Warren G. Harding looked presidential. He even had a voice that sounded presidential, yet when people took time to examine what our 29th president had to say, the substance seemed sadly lacking. William Gibbs McAdoo, a political adversary who ran for the presidential nomination for the opposing party, said of Harding that his pompous words “were in search of an idea.”
Several years ago I visited a church where the minister led communion in what McAdoo would call, Warren G. Harding style: so many beautiful words; such lovely imagery; yet nothing substantial. I wondered, “How often do I speak like that minister? How often are my words mere clichés in search of substantial substance?”
In the book titled, Bad Words for Good, Tony Proscio humorously lists examples of words that are used excessively or inaccurately by foundations to define themselves and their mission. Foundations are far from alone in there pompous use of words. Ministers, teachers, non-profit fund raisers, and many others suffer from the over-use and misuse of words. Proscio suggests that even gifted writers with a literary flair can be guilty of the Warren G Harding style.
Pressure for gibberish is pervasive. Those writing grants to seek financial support from foundations find it necessary to match their language to the stated goals of the foundation. We who preach want to be faithful to the language of our theology. Writers and scholars are compelled to adhere to the language of their discipline. Proscio’s words suggest a question to us all: How much are we sacrificing clear communication in the process?
Proscio offers two very helpful suggestions that can be a good guide for any of us who speak or write. First, explain things in concrete terms. Second, tenaciously test the necessity and fitness of each word choice every time. If we follow these steps, we will communicate clearly.
A mid-career attorney was a fellow student with me in seminary. Although he was very bright, he struggled weekly with theology classes. Mid-semester he came to class elated. He was carrying a theological dictionary. “It’s all nomenclature,” he said. “I’ve been struggling because I don’t understand the language of these theologians.” He pointed to his dictionary and said, “Epistemology means the study of knowledge, Cartesian deals with Descartes’ philosophy, Homiletics means preaching.” For the rest of the semester he took his new dictionary to classes with him and looked up words as the professors spoke.
I decided then, as a young seminary student, that I did not want anyone to require a dictionary to understand me when I am engaged in the culmination of my homiletical process—I mean preaching. I want to communicate clearly. It takes ceaseless work.