I teach Preaching Biblical Narratives at Newbold with two related aims: preaching and understanding biblical narratives. I begin with the biblical narrative side of things. It is a postgraduate module, so the assumption is people taking the class have already had some basic education in homiletics [the art of preaching]. I leave the preaching until the second half of the semester.
Biblical narratives are the parts of the Bible that people remember most. When you ask people about their favourite biblical passages, many speak about Bible stories such as David and Goliath or an incident concerning Jesus. I spend time on the nature of biblical narratives because we are used to modern narratives in the form of novels, short stories, and episodes in soap operas. We expect specific details because there are certain conventions within the contemporary western narratives. However, biblical narratives are not western or modern; they are ancient and delivered through the eyes of Israelites or Jews, who have different conventions.
We spend time learning about conventions used in biblical writings. Otherwise, you will come to something in a biblical text that appears strange or boring and tell yourself, “I’ll skip that and get on to the important part,” without realising that those parts you skipped are the ones that are critical to understanding the narrative. For example, one of the features of a biblical narrative is repetition. Whenever I see too much repetition in a student’s essay, I will write, ‘Repetition! You have already said that.’ However, in biblical narratives, repetition is used to underline significance. So, you discover what is most significant by paying attention to what is being repeated – you should not ignore it.
There are different types of repetition; verbatim and varied repetition. It is a matter of knowing how and why the text repeats itself unexpectedly and where lies the significance. Therefore, it is essential to comprehend the plot and narrative structure and how various parts interrelate. Then you have the characters without which you do not have a story. It is fundamentally about understanding what biblical narratives mean and how to communicate what you have learned.
When people preach biblical narratives, they often do not do it well because they read an ancient biblical text as if it were a modern text. They are in danger of ignoring what is truly important or attributing importance to something that is not important. Therefore, we aim to discover significance within biblical narratives. You have ‘ha, ha’, eureka moments when you suddenly realise what a biblical writer wants you to know. Such discoveries are like gold dust for a preacher. They make your sermons come alive by making it easier for you to bring your biblical text into modern settings.
There is a golden rule: if you misunderstand a biblical passage, you will inevitably misapply it. You cannot do anything but misapply the passage if you misunderstand it. Once students get a good insight into how biblical narratives operate, they ask, “How do we preach them?” In class, for example, to illustrate the ‘experience of salvation’, I begin with the Seventh-day Adventist fundamental belief Number 10, which is full of jargon such as justification, righteousness, transgression, adoption as God’s children and so on. You may ask, “Is it right?” Of course, it is, but then I say this is how Jesus spoke about the experience of salvation, using the opening words, “And Jesus said, ‘There was a certain man who had two sons,’” and you know how the story of the prodigal son goes. Once heard, it remains with us forever.
We should note that a narrative has its advantages and disadvantages. A narrative can concentrate on one major thing and do it memorably so that you will never forget it. Having said that, if you want to look at another aspect of salvation, you have to tell another story. You cannot cram thirty-two significant theological concepts into a single narrative that will be memorable. With this in mind, we often believe we are doing theology when discussing things like our fundamental beliefs and fail to see parables like the prodigal son as theology. For instance, many people view the parable of the prodigal son as just a story, but it is narrative theology – taking an aspect of theology and telling it in such a way that you can never forget it.
My doctoral supervisor, a well-known professor, wrote a tongue-in-cheek article in which he said, “I have decided that I will no longer teach Biblical Studies. Instead, I am going to teach students.” In other words, “I am going to teach students things they will never forget.” Now, narratives do that; they teach in such a way that you never forget their messages, and the hope is that by understanding them, you will be able to preach sermons that people will never forget.