Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Use heartfelt language
Vail, CO, Colorado
Why are some politicians and preachers boring speakers?
James Iley McCord, Princeton Theological Seminary’s president (1959-83), warned students that “theology (the basis for preaching) has become largely irrelevant in many quarters and is often incredibly dull.”
Verbose politicians bore audiences, too.
Using stilted language, dull speakers state what’s obvious. Perhaps the Apostle Paul considered these deficiencies when he coached protege Timothy to “preach the word (of God) in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke and exhort. Be unfailing in patience and in teaching” (II Timothy 4:3).
Professor Cornelius Plantinga Jr. tells how his grandfather, a devout farmer who loved the church, complained about an insulting sermon. The preacher assured his congregation that Jesus healed a blind man. “He was blind, beloved! He could not see. His eyes were dark. Things were hard for him to spot. His optic nerves were shot. Blind, beloved!” Too much repetition for Plantinga’s grandfather to absorb.
Stale repetitive language larded with verbal fluff makes listeners groggy. It stunts stimulating communication.
Another verbal pitfall occurs when speakers use archaic language and Latinate words because they think such wordiness sounds authoritative.
English literature teacher Leland Ryken, in his book “How to Read the Bible as Literature,” makes a compelling case for using imaginative pulpit language that stimulates our senses.
Ryken points to 16th century formulators of the Westminster Confession who wanted to draw a verbal circle around who God is. They decreed: “God the creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose and govern all creatures, actions and things from the greatest even to the least by his wise and most holy providence.”
Really? What pious words. Listen, rather, to a poet stirring hearts in Psalm 23 as he speaks of God: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”
Fred Craddock, another gifted storyteller and teacher of preachers, draws a distinction between “informational language” and “generative language.” The former is lawyerly sounding, filled with data. The latter paints pictures that speak to the heart.
“In your next Mother’s Day sermon,” Craddock suggested, “you can say ‘motherhood’ a hundred times, and it won’t do you or anyone else any good. ‘Motherhood, motherhood, motherhood, motherhood ….’ On the other hand, if you can get us to smell burped milk on a blouse, well, then you’re preaching.”
Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards noted a difference between describing honey and tasting it.
Too many preachers leave the things of God tasteless. Their dry words point to honey but seldom allow worshippers to savor it. Facts about honey don’t impress us the way tasting it makes our saliva run and our hearts content.
Former President Bill Clinton is a natural preacher whose language travels from head to heart. He’s an emotive speaker. Clinton spins stories. He translates dull facts into appealing pictures that tug at our hearts.
Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan sounds very conceptual. He’s a number cruncher who takes pride in being the Republican fiscal braniac. In numbing speech after speech, Ryan predicts Medicare cuts. His “facts” sit on the top of our heads but rarely move to the bottom of our hearts.
At the Democratic National Convention, Clinton listed numerical trends but rarely left them suspended in mental vacuums.
Want to know what Ryan’s budget will do to Medicaid patients? Without having skin in the game, he talks about paring Social Security and Medicaid. Do we realize half of Medicaid goes to seniors who depend on nursing home care? It provides assistance to Down syndrome and autistic children. Do we want to cut their safety net? Will they then plummet into deeper poverty?
Do you understand, asks Clinton, what the Ryan cuts mean? Do you see how he, with fit body and healthy paycheck, escapes human pain when crunching numbers?
Bill Clinton uses a few seasoned verbal cues to get to our hearts. He seldom sounds mean. Curling his tongue into a cheek, he hurls a homespun Arkansas backcountry zinger. Clinton draws opponents’ blood without them feeling their pulse ebbing.
Preachers and politicians communicate when they leave what’s cerebral in their studies. There, they research, use verbal shorthand and chart stats.
The inner poet bubbles up at pulpit or podium when gifted speakers paint pictures. They color outside the lines.
Lasting impressions are communicated, using motivation stories and deft words that seep into crevices of our hearts.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson M