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

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.


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