Preachers, who’s the subject of the sentence?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

When I have taught homiletics (preaching), I have always put a lot of emphasis on subjects and verbs. It’s remarkable how infrequently many of today’s preachers make God the subject of active verbs. Usually it’s the human being who is given the verbs. “We can find God if we put ourselves in the right place.” “Mary was ready for God’s announcement.” “There are transfigurations in life for all of us if we look for them.” (These are actual quotations.)

On the op-ed page of the New York Times, a woman who teaches writing at Dartmouth explains:

I teach freshman writing at Dartmouth College. My colleagues and I consistently try to convey to our students the importance of clear writing. Among the guiding principles of clear writing are these: Whenever possible, use human subjects, not abstract nouns; use active verbs, not passive. We don’t want our students to write, “Torture was used,” because that sentence obscures who was torturing whom. (October 22, 2015)

This is a crucially important lesson for preachers as well as writers. Active verbs have power. Passive verbs can be used as avoidance–as in the now-ubiquitous “Mistakes were made.”

The biblical story has God as its unfailing subject. God is not for us to find; God has found us, and keeps on finding us, and will chase us down even in Sheol (Psalm 139:8). I am pretty sure that the failure of so many preachers to tell this story is a consequence of the weakened theology and biblical interpretation that has pervaded so many of the mainline seminaries for so long. We simply do not know the full dimensions of “the strange new world of the Bible” which tells us of a God who does not and will not fit into the usual human religious grammar.

If preachers can learn this, it will transform preaching.

The complete op-ed piece is here:

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