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.
I’m giving a lot of thought to the preaching of biblical narrative at the moment. I have a seminar on the subject coming up this weekend and I am thoroughly enjoying preparation for that event. Somehow, when it comes to narrative passages, there are two truths that don’t seem to sit easily together in peoples’ minds. These are the historical accuracy of the biblical narratives, and the literary artistry in the biblical narratives.
On the one side you have some conservative preachers who treat the narratives as historically accurate, but essentially no different than any other biblical text (just dissect and deliver!) On the other side you have other less conservative writers who may recognize the literary skill, but deny historicity (my mind goes to Robert Alter’s term “historical fiction” in reference to the Hebrew Bible).
I appreciate this definition from Jeffrey Arthurs’ excellent book, Preaching with Variety:
Biblical narrative can be defined as a historically accurate, artistically sophisticated account of persons and actions in a setting designed to reveal God and edify the reader. (Page 64)
He goes on to write, “Although biblical narrators do not make up events and characters, they do select, arrange, and depict them with skill.” Historical accuracy and sophisticated literary artistry are not mutually exclusive categories. As Leland Ryken put it in Preach the Word, “While fictionality is a common characteristic of literature, it is not a necessary feature of it.” (Page 45)
As we prepare to preach biblical narratives, let’s make sure we don’t fall into the either/or thinking. Historical accuracy. Literary artistry. Two truths that sit comfortably together.