Layered Story Sensitivity

WeavingWe are trained as children to pluck out Bible stories and learn a lesson.  Let’s try to fix that as adults.

You know the routine.  You select a story, such as Abraham and Isaac on the mountains of Moriah.  You tell the story.  You offer a lesson…be willing to obey God whatever He asks.  Job done.  And the children go away thinking that that is how to handle the Bible.  Pluck the story, point to a life lesson.

Then as adults we can easily do the same thing.  You select a story, such as Jacob wrestling with the stranger at night.  You tell the story.  You offer a lesson…or maybe several (adults can cope with more): three top tips for handling complex threats.  (I’m making this up, although it is true that preaching this way doesn’t require much time.)  Be careful what situations you put yourself in.  The dark is dangerous.  Fight hard because God doesn’t let anything happen to you that you can’t cope with.  (Forget that last one, it is problematic on so many levels!)

God did not give us a compendium of life lessons dressed up as character stories.  The Bible writers were masterful in crafting the historical accounts into literary masterpieces.  The brevity of individual stories woven together into epics of grand proportions.  So what to do?

1. Study stories in the context of the bigger stories.  Abraham and Isaac heading to the mountains of Moriah is the climax of a twelve chapter, decades long faith journey for Abraham and God.  It wasn’t a random test coming out of nowhere.  It was a heartbreaking and confusing test in the context of a story that had stretched as long as many of us live on earth.  Promise, travel, gradual response, family separation, land assignment, further travel, false starts, wrong-headed plans, bizarre marital failures, repeated promises, eventual faith, later covenant sign, divine protection over the marriage and very late promise fulfillment.

2. Study bigger stories in the context of the bigger stories.  So don’t just make sense of Jacob’s wrestling in the context of Jacob’s bigger story, see it as part of the sweeping story from Abraham’s promise down through the generations.  Jacob was a deceiver, as was Laban, and the threat of Esau was massive . . . but was God a deceiver?  Could He be taken at His word?  Was Jacob’s big issue really his problematic relatives?  Or was it himself and his own view of God?

3. Study bigger stories in the context of the biggest story.  While this shouldn’t override the passage and completely change its meaning from what it could have originally meant, we have to be sensitive to the whole Bible epic of God’s dealings with humanity.

Tomorrow I’ll poke at this issue from another angle.

Points in a Narrative Text Sermon

There is a field of homiletics referred to as narrative preaching, but this post is concerned with the preaching of a narrative passage – eg. David and Goliath, Joseph in Potiphar’s House, Hannah & Samuel, etc.

In other posts I have encouraged the use of full sentence points, rather than descriptive titles that make the message outline look like a commentary synopsis.  The full thoughts help you communicate effectively, generally avoiding historical past tense sentences helps you not sound like a commentary recycler.  But it is worth clarifying a couple of points on points:

1. If the message structure reflects the story structure, then some points may be better stated in historical terms. What I mean is that in an attempt to be contemporary, we can end up making three or four life principles out of the developing elements of the story, rather than allowing the story to be told properly.  The problem then becomes a moralizing approach to the details of a story, rather than allowing the force of the story to stand behind the main point, which itself might best be the only focus of application.  Stories that are told effectively will hold attention, so it is not necessary to generate points of relevance or application throughout the detail of the story.  Pay careful attention to the introduction, generating a definite sense of sermon relevance there, then feel free to be in the world of the narrative for a large part of the message, continually building to the relevance that may only become overt in point 3 or 4 (i.e. whenever the main idea is revealed with its abiding theological thrust).

2. Shorter biblical stories may work best with a default sermon outline. Namely, point 1 is to tell the story.  Point 2 is to state and clarify the main idea of that story.  Point 3 is to reinforce and drive home the application of that main idea.  In this case point 1 is automatically historical.  Point 2 should be written in contemporary terms.  Point 3 has to be contemporary, including all sub-points.  Again the introduction is important, but I suspect that will be the case in almost every sermon that we preach (whether we give it the necessary attention or not).  This approach underlines the fact that the outline of a sermon is for your eyes only.  Once we realize our goal is not to transfer an outline, but to give the text in such a way as to clarify the main point and apply it, then we are freed from the burden of turning every narrative into a parallel rhyming assonated demonstration of guilded wordsmithery.

Preaching Story: Make the Switch

A switch that could make a big difference when preaching narratives.  How do you preach a story?

Common Default Approach – This is the approach that begins the message with the reading of the text, then moves on to talk about the story, noting elements within the text and giving both explanation and application based on those observations.

Strengths & Weaknesses – It is easier to read a text straight through than to interrupt the reading of the text, people know the whole story from the start and it allows great freedom in terms of what you do with the rest of the message.  These are strengths to one degree or another.  However, there are also inherent weaknesses in this approach.  The story becomes a specimen to examine, rather than a narrative to be experienced (once the reading is over).  The inherent tensions within the narrative are essentially lost, although a good preacher will attempt to rekindle them in the elements of retelling the narrative that follows the reading.

Original Force Approach – Okay, I made that name up, but it does convey my point here.  The simple switch I’m suggesting is instead of “read the story and talk about it,” rather try to “tell the story homiletically.”  What I mean by that is allow the form of the story, and the telling of it, to form the spine of most of the message.  In the process of telling the story, combine explanation of context, culture, historical setting, etc., with deliberate application for contemporary listeners.

Strengths & Weaknesses – The weaknesses that stand out to me with this approach are the greater challenges involved in telling a story effectively such as vivid description, maintaining tension, etc. Thus it may be slightly harder to preach well in this way.  However, the strengths of this approach are significant.  The original force of the passage can be recreated for listeners, whether or not they already know the end of the story.  The inherent tensions and intrigue in a narrative can become strengths of the message (you don’t have to create tension with a story, it has tension inbuilt).  Explanation can feel natural as the story is told, application can carry the implicit force of the narrative.  The ability of a narrative to overcome resistance is harnessed rather than lost (in the common default approach, listeners often put their guard back up once you start “preaching” again after the story’s been read).  There are other strengths too – while it may be harder to preach this way, it makes preaching preparation more interesting as you enter fully into the narrative rather than standing over it with scalpel in hand.  So much more could be added . . .

Next time you preach a narrative, instead of reading it and then talking about it, try telling the story so that the original force is felt as the thrust of the sermon.

3 Words of Wisdom on Preaching Narratives

Personally, I enjoy every opportunity to preach a biblical narrative. This is not only because of the preaching itself, but also because of the study. I always feel stretched when I study a narrative, and blessed when I stick with it.

In his excellent book, Preaching with Variety, Jeffrey Arthurs offers three reasons to be cautious when it comes to preaching narratives (and like me, he is very much in favor of it!)

1. Pastoral Reason. Many may consider narrative sermons as mere entertainment. While they may be wrong, the best convincing tactic is not to force-feed them! There are ways to preach a narrative passage that feels like a traditional sermon (without dissecting the story to death). Think very carefully about the timing of a first 1st-person sermon (Arthurs suggests Christmas and Easter).

2. Exegetical Reason. Particularly in reference to 1st-person sermons, many narratives are written in 3rd-person. We shouldn’t cavalierly jettison the form of the text, but recognize that often a move to 1st-person is a move, rather than a starting point.

3. Epistemological Reason. While narrative is the most used genre in the Bible, it is not the only genre. While our culture may be becoming increasingly a story culture again, humans are not limited to one approach to communication. Narratives and propositions belong together. People need to hear direct communication from the Bible, not just indirect. They need to hear directly stated truths from us too.

Do You Preach Bible Stories?

Biblical narratives spark differing reactions.  I just had a conversation with someone who preaches periodically.  I mentioned the subject of my seminar this weekend and he responded that he loves preaching on that kind of passage.  Yet others seem to avoid narratives, especially Old Testament narratives, at all costs.  The difficulty for the avoiders is that there is so much narrative in the Bible.  Ray Lubeck counts 44% of chapters as being predominantly narrative.  Michael Rydelnik has a more general approach when he concludes that three-fourths of the Old Testament and half of the New Testament is narrative (more like 70% of the whole).

I think it is accurate to say that narratives are generally easy to read, but they can be hard to interpret accurately (we all like a good story, but that doesn’t mean we always “get it.”)  As far as preaching is concerned, on one level they can be relatively easy to preach, but they are usually hard to preach well.

So the challenge today is two-fold.

1. For those who jump at the chance to preach narrative. Make sure you are really seeking to grasp the point of the story rather than merely making the easy moralistic observations that can easily jump out of such stories (we’ll address the various short-cuts to be wary of in the next few days), and strive not just to preach the narratives, but to preach them well.

2. For those who do gymnastics to avoid preaching a narrative. Take the plunge, they are so rich for both personal study and preaching.  Take the hint, God inspired a lot of the Bible in narrative form.  Take the opportunity to provide a more balanced diet for all who hear you.

Ingredients of Delivery: Biblical Narratives 2

Yesterday we noted how critical description is in the telling of a Bible story.  Today I’d like to mention another key ingredient.  Without thinking through this, your preaching of that Bible story will not be what it could be.

Dynamism – Stories move.  They have tension, movement, interaction, emotion.  We cannot tell a story while standing like a four-storey building.  We need to consider motion, body language, and emotion in voice, face and gesture.  Consider how to physically and subtly represent the movement of the story on the platform.  Always point to Goliath in the same direction, generally let time flow from left to right from their perspective, etc.  Stories move.  Good storytellers generally do too.  And the best storytellers move physically, in gesture and in expression in a way that is consistently natural!  Being natural takes work!

Effective description and engaging dynamism . . . two critical ingredients for the effective preaching of biblical narratives.

Ingredients of Delivery: Biblical Narratives

When it comes to preaching a Bible story, many skills come into play.  I would like to mention a couple for your consideration.  In the next weeks many will be preaching story, even those who tend to stay rooted in the epistles.  So what is needed for effective delivery of a Bible story?  One thing is important to mention before we get to the delivery . . . when you are preaching a Bible story, tell the story!  Don’t just dissect it, label it, apply it, etc., but fail to tell it.  Stories are powerful, so let them loose on your listeners.  Here’s the first key skill, another is coming tomorrow:

Description – Good stories form in the imagination of the listener.  In the old days people would crowd around a crackling radio to catch the latest installment of a powerful story.  Ever since there were children, stories have been told to captivate, excite, scare and encourage.  In recent generations the visual media of television and film have overwhelmed the traditional theatrical presentation of story.  Either on the screen, or on the screen of the mind, a good story forms images, it can be “seen.”  When we preach we need to tell the story in such a way that people aren’t hearing information, but seeing the images.  Description is not easy, but it is worth working on.  Accurate description is important, but so too is sensory description – what it looked like, what the sounds were, the smells, the touch, the taste.  We need to grow in our awareness of and use of adjectives.  Not to show off obscure vocabulary, but to effectively describe so that the story can form for the listener.  When was the last time you read quality descriptive literature?  (And I don’t mean description of kenosis or intra-trinitarian relationality!)

To tell story well, we must describe well.  Practice in your conversations today, practice on your children, seek to develop this skill . . . your preaching will benefit every week!