Proclaiming the Word


The Attentive Preacher 3.0


This month we continue our quest to see how we preachers might better attend to the narrative portions of Scripture. In our first installment, we encouraged you to pay attention to setting. Our second installment we considered plot, the movement of the narrative text through time. In this final installment of attending to the narrative portions of Scripture for preaching, we will look at the importance of character and character development.

In his book, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible, Tom Long encourages the preacher to consider the rhetorical function of the various genres of Scripture. In the chapter on narrative, Long suggests, “a good story creates its impact in one of two ways: (1) by making the reader one of the characters or (2) by making a claim concerning the nature of life, a claim about which the reader must make a decision.” (p. 74) Identification with character is one of the most important ways that narratives do their work.

You have likely had this experience before, as you read a good book or watched a good movie. You got caught up in the story as one of the characters. You found yourself identifying with Rudy, who, because of his size, was always told he would never play football at Notre Dame. You thought of yourself as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, thundering in the courtroom and demanding justice in a world full of racial prejudice and injustice. You imagined what it was like to be Buttercup in The Princess Bride, pursued by Westley, who overcomes all kinds of obstacles in order to rescue his true love. As we identify with these characters, we find ourselves asking the question, “Could this be our story, too?”

There are several helpful practices (for preaching) when we pay attention to character and character development in the text (and in our sermons). First, try standing in the shoes, or sandals, of different characters in the story. The story of the Good Samaritan sounds very different if you take the perspective of the half-dead man, the priest who passes by, the neighborly (but hated) Samaritan, or the lawyer who came to Jesus to test him. One of the most helpful practices for preachers is to retell that story from the point of view of the various characters. And make sure you include the often neglected character in the story. Different vantage points or perspectives of narratives yield different observations and experiences of the plot of the story.

A second practice that is most helpful: look for good and faithful analogies when you develop characters from the text. Then re-tell that story in a contemporary setting. For instance, we tend to have a difficult time recreating the scandalous nature of the Good Samaritan story for a contemporary audience. We call the hero of this story the GOOD Samaritan. We name hospitals and design laws of compassion after this character. We tend to forget that the Samaritan would be the last person that Jesus’ audience would expect to be a person of compassion. Who was a neighbor? That was Jesus’ final question in the story. Answer: the most unlikely candidate you can imagine.

So retell the story in this way: A TNU student was waiting for the bus on Murfreesboro Road, when a street gang came up and robbed him, beat him up, and left him bleeding on the side of the road. A Trevecca administrator drove by, but, late for a meeting on neighborhood partnerships, she drove on by. Soon a religion professor cruised along, his mind filled with lecture notes on the life of compassion, and he passed on by. Then one of the local drug dealers came roaring by on his Harley. When he saw the young man, he turned around and came to him, broke out his flask and poured some of the liquid on his wounds, called 911 and waited for the ambulance. He followed the ambulance to Centennial Hospital and went in and laid out a wad of cash for this uninsured student’s medical expenses. When the boy was discharged, the drug dealer paid the final charges (all in unmarked bills), put the boy on the back of his Harley, and brought him back to his dorm. Now which of these was a neighbor to the Trevecca student?

Part of the challenge for preaching is to re-create the original impact of the text as we tell this story in a new cultural setting. Many of the characters of the biblical story have become too caricatured in our collective memory – disciples (as always faithful), Pharisees (as wicked, evil monsters), tax collectors (as crooks), so learning to develop full, robust characters in our sermons is an important part of the interpretive work we do as preachers. When we present the Pharisees, we remember that these were the people who were passionate about the life of holiness. They are the people we hold up as models of spiritual leadership, people who read the Bible regularly, pray and attend services faithfully, give their tithe to the church joyfully. These are not monsters; they are the folks we want elected to our church boards!

A third and final helpful practice about characters: pay attention to how the character is developed in the text. We get to know characters in a variety of ways – what they do, what they say, and how they interact with family, friends, or stranger. Occasionally we are given insight into their lives through interior monologue. Let the details of the story round out your imaginative re-description of the character in your sermon. Every good story lives by this attention to detail. Good sermons will do the same.

- Dr. Mike Jackson served in pastoral ministry for over 25 years.  He currently serves as Associate Professor of Religion at Trevecca where he is a beloved professor of preaching and pastoral ministry.