One of the secrets of the success of narrative writing and storytelling (whether that is historical narrative, fiction, fantasy, film or whatever) is the power of identification. When you read, hear or see a story, you naturally find yourself either identifying with or disassociating from characters in the story. If you are left cold, it is usually a sign that the story isn’t being told well, or you are in some sort of disconnected state.
So, if this is a central function of narratives, then it is a factor to consider in preaching biblical narratives. Some might try to make a hard and fast rule here, but again I would urge wisdom and consideration of the options.
Identifying with the Central Character. This is the most obvious and typically the most natural. As we see the faith or failure of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Ruth, etc., we naturally find ourselves identifying or disassociating. Actually, I read a reference to a small study recently that suggested preachers are more likely to associate with the hero of the story than non-preachers are. Interesting. There is a danger here. We can easily turn a God-centred biblical narrative into a moralistic tale of “so let’s try hard to be like Benaiah.” The other danger is that we are theologically informed of the danger and then fail to engage with narratives in the way they naturally function.
Identify with Non-Central Characters. This is where the non-preachers apparently will naturally identify – with the disciples, the fearful soldiers of Saul’s army, the guilty brothers of Joseph, etc. This changes things from a preaching perspective. Suddenly the temptation to moralise is diminished somewhat, though not entirely. The preaching of the narrative is suddenly fresh instead of predictable, for one thing.
Identify with the original recipients. From an applicational perspective, this is probably the best place to start. Moses wasn’t telling Israel to all try to be like him, but rather to see afresh the heritage of God at work amongst them. Samuel wanted Israel to celebrate David and the God of his faith, rather than try to generate a new generation of Davids. While not narrative texts, Paul’s letters all had applicational intent, specifically related to the recipients of each letter (whom we can identify with by the ongoing characteristics of church life and struggle).
Identification is a primary feature of narratives. Engage with this truth wisely.