In his 2009 Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon wrote: “Preaching today is ordinarily poor.” 1 T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009, 17. Ouch. He explained that your average preacher can neither read nor write. The former causes him to miss the significance of any given text. So, sermons have become a collection of pithy life-truths which “tend to be moralistic, sentimentalistic, or slavishly drafted into the so-called culture wars.” 2Gordon, 59. The latter means “sermons rarely have unity, order, or movement.” 3Gordon, 66. This was due to the vapid content of television and electronic mail. These mediums were reflections of things—not like their corporeal counterparts plays, books, or letters. And they conditioned us all to be satisfied with their reflection. Gordon bemoaned its effect on preaching.
I could say more about this book in summary and commentary, but that’s not the subject of my essay. Instead, I would highly recommend you read Tray Mangan’s excellent review of Why Johnny Can’t Preach.
But 2009 was a decade ago. Facebook was five years old but finally profitable. Twitter was only three years old with a fraction of the users it has today. Both of their IPOs were years away. Instagram would not launch for another year, and the concept for Snapchat had not even yet been conceived. Things, I believe, have gotten worse.
Before anyone accuses me of being a Luddite, I will admit that I have a Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I lead the social media presence of three different organizations. As recent as last Friday, I was agitating for migrating sermon streaming from Facebook to YouTube along with an upgrade in our website’s hosting capabilities. I live in this world, but I’m wondering if we should be of this world.
Now, I was reading The Empire and the Five Kings when a few lines unrelated to the author’s thesis reminded me of Gordon. Bernard-Henri Lévy, who no doubt writes with some grandiosity, observed that social media functions in a way that strips the substance from the world. Social networks “in fact de-socialize, offering the illusion of supposed friends who friend us with a click and unfriend us with another, their accumulation ultimately signifying that we no longer have any friends at all.” 4Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Empire and The Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World. New York: Henry Holt, 2019, 73. Instagram and Snapchat function similarly. Lévy observed that in the past travelers would bring back curiosities or things from their trips. Today travelers “collect ourselves, getting high on narcissism repeated ad infinitum.” 5Lévy, 74. We are content to allow the Internet to store our memories, holding in our hand or pocket “the task of restoring to consciousness the information, encounters, and scraps of memory that they can indeed summon a million times faster than we can. And so we forget.” 6Lévy, 74.
I was in Paris last July. With friends, my wife and I toured Notre-Dame. Would you believe what I thought as I watched the spire and roof burn and collapse just a few weeks ago? I wish I remember what the roof looked like. But I have a dozen pictures of it. So what? Everyone else does. I went to Notre-Dame and yet unloaded the substance of my memory on to a device, which in the end was unable to conjure up the actual memories of being there. I forgot.
Perhaps a third reason needs to be added to Why Johnny Can’t Preach. Johnny can’t preach because neither he nor his congregation can remember. We live in a world where we (and the people whom we serve) have outsourced our collective memories to Zuckerberg’s servers. This is not a moral evaluation, but a statement of fact.
If television had, as Gordon wrote, flattened all events into equal significance, then endless stories and shared posts on social media have rendered human events inane.
One of a preacher’s main tasks is to call all people to remember what God has done in real human history. The Apostles went to great lengths to press for the substance of their memories of Jesus: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it” (1 John 1:1-2).
Our congregations are going to increasingly struggle to see the significance and substance of our message. But the preacher can never collapse into the world of inanity. We are holding out precious and eternal truths for the life of the world.
That probably starts with us personally. I learned from my mistake in Paris. Our little family went out on Saturday, and I left my phone at home. Now, rather than having a dozen pictures my wife and I share memories of our toddler. Every sweet memory is in our head, not outsourced to a server. Lord willing, I won’t forget.
|￪1||T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009, 17.|
|￪4||Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Empire and The Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World. New York: Henry Holt, 2019, 73.|
|￪5, ￪6||Lévy, 74.|