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On Alliteration

One of my astute members had this to say about my message, The Antioch Model, preached February 27, 2005.

As you are already aware, I’m still trying to figure out why we do alliteration at all. If there are more than 3 points, then statistically speaking, alliteration doesn’t help us remember the points any better — in fact, it can have the opposite effect!

Sorry. I can’t help it — the word-lover in me cries out against tragic exploitation of any kind, but especially alliteration. In poetry, subtle alliteration can be cool in small doses. In preaching, on the other hand — ok, I’ll shut up now.

This makes for interesting and light conversation.

Just for the fun of it, I’d like to consider John MacArthur’s outlines for three messages he preached this week at the Shepherd’s Conference….

The first from Luke 11 had five points:
False religion is exposed.

1. They have a love for the symbolic.
2. They have a love for the sinful.
3. They have a love for the simplistic.
4. They have a love for the secondary.
5. They have a love for status.

From Jude

1. Recognize the terrorists’ presence.
2. Remember the terrorists’ past.
3. Revealing the terrorists’ profile.
4. Relating the terrorists’ punishment.
5. Rescuing the terrorists’ prey.

From Luke 9:46-52

1. Pride ruins unity.
2. Pride raises relativity.
3. Pride reveals depravity.
4. Pride rejects deity.
5. Pride reverses (?) reality.
6. Pride reacts with exclusivity.
7. Pride restrains mercy.

Outlines do stick. That’s why I never read MacArthur’s Commentary until I have completed my sermon preparation. I tend to read his commentaries for a fresh look on what I have studied and some confirmation of my own exegesis. Also, I think there may be something accessible about these kinds of outlines. I have listened to John for a number of years and I sometimes think that part of the reason for his success besides the obvious blessing of God is the fact that he makes his messages accessible to everyone. A fourth-grader could write down his outlines.

I am very hesitant to do this lest I be misunderstood. I revere preaching and I respect preachers, so this is just an attempt to help me become a better preacher. Let’s do a very superficial analysis of his outlines.

First, the goal in alliteration, in my opinion, is to highlight the word that carries the point. MacArthur’s doesn’t necessarily do this in the last illustration. What does recognize, remember, revealing, relating, and rescuing tell us about the text all by themselves? Nothing really.

However, the words symbolic, sinful, simplistic, secondary, and status are key words that encapsulate the point and help to summarize the John’s conclusion about what Luke says concerning false religion.

With the Jude outline, two words in each point are alliterated, plus there is parallelism. John may have made all five points parallel by making each an imperative (or participle) which looks neater on paper, but I didn’t write it down that way.

My outline (Context, Constituency, Character, Consonance, Coordinator, and Commission) is an attempt to highlight the key word of each point, the word that encapsulates the emphasis of the point. I think those words do exactly that. However, if I may criticize myself, I think some of those words aren’t very accessible to my 10 year old listeners. I need to improve there. In short, if John MacArthur can alliterate, I can at least try!

However, I have heard many messages that were ruined by alliteration. I’ve done it myself, although I try to avoid it. There are many times when alliteration will detract from the sermon. Other times it could become a point of pride for the pastor. Words are, after all, the “stuff of his craft” as Dr. McLachlan used to say. I might also say that pastors are not poets or speechwriters. They are men who are trying to “find acceptable words” (Ecc. 12:10). Thus, they might instinctively know what is going to carry the point.
I’d be real interested to see what others have to say about this. Does anyone have funny examples of bad alliteration they would be willing to share?

11 Responses

  1. I’m all for clear communication. I don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater altogether. I do see uses for alliteration, well done, and in moderation.

    You’ve laid out some good principles about what the words ought to support/connote/expound. I just don’t care for the incorporation of obscure words and the stretching of definitions to accommodate a point.

    I like parallelism, too. I like un-forced.

    Hymnwriters are called upon, for instance, to not grasp for words that rhyme merely for the sake of rhyming. Nor is it wise in a hymn to use words that are distractingly different or loaded with multiple meanings or obscure/cryptic, since then the conscientious singer gets bogged trying to decipher and agree with and sing the song. I’m all for gospel-packed hymns, and I’ve read/sung many, but the best ones have in common a beauty and a clarity and simplicity to which I would aspire in my own communication.

    I know that alliteration is highly recommended as a speaking device, and I do concede its potential usefulness. But I also agree with you that there are very bad word choices out there that bog the listener down unnecessarily and serve to detract from, rather than to support and further, the main point.

    Anyway. I think a lot of MacArthur’s are very comprehensive and comprehendible points, and I can see how they’re useful. Not that I’m going to be a big fan of alliteration just because MacArthur uses it. Not any more than I enjoy and benefit from Piper because of Piper’s poetry…(!)

    “Consonance” wasn’t as bad as that one you used in the 1/23 sermon — I can’t even remember it now. I think I’ve repressed it. =} Also, as I said in the original comment, I was really only giving you a hard time because I needed to submit a comment to test something on the tech side of your blog.

    Just a question: I haven’t read many of Spurgeon’s sermons. I do have a book. To what extent did Spurgeon and D.M. Lloyd-Jones and G.C. Morgan and others use the device? Got any favorite alliterative outlines from favorite dead people? I mean, outlines you could post up here?

  2. Alliteration is something that I shy away from in my own preaching, but I would not say it is to necessarily be avoided. It pains me when I hear someone unnecessarily wrench a passage into alliterated points. If the Scripture one is dealing with naturally falls into this type of outline, fine, but if a person finds himself pulling his thesaurus off the shelf on a weekly basis, something has gone awry.

    The thing that drives me from alliteration the most, I think, is the desire for precision. Of course, this desire can also drive me to have points that slightly resemble the title of a Puritan work. These type of points are not helpful to the hearers, either.

    I guess I am saying if one can use alliteration well in constructing an outline for a passage, use it. If a person finds himself scribbling down words at which even the KJV translators would have scratched their heads in befuddlement, though, perhaps a sentence outline will be of more benefit that week.

  3. Alliteration can be helpful, but as Chapel says in his book, Christ-Centered Preaching, “Our sermons tend to be descriptive rather than pastoral.” I think if we over-emphasize alliteration, we can actually weaken our sermons. . .

    An example of a terrible sermon I heard recently:
    Luke 11:5-8
    Immigration – vs. 6 – the mission field comes to us.
    Introspection – vs. 6 – I have nothing to offer.
    Identification – vs.5 – Lend ME.
    Imploration – vs.8 – b/c of persistance.
    Inspiration – vs.5 – at midnight! (inspiration only hits at midnight apparently?)

    Then in the same message or “bible study” he proceeded to give us 5 “ships” from verse 5 of the same passage.
    1. Friendship – “a friend of mine has come”
    2. Stewardship – “LEND me”
    3. Kinship – “me”
    4. Partnership – “three loaves” (the three symbolizes the Trinity)
    5. Kingship – “loaves” (he didn’t ask for three slices, he asked for three LOAVES – fit for a king!”

    It was very hard to sit through and listen to horrible hermenutics as well as a incredibly forced alliteration!

    Of course, I would never give you one of my terrible alliterations as an example! 🙂

  4. Not only do the 10 yo listeners get confused, but 30+ yo non-native speakers give you the doe in the headlights look if the meaning isn’t plain. I like the comment that Elizabeth Elliot said about Packer’s book…”put the hay where the sheep can reach it.”

    From a common sense point of view, if alliteration is meant as a memory aid, someone who is writing down the outline doesn’t need it since they can refer to their notes anyway. But as you mentioned, if it’s too complex, or the words not ordinary every day words, where is the help? It does make a good way to present the passage, and sounds good as long as the outline isn’t forced.

  5. Not being a pastor yet myself, I’ll content myself to merely pass on some words from others:

    In the Nov/Dec 2000 issue of Preaching Magazine, Don Sunukjian (Professor of Preaching at Talbot) wrote an article called ““Four Things Can Happen When You Alliterate, And Four of Them Are Bad.” The four things were that you can be unclear, inaccurate, distracting, and boastful.

    Interesting that these have pretty much all been mentioned already. I’d hesitate to say they always happen, but the article might be worth the read.

  6. Hey Bob, nice uncontroversial topic!

    My problem with alliteration is that two excellent alliterations pop into my head all the time for two out of three (or more) points. Then what??? I strain and strain to find an alliteration for the next point(s). Then I give up and just preach it in something resembling plain English.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  7. It’s funny that you mentioned Dr. McLachlan. When I get in a conversation about alliteration, I always think of him. When I was at Northland, I always laughed at some of the lengths he would go to for alliterative purposes. The man would make up words if he couldn’t find an appropriate one in that unbelievable mind of his!

    On a personal note, I rarely alliterate in my preaching. The rare occassions that my outlines ARE alliterated are complete accidents!

  8. I think part of the cause of this alliteration addiction stems from a problem that is prevalent both in the pulpit and in the pew; that is, too many preachers and parishoners are too moment-focused. Let me explain.

    For the people attending the service, most will come for their weekly “fix” and walk out of the service, never to think of the message again. How many of us, myself included, have taken thorough notes on the back of the bulletin and then never looked at the notes again?

    For the preacher, he is naturally trying to “hone his craft” (not saying that in a negative sense at all), so he can easily drift into a focus on the structure of the message rather than its enduring impact.

    These two problems feed off each other. As the pastor incorporates excessive alliteration, the congregation has less reason to try to remember the points later on. For example, using MacArthur’s 7-point alliterated outline concerning Luke 9:46-52 (above), though it is true that a young person could understand it, it is not necessarily true that a young (or older) person could remember it.

    As I am driving to a meeting with a client (one of my favorite times to meditate on the Sunday message), I do not have the opportunity to have the outline in front of me, lest I cause a traffic accident. So whatever I am going to meditate on is whatever has stuck in my brain from the message. This is my biggest beef about alliteration. As Joy mentioned in another post i think, once you get beyond a very simple 2 or 3-point outline, it is nearly impossible to remember if you don’t have the outline in front of you. How much better for a pastor to build his sermon outline in a way that is going to be useful for later meditation rather than just flashy for the moment.

    One caveat…I think that alliteration could be useful for meditation were it not for the fact that most of us have heard hundreds or thousands of outlines in our lifetimes. But, since we have been exposed to so many, it all just runs together.

    My appeal to my pastor and any other is, please give those of us in the pew maybe one or two (at the most three) challenging, confronting, or encouraging “seed thoughts” for meditation throughout the week. Items that will cheer our hearts or challenge us to make adjustments where they are needed. Make that the focus of your preparation rather than an alliteration that really won’t help us much anyway in many, yea most, cases.

  9. see, jeremy, i’m writhing now! after reading the examples you gave, everything in me is just rolling and twisting, and it is NOT due to the flu i just got over. not only were the alliterations deplorable, but to think that people get away with exegesis like that is just downright discouraging and nauseating. sad. motivates me bigtime – makes me really want to pray for my pastor and my friends who preach and teach the Word regularly. have you read Gardiner Spring’s plea to pray for pastors?

  10. It’s interesting that several of the Psalms use memory-aiding devices in their composition. Whether it’s acrostic like Psalm 145 or chiastic like Psalm 67, these Psalms were designed to be learned and remembered. Maybe it lends some biblical precedent to devices today like alliteration?

  11. I personally think that sermon allitering is a beautiful tool in expressing expository preaching that is used in context of the text. Isogesis is always detrimental to a text, but true exegesis, word study, cultural relevance can naturally lead to effective, logical alliterations. Each preacher/pastor must commit to the style that the Holy Spirit prompts in the process of the preaching experience, from preparation to proclamation.

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