Sunday, April 5, 2009

Peter Mead>>The First-Person Exception Clause

Over at Biblical Preaching Blog, Peter Mead has a follow up blog on first person narrative preaching.  

Doug Finkbeiner at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary defines Narrative preaching as: “expositing a narrative text from Scripture in a narrative sermonic form.”

He also includes definitions/explanations from two other homiletics teachers:

it contains but also elaborates upon the events and characters in a vivid manner so that: 1) the idea or theme of the biblical story is conveyed implicitly in the narration of the story, and 2) there is empathy or identification between the hearer and an element in the story.” (Smith)

“Narrative exposition is the communication of a biblical concept derived from a careful study of the text and preached with the Spirit’s power using the dynamics of story to apply its truth.” (Shields)

But in Peter’s post, he is commenting on an e-mail that he received from one of his students who had taken Mead’s advice to heart and had preached in a narrative fashion. 

The letter that Peter received read, in part: (the ellipses are where Peter inserted commentary).

“Whereas I’ve heard another preacher do this with a slight tongue in cheek approach, I did the whole thing totally straight, trying to maintain the idea that I was Abraham telling my story to my grandchildren….It was really tough going as I had no notes whatsoever and when you realize you’ve missed something it is so hard to think around whether you should go back and make that point you forgot or carry on, whilst still keeping totally in character…. I think many were impressed with the fact I listed out Abraham’s genealogy from Abraham back to Noah. That was just a memory trick though and very early on in the sermon…. It was so good though as I was taking the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac and so many people came up afterwards and said that the story had come alive for them like never before and made them think what it really felt like for them both. You could really see people on the edge of their seats…. It was definitely worth doing though even if it was a real challenge.”

(The “exception” that Peter refers to is generally avoiding “anything that smacks of showing off in our preaching.  It can be easy to do after spending hours with our nose in the books, but we are there to serve and communicate, not to show off.”  He questions whether reciting all of the ancestors from Noah to Abraham is showing off, or genuinely helpful.)

Reading this exchange reminded me of the last time I tried narrative preaching at my last church. I used it as a comment on Peter’s post:

image Eight or nine years ago I did a first person narrative of Elijah. I thought that it was profoundly helpful and I enjoyed doing it (I didn’t do any of the hokey costume stuff…I just did it as I normally dress).

But I was not prepared for the reaction. There were a minority who had very thoughtful comments about how it had helped them see the story more clearly.

But the great majority were negative, some even hostile. Some were offended by what I had said (it is long ago now that I don’t really remember much of the content). Others said it was a waste of time. I even had one older church member write a letter to our board of elders asking that I be dismissed because it was “the sorriest excuse for a sermon he had ever heard” and I was “the sorriest excuse of a preacher he had ever seen.”

In debriefing the sermon with my staff, (they loved it, but…they were my staff, after all!) they believed that we should have set it up differently. I simply had my children’s minister read the scripture upon which the narrative was based and then I got up to speak/preach/whatever it was I did. She didn’t “warn them” about what was about to transpire (I didn’t want her to). In the debrief, the staff believed that people were caught off-guard and never really got over being taken aback.

I would like to do it in the future, but never, ever attempted it in that church again. I think that they, and I, were the poorer because I didn’t. I still hold that, used sparingly, it can really shed light on the scriptures.


Ed said...

I recall doing what we then called a "first person sermon" from the perspective of an observer of Jesus during one of his visits to the temple.

It was announced ahead of time so people were conceptually prepared for the approach. I think that really helped people to warm to the experience. It was a young church and I think that helped too.

Walt Fisher proposed that humans should be called "homo narrans" because the narrative is a master metaphor for human communication. I think he had a good point -- narrative touches us deep inside.

I short, it could be over done, but narrative should definitely be part of the toolbox. Thanks for the post!

Cal Habig said...

Thanks for sharing! I especially like the Fisher quote.

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