David Moore, who blogs at www.twocities.org, conducted the following interview.
Cornelius Plantinga (aka Neal) is Senior Research Fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. He recently served as president of Calvin Theological Seminary. He also taught theology at Calvin for many years.
Plantinga is the author of several highly regarded books. His recent book, Reading for Preaching: the Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists, framed the following interview:
Moore: What was the motivation behind writing this book?
Plantinga: I’ve been convinced for years that the assignment to get up weekly before a significantly mixed audience, to address it on topics of final significance, and to do so in a way that really engages–I’ve been convinced that, soberly assessed, this assignment is daunting. As far as I can tell, it’s also unique. So, ten years ago, when colleagues at Calvin College invited me to host a summer seminar on “Imaginative Reading for Creative Preaching” I jumped at it.
Here’s the idea: the Sunday preaching assignment is daunting: the preacher needs to read Scripture intelligently, to read the congregation empathetically, to imagine a nifty design for a sermon, to write and speak the sermon engagingly, to center everything where the gospel centers, namely at the intersection of human sin and divine grace, and to do all this afresh every week to the same audience.
The preacher is going to take all the help he can get. General literature is one of the helps. It tunes the preacher’s ear for language, which is his or her first tool. It moves the preacher’s heart. Above all, it tends to make the preacher wiser about sin and grace, about God and evil, about hope and longing, about beauty, and all the rest of the topics that come up in Scripture.
So for ten years I have co-hosted seminars for preachers in which we read novels, biographies, poems, and essays, always asking why the preacher wants to read whatever we’re reading. Then we point out acute beauties of language, wonderful bursts of empathy, deep pieces of wisdom. Some of it rubs off.
I lectured about all this at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2012. The book is a revised edition of the lectures. My motive is to draw anybody interested in both fine preaching and fine writing into healthy conversation with storytellers, biographers, poets, and journalists and to profit from the conversation.
Moore: You mention the importance of preachers reading poetry. I like to say poetry is akin to a good cook with turkey dressing. We want tasty dressing, but we also want the cook to put as much of it as possible in a very small space. So poetry compresses as much meaning into as few a words as possible.
Why should preachers read poetry?
Plantinga: I doubt that many congregations are ready to hear poetry recited to them from the pulpit. Poetry that’s good is, as you say, really concise, and therefore hard to grasp on a single hearing. For many, it also carries with it a certain air of upper-tier delicacy–maybe almost snobbery. I doubt I’ve ever included more than a single line of poetry in a sermon.
BUT. The preacher at home who recites a single poem out loud, getting it into the ear as well as the brain, will tune his ear, restock his pond of images, move his heart (trees in November are “bare, ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang”), and see more deeply into the human condition. In one of Jane Kenyon’s quiet poems on aging (“In the Nursing Home”) a single horse in a corral discovers that, in the night, somebody always moves the fences in. Once the horse had done big graceful loops in the corral, but night by night those fences come in, so that the horse is reduced to tiny circles, and then to none at all. That’s aging for you.
Moore: Elaborate a bit on your marvelous insight that “Great writers stretch our sympathies.”
Plantinga: I can’t help looking out at the world from the two sockets in my own skull. The world looks as it does to me because I am the one looking at it. My outlook contains all my own shortsightedness, bias, bigotry. To have a shot at integrity, empathy, and understanding I need good writers to disturb my biases, to lengthen and widen my worldview, to challenge my bigotries.
Good writers do this all the time. They put a name and a face on a Honduran boy traveling on the tops of boxcars to see his Mama in the U.S. (Sonia Nazario, Enrique’s Journey). Nazario does not help the preacher answer all the big questions the U.S. faces on its southern border. But she does pretty much ensure that the preacher never looks at immigrants the same way again.
Moore: I like to find my own illustrations from my own reading so was glad to see you address it. What is the advantage of mining for your own illustrations rather than simply going online or consulting some anthology of illustrations?
Plantinga: I do this for freshness’ sake. Anthologized illustrations are, in my experience, either really good and therefore overused, or not really good. But something that pops up at me from my reading is likely to be fresh, and I’ll know from experience whether it’s going to be as striking to others as it is to me.
Moore: Many pastors complain that they are too busy to do serious study, reflection, and prayer. What is your counsel to them?
Plantinga: I’ve been ordained for over forty years. I’ve seen a lot of ministries. There are definitely ministry situations in which, for various reasons, pastors are overworked by merciless congregations. But in other settings pastors busy themselves with details of congregational life that should be done by others. In The Contemplative Pastor Eugene Peterson says at the outset “I (and most pastors, I believe) become busy for two reasons; both are ignoble. I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. . . . I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding for myself.”
If a pastor is the main preacher, that is his or her main work. Week by week it is the congregation’s single biggest exposure to the pastor’s ministry. Both preacher and congregation need to protect the preacher’s time to prepare to preach. Things that get in the way, unless they are emergencies, need to be delegated. Contemplative reading of Scripture, study of the text, hard thought about sermon design, conscientious preparation of sermon notes or text, and delivery of the sermon–all these things take serious time. So does the attempt to become the kind of person who can do these things well. Hence the preacher’s ongoing struggle to become wiser, more imaginative, more empathetic, more adept with the language.
This struggle is part of the serious preacher’s calling, and fine writers can help immensely.
Moore: You have an extended section on LBJ. Does LBJ have more to teach us about human passions and pursuits than say Jimmy Carter?
Plantinga: I don’t know Carter enough to be able to say, but I suspect this fine man may not have enough demons stirring in him to attract someone like Robert Caro.
Moore: Richard Baxter encouraged pastors to use simple and straightforward language. You say “Sermons need to be clear, but they don’t need to be obvious.” What does that look like?
Plantinga: Clarity of course, because without it nothing definite goes home with the listener. And I’ll take obviousness over unclarity. But a clear sermon needn’t belabor (“He was blind! He could not see! His eyes were dark!”). In fact, it shouldn’t belabor, because belaboring is annoying. Neither does good preaching trade in cliches (“mold the minds of today’s youth”) or in stale metaphors (“busy as a bee”) or preacherspeak (But, you say, “What of the Christ?'”).
Good preaching is clean and fresh and clear, but it may also introduce, sustain, and only partly resolve suspense, especially around the great mysteries of the faith. Clarity is then suspended till the sermon resolves (as in a Whodunnit). If not all has been resolved we are at least clear on what has not been resolved. Some of the most anguished questions in the psalms of lament (Why are you so far away? Why do you keep silent?) have no obvious answer and only a foolish preacher would try to provide one.
Moore: If you could wave a wand which made all Christians carefully read, consider, and digest five books outside the Bible, which ones would you pick?
Plantinga: Hundreds of possibilities here. On this Thursday in January I’ll say (for classic works) John Milton, Paradise Lost; Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov; one Dickens novel that has a befriended child in it, such as David Copperfield or Great Expectations; Leo Tolstoy, the great short works, but especially including “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and “Father Sergius”; C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity and/or one of the Narnia tales.
But put-off preachers (Milton? Dostoevsky? you kidding?) should be aware that a program of general reading needn’t major in history’s greatest works, in which you inch along just to make a little progress. In the seminars we read Kathleen Norris, Anne Lamott, Pulitzer Prize-winning articles from newspapers, Norman Maclean, Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Katherine Paterson, Garrett Keizer, Ron Hansen, and many others. They are all accessible, intelligent, and revealing authors. They can handle the language. They can move your heart. And they all have abundant wisdom.
That’s all she wrote, David. Thanks for the opportunity.