This is the first in a series of blogs that looks at some dubious practices that have entered our preaching. All of these questionable traditions are addressed in Talbot’s Doctor of Ministry track in “Advanced Biblical Preaching."
Alliteration, Part 1
Woody Hayes, legendary coach at Ohio State (1951-1978), ran an offense that the sportswriters dubbed “three yards and a cloud of dust.” When asked, “Woody, why don’t you ever throw a forward pass,” Hayes replied, “Three things can happen when you throw a forward pass, and two of them are bad.”
In that same vein, I would like to suggest: “Four things can happen when you alliterate, and four of them are bad.”
Alliteration, in ordinary writing, is the literary device of repeating the same initial sound or letter several times in rather close succession (e.g. “conspicuous consumption,” “nattering nabobs of negativism”).
In preaching, alliteration is most frequently used to convey the major outline points of a sermon.
There are times, of course, when alliteration is appropriate and effective in preaching. Succinct and accurate words can crisply communicate the concepts of a short outline—e.g., “Today we’re going to look at the cause and the cure of our problem.” (Note—crisply communicate the concepts, a serendipity.)
But when a sermon outline extends to multiple main points, the use of alliteration runs the risk of “four bad things.”
- It may use a word nobody knows, and thus be unclear.
- It may change the author’s meaning, and thus be biblically inaccurate.
- It may highlight the outline more than the central truth and its relevance.
- It may draw more attention to the cleverness of the speaker than to the truth of God’s word.
First, alliteration may cause the speaker to use a word nobody knows, and thus to be unclear. In order to sustain the same alphabet letter, the speaker searches his thesaurus. Unfortunately, the only word which accurately conveys his concept is a word few of his listeners are familiar with:
A PERSPECTIVE ON PRAYER
I. The purpose of prayer
II. The power of prayer
III. The perspicacity of prayer
The speaker may be accurate with the text, but he is unclear to the listener.
Second, alliteration runs the danger of changing the author’s meaning. If the speaker resolves to alliterate with only familiar words, he may find himself finessing or manipulating the true meaning of the text in order to remain intelligible to the listener. The speaker may be clear, but now he is biblically inaccurate.
CHARACTERISTICS OF A LEADER
(I Samuel 17:17-54)
I. Cooperative (17:17-24)
II. Curious (17:25-27)
III. Consistent (17:28-30)
IV. Courageous (17:31-37)
V. Careful (17:38-40)
VI. Confident (17:41-47)
VII. Conclusive (17:48-51)
“Cooperative,” “consistent” and “careful” do not accurately reflect what is happening in the text. “Obedient,” “persistent” and “wise” come closer to describing David’s actions in those verses.
Worse than changing the meaning of a small paragraph within the text, alliteration sometimes violates the author’s entire flow of thought as the speaker turns the biblical “progression” of ideas into an artificial David Letterman “list” of parallel points.
It is doubtful that the author of I Samuel said to himself as he came to chapter 17, “I will now write about the seven characteristics of leadership.” Such an approach to preaching is far from the intent of the author—i.e., a young man from the tribe of Judah, believing the covenant promises of God, finishes the task God gave his tribe by removing the "uncircumcised" of Gath from the land, thus qualifying himself for leadership among God’s people.
Alliterated “list-preaching” not only violates the author’s theological intent, but also inevitably presents supposed “truths” that are easily contradicted elsewhere in Scripture. Abundant examples could be found of biblical leaders who are uncooperative (Peter refusing the Sanhedrin), inconsistent (Joshua changing strategy at Ai), fearful (Gideon preparing for the Midianites), rash (Jonathan charging the Philistine outpost), and uncertain (Daniel’s friends explaining to Nebuchadnezzar).
To be continued ...
Coming Blog Posts: