Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 136 pages.
My wife and I moved to Richmond, Virginia, for me to do post-seminary graduate work at Union Theological Seminary. I was twenty-four years old, and just walking onto the campus was intimidating. This was where a famous biblical journal was written and edited (Interpretation). This was the home of some of the most renowned scholars in the world. This was the place where the dynamic marital duo of Paul and Elizabeth Achtemeier held court on all things New Testament (Paul) and Old Testament (Elizabeth). Not enrolling as a student in the Bible department meant that I may not have the privilege of taking courses from either of them. But then I discovered that Elizabeth also taught courses in homiletics. It was in that course (The Language of the Sermon) that I first encountered the kinds of ideas that are in Plantinga’s Reading for Preaching.
Achtemeier and Plantinga share an appreciation for great literature, precise and powerful language, and good preaching. Plantinga (as did Achtemeier) advocates for exposure to and reading of “storytellers, biographers, poets, and journalists” not just for illustrative purposes. That would be too superficial, too pragmatic. What Plantinga believes is that “the preacher who reads widely has a chance to become wise” (xi). Who needs wisdom more than preachers? Preachers have the privilege (which sometimes feels like a burden) to stand before a diverse group of people and speak to them at least every seventh day on the mostimportant events in history, the greatest spiritual realities of life, and the deepest needs of human existence. As he simply asks: “Who is even close to being adequate for this challenge" (xi)?
While writing about the value of “wide reading,” the author exemplifies it. His citations of such variant sources as the poetry of Robert Frost, the essays of George Orwell, and the novels of John Steinbeck capture attention and model ways to enhance the preaching event. Plantinga is unwilling to name “wide reading” as the cure for poor preaching. In fact, all he is willing to say is that “a program of general reading is very likely to improve us in excellent ways” (21). This is a modest conclusion but an important one. One of the ways it can improve us is by helping us better understand the human condition. When we read the works of gifted authors, we have the opportunity to glean insights, profundity, wisdom, and the like from people who have keen observation skills and articulate ways of describing what they have observed or experienced. Plantinga calls it “stretching our sympathies across circumstantial distance” (7). It is hearing another’s thoughtful, reflective, sometimes evocative analysis of an important event, experience, or emotion. In another place he names it “middle wisdom,” by which he means “insights into life that are more profound than commonplaces, but less so than great proverbs” (74). The goal is not to be deemed articulate or well read, but rather to be heard with power and effectiveness. Plantinga will help you get there... if you’ll practice what he preaches. It seems apparent that he has.
BRAD ESTEP is senior pastor of Kansas City (MO) First Church of the Nazarene.