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the challenges of preaching narrative – sarah harris


I became fascinated at the way narrative was constructed sitting in my fifth and sixth form English classes; I had teachers who were outstanding. I still remember the excitement of tracing the motifs of light and dark – day and night – in William Goldings, Lord of the Flies, for myself. I started to appreciate how words created atmosphere, and ultimately, meaning. This is no doubt why I focus a great deal on narrative in the biblical text in my writing now – for words convey meaning and we do well to slow down and notice the choices that authors have made. Why this word? Why now? Why is this delayed and that not? What is the author trying to tell us? Details in the text, the ordering and grouping of ideas, the repetitions and causal chains are breadcrumbs that lead the reader to possibilities of characterisation, plot, and themes. So first, reading narrative well means noticing EVERYTHING – well beyond three tidy points.

But ultimately any textual unit only makes complete sense in the drama it stands within, and so secondly, we need to notice links to the surrounding units, and then to the entire book. We cannot preach texts as isolated units, as if they are islands floating alone in the sea. Writers have a purpose when they sit down to communicate, and they chose where they will begin, the pace of the narrative, and as the plot gradually unfolds toward various climax points and its eventual end. The reader is drawn step–by–step into the writer’s ideas; each textual route marker, each event, was included deliberately – and the layering of each unit gives added force to what had already been heard.  Therefore, in our retelling of a particular story, piece of history, psalm, or section from a letter, we need to show its connectedness; we need to show the thematic growth; and we need to show its incompleteness aside from the writer’s larger narrative telos.

But that is not easy to do is it? Especially in twenty or thirty minutes. Perhaps for the “preaching gurus” this comes naturally – but I am not one of them – and my hunch is many of you reading this page are not either. We are bread–and–butter preachers aiming to be faithful to the text amidst busy jobs and demanding pastoral situations which never seem to lessen.

So, my question to seasoned preachers is:

How do you preach detailed narrative well in twenty minute chunks once a week? How do you take it beyond a three-point sermon?

Then how are you managing to stitch narrative units onto the writer’s wider canvas?

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