H. Stephen Shoemaker, Retelling the Biblical Story: The Theology and Practice of Narrative Preaching (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985), 180pp., $7.95, pb.
Eugene L. Lowry, Doing Time in the Pulpit: The Relationship Between Narrative and Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), 112pp., $6.95, pb.
Few models of preaching have received the level of attention given to narrative preaching in recent years. The contemporary period has witnessed a virtual explosion of works commending a return to narrative forms of expression.
Much of this can be traced to the influence of modern literary theory and the rise of narrative criticism. As this school has engaged the attention of biblical scholars it has reinforced the fact that most of the biblical materials are essentially narrative.
Though the scriptures do contain propositional truth, this is most often couched in narrative forms of expression — in stories.
At the same time, others are demonstrating that human experience itself, the living of our days, is best understood in terms of a personal story. As Stephen Crites suggests, “the formal quality of experience through time is inherently narrative.”1
Two of the very best volumes which explore the implications of narrative for Christian preaching are Stephen Shoemaker’s Retelling the Biblical Story and Doing Time in the Pulpit by Eugene Lowry.
H. Stephen Shoemaker is pastor of the Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky — a church with a national reputation for excellence in preaching. Soon after his assumption of the pulpit at Crescent Hill, Shoemaker resumed an experiment in narrative preaching that has grown into a maturing homiletical model. Retelling the Biblical Story represents the fruits of Shoemaker’s quest for the most appropriate theology and practice of narrative preaching.
The aim of preaching, as suggested by Shoemaker, is not to point to the preacher’s world, nor to that of the congregation, but “to a third reality which embraces them both, the biblical world.” This kind of preaching, avers Shoemaker, is unselfconscious preaching. As the author warns: “The moment we start hearing ourselves preach, we must stop.”
Shoemaker states his conviction that the best means of the transmission of the gospel is narrative. He bemoans the relative neglect of the biblical narratives in the church. Without pointing a finger, Shoemaker demonstrates that many preachers who seek most diligently to be truly biblical in their preaching, fail to meet their congregations at the intersection of their own personal stories and the biblical story of the gospel.
Preaching, according to Shoemaker, is “the telling of the Biblical Story, the story of God’s redeeming activity from creation to Christ to consummation.” The purpose is to bring the hearer into encounter with the God of the Bible, and to evoke a faith response.
Basic to this model is the knowledge that much of the Bible consists of stories told and retold long before written. This fact is consistent, the author reminds, with the character of God as “a history-making God,” with us as His history.
In a helpful manner, Shoemaker sets his proposed model in a clear distinction from other prevalent models. The first of these models, “preacher directed,” is based upon the presupposition that the preacher’s world — his spiritual and personal autobiography — is the best focus for the preaching event. This model may include the authoritarian preacher or the “confessional” preacher. The energy in the preaching event runs to the preacher.
The problem here is that the preacher’s story — any individual’s story — is inadequate to the task. “The preacher is the messenger of a deeper reality than an unveiling of the person of the preacher.”
A second model is “hearer centered.” The energy in this model flows from the preacher to the congregation. The preacher, suggests Shoemaker, may pose as either the “Angry Father” or the “Sensitive Pastor.” As the former the preacher berates the congregation for their sinful estate. The “Sensitive Pastor” may engage in “life-situation” preaching popular with preaching luminaries such as Harry Emerson Fosdick.
The problem with this model is that of the first model writ large. If no individual person’s story (the preacher) is adequate to the task, neither is any group of individual stories (the congregation). Only the biblical story is sufficient.
Shoemaker’s third model, “recreating the Biblical World,” has as its focus the unfolding of the biblical story. It remains a form of personal communication, but personal communication carrying the power of the biblical world, “the sphere of life in which God is active.” This world, the author demonstrates, “is the only healing, saving world in which to live.”
If this is the theology of narrative preaching, the practice is for the preacher to take upon himself the role of storyteller. This is not an image of the preacher as raconteur, but in “the sacred role of the narrator.” Shoemaker includes sections dealing with suggestions for improving story-telling skills in the pulpit.
Retelling the Biblical Story is unique among the emerging number of books on narrative preaching in that the greatest portion of the book is devoted to fifteen superb narrative sermons preached to Shoemaker’s own congregation.
The power of these sermons constitute an even more compelling argument for narrative preaching than the cogently-argued essays which begin and conclude the volume.
If the preacher is looking for the best volume on the why? and what? of narrative preaching, the search should stop at Retelling the Biblical Story.
The best introductory volume dealing with the how? of narrative preaching is Doing Time in the Pulpit by Eugene Lowry.
Professor of Preaching and Communications at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Lowry established his reputation in the homiletical world with The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form, published in 1980.2 In that powerful volume Lowry argued that if narrative is the biblical form, and the form of our experience, then the sermon should have as its structure a plot, rather than an outline.
In Doing Time in the Pulpit Lowry explores other dimensions of the relationship between narrative and preaching. Though the title sounds like a jail sentence (and the author admits that preachers may wonder from time to time), “doing time” refers to Lowry’s thesis that “a sermon is an ordered form of moving time” — a thesis consistent with the narrative form of human experience.
Sermon time, suggests Lowry, should be the ordering of experience. Human experience and biblical story should make more sense after this ordering than before. Stories, narrative form, have a greater power to order experience than ideas.
Nevertheless, most preachers think of their sermons in terms of ideas — and not in terms of stories. Stories are used as illustrations of ideas, rather than ideas being the inductive result of the ordering experience of stories. Lowry’s first chapter is a powerful argument for the primacy of plot over outline.
Lowry moves from this to a consideration of chronos and kairos as the concepts of time related to the sermon. Kairos is an event of God within chronos — an opportunity to transcend ordinary experience, a worthy goal for any preaching event.
From this Lowry proceeds to an examination of setting, action, characterization, and plot. These elements, perhaps existing in most preacher’s minds as faint remembrances of English Literature 101, constitute the essential building blocks of the story.
Sermons crafted to express ideas in logical progression may completely ignore these narrative elements — and be quickly forgotten. Ideas, suggest Lowry, “seldom have the power to supplant time.” Seldom, however, does a story fail. This should be more than a clue to the preacher seeking greater pulpit effectiveness.
Doing Time in the Pulpit is a sophisticated and brief guide to narrative theory as it can be related to sermons. It presents the reader with a challenge to incorporate the best qualities of narrative experience into the making of the sermon, and the best reflection on the living of life.
These proponents of narrative preaching call not for revolution, but for a reformation of preaching. They see a turn to narrative as a return to the form of the biblical text and the form of early Christian preaching. They are not “anti-propositional” nor adverse to ideas. They examine, however, the best means of communicating truth — narrative and propositional.
Not all preachers will come to consider themselves “narrative preachers.” There is not one, however, who would not profit from a careful reading of these two volumes.
Samuel T. Logan Jr., ed. The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1986), 463pp., $16.95, hb. Distributed by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Preachers seeking a revitalization of their preaching ministries will welcome the publication of this significant volume from Presbyterian and Reformed. Edited by Samuel T. Logan Jr., Dean at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, The Preacher and Preaching is a seminal collection of essays on the purpose and practice of preaching.
Written by conservative Reformed evangelicals, and reflecting this tradition, the book nevertheless transcends denominational boundaries. Several of the contributors, such as J. I. Packer, James M. Boice, and R. C. Sproul, will be known to most, if not all, American evangelicals. Whether they are engaged in teaching or in a parish ministry, all are known as preachers.
Divided into three sections, “The Man,” “The Message,” and “The Manner,” the book seeks to be a comprehensive treatise on preaching. It seeks to recover the rich tradition of Reformed preaching.
To that end the first section of the book is most helpful. Together with the introduction, the four chapters of this section constitute a powerful summons to personal dedication to the preaching task.
The introduction by J. I. Packer, “Why Preach?,” is a powerful essay-and probably sufficient reason for purchasing the volume. The essay defies summary, itself being a quick but thorough apology for the preaching task. Packer, the inimitable Anglican evangelical now in Canada, moves quickly through the reasons against preaching to a powerful defense of the preacher’s role and purpose. Central to this task are several biblical convictions Packer explicates with customary zeal and insight.
Another particularly promising chapter is James Montgomery Boice on “The Preacher and Scholarship.” Boice, Pastor at the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, identifies this topic as a concern “for which I am nearly always ready to go on a crusade.” This chapter is a crusade via essay, calling its reader to scholarship in the service of scripture.
Other chapters deal with the phenomenology of preaching, exegesis, hermeneutics, and the relation of preaching and systematic theology. Still others deal with the form of the sermonic message and the manner of powerful preaching. Though some essays are somewhat repetitive, this does not detract greatly from the value of the book.
The volume does not seek to be a survey of preaching or an introductory text in homiletics. It is a creative and generous selection of essays with a clarion call to the recovery of the preaching task in the twentieth century.
1. Stephen Crites, “The Narrative Quality of Experience,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 39 (1971), p. 291.
2. Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980).
Book Notes
Earl F. Palmer, The Enormous Exception: Meeting Christ in The Sermon on the Mount (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1986), 151pp., $12.95, hb.
Palmer, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Berkeley, California, has long been known for his powerful pulpit ministry and insightful preaching. The Enormous Exception is a contemporary commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. Several of the chapters deal specifically with the Lord’s Prayer.
The book grew out of Palmer’s own sermonic struggles with the Sermon on the Mount and his experience teaching a class on the Sermon at New College, Berkeley.
Lewis B. Smedes, Choices: Making Right Decisions in a Complex World (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), 121pp., $13.95, hb.
Clear thinking about moral choices is Smedes’ goal as he explores the meaning of morality in today’s world. “Morality is all about how we treat people,” suggests Smedes, Professor of Theology and Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.
The book is not a catalogue of rights and wrongs. It is, rather, a serious investigation of how moral choices can be made in a distinctively Christian context. Neither lengthy nor superficial, the volume should inform preachers as they assist their congregations in moral decision-making.
Ernest J. Lewis, Light for the Journey: Living the Ten Commandments (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1986), 161pp., $12.95, hb.
Light for the Journey represents Lewis’ interaction with the Ten Commandments and his understanding of these commandments as God’s guide to purposeful living. Lewis, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a renewal leader within the Presbyterian General Assembly and recently served as director of the Presbyterian Congress on Renewal. Discussion questions close each chapter, making the volume useful for discussion groups. Preachers will welcome his sermonic investigations of the commandments.
Duncan S. Ferguson, Biblical Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986), 220pp., pb.
Preachers looking for a helpful review of hermeneutics and a survey of recent developments in the field will welcome this significant addition. Ferguson deals with the history, methods, and implementation of biblical hermeneutics in a comprehensive survey.
Ranging from Origen to Ricoeur, the author presents the scope of biblical interpretation as a function of the church. Ferguson is currently Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Religious Studies at Alaska Pacific University.
Geoffrey Barlow, ed., Vintage Muggeridge: Religion and Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 192pp. $7.95, pb.
Preachers familiar with Malcolm Muggeridge will welcome this addition to the Muggeridge material now available. Those unfamiliar with Muggeridge have even more reason to welcome this volume.
Vintage Muggeridge is the best introduction to the creative and significant thought of this British Christian and former editor of Punch. Selections in this volume range from a sermon preached at St. Giles, The Great High Kirk of Scotland, to dialogues broadcast on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line.”
Paul D. Duke, Irony in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 222pp., $12.95, pb.
Few preachers resist the temptation to linger in the Gospel of John as the textual basis for preaching. Those looking for fresh exegetical insights will find this illuminating volume a helpful guide.
With the help of literary tools of interpretation, Duke, now pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church near St. Louis, turns to consider the role and meaning of irony within the Johannine gospel. Irony, suggests the author, was utilized by Jesus and the gospel writer to bring certain powerful truths to view. Irony, avers Duke, “invites the reader to abide with an ascended Christ and to see from that height what a world that loves darkness will not see.” A worthy perch for a preacher.

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