Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Power of a Good Story, Well-Told

One of life's great pleasures for me is to read well-written books. I may care little about the topic or the subject, but good writing is compelling, in and of itself. Likewise, a fascinating figure or event can be rendered so inadequately that it becomes boring, and the details of the story itself are obscured behind turgid or unintelligible prose.

I am, as most who know me know, an avid devourer of biographies. I would rather read biography than anything else. The human story is compelling to me. There are some fantastic biographers out there: Manchester, Massie and McCullough come to mind (wonderful for alliteration). Right now, I am positively engrossed by Massie's huge biography of Tsar Peter the Great. I am waiting with baited breath for the third volume of Manchester's exhaustive work on Churchill, entitled The Last Lion. Manchester fell ill and the work had to be finished by another, but the man was hand-picked by Manchester and worked alongside him, so I am hoping not to be disappointed.

Probably the most compelling and well written biography I have seen in recent years is Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken. Hillenbrand has a great subject –Olympic athlete turned castaway turned POW survivor turned evangelist Louie Zamperini. Equally important, she tells the story very well –history as page-turner.

As a minister, I communicate for a living. Preaching and teaching consume much of my working life. I also have the privilege of mentoring some aspiring pastors. I repeatedly tell them that, in my experience, both in homiletics classes and in our own preparation, the accent of preperation falls on what to say and not how to say it. This results in turgid sermons, jam-packed often with information, but not presented in a way that is either compelling or digestable. Sermons are a form of oral communication (quite obviously) –and we often write them as if they were intended to be read (My colleague Andrew Vander Maas did his D.Min. dissertation on this, and I am hoping he will turn it into a book). The danger is that we cease to improve, not so much in what we say, but in how we say it.

Preachers have the most compelling story to tell in all the world –the drama of creation, redemption and consummation through faith in Christ. We have a good story, we need to tell it well. Nobody I have found has done as good thinking on this as Fred Craddock, emeritus professor of preaching at Candler School of Divinity, Emory University. His two books Preaching and As One without Authority ought to be read and re-read by anyone who steps the pulpit. Craddock is a proponent of not imposing a foreign rhetorical form on the structure of Scripture lessons –but rather that the message itself ought to be shaped by the form of the passage under consideration. He is right –it's difficult to do, and oughtn't to be done in an artificial or wooden way (and frankly, not everyone should do it his way --but we can all learn from him). But, stop to ask yourself when the last time was you heard a sermon on a Psalm that was as beautiful and affecting as the Psalm itself? I can remember the last time I did –where I was sitting and who was preaching.

The telling of the story is as important as the story itself. I am not arguing that all preachers ought to follow one particular style (certainly not main point, 3 sub-points!) but rather that, whatever their particular style, they need to become the master of it. Everyone else is expected to improve their craft; preachers ought to, too.


  1. Thanks for the reminder of our continuing need for good writing that brings the reader into the story.

    The Bible is filled appealing stories often sequestered into arcane theological strictures.

    It's story particularly in Genesis is further obscured by Western cultural blinders in our
    worship of the Individual in contrast to Eastern cultural tendency to worship the Family.

    Just how do we bridge the argumentative gap
    between articulated Biblical social facts vs more compelling individual facts that obscure the "rest of the story" that energized latter day children of Abraham recruited from slaves and legalistic Jews in the early Church?

    It may prove easier than we think since a simple reading of the text raises up appealing stories such as that of Ruth.

    "Whither thou goest I will go . . . That sweet love story long ago" was a popular song in the 1950s which was sung enthusiastically by many who had little understanding of I call the Bethlehem "Christmas before Christmas."

    The URL below links to a 2 minute 1950s performance
    Very winsome melody and lyrics.

    Enough for now. Wilson

  2. Great stuff here Ken. Thanks for the insight, the instruction, and the encouragement!