Come to me, says Cornelius Plantinga, all who are weary and heavy laden with bad preaching, and I will give you something to think about. Except Plantinga is not talking to victims of bad preaching, the listeners, but to offenders, the preachers.
Plantinga, president emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary, has written a preaching book, though not a preaching book on better exegesis, exposition, or communication. Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists is more on the seasoning of the meat than the meat itself. By becoming a better reader of fiction, poetry, biographies, and good journalism, Plantinga argues, preachers will enrich their preaching. He doesn’t promise a better a program of reading will turn poor preachers into good ones, but for “those of us,” he argues, “without the greatest natural gifts and empathies, a program of general reading is very likely to improve us in excellent ways.”
Warning Against Empty Reading
Plantinga warns his readers early and often to be careful not to come to literature merely for sermon illustrations. This is a temptation for us young preachers, who might be inclined to approach a novel like a sermon illustration website. That will be a frustrating process and, quite frankly, Plantinga says, to do so is “slightly perverse.”
Here’s a good general rule: If you read literature for sermon illustrations, you’ll rarely find them, and enjoyment will be just as rare. But read for enjoyment and you’ll regularly get both thrown in.
Getting to the Heart
Good fiction writers and poets possess a skill that few preachers have—they know how to expose longing. But preachers know how to fulfill longing. This is the strength of Plantinga’s book: he shows us that while good writers generally know the road to the heart, preachers know what to do with it once they get there.
A novel can make you hunger for another world; preachers have the bread to satisfy it. Edgar Allan Poe makes us feel that hope is not lost if this world is “only a dream within a dream.” The preacher can offer the hope of a new world when we wake up from this one. Poe awakens us to the fact that we’re like grains of sand caught up in the merciless wake—none of us is safe from pain. But the preacher knows God is the one who created the wake and sent his Son to be consumed by it so that the wake can never overtake us.
Even if the preacher doesn’t use illustrations from a novel, the language will rub off on him. Plantinga shows how rhetorical pitch and diction, narrative movement, economy of language, and evocativeness come into our preaching simply by swimming in it.
A preacher who knows how to please with his language knows where to direct the pleasure. “Delight your listeners whenever you can,” Plantinga says. “When they are delighted, they want to praise Jesus” (59). Later, he writes, “The preacher hopes to cast a spell, perhaps, and so chooses words in the likelihood that they will send everybody home with a soul full of yearning” (61).
Does this power make you nervous? Maybe it should. Preachers who have a way with words can manipulate the heart towards evil. But Plantinga takes good care of his readers. He argues, quoting from Jonathan Edwards, that “true religion consists in great measure in . . . the fervent exercise of the heart.” Preachers should lead their people not merely in understanding, but also in worship. Good preaching shepherds the affections and hopes of its listeners toward the good news of the gospel and Christ the Savior.
For Wisdom’s Sake
Plantinga spends the last few chapters of Reading for Preaching on how a general reading plan of fiction, poetry, and journalism will provide wisdom. Plantinga has a much wider and useful definition of wisdom in mind, but for our purposes here, his book demonstrates that a good reading plan can equip a preacher with a better sense of empathy. This isn’t a new truth, of course, but it is beginning to be discussed more widely. Recently The New York Times reported that studies show reading literary fiction can increase your empathy. In other words, good fiction can help pastors put themselves in the place of their listeners.
The wisdom of the pulpit does not derive from such literature. But literature is a handmaiden that helps us know how to wisely apply biblical wisdom, which changes the heart (77–79).
Plantinga provides a helpful reading list of novels, essays, biographies, and poetry collections at the end of the book. You can also peruse the book as you read elsewhere, since Plantinga uses much of his own reading to show how good reading puts depth to our longings for grace, our need of redemption, our struggle with sin, and the loveliness of virtue. He also provides a straightforward plan for a busy minister: In one year, read one great novel, one great biography, read one-fifth of a book of poetry by one poet, and make one weekly visit to the Arts and Letters Daily website to discover what the best journalists have been saying.
If you don’t like the list Plantinga offers in the back of his book, websites like The Greatest Books outline which books have won which awards, provide lists of famous libraries’ best books, and enable you to track which books you’ve read and which you want to read.
The Devil Is in the Virtue
I loved this book. I read most of it in one sitting. I marked it up and will come back to it again and again. I would suggest Reading for Preaching to any preacher, especially young ones.
But it’s also a dangerous book, maybe especially for young preachers. The same tools suggested in Reading for Preaching to preach the gospel with persuasion and worship can be used to be clever and manipulate. Arrogance and pride could just as easily be the fruit of this book as winsomeness and grace. Though Plantinga goes to great lengths to persuade readers that good reading exposes the grace of the gospel and the beauty of Christ, that advice is easily ignored by an arrogant heart that longs to be seen as great.
Churches don’t need a literary pastor so much as they need a godly one. But for a godly preacher, longing to give a sense of the heart to his preaching, Plantinga has good wisdom and strong advice to share in his short and enjoyable book.