Story and Sermon

Posted on June 29, 2013

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As part of my ongoing studies, I have been spending a lot of time reading about the power of stories. Robert McAfee Brown, reflecting on the tale of David and Nathan in 2 Samuel 12, writes that:

“The power of a story is a power over which we do not have ultimate control, since it can catch us off guard, tell us things about ourselves we would prefer not to know, and liberate us to move in directions we would never have imagined.”

Writer and critic John Gardner explains it this way in The Art of Fiction:

“Great fiction can make us laugh or cry, in much the way that life can, and it gives us at least the powerful illusion that when we do so we’re doing pretty much the same things we do when we laugh at Uncle Herman’s jokes, or cry at funerals. Somehow the endlessly recombining elements that make up works of fiction have their roots hooked, it seems, into the universe, or at least into the hearts of human beings. Somehow the fictional dream persuades us that it’s a clear, sharp, edited version of the dream all around us. Whatever our doubts, we pick up books at train stations, or withdraw into our studies and write them; and the world – or so we imagine – comes alive.”

Stories invite participation, mirror our lives, and parallel our experience; and in this way, stories enrich our lives. Unfortunately much Christian conversation does not do this, rather it is an attempt to explain things. We want to forget that even our best attempts addressing something like, say, the Incarnation of Christ, remain 99% mystery. We  elevate the 1% to proof-positive  because doing so eliminates the need for faith. If we know our statements and principles are true, then the world makes sense to us because we’ve figured it all out. We can stop thinking about things.

But maybe we can stop trying so hard to explain God. Not because we have it all figured out, but because we’ll never have it all figured out. Maybe this is what faith is about. Madeline L’Engle writes:

“How do you explain it? You don’t. Nor can you explain it away. It happened. And I give it the same kind of awed faith that I do the Annunciation or the Ascension: there is much that we cannot understand, but our lack of comprehension neither negates nor eliminates it.” (Walking on Water)

 There are some things that can be addressed in a straight, systematic, explanatory way. I don’t want to abandon the historical-critical approach just yet. (Ok, it’s not exactly my cup of tea, but I don’t want everyone to stop doing traditional theology.) The trick is to understand the proper form for each subject. Some subjects work well in systematic theology (the Church, catechesis, evangelism, ethics, sacraments). Other subjects might be best bounded in poetry (conversion, the beauty of creation) or stories (suffering, redemption, transformation), still others in song, dance, painting, jokes, lament, tweet, or barbaric yawp. And of course, many of these subjects would benefit from a wide treatment of forms. For instance, what could we learn about the sacraments when we pour our understanding into a sonnet, a play, a sermon, and a limerick?

I have seen preachers drift toward more explanatory writing because of the demands of their jobs. It is easier to create a sermon series by reading commentaries, studying the original languages, and quoting a favorite theologian, than it is to wrestle a divine mystery into the limits of our language. Not to put all the responsibility on harried preachers, I must note that people have come to expect a sermon that explains the text, and probably prefer it, because it means that they don’t have to wrestle with the text themselves. It is the dominant, if unspoken, form of the sermon: explanation of the text, with poetry and stories serving to illustrate some great principle or point, any change from this is going to take courage from a preacher or writer.

What we need are better storytellers in the church. We need better poets. We need risk takers. We need people who are will to challenge the form of the sermon, people who will occasionally tell as story and have faith that the story is enough, it does not need explanation  The church needs preachers who can read the commentary, dive into the language, live the text, find the resonance with the community, find the right form for the occasion, (not take themselves so seriously) then speak out in love.

Flannery O’Conner writes that, “The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully.” (Mystery and Manners)

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Posted in: Church, risk, Theology