Chapter 130

Bringing Bible Storytelling to Life

How to paint the scenes that engage modern audiences

What's the difference between the style of John Grisham and that of the Bible's storytellers? The answer hit me one day when I read a section from Genesis and then later read a section from one of Grisham's novels.

Connecting to a modern audience often requires more sensory details to bring a story to life.

In John Grisham's novel The Testament, lawyer Nate Riley searches for the surprise heir to an eleven billion dollar fortune — a missionary named Rachel Lane. Riley finally finds her deep in the jungles of Brazil. At their initial encounter, a group of tribesmen escort her to Riley. Notice how Grisham describes her:

Rachel was with them; she was coming. There was a light yellow shirt in the midst of the brown-skinned chests, and a lighter face under a straw hat.... She was slightly taller than the Indians, and carried herself with an easy elegance.... Nate watched every step. She was very slender, with wide bony shoulders. She began looking in their direction as they grew closer.... She removed her hat. Her hair was brown and half-gray, and very short.

By contrast, notice how the writer of Genesis describes the first time Rebekah lays eyes on her fiancee, Isaac:

Rebekah also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel and asked the servant, "Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?"
"He is my master," the servant answered. So she took her veil and covered herself. Then the servant told Isaac all he had done (Genesis 24:64-66).

The difference between the style of a modern novel and that of a Bible story is in the detail. While the writers of Bible stories were first-class literary artists, they wrote with a spare, lean style. Compared to John Grisham or Charles Dickens or Jan Karon, the biblical writers provided fewer details.

This presents a challenge to those who preach Bible narratives. A modern audience often requires more sensory details for a story to come to life. Preachers must imagine the scenes in a Bible story and then paint vivid pictures. Otherwise the retelling of the story will come across as bland and boring.

In Leap Over A Wall, notice how Eugene Peterson paints the scene when David encounters Saul in the wilderness cave near En-Gedi:

David and a few of his men are hidden in a cave cut in the cliffs above the Dead Sea. The day is hot and the cave is cool. They're deep in the cave, resting. Suddenly there's a shadow across the mouth of the cave; they're astonished to see that it's King Saul. They didn't know that he was that close in his pursuit. Saul enters the cave but doesn't see them: fresh from the hard glare of desert sun, his eyes aren't adjusted to the darkness and don't pick out the shadowy figures in the recesses of the cave. Besides, he isn't looking for them at that moment; he has entered the cave to respond to the call of nature. He turns his back to them.

Peterson's description reveals a couple of strategies. First, he does not resort to flowery language. He uses strong words, but he strikes a balance between economy and detail. Furthermore, he lets his exegesis control his imagination. He doesn't go beyond the text and splice his conjectures into the scene. He simply places himself in the story and describes what any character would see.

Painting scenes like this gives you an edge especially when it comes to communicating historical-cultural data. As you tell a Bible story, you may need to explain geographical details, marriage rituals, Canaanite religious beliefs, or warfare practices unfamiliar to your contemporary audience. It's easy to convey such information in a bland way that detracts from the story.

Suppose you are preaching a sermon on Joshua 6. To make the story come alive, you will probably need to explain a bit about siege warfare. If you take the typical approach, you might introduce the information by saying: "Based on archaeological data, Bible scholars can describe with accuracy how the ancients conducted siege warfare." At this point, you've likely bored part of your audience. However, turning the information into a scene conveys the information in a more interesting way. In a recent sermon on Joshua 6, I presented the data on siege warfare like this:

The city of Jericho is tightly shut. That's what you expect, but it's not what you want to hear. It's tough to attack a fortified city once the gates have been closed and the people are holed up inside. Perched high upon the walls are guard towers or stations with guards, ready to shoot arrows, pour hot oil, and dump boulders on you if you get close to the wall. Guards watch the entrance from their towers. Since the gate system is potentially the weakest part of the wall, the entrance consists of a series of two or three gates. Punch through one, and you still have one or two left. So you hope to get some battering rams close enough to start whacking at the wall. But punching a hole through can take weeks, even months. Scaling the wall is horribly difficult, too. Like General Custer, you'll be wearing an Arrow shirt before you climb very far up the wall.

You can paint scenes like this by culling information from Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, or books on archaeology. You'll get help on how to shape this material into a scene by reading some of the masters of the craft. Try Eugene Peterson's Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians for scenes from the life of David. In his book Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who, Frederick Buechner breathes color into Bible characters. Sometimes, his imagination transcends the text, but reading his material will exercise your creativity. In addition, get a copy of James Michener's tome The Source. It sweeps back and forth from the fictional account of an archaeological excavation in western Galilee to the ancient stories behind the artifacts it uncovers. The first 373 pages supply vivid images from Jewish history through 605 B.C., particularly of the daily routines of family life, farming, and Canaanite religious practice.

When you paint scenes, pay attention to word choice. "Going up the wall" sounds bland to listeners. "Scaling the wall" engages their interest. Sometimes a thesaurus will get you out of a verbal rut. But be careful to choose an appropriate word. Specific nouns and verbs help, too. Some communicators use adjectives and adverbs to pick up the slack left by weak verbs and nouns. Instead of trying to boost a noun like rock with a generic modifier like big, use a word like boulder. Instead of flowers select the appropriate designation like daisies or lilies. When it comes to verbs, try "punched the wall" or "whacked the wall" rather than "hit the wall." Just make sure the verb accurately describes the action. Again, exegesis must set the limits for your creativity.

Generality drains the life out of stories. So when you preach, shoot for a style with enough sensory details to engage your readers. Painting vivid scenes will bring Bible stories to life.

Steven D. Mathewson is senior pastor of Dry Creek Bible Church, Belgrade, Montana.