Preaching comes with a set of all too common difficulties that give the most experienced preacher trouble. One of these happens to be preaching through narrative passages. The reason for this has to do with much of the Bible being narrative. Narratives are anything that tells or presents a story, be it by text, picture, performance, or a combination of these. Hence novels, plays, films, comic strips, etc., are narratives.
But there are several other reasons narrative is so difficult to preach as well. First, we treat biblical narrative as special literature, making it awkward at times because the stories are “SO” long. Second, the clues of biblical narrative are not apparent to us, though we know our own narratives (i.e. movies). Third, we find it difficult to distinguish between the incidental and the intentional. Fourth, we have to learn to get the facts to harmonize the history. Which makes the preaching event feel like we are just retelling the story takes a certain and seeking ways in which to apply it today. Fifth, Biblical Narratives are often easy to misunderstand. Many times, bridging the cultural divide of previous millennia is difficult to do in a world that is Western and increasingly post-modern. Here are several methods I use to bring a narrative passage of scripture to life.
1. Key in on the Meaning of the Narrative:
It is tempting to think that preaching a narrative is just a retelling of the old story, but it is more than that. A narrative is a literary genre that builds its sentences and paragraphs around discourse, plot, setting, characters, and scenes. Grasping the real nature of narrative is central for an accurate interpretation of the biblical text! Once this has been done, the text-driven preacher needs to get a hold of the historical context, this involves understanding the:
- Discourse: appears in the form of stylized speech, where one character repeats a part or whole of what another character has said.
- Plot: The arrangement of events in the story. The plot encompasses the united sequence of events that follow a cause-effect order; these build to a climax and involve the reader in the narrative world of the story.
- Setting: Can be geographical, temporal, social or historical; it will provide the basic context, which plot, and characters develop.
- Characters: The depiction of major and minor figures in the narrative. Also, characters can be revealed as flat or round. Flat characters are two-dimensional in that they are relatively uncomplicated and do not change throughout the course of a work. By contrast, round characters are complex and undergo development, sometimes in ways surprising to the reader.
- Scene: The actions of the story in sequence, each one presenting what took place at a particular place, setting, or time.
2. Key in on the Language of the Narrative:
This means looking at the narrative hermeneutics. Again, we are talking about plot development. This time we are looking at the twists and turns of the narrative; we are looking at foreshowing within the narrative. But we should never think that the sequences of events are the only way in which narratives inform their story, the narrator helps us understand this point. Also in reading a narrative, we must be on the lookout for metaphysical ships in the narrative. Are there changes in the major character or characters? Do they start out one way and end another?
3. Key in on the Rhetoric of the Narrative:
When it comes to narrative, there are times we must pay close attention to things emphasized or repeated. We do this in order to notice the plot vectors. What are plot vectors? Remember your math class. They are, in a sense, taking a vector line to a portion of the narrative and allowing the vector line through the narrative in order to get a direction of where the narrative is going. Also, we should seek to notice the emotional content of a passage of scripture. We miss this at times because the passage of scripture has become really familiar to us. We look at the situation through the characters eyes brings a visceral element to your teaching. If they can feel the emotions of the characters in your sermon they will identify with the truth you are teaching.
Book recommendations on the subject of preaching a narrative text:
Steven W. Smith. Recapturing the Voice of God: Shaping Sermons like Scripture. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015.
Leland Ryken. Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1993.
Robert Alter. The Art of Biblical Narrative, 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books, 2011.
Rodrick Sweet is a PhD student in preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is also a Teaching Fellow for Southwestern’s Darrington Prison Program.