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When Your Text Is a Story

Four key assumptions guide how to interpret narratives.
When Your Text Is a Story
Image: Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty

How do we preach a story, anyway? Simply tell it from beginning to end and then make application? Break the story into parts with lessons for each? Can we approach the process as we might a New Testament epistle, distilling general principles and preaching deductively? Paul Borden says, Absolutely not! We must interpret and preach narrative texts in a unique manner. Paul Borden looks at how to preach narrative texts in a way that honors story form.

When Mommy or Daddy began, "Once upon a time," we listened. We learned early that stories caused us to stop what we were doing and to pay attention to the storyteller. Instinctively we knew we lived life in narrative. Story, like breathing or thinking, is an intrinsic part of our existence. We daydream, plot, criticize, hope, and visualize ambitions in story form. No one lives life deductively.

Perhaps this is why our Creator designed much of biblical revelation to be written in story form. Jesus Christ, who preached didactic sermons and taught deductively, was also well known for his stories. The human authors God employed to instruct the church about Jesus Christ's life and ministry thought it wise to choose story as their predominate means of communication.

Yet today the preponderance of sermons, especially those preached by individuals who champion biblical authority and integrity, are not given in story form and are seldom based on narrative passages. There often appears to be a studied avoidance of narrative combined with a rhetorical form that communicates ineffectively to audiences saturated by an electronic media.

Why We Rarely Preach Stories

I believe there are at least two major reasons for the paradox. First, preachers are convinced that abstract truth cannot be communicated well in story form. Second, many preachers are not trained to discover the big idea of a story and then communicate that story without violating the narrative genre.

The reason preachers often fail to value stories as media of theological and biblical truth is that our literate technological culture has convinced us that truth cannot be communicated in this manner. Stories may be used to illustrate truth but not communicate it.

While analytical and logical presentation are sometimes required and beneficial, preachers should recognize that the screenwriter and director do more to influence today's North American culture than the philosopher. Perhaps this is why story seems to be God's favorite medium of written revelation. Perhaps he understood that the storyteller communicates truth more widely than the theologian.

The second reason many preachers either avoid stories or handle them poorly is due to poor modeling and training. In the past, preachers tended to treat stories as allegories or illustrations of preconceived theological ideas gained from didactic passages. Such preachers did not understand narrative literature and were not taught to interpret it. This lack of training continues to the present. Seminaries seldom if ever offer required courses in the exegesis and preaching of stories. Most require exegetical courses focused on didactic material, which do not train students to understand and communicate narrative literature. In fact, frequently the methodologies that enable us to understand didactic literature inhibit us from understanding narrative literature.

One example of the inability of poorly trained preachers to handle narrative is the constant inconsistency of turning description into prescription.

In light of these observations, I would like to offer an exegetical method designed to discover the big ideas communicated in biblical stories. This will be covered in part two of this three part series. In part three, I want to suggest a way to preach these stories in current-day homiletical styles that will not violate the truth of the story or its development in narrative genre. In this first installment, we will look at the important assumptions that underlie my method.

My Perspective on Biblical Narratives

Four assumptions underlie this exegetical method.

1. The first assumption relates to the historical orthodox position of inspiration, which holds that God and humans were both extensively and equally involved in the production of Scripture. This means that when God chose to reveal truth through narratives, he selected highly competent storytellers. These individuals developed this form of literature artfully and skillfully.

The result of making this assumption that God selected skillful storytellers is that we interpreters cannot violate the essence of good narrative when exegeting the text. Stories are not like didactic literature that can be taken apart verse by verse or paragraph by paragraph. Each story is a unit, whether it is a paragraph long (as in the Gospels) or a chapter or two long (as in the Old Testament). To preach fifteen verses out of a story that is fifty verses long violates the essence of story. It is like reading children the middle of a bedtime story without telling them how the story began or ended. The result is to preach an idea that may be true but is not based on the teaching of that narrative.

2. The narrative portions of the Scripture were not written primarily to provide a record of redemptive history. This is not to say that these stories are historically inaccurate; they are quite accurate. An orthodox view of inspiration argues for historical accuracy. However, the primary purpose of the narratives was to develop a theology through story, not create a historical record. This understanding of narratives seems to be borne out by the New Testament comments about Old Testament stories (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11; 2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 1:1, 2). It is also demonstrated in any comparison of the four Gospels.

There are several crucial results related to the assumption that narratives were not written primarily to record history.

First, narratives were written to communicate a theology. This means that each narrative book has as well defined an argument as Romans or any other New Testament epistle. The difference is that each book's argument is developed by a series of stories while Romans is developed through a logical, analytical presentation. Often our inability to recognize this is due to our assumptions coupled with our inability to exegete story as story.

Second, an overall chronology is seldom the concern of the storyteller since the purpose is to develop a theological argument, not record a chronological history. If chronology is crucial, the storyteller notes it; otherwise chronology is usually ignored. Older debates over the Bible's authenticity based on chronological issues reflected the fact that both sides assumed that the purpose of narratives was to record history rather than develop an argument.

The third implication is to see what the narratives have in common, even though narratives may be separated by years. Therefore, outlines of narrative books should reflect theological developments rather than historical, geographical, or biographical concerns. Again, our understanding of the Gospels should convince us that this is true. Knowing Old Testament history is important, but often teaching the Old Testament as history does a disservice to future interpreters. It plants false assumptions.

3. Each narrative communicates a big idea that is unique. Stories, like other biblical literature, contribute to the grand ideas of Scripture. However, each story offers its own unique facet and insight into one of those grand ideas.

The implication of the assumption that each narrative is unique in its teaching means that the idea preached from one narrative fits no other narrative. If a sermon preached from one narrative could be used with a different one, then the preacher's understanding of one or both narratives is incorrect. An infinite God who creates unique personalities, snowflakes, and fingerprints has done the same with stories, including those accounts that are parallel.

This assumption opens up the narratives as never before. Too often our thinking has been confined to just a few themes, while in reality God has placed a wealth of biblical ideas in stories. I frequently find myself addressing issues that are not developed anywhere else in Scripture, except through application.

4. The major moral, spiritual, or theological truth of the narrative can only be understood when one understands the entire story. Other moral, ethical, or theological issues raised in the story may not, and in fact often will not, be addressed by the storyteller.

The implications of the assumption that each story generally speaks to one major issue while ignoring others means that we as preachers must do the same. To focus on other issues either positively or negatively is to treat narrative like allegory. Outlining stories chronologically (as we many times do with the epistles) also treats story as allegory and not as story. We must exegete narratives to discover the major truth, and then focus on that truth in preaching while ignoring other issues not developed in the narrative.

To exegete a biblical narrative, we must first determine where the story begins and ends. This is not always easy to do. Narrative books are like novels. In each one there are several smaller books that make up one complete volume. For example, the Book of Genesis has included in it the book of Abraham, the book of Isaac, and the book of Jacob. Within each of these books are chapters or narratives. These narratives may take in one, two, or three biblical chapters. That means that current chapter divisions are often meaningless in determining individual narratives. Therefore I must read several narratives a number of times, often in different translations, to determine where a particular story begins and ends. Once I have determined the beginning and the ending, I need to recognize that further exegesis may require later adjustments. I am now ready to begin to exegete the story.

Finding the meaning of stories is like being a detective with a myriad of clues.


My first responsibility is to determine the design of the story. Many stories are told in third person, while some are first-person accounts. Some stories begin at the beginning and continue on to the end, while others use flashback. Some stories place the emphasis on plot, while others focus on action or character development. As I note these observations, I am raising questions about why the story is designed as it is. However, these questions cannot be answered until the exegetical process is completed.


Next, I divide the story into scenes. It is helpful to imagine you are a movie director shooting a story. Each scene is filmed in a certain way to tell a story, remembering the order of scenes is important. The New American Standard Bible paragraph divisions seem to offer the best division of scenes in narratives.

It is helpful to make a chart for each paragraph or scene using one large piece of blank paper. Exegetical notes, observations, questions, and so on are then written in each section of the chart that corresponds to the appropriate scene. The design of the scenes is best understood through charting.


Next, develop a list of characters. Again, it is helpful to compare the characters in a story to actors in a drama: Who is the star? Who is the antagonist? Who is the protagonist? Who is the character actor crucial to the story's development? Who are the extras? Characters show us how life is lived out and managed in particular situations (the scenes). The living out of life is not announced but accomplished, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, in the conflict of the drama.


Then note the action. As events unfold, characters respond and act, which produces further action. In a character study, that action may be thought or dialogue. But even the dialogue or thought is a reaction to events and produces further action that eventually leads to some kind of climax.


The next step is to examine any dialogue. (Dialogue may actually be monologue; however, I am using the term dialogue in its broadest sense.) The major method for developing characterization in narrative is through the words spoken by the characters. The storyteller (in this case ultimately the Holy Spirit) often communicates the major idea through the words uttered by the characters.

Many biblical stories are condensed, meaning the storyteller is functioning as an editor, which makes dialogue important. Note the dialogue to appear first in a story, or dialogue that is repeated, especially with minor variations. Such minor variations often have major significance.


It is at this point that the interpreter employs lexical or grammatical processes. However, in narrative exegesis these processes are usually not needed to determine the idea. Sometimes the idea is developed more through the design, plot, action, and so on, than through the dialogue. What makes the interpretation of narratives difficult is the idea is seldom developed the same way in each narrative. The implementation of exegetical rules may require more artistic flair than needed for didactic materials.


The next step in the exegetical method is to list the statements made by the narrator. Without these statements the story would not make sense because specific motives, thoughts, hidden actions, and the like would not be known. As many have noted, the narrator is omniscient, knowing thoughts, intimate and private conversations, hidden events, and God's mind. These statements are God's entrance as the ultimate storyteller into the story. Therefore, these comments become decisive in ultimately determining the meaning of the story.


Next, we must discover the plot. This is not always easy, especially if we know the story well. Look at the story and determine those events that create and intensify the disequalibrium. Then determine where reversal occurs, changing the course established by the disequilibrium. Finally, establish how the story is resolved.

In developing plot, it is important to determine whether the story is a comedy or tragedy. The events that develop the plot in a comedy may not be the ones that develop the plot in a tragedy or vice versa. We must remember biblical stories are not morality plays where good and evil are obvious. Stories have the ability to handle well the ambiguities of life.


After this, examine the tone of the story. You are seeking the worldview being communicated. The way the story is told is often as important as the story itself in determining tone.

Rhetorical structures

The next step is to look for rhetorical structures. Such structures may include chiasm, repetition, contrasts, or a scene that seems out of place with other scenes. Often an anomaly in the pattern or structure points to the major idea being developed in the story. Again, just as certain scenes in movies are pivotal, so certain patterns or deviations from patterns are critical to the story's point.


Finally, the interpreter gathers data from the context. The context is the stories that surround the narrative and create a section. Often, it is best to read the narratives on each side of the one being studied and write a single descriptive sentence title for each. If each story is described accurately in the sentence title, the interpreter begins to gain a sense of how the narrative being studied fits the context. It is crucial at this time to observe how the stories develop ideas rather than focusing on chronology. Remember, narratives are grouped together to create a theological argument.

Exegetical idea

Following these exegetical steps, write a single descriptive sentence title for each scene or paragraph. This title should include no interpretation. Again, this is difficult, yet our inability to deal with story as story requires this step. We must force ourselves to learn what is in the story before we begin to ask why.

Once you have written these sentences, create a single descriptive title for the entire narrative. This sentence should accurately summarize and reflect the paragraph titles. Oftentimes the idea is missed because the major elements of the narrative are not precisely described.

Observe the sentences (paragraph titles and narrative titles) and ascertain the writer's emphasis. No two stories are the same in content and presentation. In each story certain literary aspects are emphasized at the expense of others to communicate the idea. Evidence must be weighed. Sometimes the storyteller may focus on characters, dialogue, and plot. Other times the focus may be design, scene, and the narrator's comments. The formula is never the same. Finding the meaning of stories is like being a detective with a myriad of clues. Only certain clues reveal the mystery while other clues, if pursued, lead to a false conclusion. However, if the correct clues are used to uncover the crime, all the other clues fit in place. Then and only then can the interpreter begin to know the truth communicated in a particular narrative.

After you discover the storyteller's emphasis, determine what the story is about. This determination provides the subject. Then decide what is being said about the subject, since this provides the complement for the idea.

Now you are ready to take the sentence descriptive title, if it has been stated accurately and precisely, and supply the interpretation. Add the interpretive elements in order to state the storyteller's idea. State this idea in one sentence, and it becomes the exegetical idea of the story. When this idea is stated accurately and truthfully, it will fit this story alone and no other.

Once you have the exegetical idea, you have completed the exegesis of the narrative. This process, like all exegetical methods, is difficult. You also gain expertise in developing the exegetical idea as you find it, time after time. The important idea to remember is the exegetical method for narratives is different from the methods used to discover God's ideas in letters, poems, proverbs, or parables.

Once you have determined the exegetical idea of the story, you are ready to begin work on the sermon.

Narrative passages lend themselves easily to narrative-style sermons, either in first- or third-person presentations. However, I wish to describe a process that fits the traditional format while enabling preachers to construct sermons that do not violate the essence of story in their presentations.

Preaching this way enables you and your people to feel the story as drama.

First, examine the exegetical idea and determine how you can restate it so it both reflects the historical accurateness and literary intent of the story while using terms that create a timeless proposition. This process requires much effort and numerous restatements. However, once you have correctly stated the idea this way, you have the eternal theological concept that is true for God's people in any era. This is your preaching idea.

The preaching idea is the precise answer to a specific need, problem, or difficulty in life. The story you have exegeted reveals how an individual or group has dealt with this issue successfully or unsuccessfully from God's perspective. The preaching idea is the remedy; the story reveals how spiritually diseased people embraced or rejected this remedy.

Your job as the preacher is to develop for your congregation how people relate, interact, and struggle with the same spiritual disease. You pick those aspects of the story that enable you to illustrate this disease. Rather than thinking of which verses do this, demonstrate how the plot, character development, scenes, actions, design, tone, and so on develop the disease. You use these elements to state, elaborate, and build the first half to two-thirds of your sermon.

This process of developing the spiritual disease means that two things always occur. First, the sermon seldom ever follows the narrative chronologically. Second, you develop the sermon using disequilibrium. The disequilibrium of the story may be used, but more often it is the disequilibrium of the disease for which the remedy is the preaching idea.

Now you are ready to develop the second aspect of your sermon, the remedy. You go to the elements of the story that support the exegetical/preaching idea. Again, you will often be moving about the text. You demonstrate how God's people successfully or unsuccessfully embraced the divine remedy for their spiritual sickness. This idea is applied to your congregation. In this way, your preaching idea becomes the reversal (the remedy) to the disequilibrium you have created (the spiritual sickness).

Last, you use the closing minutes to demonstrate the implications of accepting or rejecting this remedy. You show how acceptance brings spiritual health, while rejection brings further illness. You appeal to people to choose health (life) over the disease (death).

Preaching this way enables you and your people to feel the story as drama. The sermon, which has its own plot, uses the pieces of the story that reflect the disequilibrium, reversal, and resolution they felt when they first read or heard the story. However, you have used the story as story, and the idea of the story has caused the congregation to wrestle with the disequilibrium of humanness, to understand and feel the reversal of divine truth, and, to choose the resolutions that provide life. Both the sermon and the text (a narrative) have been treated as story.

Preaching narratives is a delight. Finding the main idea of the story is a mysterious adventure that results in a wonderful climax. Leading a congregation through disequilibrium is also a grand adventure. Watching people go through an "aha" experience as the sermon plot is revealed is awesome. Finally, leading them to resolutions that are real, because they are based on true narratives, is genuinely satisfying. You will preach ideas you never thought the Bible articulated. And as a result, you will see congregations make choices that are astounding.

Above all else, remember that the power in preaching comes from the Spirit's use of God's Word. You and I are instruments through which God often seeks to work.

Reprinted from Paul Borden, "Is There Really One Big Idea in That Story?" The Big Idea of Biblical Preaching, (Baker, 1998), edited by Willhite and Gibson. www.bakerbooks.com

Paul Borden is executive minister of Growing Healthy Churches and author of Direct Hit.

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