Narrative Sermons in an Episodic World?

In his chapter, “Out of the Loop” in What’s the Shape of Narrative Preaching? Essays in Honor of Eugene L. Lowry (Chalice Press, 2008), Thomas Long concludes by exploring how narrative preaching fits within a society and culture that may be becoming increasingly episodic, rather than narrative, in thinking. Hearers of narrative sermons “must be able to manage a high tolerance for ambiguity” and then follow a “five-step sequential process of resolution”– “in short, they must be able to follow, appropriate, and finally create coherent narratives” (p. 126).

Where do we see examples of our episodic, rather than narrative thought?

  • success of comedic news parodies (i.e. “The Daily Show”) in contrast to narrative-based comedy
  • channel-surfing as norm for television viewing
  • multi-tasking using internet, mobile devices, etc., often mixing “work” and entertainment content

Long points out that interestingly, the response to this among some preachers is “a highly authoritative and didactic style, aimed right at episodic listeners” (p. 127). Sermons sometimes start with a human need, question, or “itch,” and sometimes start with a scriptural truth. The structure consists of a series of main points (often shared with the congregation through a fill-in-the-blank outline) filled with insights and modern-day proverbs on particular themes. Long calls this a shift from the narrative genre to a wisdom genre of preaching. If a narrative sermon is built like a “short story,” this style of sermon is built like a “Web page” (p. 128). As Long writes, “instead of three points and a poem” (the characterization of didactic 1950s preaching), it’s now “six points and a video clip.”

In this style of preaching, the preacher does not assume his or her listeners have the need or ability to work through ambiguity in their own personal narratives. Instead the listeners are saying:

“I don’t have a coherent identity narrative, and I haven’t a clue how to construct one. In the meantime, though, I need to manage the day, keep my job, stay married, and raise my children. Can you provide an external set of rules and ideas that will give me what I cannot make for myself: a Christian framework and meaning to my random, episodic life?” (p. 129)

What lessons should we take from this? Long offers some cautions and encouragements (p. 129-130).

  • the main task of preachers is always to proclaim the gospel narrative
  • Biblical wisdom (much needed in our culture of ambiguity and searching) does not “float free” from the story of God’s people–which always rests on narrative
  • the gospel narrative keeps Biblical wisdom from simply becoming a “banal form of the power of positive thinking”
  • preachers will always be storytellers, but today must be nimble enough to step back from the story and become “teachers and sages and ethical guides”
  • preaching can help those in a fragmented, episodic culture “to repair their ability not only to hear the gospel story but also to know what a powerful story is in the first place, how it works, and what possibilities it affords for identity and ethical living”
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