“Memorial Minute for W. J. Beeners”

Bartow, Charles L.

The Princeton Seminary Bulletin vol. 28(3), January 2008

pp. 337-41

Beeners was for “good American speech.” He wanted, above all, integrity, “traction,” intelligibility–and he wanted it in every part of the service, including the public reading of Scripture, public leading in prayer, and preaching. He argued that important texts have more than one good reading. There isn’t just one right reading of a text. He didn’t ever want the speaker’s “expressive technique” to call attention to itself. He also favored content over style and delivery. He insisted, again in his own words, “You can’t say `nothing’ well.” On the other hand, he also had no patience with the notion that what felt natural to the speaker was, in fact, natural. What felt natural could be merely habitual, a bad habit at that. “Natural,” he said, “does not mean habitual. It means true to the nature of things.” And careless habits of vocal usage or physical comportment could draw attention away from thought and to the speaker as readily as masterful expressive technique in service to itself. Bill Beeners asserted that “speech begins with the ear, not with the mouth.” Or again, “impression precedes and exceeds expression” if what is expressed is to be believed as, in fact, understood and believed by the speaker. So also, therefore, as Beeners observed, “the secret of poise is pause,” a capacity for what Beeners’s friend and colleague Bill Brower called “public solitude.” And for one last slang-precise Bill Beeners aphorism to sum up the matter of expressive technique in relation to thought, “You can’t give what you ain’t got.”