Preaching and Teaching and Storying

Nice chapter/article in the book Preach the Word513spybqhtl-_sx397_bo1204203200_, edited by Greg Haslam.  The Chapter (28) is “Preaching from Narrative” by  Chris Wright. The chapter is fairly short but has good info in it… especially on the nature of narrative. Under How Do Stories Actually Work?, Wright puts some good notes. I will just give the main points here, with my own thoughts after.

  • Stories express cultural world-views. To me, this is a strong point. Often worldview is described in terms of categories and propositions (I did that, in fact, in my book on cultural anthrology). But we really think in terms of stories, and the world-view that that guides our beliefs, and from that our behaviors and interpretation of experiences, is more about stories than facts. As such, to hit someone “deep” one is better off using a resonant, or at least relevant, story.
  • Stories are used to preserve people’s identities.  Each of us exists in relationships that go beyond simply I and You. Relationships also include We and They. To a large extent how “We” is defined is in terms of what stories are shared. That is part of the reason that a new person joining a close group feels alienated, at least for awhile. The new person doesn’t share the stories of the others. It is only after the person shares enough new stories with this group, that he or she feels truly part of the We identity.
  • Stories teach moral values and transmit group memories across the generations. Stories are often better at expressing moral truths than propositions. While a statement such as “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is pretty straightforward, it is actually in that straightforwardness that we get lost. What does it really mean to bear false witness? The answer generally comes in a story. The concreteness helps. Does, for example, bearing false witness include telling jokes, or expressing a story that fictional? No, but that is more obvious in a story. For example, story where an individual falsely accuses a person of wrong-doing or falsely alibis a wrong-doer makes it clear that this sin is not simply saying something that is fictional… it is tied to motive and malice. Also because they define groups, they help provide continuity in a group even as the group changes over time.
  • Stories engage our imagination.  I have talked enough about this elsewhere, particularly in Theo-Storying.  A good story draws us in, and we essentially experience something that, technically, did not happen to us.
  • Stories are dependent on having a well-constructed plot. You might think this is obvious, but it is not. Many a story (such as in a movie) has a weak plot, due to the apparent belief that having good special effects, sex or violence, humor (whether witty, ribald, or physical), or a twist ending can substitute. Economically, sometimes they are right. But a story with a poor plot tends to lose steam quick. It does not engage the imagination. It fails to have impact.
  • Stories need good characters. Characters need to have a stamp of reality to them. Even robots or aliens in science fiction stories need to have an authenticity to them. A failure often in the church has been to develop stories too much after the model of morality plays… with wooden saints and equally 2-dimensional sinners. This is strange considering how the Bible tends to present humans as 3-dimensional, both wondrously made and flawed.
  • Some stories have gaps in them. I would argue that ALL stories have gaps in them. For non-fiction stories  this is true since a plot essentially picks bits and pieces of what happened and seeks to combine them with causal relationships into a consistent plot. People don’t have stories… they have life, that can be rearranged into an infinite number of stories. For fiction stories, there are gaps because we only see and here what is “on stage.” Before the opening of the curtain, we don’t know much. After the closing of the curtain, we don’t know much. And off stage is a mystery. But that is a good thing. It gets us to think and imagine. In fact, filling in too many of the gaps may be detrimental to the story. For example, in many classic jokes, the story has three parts. Two parts to set the pattern, and a third to have a surprising break in the pattern. Two is enough to set the pattern… one does not have to list 50 parts supporting the pattern (even if such a high number may have an element of accuracy to it).
  • Good stories invite the reader to be the judge. It is often tempting for the storyteller to tie up all of the loose ends. But it is often better to allow the reader to judge for himself or herself. In fact, many stories in the Bible appear to be arranged for rabbinical purposes. That is, they are meant to be read an interacted with in a group setting for religious and moral education. The story of Jonah, for example has lots of questions unanswered, and many opportunities for hearers to question and come to their own conclusions. This is not a bad thing. Sometimes in church we are too quick to tell people how to read a story and what to think of it. This can be a mistake. For example, in Galatians 2, Paul tells the story of how he chastised Peter and Barnabas for eating with Jews when members of the church of Jerusalem were present. In church, this story is often relayed as if we must accept the story as Paul being right and the others being wrong. However, if readers take the time to bring themselves into the story, many might discover that Paul’s behavior was not above reproach here. Perhaps some will not see the story as primarily Paul versus Peter, but the problems of not discussing things properly.

I would like to add a quote from a different section of the chapter:

Avoid being too dogmatic.  We need to remember that a story can have many levels of meaning and new meanings will often suggest themselves as we take time to ponder and reflect upon them. Furthermore, other people will often see meanings that would never have occurred to us, and people from other cultures will often see a story in a totally different light, which can lead to a fascinating exchange of ideas. I think God gives us stories and says, ‘Well there you are. What do you make of that?’ Sincere there is such a tremendous richness in the stories of the Bible we should avoid giving the impression that there is one solitary monochrome meaning and, once you have explained that, you can go on to the next one.

Stories, like metaphors, have a wide range of meanings, although not infinite. When we say Jesus is the Good Shepherd, this metaphor has a rich diverseness to it that cannot be narrowed to a single meaning. If it could be narrowed to a single meaning, the metaphor would be unnecessary. The same is true with stories… as a rich collection of symbols and metaphors.

Of course, this provides a hermeneutical challenge. Centuries ago, scholars saw the Bible as have several layers of meaning, such as literal, spiritual, and allegorical. Present thinking is to see the Bible as having only one meaning… the literal. So when one reads a passage of Scripture, one must seek that one single meaning. While recognizing the dangers of allegorical interpretation (among others), stories, like metaphors, resist a single interpretation. Even focusing on “author intention” may not be enough. When I tell a story, I often have more than one message or interpretation… even for fictional stories. For non-fiction, my selection of the events I use and connect may limit the range of possible interpretations, but non-fiction has a special “muddiness” to it that even more so draws us into the story with important different perspectives. For example, why did Judas betray Jesus? Was he seeking to “force Jesus hand?” Was he disenchanted with the lack of direction of the “revolution?” Was he possessed by the devil? Was he simply greedy? The fact that the Bible doesn’t clearly tell us why may (as Walter Wangerin pointed out) in fact point out to us some acts are just inexcusable and unjustifiable.

Or maybe not.





The Difficulties of Ministerial Satire

I am going to use the first two paragraphs of the Wikipedia article on Satire here:

Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.

A feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—”in satire, irony is militant”—but parody, burlesque, exaggeration, juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre are all frequently used in satirical speech and writing. This “militant” irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack.    (Wikipedia, “Satire” 02 August 2016)

I enjoy satire. One of my favorite sites on the Web is the Babylon Bee. It is a website that gently mocks (usually) the foibles of Christians who can loosely be described as Evangelical. At its best, it helps Evangelicals laugh at themselves (something they/we are oft forgetful to do). Also at its best, it can inspire reflection and, perhaps, positive change. At its worst, it is a way to attack those we disagree with, and smugly chuckle at how much more wise and holy are we than they (whoever “they” are).47453566

Let’s consider some of the elements in the quote above:

  • Exposing vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings. Commonly satire is done publicly, and there are times where some things need to be exposed. Sometimes, Christians can be quick to ignore or cover-up that which needs to be exposed and challenged. However, it can easily drift into malicious language and pointing out the splinter in another’s eye while ignoring the log in one’s own.
  • Intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. In some societies such as “Western nations,” at least theoretically, repudiate the idea of shaming. However, shame is simply one method of social control. Every society has both tacit and explicit methods to encourage people to behave in line with social norms. While many are uncomfortable with shame (especially in societies that are more guilt-oriented) it is, often, a gentler and more flexible method of social control than some. For example, in more open societies, criminalizing behavior substitutes for shame. And even in societies where shaming is thought to be rejected, individuals often feel good when those whose behavior we deplore get “put in their place.” But that also is part of the problem with shaming. It is often tied to a bit of schadenfreude– a malicious glee that others get harmed socially. The less we can relate to the beliefs or actions of the target of satire, the more likely our motives in satire are unloving.
  • It is meant to be humorous, even though its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism. At its best, it can certainly accomplish this, even if only on small-scale. I believe it is normally a rare thing that humor has a broad effect. An article from the Babylon Bee actually notes this— satirically.  That article “Witty Church Sign Sparks Revival” humorously points out the limitations of humor to spark major social or spiritual response.  In the article, a bit of humor on a church sign supposedly led to a big number of converts to Christ. Most reading it would recognize it as satire, since it is nearly inconceivable that the sign would have any such effect. And that can actually draw into question why we as Christians put such things on our church signs or bumper stickers in the first place. That is the problem often. Humor is commonly embraced as entertainment only. Like reading 9GAG— you read it, you laugh (perhaps), and you move on. Humor, unfortunately, often also becomes more of a locator of social boundaries– as a determiner of social status as one who is one of us (one who “gets” the joke) or one of them (one who does NOT “get it”). Years ago, I was attending Surface Warfare Officer School in the US Navy. One of our instructors liked to have a “joke time,” welcoming students to share their best jokes. One day, the guy who sat next to me raised his hand and said that he had a joke. When he got before the class, he began to talk about how bad jokes are, and how humor is always harmful. We all ridiculed him. However, it is also true that the vast majority of the jokes told in that class would be today viewed as hurtful to some social or cultural grouping. He may have overstated it, but he had a point. Humor is like the Force in Star Wars. It can be used for both good and evil. Yet, also like the Force, it SEEMS like it is more effective in doing evil than good.
  • Utilizes exaggeration. Exaggeration or accentuating certain characteristics while ignoring others has its place. The Bible utilizes such exaggeration to separate between the Wise and the Fool, between Godly and Ungodly, and Children of Light and Children of Darkness. But if not handled thoughtfully, exaggeration can become stereotyping or even dehumanization.
  • Often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack. One could see this as deceptive, but it is a key element of many effective stories, such as the parable of the ewe lamb, where the story starts out innocent enough, but than switches around to challenge the hearer. But, of course, satire must be identified as satire to be effective. If it isn’t, it can have the opposite effect. It is disturbing and amazing how many people on Facebook will share ridiculous clickbait or satirical articles as if they are serious and inspiring. Some of those who share them are religious leaders WHO REALLY SHOULD KNOW BETTER. Either they share it as humor even though there is the reasonable likelihood that some will mistakenly take it seriously, or they share it believing it themselves to be serious.

Let me give an example of one I feel crossed a line or two:  I really enjoyed, I must admit, the Babylon Bee satirical op-ed article jokingly ascribed to Benny Hinn, “I Honestly Can Not Believe I’m Still Getting Away With This.” The article was written as if Hinn was himself surprised and delighted at how he has been able to fool people for over 20 years, benefiting from their gullibility. Now personally, I am not a fan of Benny Hinn. I don’t believe that he does have the supernaturally-given gift of physical healing. As such, he should not misrepresent himself. And if, unlikely as it may seem, he really does have such a gift, he should be ashamed that he has used it for his own wealth and self-promotion. HOWEVER, the article has a rather mocking or belittling tone. I also don’t like the idea of misquoting even if the article is not meant to be taken seriously. We have enough problems with false attribution on the Internet. Additionally, the goal does not seem to be so much to promote constructive social change as to attack.

On the other hand, one where the satire appears to work, in my mind, is Babylon Bee’s “Pastor to Take Three Month Sabbatical to Discern John Piper’s Will for His Life.” The story is, I guess, about a made up person… meaning it points to an exaggerated type of person, rather than targeting a specific individual. Additionally, it handled the character in the article with a light touch, like one was “ribbing” a friend, rather than an outsider. Additionally, it does seem to use humor to point towards social change— suggesting that we should avoid the over-reliance on alleged Christian “super-stars” for divine guidance, but, rather, going to God, the source.

So I like Satire, but I generally prefer parables. Both challenge the culture, but one does so resonantly and offers a direct response and alternative. Satire can do that as well… but it takes a deft hand to do it well. Otherwise, it can be hurtful, misunderstood, or misapplied. For those interested a bit more in different types of stories… consider reading: Story Wheel, and utilize the image below:

Story Wheel