Yesterday we looked at just some of the challenges that come with preaching epistles, gospels and historical narrative. Now for the other four genre. Which do you find the hardest?
Poetry – Psalms and songs are readily leaned on in times of personal trial, but preaching them well is not so easy. The imagery is sometimes alien to us. The forms and structures are unfamiliar. The genre taps into the affections and emotions in a way that can be difficult to communicate. The temptation to dissect and turn the passage into an epistle is very real. As is true with every passage, but especially here, the passage does not give a complete theology of . . . whatever it’s about.
Wisdom – The Hebraic parallelism and other forms of wisdom literature are especially foreign to our ears. The wisdom literature often sits in the context of a covenant system that applied uniquely to Israel in relationship to God, so application can be treacherous territory if we’re not careful. The brevity of statement provides a different challenge than an extended narrative.
Prophecy – Written by a certain kind of person, to a certain people, at a certain time . . . none of which is the same today. It can be really challenging to enter into the historical context of the prophet, and also to enter fully into the written context of the book (where the start and end of each burden/oracle is often hard to discern). While the prophets reveal the heart and plans of God very boldly, there is plenty in form and content that appears obscure to contemporary ears and sensibilities.
Apocalyptic – Biblical apocalyptic is a genre that is challenging to contemporary interpreters. Many seem so quick to dismiss the content by reference to the genre that all meaning is apparently stripped from the texts. Then there is the conflict in the commentaries and even disputes in the pews over issues of eschatology that can quickly zap any zeal to announce an apocalyptic preaching text. As with prophecy, the challenges are there in terms of interpreting in context, and in applying to contemporary listeners.
Personally I would list the hardest for me as: 1 – historical narrative (Old Testament), 2 – wisdom, and 3 – apocalyptic (because of the potential problems from the pew, more than the interpretation of it). What about you? Let’s make sure we’re not avoiding some genre and growing complacent with others.
What is the hardest genre to preach well? Every genre has its own challenges. Here’s a list of biblical genre with some brief points on why each can be hard to preach well. I’ll tell you what I find the toughest, but your top three toughies might be different. Let’s not avoid the ones we find tough, nor grow complacent in the “easier” genres.
Epistle – Many would list this as the easiest genre to preach. The original audience is closest to ours, the direct communication translates relatively easily into a sermon and application is often straightforward. The challenge can be over-familiarity and how to preach with a sense of tension or intrigue.
Gospels – Most of the stories are very familiar, but sometimes small details can really pose problems in interpretation. It is challenging to really see each unit of thought as it fits in the flow of the text. It isn’t always easy to sift Jesus’ motives in the action and the author’s motives in how the action is presented. If you are not good at telling a story, then the gospels can be really challenging.
Story (History/Narrative) – Some stories are very familiar, others are borderline bizarre. As with the gospels it is not always obvious what the author is doing in stringing episodes together. With Old Testament narratives you also have the challenge of communicating the story with a sense of relevance to today, as well as the burden of appropriate application. Then there is the difficulty of unknown geography and lack of familiarity with biblical history among our listeners.
Tomorrow we’ll complete the list of the biblical genre. I’ll list my hardest three, for what it’s worth, and you can comment with yours . . . feel free to add pointers to the challenges you face in any particular genre – this would be helpful for others to ponder too.
I know Easter is still a couple of months away, but as a preacher it is never too early to think about Easter. In fact, there is a sense in which commemoration of Easter is never more than six days away – the Lord’s Day is a weekly gathering because of His resurrection. So here’s a thought regarding Easter (whether you’re planning for April or preparing for tomorrow’s message).
In preaching any narrative section, we need to consider whom listeners will gravitate toward, with whom they will identify. We should consider how to encourage that or redirect that through our preaching. In the case of the passion narratives, this tendency to identify can be powerfully used in our preaching. Luther pointed to this when he wrote:
“Although Christians will identify themselves with Judas, Caiaphas, and Pilate; sinful, condemned actors in the Gospel story – there is another who took the sins of humanity on himself when they were hung around his neck.”
When it comes to the story of the crucifixion we find ourselves identifying with so many characters: Judas, Peter, fleeing disciples, Caiaphas, Pilate, Roman soldiers, Simon from Cyrene, mocking executioners, mocking crowds, mocking thief, repentant thief, followers standing at a distance, followers standing close by, even the Centurion. Yet the wonder of it all is that we are invited to identify with the perfect One hanging on that cross, for in that act He was most wondrously identifying with us.
Consider how the natural function of narrative – to spark identification – can be utilized to communicate the wondrous truth of Calvary this Easter, or even this Sunday.
Poetry is different from narrative and it is very different from discourse. How though is our preaching of poetry different from our preaching of narrative and discourse? To answer this question, today we will consider how poetry works and functions. Then tomorrow we’ll consider some implications for preaching poetry.
How Poetry Works – Besides employing literary devices such as imagery, metaphor, allegory, simile, wordplay, irony, hyperbole, etc., the prevalent literary device in Hebrew poetry is parallelism. There are many ways to describe parallelism. One common way is to discern between four kinds of parallelism – antithetical parallelism, synonymous parallelism, synthetic parallelism, and emblematic parallelism. In antithetical parallelism, the first line of a sentence is in contrast to the second line (Ps 34:19). In synonymous parallelism, the first line of a sentence is similar to the second line (Ps 49:3). In synthetic parallelism, the second line of a sentence builds upon the idea of the first line (Ps. 49:5). In emblematic parallelism, the two parts of a sentence connect through simile or metaphor (Ps 49:20).
How Poetry Functions – Parallelism insists that the reader slow down, mull over, and consider how each sentence functions. More than that, because each sentence is laced with metaphor, allegory, simile, wordplay, irony, hyperbole, etc., poetry insists that its content be felt. Rhetorically, poetry connects affect to ideas.