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Narrative Preaching: Possibilities and Perils
Given the fact that there is much interest in story preaching, two questions must be addressed to aid the preacher in exploring the possibilities of narrative preaching. First, what is the definition of a "narrative sermon," and second, what are the strengths and weaknesses of this type of preaching?
Pure Narrative
A pure narrative sermon is just that: a narrative. Or as Jensen says, "The story is the preaching itself."1 In other words, a pure narrative sermon is a story -- no more and no less. The story may be embellished in its detail and dressed up in its execution, but it is still only a story. Pure simply means that the story is in no sense explained to the hearer, or commented on, outside the bounds of the narrative. In such a sermon, no introduction or conclusion outside of the story is used. The story's introduction is the sermon's introduction; the story's conclusion is the sermon's conclusion.
In a pure narrative sermon, the storyteller should allow the Bible's own way of expressing its concerns to inform directly his or her way of expressing those concerns. Thus, in matters of both form and content, a pure narrative sermon tries to mirror in detail the Bible's story.
This does not mean, of course, that the storyteller merely tells the Bible's story word for word, or simply reads it dramatically. A pure narrative sermon does not hamstring the storyteller's imagination when it comes to contemporizing the Bible's word for the modern congregation. Nor does this mean that narrative preaching is old-style expository preaching in modern dress. Rather, a pure narrative sermon does not move through the text line by line, offering comments on matters of exegetical niceties, but it tells the story by recounting details provided by a careful reading.
Frame Narrative
Sometimes a preacher may wish to provide some sort of introduction to the narrative in order to help the congregation understand the significance of the narrative -- as "discovered" by the preacher. Such a device might be used if the story is unusually rich in its drama or detail -- so rich that the hearer might get lost and thereby lose the thread of its significance. I call this kind of narrative sermon a frame narrative.
In a frame narrative sermon, the preacher not only may choose to introduce the narrative with some sort of introduction outside of the narrative itself, but he or she also may choose to use a conclusion that focuses the narrative for the congregation. By focuses the narrative, I do not mean "explains" the narrative. The story is not an extended illustration for a point to be made at the sermon's end. After telling a story, the preacher should never lean over the pulpit and say, "Now, for all of you who did not get the point of the story I have just told you, here it is." That sort of tactic is not a part of narrative preaching, as I am defining it.
The more traditional repertoire of illustrations can be called on to introduce the narrative that is to serve as the bulk of the sermon. We are familiar with these stories -- either personal, biblical, contemporary, or original quotations-hymns, songs, or words of famous persons; and imaginative -- sentences of our own devising. You can add to the list. The idea is to establish, between you and your hearers, the particular reasons why you plan to tell them this extended story. The frame conclusion has the same rationale and takes its material from the same list of illustrations.
Multiple Story Narrative
A third kind of narrative sermon is the multiple story narrative. In this narrative variety, one biblical story is used to comment directly on another, but the preacher does not comment on either story outside of the bounds provided by that story.
The rationale for this kind of narrative sermon is to allow one part of the biblical record to comment on another part, and thus permit the Bible's unique and varied witness to be heard in a richness not available through any one text. If a nonbiblical story is chosen, the sermon would be a frame narrative.
Fictional Narrative
A fourth kind of narrative sermon may be called a fictional narrative sermon. In this kind of sermon, the preacher creates a new story inspired by a close reading of the biblical narrative. Sometimes the preacher may discover that the biblical story in its ancient dress does not speak as clearly or forcefully as a contemporary story might. This has prompted some of our greatest authors to tell stories that present the most significant themes of the biblical witness in fresh and often startling ways, which modern hearers, who are perhaps dulled by the familiar formulations of the great old themes, might be enabled to hear these themes again with renewed power.
Preachers are well advised to read and contemplate those authors who, in effect, are attempting to do what preachers are in the business of doing -- namely, seeking fresh ways to say familiar things. For example, Flannery O'Connor, an ardent Roman Catholic, spent her tragically brief life trying to confront an increasingly secular society with the awesome mystery of the grace of God. She often chose overtly grotesque forms to effect the confrontation, but her choice was a conscious one. She once said, "I am interested in making up a good case for distortion, as I am coming to believe it is the only way to make people see."2
Personal Narrative
In the fifth type of narrative sermon, the preacher's own unique story or personal experience, related as illuminative of the biblical witness, is the bulk of the sermon. By a personal narrative sermon, I do not mean that some specific experience of the preacher is used as an illustration of the theme of the day. Rather, one specific experience of the preacher is narrated in direct response to a specific biblical text, in order to make that text fresh and new to the hearers.
Merely telling "my story" may or may not be a personal narrative sermon as I am defining it. The key is that the experience must be one shared in response to a text. For example, the preacher might relate his or her own conversion experience as it has been illuminated by the conversion experience of Paul.
If one of the chief concerns of the preaching task is to share the biblical witness of faith with congregations, then it is incumbent upon the preacher not to use his or her experience merely as an end in itself -- regardless of how interesting that experience might be. A personal narrative sermon is offered in response to the Bible's story and should be used only if the Bible's witness is enhanced.
Presenting the Story
Within each of the five general types of narrative sermons -- pure, frame, multiple story, fictional, and personal -- there are multiple ways of presenting the material. These "ways" can be called narrative points of view. Perhaps the most obvious way for a preacher to present a story sermon is as a third-person narrator -- one who observes the action from the outside but knows everything about the story and chooses to reveal it to the hearer. One might call this passive narration, as opposed to an active narration in which the preacher becomes a character or takes part in the story in some way. Passive narration is probably the most comfortable and familiar narrative point of view, since it is the one we know best. When we tell jokes, we are usually third-person passive narrators. One advantage of third person is that it is the kind of narrative most often presented in the Bible.
Although third-person narrative is generally a passive point of view, the active third-person narrative is a possible alternative. Whereas the passive third-person narrator tells the story with minimal intrusions, the active third-person narrator tells the story and interacts with the story so that he or she becomes, in effect, part of the story.
This can be done in several ways. One could, for example, set up a dialogue with the narrative, asking certain questions of the story to draw out the chosen meanings. Or one might question the narrative as it proceeds, asking questions that the congregation might want to ask of the story. In these two ways and others that the pastor's imagination can create, the story can be illuminated in a fresh way in the active third-person narrative.
First-person narrative point of view is a viable -- although more difficult -- alternative to the more common third person. In this kind of narration, the preacher becomes the character and presents the action and dialogue strictly from the perspective of that character.
As one can imagine, the dramatic demands increase in the first-person narrative. The presentation must take with great seriousness the expectations that any audience brings to a dramatic event. This is no time for biblical bathrobe drama! When the preacher assumes a character's role, the congregation has the right to expect him or her to be that character.
Not only must the preacher be viable dramatically, but he or she also must be true to the story in which the character takes part. If the character is blind (see John 9), then the preacher must narrate as a blind person. If the character is mad (see Mark 5), then the preacher must narrate as if he or she were mad. Not every preacher should attempt first-person narrative preaching; it is demanding physically and emotionally. When done poorly, it can be an embarrassing and humiliating experience for everyone. Worst of all, such an experience does not help to proclaim the gospel. Still, some who are reading this are capable of powerful first-person preaching, and I urge those individuals to try it.
In addition to choosing a narrative point of view, the preacher who wants to preach narratively should consider using props as aids to the sermon. If the story of Moses is the text for the day, a gnarled walking stick can be used to represent the famous rod -- if that rod is to play a central role in the telling of the story. If the story of Judas is told, the sound of clinking coins can add power to the visual exchange of money for the life of Jesus. The key is to keep the props simple. If the pulpit becomes a stage, and a robe or suit is exchanged for a costume, the preacher runs the risk of acting rather than preaching. All preachers are actors to some extent, but not all actors are preachers. The creative preacher will think of many ways to aid the presentation of the story.
The Possibilities and Perils of Narrative Preaching
From the discussion thus far, the reader may have discovered the various possibilities and perils of narrative preaching. These possibilities and perils need to be addressed in full if the preacher is to be prepared for the task of narrative preaching. First, let us focus on the possibilities.
In my judgment the primary gift that a preacher and congregation may receive from the narrative style is the basic union of form and content in the sermon. Simply put, a narrative text is wedded to a narrative expression. The best expression of a narrative is a narrative. "Rendering" a narrative into a discursive sermon is to "melt it down," or "turn it into lard." Though I already have addressed this issue in several ways, the union of form and content is so important to the possibility of narrative preaching that I offer one other expression of the significance of this union in the narratives of the Bible.
In this statement from his Early Christian Rhetoric, Amos Wilder explains that because the basic form of biblical faith is narrative, to render that narrative into discursive language is to turn it into something it decidedly is not.
What the early Christian faith meant [and the ancient Hebrew faith as well], therefore, can only be grasped as we attend to its plastic language, giving full heed to what it meant in its original setting.... Our congenital modern demand that such language (i.e. that of world redemption, water into wine, Messianic Banquets) be rationalized must be resisted, as well as our readiness to put all such forms of knowing out of court.... Transportation of the myth into provisional discursive or existential analogies is desirable provided it be recognized that every such formulation is a poor surrogate and must always again appeal back to the original.3
Wilder is making the same point that Henry Mitchell makes in Recovery of Preaching, albeit in a different way. The point is this: Not only is discursive rendering of a narrative "unbiblical" because it alters the very form of the Bible's expression, but it also often fails to reach the hearer with the force intended. Narrative language is language that the members know from their own narrative worlds. Furthermore, the language of the Bible, which is far from being alien to our sophisticated world, is closer to our need for "imaginative depth" than we have been able to realize or articulate. Thus, narrative preaching is both truer to the Bible's own narrative in its attention to form, and it holds the possibility of speaking deeply to the needs of late-twentieth-century hearers.
A second possibility of narrative preaching is the certainty that it will be heard. All ears prick up when the advent of a story is announced, just say, "Once upon a time," and watch your hearers' anticipation play across their faces and surface in their eager movement toward you. If the first aim of preaching is to be heard, then a narrative, almost inevitably, will gain a hearing. If a second aim of preaching is to involve the hearers, then a narrative wins high marks on this score as well. Nearly every textbook that discusses narrative preaching and its possibilities for participation and involvement reminds the readers that Nathan's story of the little ewe lamb, delivered to David after his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, is nothing other than an inductive narrative sermon (2 Sam. 12:1-7). The sinful king is ensnared in the story immediately, which was the preacher's intent.
A third possibility of narrative preaching is that narrative sermons offer an indirect mode of communication, which may have a greater chance of being heard than a direct mode. In Overhearing the Gospel Craddock says that he has learned from Soren Kierkegaard that the indirect mode of communication is the most suitable for communicating the gospel. This is because the gospel's basic concern is not the transference of information.
[Kierkegaard] regarded direct as the mode for transferring information and totally appropriate to the fields of history, science, and related disciplines. The indirect is the mode for eliciting capability and action from within the listener, a transaction that does not occur by giving the hearer some information.4
Rather than say to David, "All right, you monster! You are a sinner and deserve the hottest spot in Hell," Nathan caught David with his defenses down and his ears eager for a story. Before David knew what had hit him, the dour prophet had him -- or rather the evil king had himself. Such is the cleverness of the indirection of the story.
Because narrative sermons are an indirect mode of communication, they are also open-ended. This open-ended nature of the narrative sermon is a fourth possibility of narrative preaching. Narrative sermons provide real opportunities for the hearers to supply their own conclusions to the sermon. This opportunity gives the narrative sermon several advantages over the traditional sermon that tells the hearers what it is they are to conclude.
First, "my" (the hearer's) involvement in the sermon increases when the sermon is open-ended. I am invited into the sermon, coaxed into my response, and urged to think for myself. A narrative sermon positively insists that J conclude the sermon, if it is to have any meaning for me personally.
Second, I tend to remember and to be moved more deeply by ideas and themes that I have discovered for myself. Until I take an idea and internalize it, it cannot truly be mine. When I do make the idea my own, I give it my own flavor -- my own special meaning -- and in that process it really does become mine, not just a rehearsal of someone else's thinking; and because it is mine, I will remember it far longer than if I merely had memorized it from another source.
Finally, open-endedness in preaching provides openings for the unique work of the Holy Spirit. Our need to control our worship experiences through right timing, clear directions, and printed bulletins can be stifling to the spontaneity of divine worship. This does not mean that any of these "devices" should be abandoned; the order in worship can be an important aid to our encounter with God. Still, because spontaneity is often in short supply, an open-ended sermon may be a great blessing and may provoke an occasion for the activity of the Spirit.
Although open-endedness is a wonderful possibility of narrative preaching, it also can be one of perils. As Richard Jensen admits, many people are concerned that the hearers of an open-ended sermon will "miss the point."
But what if we tell a radically open-ended story [a story with no explanation, a pure narrative sermon] and they don't get the point? Or suppose they get the wrong point? Those are the questions most often asked me about story preaching. My response to these kinds of questions is to ask a counter question, "Are you sure they get the point of your conventional sermons?"5
Jensen is correct: A preacher can never assume that the hearers get the point of a sermon, no matter what the shape of the sermon may be or how clearly it may be stated. Every preacher has had the disconcerting experience of talking to a parishioner about a recently preached sermon and feeling as if two different addresses are the subject of the conversation -- the one the preacher preached, and the one the hearer heard!
Yet the reason for offering a narrative sermon is not solely to help the hearers get the point. A narrative sermon is preached to engage the congregation, to involve them, and to invite them into the wonder of the gospel. It is my hope that all preaching tries to do these things as well, but it is my contention that narrative preaching, when done effectively, has a higher probability of performing these tasks than the "conventional" sermon.
Another peril of narrative preaching is the potential danger of using the biblical stories as artistic ends in themselves. In an article warning against "The Limits of Story,"6 Richard Lischer first warns against what he calls "aestheticism." According to Lischer, those who fall into this trap "bracket the historical and dogmatic quest in favor of the transient experience of grace."7 The texts are torn from their roots and are isolated as examples of general experience, thereby losing the sting of their particularity. This criticism is clearly leveled at the "new" literary critics, who give no consideration to the circumstances of the writing of a narrative, but attempt to concentrate on the narrative itself. A narrative reading does not depend on the denial of the historical context; the historical context is very important for a full understanding of the narrative. Thus Lischer's critique is aimed at a small group of critics who have fallen out of the mainstream of literary criticism and biblical literary criticism.
Continuing his discussion of the threat of aestheticism, Lischer claims that a preacher becomes a narrator and, thus, one of the story's actors when he or she tells a story. As we have seen, the narrators of the Bible are narrators, not actors. Second, a story does not distance a person from the hearers; on the contrary, a story is designed to bridge distances, to offer an indirect mode of communication that involves the hearers in the narrative so that they may see themselves in the story. Even so, a certain distance is necessary for effective communication. The power of story is that it offers distance of subject while bridging the distance of communicating that subject.
Although I find Lischer less than persuasive in his specific critique of the dangers of aestheticism, it is wise to remember that bad narrative preaching can and does fall into this trap. The story can become so entertaining, so much fun, that the congregation becomes an audience and the sermon a comedic or tragic monologue -- an end in itself.
Lischer's article also warns against the "ontological" limits of the story. According to Lischer, "Not everyone has stories."8 He refers to the seriously handicapped, the addicted, the poverty-stricken, as those who may need stories, but because they have only "immediate needs" and are bewildered "at the unrelatedness of things," they cannot hear them. By making this critique, Lischer suggests that stories need hearers who have the leisure and the capacity to hear them. But I argue that stories, because of their indirect mode, can break through to persons, especially to those who cannot voice their own story. Isn't the gospel a story told on behalf of the voiceless ones of society? Experiences of Bible study in the so-called Third World make that claim a reality. Lischer assumes that stories are "neat packages, rounding life off."9 Many bad stories are neat and rounded-off, but I am hard-pressed to find many such stories in the biblical tradition.
Lischer's most important warning cautions against "sociopolitical limits":
The story form seemed to reflect more adequately the tentativeness and uncertainty of the age. If we could not speak with assurance of God and summon our hearers to faith and justice as the telos of the Christian life, we could with growing theological warrant reflect with our congregations on the richness and inter-relatedness of experience.10
According to Lischer's argument, story can turn us away from others and toward ourselves. Preaching, then, can become a self-indulgent exercise in individualized pleasure. Lischer contends that there is another fallout from this turn inward: "It can be argued that story does not provide the resources for implementing ethical growth or sociopolitical change."11 These are serious charges and have within them an important warning, but again I argue that these results of narratives are neither inevitable nor necessary.
The history of Israel itself is witness to that fact. Israel literally survived on its stories, finding in them the source of both stability and change. For more than three thousand years, Israelites and Jews have found hope and challenge in the telling and retelling of the story of the exodus from Egypt. From that story arose the demand for "ethical growth" and, above all, the impetus for "sociopolitical change." Even so, Lischer is right to warn us against the cheap use of stories for self-massage and comfortable spiritual locker-room pep talks. Using stories to avoid the social implications of the gospel of Christ is misusing them and falsifying the gospel itself. The Bible is a vital and living witness to the fact that stories are far more than entertaining forays into our individualized psyches. The stories of the Bible are packed with power for individual and social change.
A final peril of narrative preaching is that it can become a mere performance. This peril holds a two-sided danger. First, the preacher can forget that the story to be told, whether a biblical or personal story, is merely a "lens" for the Christian story, rather than a dramatic act for the sake of the drama. There remains a fine line between a moving narrative sermon and a potent dramatic show. When I experience a powerful African-American sermon, especially one that includes "chording" or "the whoop,"12 I sometimes wonder if the preacher is performing rather than preaching. But what makes this kind of sermon preaching, rather than performing, is the context in which it is done. The dialogue style of African-American worship draws from the preacher all the dramatic power that he or she can muster. Nevertheless, what is preaching in that liturgical context may be performance in another context.
The second danger of this peril of "performance" is that the preacher may not have the creativity necessary for the effective use of the story. Ronald Sleeth has said,
A final caution as to the use of story comes at the point of aesthetics.... Many [cultural manifestations -- literature, theater, music] assume a creative bent and training many preachers do not have. It could be possible that it is more difficult for a working pastor to master aesthetics than dogmatics or exegesis.13
This caution needs to be emphasized. To translate the biblical reading into a sermon requires an imaginative creativity as great as that required to read the biblical text. All preachers have a measure of creativity and a measure of imagination. Whether or not an individual has enough of both to attempt the kind of preaching I am suggesting is a decision only he or she can make. I believe that preachers are more creative and more imaginative than they think and, if given permission, can unleash both in the service of the gospel.14 The style of preaching I am suggesting is tailored so that the forces of creativity and imagination can "slip their leash." Still, the decision to unleash these forces is left to the individual.
1. Richard A. Jensen, Telling the Story (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1980), p. 129; How to Preach a Parable by Eugene Lowry (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989) defines narrative preaching quite differently. For Lowry, any sermon that has a narrative shape, that moves from crisis to reversal to resolution, is a narrative sermon, regardless of its content. My definition is obviously much more restricted.
2. Sally Fitzgerald, ed. The Habit of Being (New York: Random House, 1979), p. 79.
3. Amos N. Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), pp. 126-27.
4. Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978), p. 82.
5. Jensen, Telling the Story, p. 145.
6. Richard Lischer, "The Limits of Story," Interpretation 38 (January 1984); 26-38.
7. Ibid., p. 27.
8. Ibid., p. 31.
9. Ibid., p. 32.
10. Ibid., p. 35.
11. Ibid.
12. These two terms, chording and whooping, are attempts to describe those occasions in some African-American sermons where the preacher breaks into a chant-like song or repeated rhythmic phrases.
13. Ronald E. Sleeth, God's Word & Our Words (Atlanta: John Knox, 1986), p. 98.
14. Helps for the preacher's imagination may be found in Paul Scott Wilson, Imagination of the Heart (Nashville: Abingdon, 1988), and Thomas H. Troeger, Imagining the Sermon (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990).
From Preaching Old Testament -- Proclamation and Narrative in the Hebrew Bible by John C. Holbert. Copyright (c) 1991 Abingdon Press. Reprinted by permission.
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