Out of the Loop: The Changing Practice of Preaching Part Two: Looking in the Rearview Mirror

Lowry has fiddled with the pieces of his model over the years, making adjustments here and there,

but the basic idea of the sermon as a tension-resolving, narrative-like plot has been a constant in his work over the decades.1  To read The Homiletical Plot, now nearly three decades after it was first published, is to be thrown back to those heady days a generation ago, when homiletics was frothing with ferment and change. By the early 1970s, it was apparent to many that the sermon as a form of communication was in serious trouble. It had been done in, not to put too fine a point on it, by the firestorm of the sixties’ revolution. Dramatic changes in society, church, authority, and communication had converged to make preaching look as remote, hopelessly authoritarian, and outdated as a swallowtail coat.

For those with a long, historical view of such matters, none of this was surprising. Homiletics goes through a nervous breakdown every half century or so, and it was due. But many seminaries, convinced that this was truly the homiletical apocalypse and that preaching no longer deserved its role as the signature practice of ministry, dropped their required courses in preaching (most have now restored them, some not). While the majority of pastors still soldiered on dutifully with the Sunday sermon, the fire in the belly for preaching was cooling, and many ministers began to search for more productive ways to be meaningful, such as pastoral therapy or taking to the streets in political protest. In response, the academic discipline of homiletics entered a period that can be variously described as “a time of creative experimentation” or, less charitably, “a season of unmitigated panic.”

The first task for homiletics in the midst of this crisis was to stop the bleeding and to find out what went wrong. In short, homiletics needed a villain, and it quickly found one: the didactic, sermon with “points.” No wonder preaching was in disarray, we homileticians announced, slapping our foreheads. Somewhere back down the road it had entered into an unholy alliance with a nasty and demanding partner, namely, linear, propositional logic. Homileticians gleefully declared that this illicit romance was over, that the “three points and a poem” sermon was now dead, and we frolicked like merry widows on its grave. In its place came a host of new proposals for less authoritarian, more communicative sermon forms: inductive sermons, story sermons, metaphorical sermons, nonlinear sermons, dialogue sermons, multimedia sermons (yes, pre-PowerPoint), and a variety of other innovations. Writing about this volatile period in homiletics, Fred Craddock says the following:

Something needed to be done; the churches insisted and so did the preachers. The burden seemed naturally to fall on those who taught homiletics. Some repeated the old saws, but raised the volume. Others busied themselves in a frantic search for new and lively forms and styles. Experimentation abounded. Anything short of Russian roulette was taken into the pulpit to create a pulse, to make some nerve twitch, to break out of the general state of ennui. Needless to say, mistakes were made. Substance was at times denied access to the pulpit while some new style was being tried. Unhappy marriages between form and content could not last. Many books were written: heavy volumes calling Israel back to her tents; thin paperback saying by their size and cut, “Maybe this might work, but if not, the price is only $5.00.”2

Somewhere in the 1970s, amid this quest for some new approach to preaching, homiletics stumbled across the concepts of story and narrative theory, and it grasped them as if it had suddenly uncovered the Holy Grail at a flea market (actually, theology generally, by now in its own doldrums, had also discovered the tonic of narrative theory.) The problem with preaching, it was now decided, was that preachers were shoving propositions and points down peoples’ throats, when that was an alien way of thinking and processing information about deep life concerns. People address life’s most profound issues not by applying principles but by fashioning narratives, and preaching needs to assume the story form in response. Moreover, the gospel itself is composed of hundreds of small narratives woven into a grand and overarching biblical story. Typical of the period is the excited “Eureka!” uttered by the authors of Preaching the Story, a state-of-the-art textbook published in 1980, the same year as The Homiletical Plot, when they unveiled the mother of all homiletical metaphors: the preacher as a storyteller. “We are trying,” they said,

to find that formative image that could both articulate what preaching is and free people to do it. Is there an image adequate to shape the form, content, and style of preaching? If we had to say, in a word or two, or in a picture, what preaching is and how it is done well, what would that phrase or picture be?… Let us consider the storyteller… If we were pressed to say what Christian faith and life are, we could hardly do better than hearing, telling, and living a story. And if asked for a short definition of preaching, could we do better than shared story?3

In one sense, Lowry’s The Homiletical Plot was simply one more entry in this dizzying sweepstakes to rescue preaching from oblivion, one more narrative innovation in a time of homiletical uncertainty. What set it apart, however, from many other books of this era, and what has no doubt contributed to its longevity, is that it was neither the product of panic nor the result of a wild experiment performed with a chemistry set in the homiletical cellar. Lowry’s book is based on solid literary and psychological notions of narrative structure. Beneath that, and here we come to a most important matter, Lowry’s ideas about plotted sermons rest ultimately upon clear and widely held assumptions about the narrative shape of experience. Lowry joins many others, before and since, in assuming that human life gains full meaning only when narrated. He quotes Laurens Van Der Post, “[W]ithout a story you have not got a nation, or a culture, or a civilization. Without a story of your own to live you haven’t got a life of your own.”4  The claim here is that people don’t merely enjoy stories; we are stories. Our lives, when they are seen in true light, are not simply “one damned thing after another”; they have beginnings, middles, and ends. They flow from a remembered past toward some denouement, some meaningful future in which the ambiguities and gaps that have puzzled and bedeviled us are finally resolved. In short, we are “plotted.”

So Lowry develops his plotted scheme of preaching not simply because this sequence of movements will be more engaging and interesting to listeners. No, Lowry settles on narrative structure because of his conviction, widely held by others, that listeners are intrinsically makers of narrative and dwellers in narrative. Lowry’s narrative structure is designed to match a narrative-shaped, ambiguity-resolving, meaning-constructing capacity in human consciousness. He approvingly cites Barbara Hardy:

For we dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative. In order really to live, we make up stories about ourselves and others, about the personal as well as the social past and future.5

Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self agrees with Hardy and Lowry. “[A] basic condition of making sense of ourselves,” he says, “is that we grasp our lives in a narrative…as an unfolding story.”6

1See Eugene L. Lowry, Doing Time in the Pulpit: The Relationship Between Narrative and Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), especially chapter 4; idem, How to Preach a Parable: Designs for Narrative Sermons (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), especially 23–26; idem, The Sermon: Dancing the Edge of Mystery (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), especially chapter 4.
2Fred B. Craddock, “Foreword,” in Lowry, The Homiletical Plot, exp. ed., xvii.
3Edmund Steimle, Morris J. Niedenthal, and Charles L. Rice, Preaching the Story (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 12–13.
4Laurens Van Der Post as quoted in Eugene L. Lowry, Doing Time in the Pulpit, 39–40.
5Barbara Hardy as quoted in ibid., 39.
6Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 47.

Excerpted with permission from: What’s the Shape of Narrative Preaching? (Copyright) 2008 Chalice Press.

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