I am utterly blessed through God’s providence in my education and upbringing. For example, I played the trumpet from sixth grade through my first year in the Air Force, 9 years total, and while I never really got any good at it, due to tone-deafness and no internal rhythm, the breathing techniques I learned have caused me to be one of the loudest preachers I know, combined with a stamina at full volume that constantly surprises.
Likewise, an instilled love of history has produced in me a hermeneutical principle which is sorely lacking in the church today; I want to know the full history of the events before I care to learn the application. It utterly frustrates me when someone wants to know what a passage means before they know what it says. I’m not against application, but history and context must have prevenience. John Calvin so beautifully said, “People come not to the preaching merely to learn what they do not know, but to be incited to do their duty.”
But the reason I have been contemplating this recently is in a discussion I had with a dear friend about the writing style of Ernest Hemingway. Sitting in my library on my secular bookshelf (as opposed to my overflowing religious bookshelves) are a dozen Hemingway books, my favorites are The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Sun Also Rises. Before becoming a Christian, there is no doubt that my favorite writer was Hemingway, followed closely by Ron Carlson, A Kind of Flying et al, Ray Bradbury, Dinosaur Tales et al, and George Orwell, Animal Farm et al.
To let you know how deep my respect and admiration for Hemingway was, I’ve been to and drank (pre-Christian) at the Rotonde in Paris, walked on the Concha in San Sebastian, and run from the Curva de Telefonica to the Plaza de Toros in Pamplona (albeit there were no bulls). The man was a master writer; I would even go so far as to say the best writer who has ever lived who was not under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
As I would read Hemingway I was captivated, even implored, to love each individual word, it never occurred to me, nor do I think it occurred to Hemingway, that the beauty and deference of language points to a God whom communicates with precision and authority. Hemingway would spend hours ensuring the words he wrote were meaningful, worthwhile, and powerful, and the man literally discarded dozens of works which failed to meet these criteria. Hemingway had a reverence for words; he would spend hours cutting and molding his sentences to say precisely what he wanted them to say, removing every superfluous phrase and word, seeking to make each sentence direct and vigorous. One will never find an unnecessary adjective in a Hemingway book. He wrote, most definitely being self-aggrandizing, “The greatest writers have the gift of brevity, are hard workers, diligent scholars, and competent stylists.”
In recent years many of these reprobate manuscripts have been compiled and published as posthumous titles and “lost” works. Oh how he would cringe if he knew that were occurring, and so I cringe vicariously for him in his absence.
Hemingway’s desire for literary purity influenced my own writing and reading immensely. I am constantly offended by both the written and spoken word when used irreverently and superfluously. In recent years, my desire for literary accuracy has gained a higher purpose and has transferred perfectly to an infinitely better writer, who said, “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,” and “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Hemingway was concerned with each individual word, the Author of Life is interested in each individual letter, “Truly, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law...”
T. David Gordon has noted a nearly complete failure in the modern day preacher’s ability to be pithy, to put together a coherent thought, and to communicate a point. His book on this, Why Johnny Can’t Preach, is intriguing as it focuses on how the modern preacher no longer writes sermons, at best he types them and at worst he adlibs them; he doesn’t send letters, he sends e-mails; he doesn’t write treatises, he sends text-messages. Gordon surmises that all of these have destroyed the preacher’s reverence for the word and ability to communicate using it.
Noah Webster compiled his dictionary under the assumption that if God takes language seriously, then men ought to take language seriously. If faith comes through hearing, and hearing the word of Christ, then it ought to be the preacher’s highest calling to ensure that what is being heard is totally worth hearing. Charles Spurgeon said, “We cannot play at preaching. We preach for eternity.”
Gordon gives suggestions on how to improve communication; they are not easy, but they are not impossible. He first recommends writing, with pen and paper, in order to foster forethought and deliberateness, since pen cannot be edited and requires commitment and permanence of thought. One of the best venues for this, he recommends, is writing letters. His next suggestion is that undergraduate students major in literature in order that they learn the basics of structure, plot, and style. To this effect David Platt laments that Bible translation has become a failing art because it is impossible to understand another language if you don’t even understand your own.
I recently read Greyfriar’s Bobby by Eleanor Atkinson (and then I watched the movie) and I was utterly impressed by her command of the English (or more actually: the Scotch) language, the intersecting plotlines, and the recurring themes; she sets out to tell a story, but deep within her plot are the definite agendas of animal rights and human equality. It reminded me somewhat of the writings of the Apostle Peter, who in any given passage is working at least three themes and who has a very specific agenda on his mind of growing his reader, pointing their affections outwards and upwards, and glorifying the Saviour of mankind.
So that leads to a question, ought the Christian reader read books that are patently unchristian? Hemingway, although many of his books bear biblical titles, had no such belief system, Orwell was a fantastic visionary of things to come but not from a godly standpoint, and Unitarian Universalist Ray Bradbury holds to an evolutionary old-earth despite his Christian upbringing. To answer this question scripturally, the Apostle Paul was well acquainted with the poetry of Athens, and the Christian is called to study to show themselves approved; avoiding irreverent babble. It is more than possible, from a discerning standpoint, to read a well-written non-christian publication and glean from it, but the main diet ought to always be scripture.
When read from the Christian standpoint, some of the themes of non-christian writers should instantly jump out as wrong. Take Hemingway for example, the man is one of the perfect examples of Neo-Epicureanism, living a life bent on pleasure and experience through the height of gourmet pleasures, both physical and scholarly. As a young writer I knew how Hemingway’s life ended, that he seriously injured his back in a plane crash and was in constant pain, then, as the results of a lifetime of alcohol abuse and a genetic iron-deficiency disease, he lost a fair amount of his brain function; faced with the loss of both physical and scholarly pleasure, Hemingway shot himself in the head. Yet, even with this knowledge, I felt that his life was one worth emulating and that my life would certainly end better than his. Now with the discernment of the Holy Spirit, it is more than obvious that such lives only prove parables which speak of the foolishness of trusting in worldly delights, like the one Jesus spoke which is recorded in the seventh chapter of the gospel according to Matthew. But even with the fatal flaws of secular writers, for another example the bawdy tales of Ron Carlson (of whose books I have several signed copies), there is much to be learned by someone who is able to communicate a point, skillfully wielding language, and who has honed their skills and writings to say what they mean. Even if what they mean is an affront to the Living God.
Most importantly, in an age where most don’t know the difference between their and they’re, and the numeral 2 can replace to, two, and too, these writers prove that words have meaning, and demand that respect be given to the vernacular and the rhetoric by which it is presented. The Christian need only to apply one step further, that the Giver of dialect and logic be respected.
And finally, this all leads to my application. I preached my first sermon to a large Christian audience this past Sunday. My sermon was prepared to run just under 30-minutes. Since this was the first and possibly only time I would have an opportunity to address this congregation, more time than normal was spent on preparation in order to ensure my passion and heart was delivered to this precious church through the precise exposition of the Word of God. I spent a great deal of time in honing the word choice, structure, and movement of the sermon in order to deliver a message that was eternally significant and memorable. In the zeal of delivery, I realized something that I didn’t anticipate; some of the deliberate pauses were ill-placed and so I skipped them, and in my impassioned delivery I managed to cut about seven minutes off of my sermon. In an effort to lengthen the delivery in the second and third services I tried to find areas in which material could be added or expanded, but realized that due to the attention I had given to pace and movement, any on-the-spot editing would have severe implications on the structure of the message, possibly impeding movement in a fatal way.
Overwhelming, the response was positive. One suggestion was that I hadn’t spoken from my own heart enough but had quoted too much scripture and let others speak for me (Calvin, Ravenhill, Luther, Spurgeon) and should have given my own opinion more. Several told me that it was too much information too quickly. But what I didn’t hear was that it was boring, that anything was unnecessary, or that I missed the intention of the text. The question that I am most concerned with, “Was God glorified and his people incited to do their duty through this message?” was an unqualified, “Yes.” I believe, and I don’t credit myself, that I let the text speak, I didn’t impose myself on it, and I gave my utmost for Christ’s highest glory. The only exception is that I should have anticipated the length issue, but, knowing that the sermon was full of content, I will count this towards experience and will improve in the future.
It is against literary policy to add new information in the conclusion, but allow me this liberty. Ernest Hemingway was a Neo-Epicurean hedonist, John Piper has coined the phrase, Christian Hedonist, which he defines as, "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him." The Christian, I guarantee you, receives infinitely more pleasure than the Epicurean because they live a life with their affections set on Heaven, working for the King, devoting life and effort to increasing the joy of the church and her Bridegroom. God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints. The happiness of the Christian Hedonist is not dependant on the stature they achieve, but rather in what they achieve through the faculties God has given. But, beloved, what I implore you to, and I hope you are incited, is to hone those faculties, earnestly desiring that God grows them in sanctification; do so through reading, writing, and preaching, for Paul wrote to Philemon, “I pray that through the sharing of your faith, you become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” (Philemon 6)
So beloved, I pray that you will take the language you speak, and the languages that the scriptures are written in, seriously; that you revere the words that you use because they are a reflection on the God who gave them. Read, write, and communicate to the fullest, don’t take shortcuts. Study yourself approved and never be found with any reason to be ashamed. I pray that through the sharing of your faith, your effectiveness in the good things of Christ will blossom to be used for his utmost glory, for he is worthy, and he alone.
Famine in the Land, A Passionate Call for Expository Preaching by Steven J. Lawson
Why Johnny Can't Preach, The Media Have Shaped the Messengers by T. David Gordon
The Expository Genius of John Calvin by Steven J. Lawson
The Way of the Master by Ray Comfort
Christian Apologetics by Cornelius Van Til
Desiring God by John Piper