Why Are Storytellers Often Bad Preachers and Preachers Often Bad Storytellers?

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This subject deserves more attention, but consider this a timid foray into a field with tall grass and various lurking beasts all of which this adventurer cannot hope to see.

A friend recently bemoaned the apparent problem that many of our leading theologians are disconnected from good storytelling and that many of our leading storytellers are disconnected from good theology. I share that concern. Of course, there are notable exceptions and I think this might be changing. But it is, in my mind, a persistent problem. If you’ll allow the point, I’ll offer some thoughts at least on why I think many young preachers might be disconnected from good storytelling today and offer a couple of suggestions from an amateur, armchair quarterback.

First, let me announce myself as an advocate of Theology. There is so much hostility toward Theology (especially among “enlightened creatives”) that one might assume it is the root of all evil, instead of the essential study of the living God. So, I speak as a friend to young preachers who are concerned with truth, who are concerned with seeking God in his Word and with communicating the Word of God well. This isn’t going to be another missive from an artistic apostle of Doubt-as-Creed, hammering his 95 thesis of why Theology is, like, so dumb and stuff, to the wall of the Witlessburg Cathedral for Zeitgeist Studies and Hugs. With that understood, onward.

I think we do well to interpret Scripture by Scripture and to let the Bible teach us itself how to be read. The Bible is masterfully organized and profoundly coherent. It is best read together and understood within its own framework. To illustrate from an opposite, if we try to assume our own cultural and literary framework when we approach the Bible, we will project onto the text so much that we will disguise much of the reality in front of us from ourselves. We do this without knowing it, usually. So, in that sense, it’s helpful (maybe essential) to read the Scriptures as they come to us. Where we may err in this is that we fail to recognize the very basic reality that the Bible is a book, not only the “book of books,” but a book of books. When I read one good book, it helps me understand every other good book I will read. There is a momentum to reading with understanding that comes from accumulation of familiarity with the material of those experiences. Words. Words and all their different kinds of coherent combinations. We must find them and get to know them if we hope to understand the Bible. We do well to let the Bible guide us in how to read it, but we must not think we can understand everything in the Bible without reading outside the Bible, widely and seriously.

We should read from the biblical era (treasure troves of ancient Near-Eastern lit, also Homer, Gilgamesh, etc.), but also in the forms the Bible is written in: poetry, history, epistle, etc. Most people know this, of course, but it never hurts to repeat it. Do you know how much of Scripture includes poetry as a form? It’s what scientists like to call a majorly-humungous amount.

Read inside and read outside the Bible to understand better what’s inside with faithfulness.

The other observation comes with a musical example. It’s a tale oft-told that if you want to “be like” one of your musical heroes, it’s important not only to listen to them, but to listen to who they listened to. So, if you want to understand and appreciate (or imitate) Bob Dylan, you must listen to Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, etc. Because these were the people who influenced him. Go back in the ancestry to get a better picture.

The same is true for many preachers. Many young preachers enjoy reading the writing of famous preachers of our own and past eras. They devour every one of the latest books by the preachers and eat up their theology and their books about the Bible. That’s fine, of course. Great, maybe. But I find there’s something weird happening when that is all that’s being read. Not only is there a danger in being caught in a subculture of self-confirming, partial-picture narratives, but there’s also the danger of missing what the very preachers you are reading have had. My point is that many of the truly great preachers of every era were not people who only read other preachers. Part of what made them great communicators was a facility with language, an understanding that storytelling was at the heart of what moves people. In our own language, they were rich in Shakespeare, full of Milton, well-versed in verses outside the canon.

My advice is to do what the musician does. Go beyond the artist/preacher you admire and go their own sources. I think we will all be richer if you do, because you will be richer.

Finally, thank you, preachers, for speaking to us the Word of God. I know your job is often hard and heavy and that the enemy loves to see you discouraged. May God our Father bless you from on high and give to you an enduring courage.


7 Comments

  1. Laure Hittle

    This is very important. Good points about understanding what influenced other thinkers, theologians, and preachers. The same can be said of storytellers, of course—read MacDonald and he illuminates Lewis.

    i’ve long been convinced that our theology shapes our every impulse, attitude, and behaviour. What we believe (not just think we believe) about G-d finds its way into all that we do. And as storytellers, our theology shapes our stories even when we have no intention of including a clear Christ-figure into our narrative, even if the idea of story as allegory or even parable insults our sense of artistic integrity. We create worlds shot through with whatever captivates us. May that something be G-d in His mystery and grandeur.

    To me, theology and storytelling are very intertwined. i would love a good (ongoing) discussion about this.

    (The Witlessburg Cathedral for Zeitgeist Studies and Hugs made me laugh out loud. Awesome.)

  2. Brenda Branson

    Well said, Sam, and so important for pastors, teachers, and parents to learn and practice.

  3. David

    Once upon a time I attended a church whose pastor preached weekly on the doctrine of Holy Scripture, without once expounding the morning’s text. That continued for a year, until, at the suggestion of the elders, the pastor took an extended sabbatical.

    After he returned he preached two stunning series in succession: one on Ruth, one on John. The hobby horse he’d ridden to exhaustion and then beaten to death was nowhere in sight; and on foot, he tracked the narrative movements of those books with all the skill of an Aragorn. It was awesome.

  4. Joseph Barbier

    I think perhaps this goes back to the fact that there are various complementary gifts given by the holy spirit to the different members of the body of Christ.

    With community, the yarn-spinner and the truth-speaker are in unity. They need each other.

  5. Kimberlee Conway Ireton

    Alan Jacobs (in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction) introduced me to the idea of “reading upstream.” Instead of reading Tolkien or Austen knock-offs, read what they read. Of course, I already do this with non-fiction: as a rather obsessive lover of footnotes, each book I read yields at least a half dozen more to delve into. But the thought of doing it with fiction was new to me. So now, when a fiction writer I admire mentions a book that shaped/influenced/captivated him or her, it goes on the To-Read List.

    And while I cannot call myself a preacher, I have preached a handful of times. I think part of what makes me able to write good sermons is that I am first and foremost a writer of stories. Stories and sermons really aren’t that different–at least, they don’t have to be…because ultimately, they’re both in service to, and in the service of, Truth.

    Thanks for these reflections, Sam. (By the way, Eighth Day Books sells a list of the books on Flannery O’Connor’s shelves when she died. Who knew?)

  6. Canaan Bound

    Kimberlee, are you referencing the Eighth Day Books in Wichita, KS? Because I’m in Wichita and I’d love to meet another rabbit nearby. 🙂

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