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Preaching and Fiction: Developing Oral Imagination

Gregory E. Reynolds

No one among us would doubt the importance of reading for pulpit preparation. By all accounts we are a bookish lot. We love to pore over tomes of theology and volumes of commentaries. We have been well-trained to seek the collective theological and homiletical wisdom of the past. But how many works of fiction do Reformed preachers read? If the answer is not many or none we should ask why. My guess is that many Reformed preachers do not think fiction worth their time. They may claim that it doesn't deal with reality the way non-fiction does. Thus history or biography may be considered excellent extra-biblical fare. But, as the logic goes, fiction is fluff; non-fiction alone is valuable. From the Latin fictio the word may mean either creating or counterfeiting. I hope to prove that the notion that fiction is unreal is itself a fiction, in the pejorative sense. The best fiction probes reality—especially human reality—in a way that no other medium does. Its consideration of the meaning of the human is incomparable. Our Reformed doctrine of common grace provides a theological rationale for appreciating good fiction.

I am—along with my fellow writers in this issue—an amateur reader of fiction. That means I read fiction for the sheer pleasure or love of it (amateur from the Latin to love), but I have not studied it academically and, therefore, do not analyze it in the way that an English literature major might. As an encouragement to amateur readers, C. S. Lewis suggests a fast from the surfeit of literary criticism.[1] Thus not having studied English literature formally may be, in Lewis's view, at least partly, a good thing. We amateurs could probably use a little of what Lewis had had his fill of. I do not—because I cannot—pay attention to the technical nature of the structure of fiction. And there is value in understanding such things. But beyond the simple enjoyment (or perhaps at the heart of my pleasure), I have discovered three homiletical benefits from the best fiction, which I think are of inestimable value to preachers. First, good fiction presents a picture of humanity that squares with reality, and thus with the biblical account—horribly fallen and yet made in God's image. Good fiction, whether by a believer or an unbeliever, explores this complex tension. Second, good fiction helps us become better story tellers. The Bible is, after all, the story of redemption. Thus, since God is the divine story teller we should imitate his essential means of communicating truth to his people. Third, good fiction expands the color and cadence of the preacher in the preaching moment. Together these form what I call the "oral imagination" of the preacher.

Good Fiction and the Meaning of the Human

As Harold Bloom suggests in the title of his monumental commentary on the Bard—Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human—good fiction expands our understanding of the human condition and thus our sympathy with our fellow mortals. We might say that Shakespeare was the inventor of good fiction. Some may object that the Bible tells us all we need to know about the human condition. It is true that the Bible gives us the only authoritative theological grid through which we can accurately assess the human situation. But good fiction helps us to see that condition in its particularity in various places and situations in history, especially our history. It confirms what the Bible says in fallible, but insightful portraits. As preachers we need the expansion such reading affords.

We tend to read works that mirror our own attitudes, ideas, and opinions. This approach inhibits intellectual and spiritual growth; we fail to develop the skill of seeing through the eyes of another. In order to do this we must give ourselves to the author's view. C. S. Lewis instructs us along these lines:

We are so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us. Thus increasingly we meet only ourselves.

But one of the chief operations of art is to remove our gaze from that mirrored face, to deliver us from that solitude. When we read the 'literature of knowledge' we hope, as a result, to think more correctly and clearly. In reading imaginative work, I suggest, we should be much less concerned with altering our own opinions—though this of course is sometimes their effect—than with entering fully into the opinions, and therefore the attitudes, feelings, and total experience, of other men.[2]

A good piece of fiction is a good piece of art—a good piece of art gives us unique insight into reality, which we should not wish to live without. Shakespeare has taught us that there is a world in every human soul; it is this world that great fiction both explores and expands in us. Our theology itself compels us to cultivate wider interests than theology proper because we are called to minister to the people—the world—around us. Understanding them, sympathizing, and empathizing with them are not optional.

Painting is similar to fiction: in order to truly appreciate a work we must submit ourselves to the artist's vision or narrative. In late Medieval and Renaissance times painting was a visual narrative—one that need not be idolatrous when appreciated outside of public worship. Christian painter Makoto Fujimura makes an eloquent plea for this sort of engagement with art in his recent article "Come and See."[3] It is amazing what he learned as he went and "stood under" in order to "under-stand" da Vinci's "The Last Supper" in the St. Maria delle Grazie in Milan. So standing under good fiction can be an illuminating and expanding experience. As Fujimura indicates, good art offers both relief and perspective in the midst of a surfeit of vacuous images and sound bites.

By contrast Thomas Kinkaid, the self-styled "painter of light," depicts an unreal world. Light emanates confusingly from everything. In da Vinci's painting there is a many-layered interplay between light and darkness. But the source is clear: God incarnate at the center.

Good fiction deals honestly with good and evil in the world. Good fiction does not revel in evil, for the sake of evil; but depicts evil as evil—for what it is in its ugliness and deformity; the very best fiction depicts evil in light of hope and redemptive grace and glory. In twentieth-century fiction, such as the novels of Graham Greene, character development is often profound in its depiction of the human predicament. The landscapes of human life are like the paintings of Edward Hopper, desolate and even desperate, yet in Greene's case not without a glimmer of light and hope. In his work the hope of redemption comes in subtle rays of light penetrating darkness, only occasionally entering the horizontal world of hopeless and bleak fallen humanity.

Good Fiction Teaches Us How to Be Better Storytellers

The temptation to preach with too much doctrinal density can be resisted by helping people enter the sermon through good storytelling, especially in connecting the pericope with the story of redemption. But, of course, many texts are themselves stories. Novelist Larry Woiwode has suggested to me that the use of narrative, or storytelling in preaching, slows us down so that we can better engage people with the divine message.[4]

When truth is embedded in narrative it is more memorable, not only because of the pace, but also because of the concreteness of human detail. Stories deal with the specific realities of life in space and time—in the history with which we are familiar. Truth is more believable when presented as history, since it is in history, not mythology, that God has dealt with his people—most pointedly in the Incarnation. Truth resides in the created order—in the world in which we live and move and have our being. All of Scripture is embedded in history—in space and time. When not situated in the narrative, doctrine alone may appear to the hearer to be the construct of the preacher's mind. I believe this is one reason why people have enjoyed the Joseph story more than any series of sermons I have preached in twenty-eight years. It is storytelling at its best. The truths of providence and salvation are never made more memorable, woven as they are throughout into the rich drama of the Jacob cycle.

The importance of storytelling in the ancient, biblical world has been largely overlooked by Reformed preachers. Perhaps in reaction to Evangelical anecdotal preaching, we have left a void which needs to be filled. In the more orally-aurally oriented culture of the ancient world, where personal possession of "books" was rare, storytelling was the primary means of propagating and transmitting tradition. The increase of oral-aural sensibilities in the electronic age is a providential prod calling us to return to the power of the story of redemption to shape the souls of his people. Unlike the "metalanguages" of structuralism, post structuralism, deconstruction, and all earth-bound attempts to describe the world, the narrative of redemption functions as the metanarrative by which all others, including good fiction, are to be interpreted and judged.

Our Lord often used stories, such as the tale of the good Samaritan, making his point stick by telling it in an unforgettable way. Such stories are themselves set in the context of the larger story of the history of redemption. This is the way God himself has chosen to impress us with his truth. From Jesus' example we preachers should take our cue. Reading well written fiction will help us become better storytellers.[5]

Good Fiction Helps Cultivate the Color and Cadence of Pulpit Speech

Perhaps some Reformed preaching is dull because of a lack of imagination—what we might call "oral imagination." Well written fiction teaches us how to speak in colorful, euphonic ways. Rich and well-sounding language is the fabric of Scripture and the gift of human speech. As good fiction describes the world and its inhabitants in detail, it also inculcates patterns of speech that are concrete and down to earth—for contemporary fiction is up-to-date, giving us the best formed sounds of our world. Such patterns invite people into our sermons and help purge us of the Christian clichés to which we are all too accustomed.

Developing healthy oral imaginations also helps us to maintain a cadence of speech more reflective of the everyday world as we experience it. Electronic media, unfortunately, tend to make us impatient with the slower paces of space and time. This is one reason that I favor reading slowly, and often stopping to read a well-written passage aloud. If God took time to create, we preachers ought to take more time to communicate our thoughts to God's people. I will explore this theme more next month as I look at the value of poetry for preaching.

The meaning of the human, the art of storytelling, the expansion of the oral imagination; these are all good reasons to read good fiction. I hope these reflections and this issue of Ordained Servant will whet your appetite for fiction and help you find your "voice" in proclaiming God's Word.

Endnotes

[1] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 129.

[2] Ibid., 85.

[3] Makoto Fujimura, "Come and See: Leonardo da Vinci's Philip in the Last Supper," Books and Culture, 12:6 (November-December 2006), 10-13.

[4] From an electronic mail exchange in 2003.

[5] Gregory E. Reynolds, "Preachers: Tell the Story of Redemption!" Kerux, 15:3 (December 2000), 26-30. [link pilgrimcrossings.org/: "Literature" "Cross-examination - exploring biblical doctrine / preaching"].

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