Winner of “Best Book Subtitle of the Last Decade” must surely go to John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Music and Language And Why We Should, Like, Care. McWhorter is witty, disarming, and generally enjoyable (if, unfortunately, lewd in places) while arguing a serious and convincing thesis. He is no grammar-maven, writing another jeremiad about a general decline in proper grammar, or bemoaning folks (like us) who mix up their whos with their whoms. McWhorter’s point is more interesting than that.
Doing Our Own Thing points out what the grammar-police often miss: there has always been a difference between conversational language and that used in formal oratory or written prose. Just about every culture has a colloquial, spoken form, and a ‘dressed-up’, eloquent form, seen in its diction, precision, and overall style. Everyday conversation includes a lot of hedging (“like”, “sort of” “kind of like” “y’know”), repetition, and colloquialisms. McWhorter has no complaint about this, and documents historical examples of how the language on the street and the language on the page or behind the lectern are, and have always been, very different animals. Having made this point, McWhorter’s book gets interesting.
He shows, using examples of speeches and letters, that the tone of formal oratory and prose has been tending towards the conversational and colloquial since the 60s. Speeches by senators in the 40s, and in the early 2000s are markedly different. Articles from the 1920s read very differently from those 90 years later. McWhorter suggests that the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s enshrined informality, and turned the wider culture against any form of artifice. Language that is carefully written, artfully constructed, and poetic in quality, has come to be viewed as inauthentic, staged, and one more attempt by some intellectual-types to lord it over the common man. Sincerity, authenticity, keeping it real, is represented by an off-the-cuff, everyday style in speaking and writing. Once again, McWhorter is not raging against the conversational language we all use. He is asking why those domains where language used to put on its Sunday best now prefer that it be in beach-clothes.
One cannot blame populism or the triumph of mass culture. These were present in the 50s, when the general public still expected speeches, letters and journalistic prose to contain English used with beauty, finery, and elegance. McWhorter homes in on the oratory of UC Berkeley activist Mario Savio in the 1960s, whose semi-refined, colloquial hybrid speeches set matters in motion for the counter-culture rejection of stylized form in oratory and writing. McWhorter’s thesis may be correct. Since then, the culture in general tends to be suspicious of form, suspecting some kind of chicanery, manipulation or power-play by The Establishment Elites when any artifice is detected. Only what seems to ooze out of us spontaneously is real, and anyone writing or speaking in a formal tone must be a snob, trying to strut his intellectual prowess before us all.
This has profound implications for preachers. Is preaching the same as teaching? It seems to me that the teaching and admonishing of one another commanded in Colossians 3:16 can take place in all kinds of situations, which would surely use the everyday, conversational style of speaking. However, is the act of preaching the same or different from these contexts? Paul’s sermon in Athens (at least what Luke redacted into written form) appears to follow a rhetorical form that is elegant, artfully constructed and formalised. It certainly doesn’t seem like the language he would use while reasoning with people in the marketplace. Peter’s sermons seem likewise elevated in form and tone.
If preaching is meant to be a kind of authoritative declaration, with language employed to delight, convict, and disturb in ways not possible for conversational speaking, we are faced with a cultural dilemma. The average man is suspicious of artifice, and might be quick to believe that it represents more hypocrisy and religious snake-oil. He wants his preacher to be real, which to him means conversational, colloquial, and possibly, (here and there, at least) profane. The church needs to reach that man. How shall we go about it?
To answer that question, we will have to answer several others. Does Paul’s ‘plainness’ (or ‘boldness’) of speech (2 Cor 3:12) correspond to colloquialisms and conversational language? Does God’s providential use of koine Greek for the New Testament suggest that the high tones of oratory have little place in the church? Is formalized oratory the mere ‘wisdom of men’ (1 Cor 2:4-5)? Even if not, does its perceived pretentiousness call us to embrace a more conversational tone for the sake of ‘contextualisation’? Does the nature of the message, and the nature of the occasion of preaching call for a specific tone not found in other settings? Can the conversational tone fail to command responses that a more elegant tone can? Does our current cultural situation call for artful rhetoric all the more, or do the demands of reaching the lost call us to adapt our approach to what men are familiar with? How shall we limit our own freedoms, rights, and preferences to reach men (1 Cor 9:19-22), without peddling the Gospel (2 Cor 2:17)?