “Thanks be to God!” or “How lovely that was, really?” (5)
When it comes to reading for wisdom, the primary payoff Plantinga seeks is less obvious than a stack of illustrations. He wants preachers to accrue a stock of “‘middle wisdom’…insights into life that are more profound than commonplaces, but less so than great proverbs” (74). Fiction, biography, and poetry can also texture a preacher’s perception of people. They can explode his tidy boxes, invert his assumptions, rewrite standard scripts.
One of the key ingredients great writing and great preaching share is attentiveness: being alive to the hidden devices of the heart, and equally alert to words, phrases, and stories that can bring those devices to light. If an attentive preacher reads great literature, that preacher will find much to feed his sermons, and reading great literature will further enhance his attentiveness to life (24ff.).
Think of Plantinga’s program as a mild regimen of pastoral cross-training. Pay attention to how great writers put words on paper to sharpen your skills for speaking them in a sermon. Study how great narratives unfold to refine how you read the tussles and triumphs in your own congregation’s stories.
Does it work? I’d highly encourage you to find out for yourself. The book is brief and a delightful read. You’ll find things to disagree with here and there, but nothing that will spoil the fun.
I’m far from preaching weekly, but I will say this. Over the past few years I’ve ramped up my reading in the areas Plantinga recommends, and I think it has helped my language grow more colorful and my application more vivid.
The book’s a lot of fun, and its program is plenty fun too. I can think of few more homiletically helpful hobbies than keeping company with the likes of Shakespeare and Steinbeck.