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Stick with the Story

by Richard Lischer

Richard Lischer is professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. He is the author of The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Word that Moved America (Oxford University Press). This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 26, 2005. pp. 10-11. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Every day, Christians are sorting through their five options and claiming an identity as followers of Jesus Christ. On Sunday the preacher helps them in this task by means of a poetic activity. The preacher makes (poiein) words, approximately 1,500 of them on a Sunday morning, 3 million in a career, and over the long haul of ministry speaks into existence an alternative world.

Theologian John Snow says the pastoral counselor helps fashion a world in which Christian symbols make sense. This is also true of the preacher, who Sunday after Sunday patiently and often unspectacularly crafts a world in which the personages, events and radical claims of the gospel ring true, a world in which the risen Christ is a genuine factor in the daily lives of his followers. The sermon’s narrative runs continuously like the old serial matinees at the movies, but the preacher experiences the sermon as an artistic and religious endeavor that must be repeated every week.

Generations ago, G. K. Chesterton was promoting the gospel to an industrial age that conceived of the world as a self-sustaining machine. In a delightful passage in Orthodoxy Chesterton insists that even if life does proceed with a predictable pattern, that does not mean that God is not active as a creator:

It might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen . . . in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grownup people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy.

Preaching is one of God’s "do it again" activities. The sermon is a repetitive practice that has changed little in 20 centuries, but it is also a new creation that no one could produce on a weekly basis were it not for the Almighty’s "eternal appetite of infancy."

When the adopted child repeatedly asks her parents to recount the events surrounding her adoption, the story must remain the same. And woe to the one who introduces omissions or changes in the sacred formula. "And then of all the babies in the orphanage, you chose me, right?"

Could parents ever tire of telling that story? Would they ever dare substitute another for it? If telling God’s story strikes us as repetitious, that is because it is. It is repetitious the way the Eucharist is repetitious, the way a favorite melody or gestures of love are repetitious, the way the mercies of God that come unbidden every day are repetitious.

When the community gathers around its table, one of its representatives narrates a particular story, either of deliverance from Egypt or of a Passover meal laden with the solemn promise of a new covenant. The community does not substitute a new formula or a better story for the sake of innovation but recites this story as faithfully as possible. "Then of all the peoples on earth," say the Jews every Sabbath, "you chose us, right?"

Such stories do not entertain, they do something far better. They sustain. They do not inform, they form those who hear and share them for a life of faithfulness.

Preaching participates in this age-old chain of repetition, sustenance and formation. How is it then that we claim the sermon as a work of art, given the unoriginality of its basic components and the conventionality of its expression? If one’s notion of art is limited to what is new, preaching the old story is not art. If the idea of art is restricted to poetic self-expression, then preaching the church’s gospel in public does not qualify. If art means inspirational stories and pretty metaphors, there is so much in the Bible that is neither inspirational nor pretty that biblical preaching, at least, will probably not be mistaken for art.

But if your idea of art is something the creature, who knows she is a creature, sings back to the Creator with something of the Creator’s own pizzazz (as Annie Dillard put it), then preaching has the potential, at least, to be more like art and less like an endowed lecture series. The preacher makes a small, shaped offering of truth back to the Truth itself. If you think of art as part discipline, part craft and part mystery we may be on to something.

For the Presbyterian minister in Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, preaching the gospel is something like another highly repetitive activity, fly fishing. Both entail elements of art, beauty, patience and mystery. The narrator remembers, "My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things -- trout as well as eternal salvation -- come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.

Grace comes by art and art does not come easy because God is not clumsy. God never blunders onto the scene with obviousness but is always draped by a story, an ordinary experience or a metaphor. As Barth says, "God is so unassuming in the world."

Many preachers, however, tell stories (note the plural) as if they served the purpose of making the Bible more interesting. Preachers have a sixth sense for what makes for a good story. A good story is touching, funny, marked by conflict (but not too much conflict) and satisfying in its resolution. Some preachers then repackage the gospel into stories that satisfy these criteria. Sermon stories "illustrate" the truth or substitute for those dusty old tales in the Bible that no one understands anyway.

Sermon illustrations often live a life separate from the theological truth they are meant to illumine. They enjoy a timeless and disembodied existence on the Internet, where we encounter them as fileable nuggets of other people’s experience. You can borrow or buy other preachers’ illustrations without even bothering with text, context or personal involvement in the hard work of discovery. The stories are usually about famous people or the enduring stuff of universal experience, but they cannot satisfy the congregation’s deepest longing, which is to explore its own life before God in as concrete a fashion as possible.

As everyone knows but few admit, the tacit purpose of sermon illustrations is emotional gratification -- pleasure. Since Aristotle, we’ve known there is something pleasurable about mimesis, the imitation of life as it is portrayed in drama, literature and even sermons, especially when the mimetic activity accurately portrays our most cherished or fearful experiences. Its pleasure is enhanced when the illustration is skillfully yoked to a familiar theme and yields an easily digested moral lesson. That story performs this function is a judgment not on mimesis or pleasure in itself, but on our understanding of the gospel as inherently abstract when, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, the most concrete of all realities is that of the person before the cross.

Some narrative preachers treat the gospel as though it were one of several species under the genus "story," when in fact the Bible’s narrative of salvation sets the standard for what a story should be. Only by light of the gospel do we discover our true beginning, middle and end.

How far we preachers have traveled from the true ground of narrative preaching. We tell stories by reason of our humanity. In the pulpit, however, preachers tell the story because God got involved with a particular people in a specific time and place, and that involvement generated a history in which we are privileged to participate by faith, baptism and the common life. We are not generic storytellers. We are nailed to a particular plot. The preacher’s task is not to tell bunches of substitute stories, which in the end only deflect our attention from the searing reality of the person before God, but to tell that one story, the one that precedes the general category of "story," and to tell it in such a way that it makes our stories permeable to it.


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