“A really fine job,” my mother said. It was October, 1952, and this was my very first homiletical experience. I was grateful for her warm post-service greeting. Then she added, “although it sounded a little bit like a debate.”
A debate? Little wonder. I was a sophomore in college and had just been appointed as a student pastor in the Methodist church. When I moved behind that pulpit, I walked straight from the debate chamber. Since early in high school, I had been involved in debate programs and, besides playing the piano, debating was my chief avocational interest.
At the time I thought I had pretty well mastered the principles of public speaking in general and of intercollegiate debate in particular. I knew how to make a case. I understood the principles of outlining as well as other techniques of moving toward an inescapable summary. It mattered little what the debate subject was, or whether I was speaking for the affirmative or negative side of the issue. The structure was clear.
Indeed, it had been clear since the very first speech course I had taken. During preparation you move toward the articulation of one propositional sentence that states unequivocally the theme you are going to address. In the speech itself, you begin with an introduction that identifies for listeners the exact subject to be covered. The theme is divided into three Roman-numeraled parts and is restated in a conclusion.
As I understood it, the big difference between utilizing such principles in debates and in pulpit work was in the selection of “evidence.” In the debate hall evidence consisted of hard data that would undergird the thesis. In the sermon, “evidence” tended to be less formal — even a folksy anecdote could be utilized. Soon I found myself purchasing several volumes of popular anthologies of sermon illustrations which were as handy for filling out the outline as the concordance was for selecting the text for the already determined theme.
In either case, the presentation was deductive in form, with the conclusion announced in the introduction, divided and particularized into the three-point body, and then reiterated in the conclusion. In the pulpit you had one extra chance: if in doubt, you could always close with a prayer and, hence, summarize it again.
This homiletical form was not only familiar to me because of my prior experience in debate, it was congenial to my temperament: I never spoke before my mind was made up. And long before I became familiar with the Shannon-Weaver Construct, I had it well-nigh perfected: the art of communication consisted primarily of transmitting a set of complete ideas from one location to another via the “conveyor belt” called speech. A formal speech essentially was a conveyor belt moving only in one direction.
My seminary courses in preaching did not significantly alter my understanding of a speech or a sermon. As I understood it, the purpose of preaching classwork was to hone the craft, expand the sources of illustrative material, and deepen the theological content of the prepositional theme. Yet, in terms of structure the explanations in The Principles and Practice of Preaching by Ilion T. Jones1 were not much different from those made by Sandford and Yeager in Principles of Effective Speaking,2 a popular text for speech classes.
I remember very well my great surprise to hear Ronald Meredith, the new pastor of First Methodist Church, Wichita, Kansas, preach. He seemed not to follow these long-used methods of preparation and delivery. I was so impressed with his style of preaching that I wound up serving on the staff of that church — primarily to find out what it was he did and how.
To my great sorrow, I discovered that he didn’t know what it was that he did — or how. In fact, he expressed surprise that others did not do the same. Ron Meredith was a good storyteller; his illustrations were magnificently told. I was able to learn from him how to better handle illustrative material. But the principle of sermon formation that he utilized remained a mystery to me during those three years of ministry. Apparently, it remained a mystery to him as well.
Yet, I sensed that his charisma was not limited to his manner of speaking, although that was quite remarkable. His charisma also had to do with how the content was formed. But whatever it was, Ron did it intuitively. Hence, one could only stand back in admiration — even awe.
Of course, such a posture of admiration — or envy — had the chief function of causing me to admit that while he could do it, I could not. It simply was not “who I am.” No one had ever accused me of being a storyteller. Seldom could I even repeat a good joke. Nor was I a spinner of family yarns.
Upon reflection, I suppose it should be noted that many people, perhaps most, can do something they are unable to explain in principle. Certainly, I could not explain how it was that at the age of five I could climb on a piano bench and repeat my older brother Ralph’s piano lesson. Actually, I did more than that — I would add a flourish or two not written in Thompson’s Primer. All I knew was that I could do it. It made Ralph quite irritated and it made me very happy — a lifetime of motivation thus came into being.
By the time I stepped behind that pulpit for the first time, I had become rather adept at piano improvisation — and I still did not have a name, let alone any articulated principles, for it. But at some point, I was surprised to realize that the connection between Ron Meredith’s sermonic form and my piano improvisation lay in a great deal more than the fact that neither of us knew quite how it was that we could do what we did — that both of us were functioning with an intuitive skill without corresponding articulated principles.
The truth is, both his preaching and my piano playing were based on the principles of narrative form. Had either Ron or I been familiar with Aristotle’s Poetics at that time, we would have been able to name precisely what it was that we were doing.
What I consider most peculiar in all of this is that although I was applying these principles of narrative form at the keyboard, I could not do the same in the pulpit. At the keyboard I was a participant in a narrative art form; at the pulpit I was a deductive, thematic preacher. Through the years my preaching has had little impact on my piano playing. My piano playing, however, has utterly transformed my preaching.
Although Aristotle was talking about literary form when he spoke of the plot moving from opening conflict into complication through peripetia (reversal) toward denouement, he just as well could have been discussing — before its time — the dynamics of jazz improvisation. The connection between the two was recognized by jazz historian and professor Leroy Ostransky.
He wrote, in The Anatomy of Jazz, that “what distinguishes superior creative musicians from the mediocre ones of all periods is the manner in which they create resolutions, and to create resolutions it is necessary to set up irresolutions…. Poor and mediocre jazzmen will impose problems on themselves, problems of resolution whose answers are already evident in the irresolutions they set up…. Jazzmen in these categories often do not understand that the quality of their jazz will depend not on any resolution, however elaborate, but rather on the inherent intricacy of the irresolution.”3
Regardless of the artistic depth of power of a jazz musician, the principle is the same. You begin with a fairly uncomplicated melody line, chord structure, and beat, and through improvisation turn it into complication. You allow the rhythm of the melody line to “get sideways” with the meter rhythm, deviate significantly from the melody line, and begin adding more complicated chordal moves. Things become so complicated that very shortly the untutored ear scarcely can recognize the tune.
When several musicians are working together, the different moves of several instruments complicate matters further until the musicians themselves begin to press toward a kind of boundary: their minds begin to concentrate on the question, How now are we going to get home? Sometimes when a less accomplished musician is working with other more sophisticated musicians (as would often happen when I sat in for an absent piano player) the more naive musican may in fact get lost from the other members of the group, not quite understanding what is happening with the group, where they are at that moment, or where they are heading.
The successful turn toward home often comes as a surprise, with the musicians making turns they could not have anticipated before they began the number, and with negotiations that likely can never be repeated. Generally the song is completed with a final chorus that becomes a return to the fairly uncomplicated original melody. Musical denouement it is.
The phrase “return home” will not come as any surprise to preachers within the black tradition. Every black preacher understands that for the sermon to happen, it must move to a final celebrative event — a denouement. Again, there is no coincidence in all this, because, in fact, jazz improvisation grew directly out of the black preaching experience.
It was the homiletical improvisation of the black preacher, together with the contrapuntal participation of the congregation, which developed into jazz improvisation in the first place. No coincidence is it either that in early jazz circles the trumpeter — the lead instrument — often was called “the preacher.”
When James Wendell Johnson first sought a title for the work we know as “God’s Trombones,” he called it “Trumpeters of the Lord.” There is even a 1939 Louis Armstrong recording that includes a verbal introduction to the music in which he says: “Sisters and brothers, this is Reverend Satchmo, getting ready to beat out this mellow sermon for you. My text this evening is ‘When the Saints Go Marchin’ In’.”
The connection between lead trumpeter and preacher is not the only perceived link between these two art forms. Performing similar roles were such blues singers as the great Bessie Smith, probably the best known of the early blues singers. As one listener explained, “If you had any church background, like people who came from the South as I did, you would recognize the similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did.”4
It is particularly strange, then, that I would have been following narrative principles at the keyboard (without knowing it), while at the same time preaching non-narrative sermons. Indeed, my transition toward narrative preaching happened over a span of years, yet long before I found the term “narrative” to define it. Had someone told me that I was moving toward becoming a narrative preacher I would have thought it nonsense. Certainly I was using illustrations, but the sermonic structure clearly was topical.
I believe what happened was that my use of illustrative material began to spill over on either side of the illustration. In particular, it began to dawn on me that there was an enormous difference in listeners’ attention during an illustration and before it or after it. As a result, I began to utilize a different kind of illustration, moving from a momentary anecdote to an extended story. Rather than making a point and then illustrating it, I began to allow the story to carry the freight by making the point itself. Finally, the obvious dawned on me: often Jesus’ preaching was simply one long story. Yet, even then I would have said, “I’m no storyteller. I don’t tell jokes or spin yarns.”
Then, in 1970 I was preaching a series of three sermons in a special preaching event away from home. I happened to utilize a parable of Jesus as my text for the evening. After the service a man greeted me and said, “Fine story.” The next evening’s sermon also happened to be based on a parable of Jesus, and after the service this same man clasped my hand and said, “You’re not so much a preacher as you are a storyteller.” I took his comments to be complimentary, but hardly could believe them to be true.
My final sermon, as I had planned it, did not have a narrative text. Very quickly I shifted to another parable of Jesus. I went home musing on this new perception of what was happening to my preaching style. It began to dawn on me that whether preaching a narrative text or not, in sermonic form I was moving from problem to solution, from itch to scratch, in virtually all my sermons. The fairly simple problem/ solution format became more detailed, and my “homiletical plot” was born.
Even then, however, I had not made the connection between my music and my preaching. It was only after I came upon Aristotle’s writing that I began to discover what my piano playing had been doing to my preaching. In particular, it dawned on me that both music and preaching are temporal events, not constructions of space. Whether in speech preparation or sermon development, I had been organizing my material. I cannot imagine a musical composer conceptualizing the work as “organizing” the composition. The development of any musical theme always involves the “imagining” of a future acoustical event.
This is because music, whether manuscript or improvisation, happens in time. It is a temporal event or it is nothing. The musicians’ work comes into a musical envelope out of silence and returns into the mystery of silence’s time (as Michael Williams has phrased the matter in the context of story). In between the silences, the key to good jazz improvisation is the risking of increased complication in order to prompt the surprising turn home — just like Aristotle’s conflict, complication, peripetia, and denouement.
In nonimprovisational musical form the same complication is planned, such as in Mozart’s famous adaptation of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” When this process happens well, it is as though the musicians had heard Oliver Wendell Holmes say, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the kind of simplicity which exists on this side of complexity, but I would give the whole world for the simplicity that exists on the other side of complexity.”
In retrospect it is clear to me that it was my intuitive skill at the keyboard — in particular, the increasing complexity moving through the surprising turn toward resolution — that instructed me, albeit unconsciously, about narrative preaching.
If it is true that all of life is interconnected, and if British critic Barbara Hardy is correct in her claim that all of life is lived in narrative form — indeed, that the web of story is the fabric of human existence — then surely it must be true that other people may be able to draw from other kinds of endeavors that are narrative in form, as I have drawn from music.
For instance, my brother Ralph never could improvise at the keyboard, but at a very young age he would dismantle unworkable clocks and motors and then put them back together again. At the time, I was absolutely amazed that although only a piece or two would be at the root of the problem, he would take the whole apparatus apart, even undoing pieces that were working exactly right. In the middle of the project he would have what seemed like a thousand pieces out on the table. I was certain he had crossed the boundary into chaos and that the small problem was now a very large problem. But somehow he found the simplicity on the other side of complexity — and the fool thing would work once more.
His fix-it process was as clearly narrative in form as my piano playing. While Ralph had his hands on a clock and was working from simplicity to complication to transformed simplicity, my hands were on the keyboard, attempting the same thing.
Sometimes while moving toward increased complication in musical improvisation, a performer will make a musical blunder; will, for example, inadvertently reach for exactly the wrong note or chord. A good musician will turn the mistake into a phrase never even imagined before. Sometimes this narrative mistake will become the most important facet of the performance — with other musicians in the group building on the accidental turn.
Microbiologist Alexander Fleming while doing ongoing bacteriological research made a comparable blunder. Inadvertently, he allowed mold into the container that held the culture of bacteria. The stray mold killed the bacteria with which Fleming was working. Instead of throwing the culture away — as lesser scientists might have done — he was immediately curious as to why the mold killed the bacteria. His mistake coupled with his curiosity resulted in his discovery of penicillin. Such surprising turns, whether experienced in scientific endeavors, jazz improvisation, or in simple, everyday tasks, are central to that longer narrative journey called life.
It is crucial to note here that although many of us may not see ourselves as narrative preachers — believing firmly that such preaching is not for us — we may be surprised at our narrative skill in other endeavors. For Ralph, it was fixing clocks and motors; it could just as easily be quilting, skiing, carpentry, cooking or skateboarding. My hunch is that if we explore other activities that we do reasonably well, we will discover two things: first, that such skills, hobbies, or sports, when analyzed, may likely reveal narrative shape; and second, that the sense of narrative form that emerges can, by analogy, be applied to one’s practice of preaching.
I am convinced that had someone asked me to name what I do in piano improvisation — that is, to state the various ingredients and processes of the event — and then had named it for me as narrative form, I long ago would have made the connection and could have moved toward narrative preaching intentionally. Even if someone had heard me play the piano and then said, “Now, do that homiletically,” I would have known what to do in a very short time. Without that crucial power of naming, it took me years to bring together these two different behaviors. Simply stated, I ahd to wait until it happened to happen.
The Concept of Gifts
Behind all this discussion lies an important conviction about gift, knowing, and learning. People involved in all forms of art — even those persons as limited in talent as I — grow accustomed to the well-intended remark: “Well, you certainly have a gift”; or, “No one can teach you that.” Such remarks are intended as compliments, and hence the proper answer is “Yes, it is a gift, thank you.”
Of course they are correct. Artistic temperaments, capacities, and sensitivities are given to some. When I first walked up to the piano and imitated my brother’s music lesson, I had no musical training whatever. I had a gift. Yet such a statement is only half true — at best.
Sometimes in response to a gift-remark, a person wants to respond: “Yet, it is a gift — plus fifty years of work.” The problem behind such remarks as the artist hears has to do not so much with what is affirmed explicitly, but with what is denied implicitly. What is denied overall is that others can get what you’ve got, as if a capacity can only drop out of the sky, as it were, complete and whole. You “either have it or you don’t.” The truth is that such gifts are not nearly so rare.
John Elliott, with whom I study harmony and theory, teaches all kinds of students, some with a long history of improvisation, some with traditional musical training, and some with no prior musical background whatever. Several of his students never “played by ear” at all prior to his teaching. While capacities or aptitudes sometimes seem to “drop out of the sky,” other times they are fashioned in ordinary skill-training endeavors. What we call gifts often can be taught to a wide range of people.
Consequent to the either-or mentality regarding gift is the apparent denial that artistic aptitude be analyzed for the purpose of identifying variables. This may be of a piece with the view that art is devoid of cognition, or at least conception. My contention, epistemologically, is that art of whatever form does indeed involve knowing, and that although the form of knowing may be labeled aesthetic, gestaltive, or “right-brain” knowing, it is available for discursive or linguistic analysis.
The fact that some exceptionally talented people may not be able to name what they do may only mean that because of their extraordinary talent there simply has not been adequate need or occasion for such analysis. The use of analogy (as suggested above) is a particularly effective way to learn how to name the variables of “natural” talent.
That art forms are in fact taught suggests that art is not grasped only intuitively and in no other way. Indeed, any good art instructor will tell you otherwise. To be sure, art instructors are grateful for whatever gifts and aptitudes the student brings, and will even encounter some would-be students who can be helped only marginally. But the good instructor knows that the teaching process must be geared to naming the “intuitions”; otherwise, even the highly gifted cannot be developed a great deal.
Learning an art form emerges not as a process of clustering learnings around or building on natural aptitudes; it is the naming of the natural aptitudes themselves so they can be developed and enlarged. In other words, learnings and natural abilities are not two separate genres of skill. Learning does not stand outside or alongside a native ability. Learning is a self-conscious disciplining of the native ability so that the gift itself grows.
My harmony/theory instructor would go further by noting the extra difficulty of assisting those who have been working on their gifts without professional assistance. Indeed, shortcuts born of natural ability and experience often impede artistic growth.
Jay McShann is an immensely gifted jazz pianist. Indeed, many years ago he became nationally known as a blues player. He could not read a note of music. He was, however, not simply gifted; he was very smart. He interrupted his career to take music lessons, to learn the notes and the theory behind his playing. His artistic capacities at the keyboard expanded in geometric proportions. He is now regarded as a legend in his own time.
Those with the “gifts” do well to study what it is that they do naturally in order to develop the art. What we call a gift usually refers to a cluster of variables not yet named, and hence falsely perceived as unreachable, unknowable, and unteachable. The truth is many others can learn what a few seem to inherit.
Hence, my recommendations are two to those who are fairly convinced that narrative preaching is not a personal, live option for them. First, engage in a personal inventory of other skills and aptitudes related to work, hobbies, leisure activities with a view toward discovering the narrative components of these processes. Second, compare those narrative components to narrative-preaching theory in order to discern connections, parallels, and analogies of the homiletical art.
Certainly philosopher Michael Polanyi is right in saying that we know more than we can tell. Yet, sometimes we cannot do until we can tell what we already know.
1. Ilion T. Jones, The Principles and Practice of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956).
2. William Phillips Sandford and Willard Hayes Yeager. Principles of Effective Speaking (New York: Ronald Press, 1942).
3. Leonard Feather, The Book of Jazz (New York: Meridian Books, 1959), 151.
4. Leroy Ostransky, The Anatomy of Jazz (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960), 83.
From Journeys toward Narrative Preaching, edited by Wayne Bradley Robinson. Copyright (c) 1990 by The Pilgrim Press. Used with permission.

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