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More about The Book of the Dun Cow later, but today I wanted to highlight Walter Wangerin’s words about what a good novel is and isn’t:

What The Book of the Dun Cow is not–nor was ever intended to be–is an allegory. Allegories ask an intellectual analysis: “This means that,” “That detail in the story is equivalent to that fact, that doctrine, that idea outside the story.” The Book of the Dun Cow invites experience. Allegories are reductive of meanings; they bear a riddling quality; they demand the questions, “What does this mean?”

But a good novel is first of all an event; as distinguished from the continuous rush of many sensations and the messy overlapping experiences of daily lives, it is a composed experience in which all the sensations are tightly related, for which there is a beginning and an ending, within which the reader’s perceivings and interpretations are shaped for awhile by the internal integrity of all the elements of the narrative. Meaning devolves from (and must follow) the reader’s experience. Meaning, therefore, springs from the relationship between the reader and the writing. Should I, the author, ever state in uncertain terms what my book means, it would cease to be a living thing: it would cease to be the novel it might have been, and would rather become an illustration of some defining, delimiting concept. Sermons do that well and right properly. Novels in which themes demand an intellectual attention can only be novels in spite of these didactic interruptions. (245-46)

I’m not sure I fully agree with the sentiment that an author of fiction must never state in uncertain terms what his book means, but I certainly agree with the general thrust of Wangerin’s argument. He is making a crucial observation that storytellers and preachers both need to hear. A story is meant, first of all, to be experienced. The story is the point, even before it “means” something. Movies and novels that try hard to be explicitly didactic, usually make for poor stories and so-so lessons. The fiction is supposed to be felt and discussed, often with multiple layers of meaning or deliberately debatable meaning.

Preaching, on the other hand (as Wangerin rightly notes) is different. Sermons ought to define and delimit. They are deliberately didactic. When preachers try to make art preach, they ruin art. When artists try to make preaching a work of art, they ruin preaching. Let the novel revel in nuance, subtlety, and ambiguity. Let the sermon sound forth with clarity and authority.

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20 thoughts on “Storytelling and Preaching: Not the Same”

  1. What about preaching narratives? I am currently preaching through the book of Jonah. It is obviously not a work of fiction, but it is a whale of a story. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

    I’d be interested to hear (OK, read) your thoughts on that. I think you need to preach the story itself & not just the theology or application of it. There needs to be a balance, IMO.

    Thanks, Andy

  2. Jeff Baxter says:

    Interesting post. I agree that storytelling and preaching are not the same. Preaching is “Harolding the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” You can use a story to illustrate this “Harolding”. May we be faithful to proclaim the Gospel. Thanks for posting.

  3. Was Jesus preaching when he spoke in parables?

  4. Justin says:

    Kevin, I appreciate a lot of what you have to say, brother. But I can’t shake the feeling that false dichotomies are beginning to breed like rabbits on this blog… Seriously! How can you preach the gospel without telling the story of Jesus – the story of his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and enthronement for us and our salvation? What about Stephen’s speech in Acts 7? Was he preaching or storytelling? Please don’t tell me he wasn’t preaching, Kevin. PLEASE don’t tell me that.

  5. Ann Metcalf says:

    As a lay person I would agree with you Kevin. I struggle attending churches where I am fed story and analogy over and over again. While there is benefit in helping people understand what Scriptures say there is danger in rabbit trailing. Keeping to Scripture challenges the congregation.

  6. Aaron Britton says:

    Yes. except when the Bible is nuanced and subtle. . . ..

  7. Greg says:

    I’ve gained a lot of thoughtful things from reading your blog, Kevin. I just respectfully disagree with this one.

    Justin’s comment about false dichotomies above gets it, I think. Why create an exclusive either/or with this one? There is nuance all over this whether using the scriptures as a whole, or specific narratives and specific books of the Bible. Is the Bible itself intended to meet the same criteria as preaching does for you? What about the times we see preaching within the Bible? Is there any preaching in the Bible that effectively utilizes nuance, subtlety or ambiguity?

    Having read your blog for a while, I’m confident you have more to your thinking than you wrote. Think I need to hear more on this one and would ask you to reconsider your message.

    I don’t think anyone is saying preaching should be without clarity and proclamation. At least I would not say that. I’m just saying it should be – the best of it is — both this and good art – -thought provoking for further discussion. Not an either/or dichotomy.

  8. Andy Perry says:

    This insight is precisely what makes ‘Christian’ novels and films like COURAGEOUS seem hokey and ‘preachy’ to those outside our subculture. Stephen Nichols responds to this trend helpfully in chapter 6 of JESUS MADE IN AMERICA when he writes, “[Better than art that preaches] are films [and he would add novels and other forms of art] that subtly explore rich theological themes, such as alienation and reconciliation, loss and redemption.” It is not by mistake that Jesus Himself used storytelling (parables) subversively rather than overtly. We would do well to do the same.

  9. Mike Sung Im says:

    Michael Krahn,

    Jesus answers your question himself in Matthew 13:10 and following and Mark 4:10-12 when the disciples asked Jesus why He spoke in confusing parables. Jesus answered from Isaiah 6.

    And when He was alone, those around him with the twelve asked Him about the parables. And He said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, SO THAT “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

    So, no.

    In the context of this discussion, Jesus was not “preaching” (clearly proclaiming and/or explaining God’s truth in the manner we are talking about in regards to Christian preaching/proclamation) when He spoke in parables in history. He explicitly states His deliberate intention to obfuscate the truth. I doubt anyone would say that is the purpose or definition of preaching/proclamation.

    Note that Matthew goes out of his way to explicitly point out an instance when Jesus did “preach” followed by example sermons and in those instances He did not use narrative.

    Matthew 4:17 “From that time began Jesus to PREACH, and to say, Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

    At the end of Matthew 4, Matthew introduces the Sermon on the Mount with:

    Matthew 4:23 “And Jesus went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and PREACHING the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people.”

    Matthew then follows with an enormous sample (Matt 5,6,7) of the content of Jesus’ actual preaching. None of it is narrative.

    Please note that I am NOT saying preaching cannot contain narrative nor that the parables are not meant to be teaching nor that preaching and narrative are incompatible.

    I am simply addressing the narrower question of “Was Jesus preaching (to the original historical listening audience) when he spoke in parables (to the original historical listening audience)?”

  10. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Good point about the parables, Mike. Jesus was not trying to be clear with is parables, while Paul says preaching is all about clarity in 2 Cor. 4. As to some of the other points, I am definitely not against telling the story of the gospel. The point of the post, and Wangerin’s point too I believe, is that art communicates differently than preaching.

  11. Greg says:

    I’m working through this blog with team of pastors at our church that help shape our preaching, so I appreciate the conversation.

    Are you saying preaching should be defined wholly as didactic teaching? I would disagree, but that would make “art communicates differently than preaching” understandable to me.

    With much respect, isn’t it accurate to define “preaching” from the scriptures (including 2 Cor 4) more broadly?

    Preaching, then, does not communicate differently than art, but actually utilizes art/story/nuance as a key component and powerful element. This approach doesn’t “ruin” preaching. Quite the contrary: it communicates the gospel in ways that not only define or delimit, but also creates room to experience the gospel in ways that a didactic approach can miss.

  12. Rose says:

    The idea that strikes me as off is that sermons are “illustrations of defining, delimiting concepts” in contrast to a novel which is “a living thing.” Strange that a sermon, tied as it is to the living, active Word of God, would be so contrasted with a living thing, is it not?

  13. Mike Sung Im says:

    Rose, the word “living” functions differently in those two contexts.

  14. Rose says:

    Mike, Can you explain?

  15. kyle says:

    I think the point that is being made is that with preaching or teaching you already have a set basis. Your material is coming from the Bible. Thus 2 Timothy 3:16. With novels or story telling the author or speaker has full liberty to say what he wants. 2 Peter 1:21 also is applicable. I think there’s a danger in overusing story telling when teaching the Word in that what people may come away with is the story and not the point of truth.

  16. gv720 says:

    Do you think that we have a tendency to romanticise preaching? It should be good teaching, and good public speaking. The preacher should know what he is talking about, believe that it is important, and remember that if he can’t explain it in simple terms he doesn’t understand it himself.


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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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