catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 14 :: 2010.07.09 — 2010.07.22


Preaching as storytelling

Or, how not to apply the Bible to your life

Preachers craft sermons. We slave over texts, titles and tone, and we wake up in the middle of the night to jot down notes, because we want to preach sermons that will stir the imagination about God and his work in the world, capture hearts up into the Biblical story and transform lives. But is this even possible in a postmodern world, or do we toil in vein? Will people leave our churches transformed by the gospel, or will they come away with little more than clichés they already know and a set of tips and techniques for Christian living? The answer to these questions, I think, depends on what we do with the biblical story.

In an attempt to make the Bible relevant to a generation that is in mass exodus from the Church, many contemporary preachers are accustomed to asking questions of the Bible that it never intended to answer. Particularly these two: What can we get out of this text? And how can we apply it to our lives? This relatively new style of preaching, I will argue, conceals the biblical narrative and stifles the development of Christian identity. As a result, folks leave our churches with tips, techniques and clichés, but no one leaves transformed. More to the point, abstracting from the Bible principles that can be applied to our lives is boring, and still people leave our churches in droves. Why we invented this style of preaching is an interesting story in itself, but first let me introduce a much earlier style that we will call theological preaching.


Preaching as storytelling

Theological preaching is primarily narrative preaching. For centuries prior to the modern era, Christians preached the Bible as the narrative history of the world. According to Hans Frei, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, narrative preaching moves in a different direction than getting something out of the Bible. Contemporary preachers ask: “How does the bible apply to my life?”  The answers to this question can be identified by our own thoughts, experiences, relationships, interests, family history and so forth. By contrast, writes Frei, the “direction of biblical interpretation” for early Christian preachers “was that of incorporating extra-biblical thought, experience and reality into the one real word detailed and made accessible by the biblical story.” Far from getting something out of the Bible that can be applied to their lives, pre-modern parishioners were encouraged to let the biblical story get deep into them — shut up in their bones — and identify themselves in the story as well. This kind of preaching provided the germ for early Christian theological reflection.

The God of the Bible is a personal God; thus, like all other persons, God is known through story. In his essay “Believing the Word,” Phillip Cary suggests that we know other persons primarily by believing the stories they tell about themselves. By contrast, he challenges a way of knowing other persons that attempts to read outward expressions — like stories — “as signs of inner states,” because it renders “irrelevant whether the outward expressions were true: all that would matter is that [the expressions] conveyed the persons thoughts or feelings indirectly.” The latter picture, says Cary, has an “aura of violence” because it does not respect the speaker as a person who, as such, makes ethical claims on her hearer as a speaker of truth. Yet this is more or less what we do when we trade narrative preaching of the scriptures for getting something out of the Bible that can be applied to our lives. We do violence to the Bible when, instead of allowing the outward expression to speak for itself, we try to look behind the text for the “deeper meaning,” as though the principles we abstract from the Bible are somehow more important than the biblical story itself.

In A Primer for Christian Doctrine, Jonathan Wilson tells of a small-town bar where the regulars have heard each other’s jokes so often that they no longer tell jokes. Instead, they just assign a number to each joke, so that when someone wants to get a laugh he simply calls out a number. Then, everyone in the bar remembers the joke assigned to the number, and they all erupt into laughter. One night, an out-of-towner who stumbles into the bar observes this odd phenomenon and decides to join in the fun. He calls out, “Number five!” but no one laughs. Finally one of the regulars breaks the silence: “This guy just doesn’t know how to tell a joke.” This is something like what happens when we try to get something out of a text of scripture. From a safe distance we reach into the stories, but all we can come up with are clichés that we already know. We reduce God to the sum of a list of his attributes. Not that it’s bad to call out God’s numbers: saying that God is love, God is omniscient, omnipotent or anything else. The trouble is that when all we do is call out God’s numbers, pretty soon we’re saying, “Number one!” or ,“Number six!” but we’ve largely forgotten from whence they came. “God is love,” soon becomes an empty platitude, a powerless cliché rather than a powerful story.

The problem is that trying to get something out of a text just is not how we read narratives. A well-told story can never be reduced to a moral. The meaning of Les Misérables is not simply the general lesson that prisoners were maltreated in 19th century France, or even that grace can be granted whether or not it is accepted. The characters and episodes are indispensable from the story. Likewise, no principle or lesson that we abstract from the Bible is a substitute for being drawn up into the biblical story of God’s work in the world.

Take, for instance, the Ten Commandments.  Many contemporary Christians preach the Ten Commandments, not as part of the story of the God who has called a particular people to be set apart, but as a list of timeless and abstract laws of morality, which, if we can see behind them, give us some insight into the attributes of God. But notice that God does not begin the dialogue with the first commandment. Rather, God first identifies himself: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” (Ex. 2:20). Likewise, theological interpretation will not skip ahead to ask how the Ten Commandments apply to our lives, but as with any story, will inquire about the characters. So, first: Who is speaking? The most straightforward answer, of course, is that God is speaking. But this is not just some amorphous, unidentified divinity, like the “Higher Power” of Alcoholics Anonymous or John Hick’s the “Real” — this is “the LORD” God. Okay, maybe that’s not much help, but a study in some basic biblical Hebrew may be enlightening. When “the LORD” appears in the Bible in all capitals like that, it doesn’t just mean ruler or master, like some electronics-store middle-manager strutting around reminding everyone, “I’m the boss” (and thereby proving he’s not really). Rather, the LORD is God’s name.

The name is revealed to Moses at a brush fire. First Moses receives his vocation: he will lead his people, the Israelites, to freedom by the power of the God of their ancestors. But how can he convince them to uproot their families and walk away from the only life they’ve ever known? Who will follow this unknown God of the desert? If Moses cannot convince the Israelites that they are in good hands with him, they will suffer at the hands of Pharaoh forever. “Tell them” comes the voice from the bush “that I AM WHO I AM has sent you.” The name, which is translated “LORD” in most English versions of the Bible, is related to the Hebrew verb to be.  The English transliteration, YHWH, reveals how difficult the name is to pronounce. This is precisely the point: the LORD resists being spoken about, figured out, tied down or applied. YHWH is the Hebrew un-name for God. The Lord does not stop with his name, however, but describes himself further: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Now we have not only a name, but a history to connect this God with. God reveals himself to us the way we reveal ourselves to others, through story.

Moses confronts Pharaoh in the name of the LORD — I AM WHO I AM — and demands that Pharaoh let his people go. But Pharaoh is a hard man, having no pity for his slaves. So the Lord plagues Pharaoh and all the people of Egypt until the torment is too great to bear and Pharaoh releases the people of Israel into the desert to worship their God. But Pharaoh goes back on his promise. He immediately deploys troops to seize the Israelite slaves before they escape. With the Red Sea spread out before them like an endless horizon and Pharaoh’s armies quickly gaining ground, Israel’s emancipation looks like a lost cause. But the LORD has not forgotten them. In an arresting display of power, he splits the Red Sea right down the middle and causes the waters to dam up into colossal walls. The people of Israel walk across on dry earth, while Pharaoh’s armies are swept away by the torrential waves of the returning sea.

See how the narrative is more powerful than principles we abstract from it? Instead of applying something to our lives, we identify with the people of Israel — enslaved to sin and death we await our redemption. We do not find a vague divinity who offer us tips and techniques for Christian living, but the LORD God, who takes sides with his people against their oppressors. Which brings us to the next question: Who are these people to whom the commandments are given?

Again there is a straightforward answer: the commandments were given to the people of Israel, and again this will not be enough. In the Bible, Israel is always more than mere biology. For, as Paul says, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6). Moreover, there are those who are not from the bloodline of Jacob, but who, by the blood of Christ, are members of the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). Thus Paul urges the Church at Ephesus to remember that they were once “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise,” but that now they “who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12-13). Carnal Israel is a type of the Church: she foreshadows, and is ultimately fulfilled in, the community of faith in Jesus Christ, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles: “The Israel of God.” In the same way, both Israel and the Church are types of Christ. Israel foreshadows his coming in their Temple, rituals and sacrifices, and the Church echoes Christ, making disciples of the nations and baptizing them in his name. So now we have noticed two characteristic of theological interpretation: it’s both narrative and typological.   


Typological preaching

Typological preaching is what made possible the development of Christian identity prior to the modern era. Typology is the study of representations or symbols. Think of how the word type is used: If we say that a certain behavior is typical of a person, we mean that that behavior is a representation or symbol of her character. When we tell of a single achievement that represents someone’s success, we say that it typifies her career. Or, when one uses a typewriter, she imprints letters onto a paper. The letters on the paper may be a bit fuzzy or shadowy — not quite as real as the type in the typewriter — but they’re a representation of it.

In this way, biblical typology often ties together the Old and New Testaments: So David, the great king of Israel, is a type of the King of Kings. As Moses gives the Torah to the people of Israel, so Christ fulfills the Law on Israel’s behalf. Or again, the ritual sacrifices of the Old Testament are typological of the ultimate sacrifice, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world — like the typewriter, only the shadow comes before the real thing. This is how the apostle Paul uses the Greek word typos: “Adam” he says, “was a type of the one who was to come” (Rom. 5:14). Or again, as the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness, “they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (I Cor. 1:4). So typology extends even to inanimate objects.

Indeed, extending is precisely what typology does — it extends the biblical narrative from Old Testament to New, from shadowy to real, from nonliving to fully alive. It extends far enough even to reach us, so that, just as the patriarchs prefigure Christ, our lives too are reflections and echoes of the biblical story. The best example of this is from the Jewish Passover liturgy. To this day, Jews say “it was in haste that we came out of Egypt,” as though it were them standing on the banks of the Red Sea — and of course, it was. The biblical story is their story. Their lives are identified in the narrative. See, we cannot apply the Bible to our lives, because we come to the Bible to learn what our lives are. It is the Bible that defines our lives. This is how the Bible is different from other stories: it extends to every episode of history and every aspect of our lives until it ends up swallowing up the entire world. The Bible does not, like other stories, “make us forget about our own reality for a few hours,” writes literary critic Erich Auerbach, instead it “seeks to overcome our reality: we…feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history.”

Applying the Bible to our lives is the opposite of typologically finding our lives in the biblical narrative. First, because applying something to your life is not the way to read a narrative. Good readers — readers of Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare or Whitman — never apply what they read to their lives. The Bible is no exception. After all, application is what we do with techniques. This is one way contemporary American Christianity mimics consumerist culture: when we apply the Bible to our lives, we treat it as a book of techniques for getting what we want. But the Bible is not a book of techniques to be applied — it is a story to be lived. Further, applying the Bible to our lives presupposes that we come to the Bible already knowing what our lives are. By contrast, theological interpretation assumes that our lives can be identified only as reflections of the biblical characters themselves. We can apply the Bible to our lives only in a world that has not been swallowed up by the biblical narrative, where the Bible is abstracted from the real world of our families, jobs and loves.

So, I’ve got good news: You don’t have to do it! You don’t have to get anything out of the Bible, and you don’t have to apply it to your life. The Bible itself doesn’t command us to, and there is little precedent for it in the Christian Tradition. Too many Christians lose interest in reading the Bible because they can’t seem to get anything out of it. Good news! You don’t have to. Instead you get to just read the Bible for what it is: an endlessly fascinating story of betrayal and forgiveness, violence and redemption, deceit, sex, conflict and love, spun out by dynamic characters — scoundrels and saints alike.  Everything you need for life and godliness is in there. So instead of trying to get something out of the Bible, you’re free just to let the story get into you. Before long, you will begin to identify yourself as a character in the story. That’s what’s so wonderful: when we preach the Bible theologically, everything we are trying to get at by applying the Bible to our lives gets thrown in as well. Becoming characters in the story, we learn how to live as freed slaves, as servants of a King, and as daughters and sons of a Father who has welcomed us home — all without losing the narrative in which those characters are players. Why would we want to preach the Bible any other way?


Toward a Historical Diagnosis

Sometime around the eighteenth century, though, many preachers stopped preaching the Bible as the story of the world in which we identify ourselves as characters. Faced with the development of secular history and modern science — which they were convinced no longer allowed them to believe the Biblical narrative, because it didn’t meet the modern positivistic standard of truth claims provable by scientific method — eighteenth century liberal theologians looked for another way to hang on to Christian faith. They had a real crisis on their hands: Would they be able to find an alternative basis for their faith, or would science trump religion in the battle for our imagination? In the end, modern liberal theologians turned to experience as the basis for faith.  For them, religions were diverse expressions of a common Divine experience. The Bible, then, was no longer seen as the story of the world, (the newly invented discipline of secular history laid claim to that title), but, like all other sacred texts, as one unique expression of the universal Divine experience. The result is that the biblical narrative was reduced to morals — eternal truths about God and human nature. This move effectively reversed the direction of interpretation: instead of finding their lives in the world of the biblical narrative, hearers were handed biblical principles abstracted from the biblical narrative which could be applied to their world.

For their part, the evangelicals who have made this liberal turn to experience (which is most of them, I think) have done so less for theological reasons than for practical ones. Evangelical preachers are trying to make the Bible relevant to a media-saturated generation for whom reading stories is an all-but-forgotten art. But these preachers fail to recognize just how boring the project of relevance is. To again use an illustration that comes from Cary, imagine that you really love math and that you have to sit through a math class in which the teacher drones on about how relevant math is to your life, how applicable in day-to-day situations. True though that may be, you don’t care. You’re bored stiff. What you want to hear about is math! Herein lies the folly of contemporary preaching: we have at our disposal a fascinating and beautiful story — the gospel — which has the power to convey to us God’s transforming grace, draw us up into it and teach us who we are. But instead of identifying ourselves in the gospel, we have been content just to make the Bible relevant by getting something out of it that can be applied to our lives. Not only has this move eclipsed the biblical narrative and disrupted the development Christian identity, it’s also boring. It does not captivate our hearts and it does not transform us — only the gospel can do that.

I am not suggesting that the Bible has nothing to say to us, or that it has no meaning for our lives. (Quite to the contrary, I have said that it is our lives that are void of meaning without the Bible. It’s the preachers who apply the Bible to our lives that assume our lives have a priori meaning apart from the Bible.) Nor am I suggesting that we go back to a pre-modern understanding of the Bible that espouses the biblical narrative as an alternative to secular history, as though we could trick ourselves into believing that God sent a monsoon to cover the whole world or stopped the rotation of the Earth to give the Israelite army a few more hours of daylight. Far too much water has passed under that bridge. What I am suggesting is that if we are to recover the power of preaching in the postmodern world, we must reclaim the biblical story as the one true story of the world — a story that extends from creation to final consummation and even to our own lives. We must re-learn to tell the story — tell it over and over again until the events and characters of secular history and the episodes of our days are properly understood as shadows and reflections of biblical events and figures.

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