A big part of much preaching is storytelling…at least Jesus thought so. I would propose that any preacher who neglects storytelling in his or her preaching does so to their own and their listeners loss.
An article in the current Scientific American speaks to "The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn." While not all of the article is useful for Christian preaching, some of it is. The article is heavy on Darwinism…both biological as well as literary.
The article, however, notes,
"We tell stories about other people and for other people. Stories help us to keep tabs on what is happening in our communities. The safe, imaginary world of a story may be a kind of training ground, where we can practice interacting with others and learn the customs and rules of society. And stories have a unique power to persuade and motivate, because they appeal to our emotions and capacity for empathy."
But even defining storytelling is tricky. The author (Jeremy Hsu) observes that scholars often identify story by explaining what it is not:
- Exposition contrasts with narrative by being a simple, straightforward explanation, such as a list of facts or an encyclopedia entry.
- Narrative is a series of causally linked events that unfold over time.
- Narrative is the interaction of intentional agents—characters with minds–who possess various motivations.
However narrative is defined,people know it when they feel it. Whether fiction or nonfiction, a narrative engages its audience through psychological realism–recognizable emotions and believable interactions among characters….
But the best stories–those retold through generations and translated into other languages–do more than simply present a believable picture. These takes captivate their audience, whose emotions can be inextricably tied to those of the story’s characters. Such immersion is a state psychologists call "narrative transport."
Stories help us relate truth to our lives by approaching us on an emotional level. When we hear that a story in a sermon "rings true" we are more likely to accept the truth or biblical principle behind it.
I find it interesting that Hsu boils down to stories to three basic narrative patterns:
- Romantic (the trials & travails of love)
- Heroic scenarios (power struggles)
- "Sacrificial"-"focuses on agrarian plenty versus famine as well as social redemption."
I have done a little bit of reading in Joseph Campbell and of course he has narrative traditions that are much more complex than these three.
However deeply we delve into these things (and they can be "Alice’s hole") all preachers would do well to think through their use of stories and to craft them towards specific ends. It is well worth thinking about.