Review of “Preaching: The Art of Narrative Preaching”

Calvin MillerYesterday afternoon I was talking with another Pastor about the men who have mentored us and who influenced us in our ministry.  That conversation got me to start thinking about some of the older Pastors and Professors who influenced my life.  There have been several but for some reason my mind kept drifting back to a doctoral seminar lead by Dr. Calvin Miller.  For those who were with me in that class, I think we can all say that Dr. Miller made more impact in one week than most professors do in a lifetime.  His warm, caring and humorous presentation of the material and the one-on-one time that we spent with each of us will never be forgotten.  Calvin passed away back in August of 2012 but his memory and legacy lives on in the preachers he influenced.  Here is my review of his book, published in 2006 entitled “Preaching: The Art of Narrative Preaching.”  I would highly commend this book for anyone who wants to strengthen and improve their preaching skills.

REVIEW:

Calvin Miller served as  professor of divinity in preaching and pastoral ministry at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.  Previously he served as a senior pastor in Omaha and as writer-in-residence and professor of communications and homiletics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In this book Miller draws on over thirty-five years of pulpit experience and fourteen in teaching preaching to provide a conversational style of writing aimed at helping preachers to understand the enormity of their task.  Miller writes, “Preaching has a calling far greater than just making sermons interesting. Preaching exists to create the kingdom.  Merely getting and keeping attention is too small a job description for this critical, redeeming art.”(p.12)

He begins the book by making several assertions about preaching.  First, he says that preaching must be persuasive.  This stems from that fact that preaching is “the workhorse of the ecclesia.” Miller rightly points out that, “Preaching is rescue work.  It arrives on the human scene with splints and bandages to save and heal—and restore the world to all that was lost when the gates of Eden clanged shut.”(p.13)  Preaching aims at persuading men to repent and to follow Christ.  Miller clearly recognizes that this assertion is going to put him at odds with a postmodern culture that values freedom and resents any attempt at conversion.  However, he makes a strong point and one that every preacher needs to heed.  Preaching is persuasion but not mere persuasion.  It does not rely on mere rhetoric to accomplish its task.  Biblical preaching is a Spirit driven affair.

Second, Miller asserts that preaching has an apologetic imperative in a secular culture.  He notes that “Thus saith the Lord, seems a weak way to argue, when everyone believes themselves to be ‘lords’ of their own affairs.”(p.14)  “Preaching,” Miller says, “has to find an apologetic that is incontrovertible if it hopes to go on making a difference.”(p.15)  This stand is going to require a great deal of bravery on the part of preachers because the culture is becoming ever more hostile to any claims of authority or objective truth.  Furthermore, the communication age has brought about a new dimension to preaching, the visual.  Preachers must now pay attention to the eye as well as the ear.

Third, Miller asserts that narrative preaching can be expository.  Expository preaching is usually thought of as being highly propositional and employing linear reasoning.  Over the years it has been prone to the accusation of being boring, namely because it tended to lack stories and illustrations that could make it exciting.  In fact, Miller notes that it was generally acknowledged that sermons needed to be dull and that exciting sermons were normally heretical. (p. 20) Furthermore, it was the theological left that began to discuss the new homiletic of narrative preaching, thus causing many conservatives to reject it by mere association.  Miller strongly asserts that expository preaching can be both narrative and exciting.  As evidence he cites the preaching of Jesus, which was obviously always exciting because it was filled with interesting stories and images that capture the listener’s ear and heart.  Miller summarizes his thesis saying, “I will be arguing for preaching as craft.  Preachers are not only professionals in their field, but the best of them are artists who can make the Scripture come alive with metaphor and image.  I will also argue that metaphor and story is not only a legitimate form of exposition but is a preferred style of exposition mostly because it is so much more memorable than mere precepts-driven homiletics.”(p. 21)

The rest of the book is broken into three sections: 1.) Analysis: The Exegesis of All things; 2.) Writing the Sermon; 3.) Preaching the Sermon.  Each of these sections is then broken into various chapters which outline in detail the process that Miller is advocating.  His section dealing with Analysis is most interesting and begins at the most natural but least talked about place—the exegesis of the preacher.  He begins the chapter by stating, “No reasonable book on the subject of preaching can begin with what is said.  The force of preaching must being with who’s saying it.”(p. 25)  He then cites the collapse of many religious cable empires in the 1980’s as evidence of this fact.  Aristotle referred to this as the speaker’s ethos.  Miller touches here on one of the most pressing needs in reaching a post-modern society.  Most people in America today have become jaded by watching two generations of scandal in both politics and religion.  What people are looking for today is something real and authentic, therefore, the preacher’s ethos, while always important, is even more crucial today.  Miller also touches on something that has been largely lost in the era of the megachurch and that is Richard Baxter’s axiom that “sermons preached to strangers were no sermon at all.”(28)  Every preacher will benefit greatly from this section.

One area in the book that may concern those who are committed to expository preaching will be Miller’s approach to exegesis.  It is obvious throughout the text that Miller expects the sermon to be built upon a solid exegesis of the text; however, his approach to this task is very different from the typical approach encountered in most expository preaching texts.  Miller comes at this subject first and foremost from the standpoint of an artist and a communicator.  Most textbooks on preaching approach exegesis from a purely theological or technical standpoint.  Miller’s approach, therefore, will at first be disconcerting to those accustomed to reading the works of Bryan Chapell or Sidney Greidanus.  But care should be taken not to reject Miller’s approach out of pocket. By approaching exegesis in a more left-brained manner, Miller is able to point out the mistakes and shortcomings of those who are more right-brained.  Much of Miller’s approach derives from his earlier contention that preaching must be persuasive.  He notes, “It does amaze me that highly propositional preachers seem not to understand that stories are the stuff of persuasion far more than propositions.  Propositions may tell you what you should do but stories motivate you to do them.” (p.134) Therefore, Miller’s approach is to constantly keep the persuasive element that stories can play in mind as he approaches the exegetical process.  He seems to always be thinking about how the text will be communicated, therefore, throughout the exegetical process he suggests that the preacher look for the text’s deeper meaning and possible stories that it may suggest. (p.129) These stories can then be used to communicate the meaning of the text to the listener.

One of the most helpful discussions in the book concerns the need for preachers to think visually and to preach images. This subject occupies the 7th chapter of the book which is entitled, “Imaging the Argument.” This is perhaps the single most important chapter in the entire work and the one that deserves the most attention.  He begins this chapter by saying, “Only a few preachers see themselves as artists and view the work they do as image making.  Too bad, too, for all listeners hear with words but store what we hear in pictures.  So sermons are remembered only if they contain enough good pictures to be stored.” (p.145)  As already mentioned one of the charges leveled against expository preaching is that it is boring.  Often this is a result of the preacher not being able to communicate in a way that allows the listener to picture or imagine what he is saying.  Miller argues that by learning the art of story the preacher can make the message come alive and better communicate the meaning of the text.  He writes, “Story is not just a biblical literary mode but an authentic communication form used first by God in inspiring Scripture and thus making it commendable for all those who later wish to communicate the “Big story” in effective ways.” (p.147)  Miller distinguishes himself from those who “have become dogmatic in defining the narrative sermon as an entire homily preached as a single story.” (p.148) He asserts that his definition of narrative preaching is wider and “more nearly resembles how the Bible itself tells stories.” (p.148)  The best way to do this he says is “to be all-inclusive is to mix the sermon’s content with good stories that illumine the precepts and to teach the precepts that apply the stories to the truth of the text.  The best model is not so much linear trail by a stacked sandwich.” (p.149-150)  He admits that his approach differs from the traditional approach only in that he gives far more emphasis on story.  The rest of the chapter is devoted to helping the preacher develop the skills necessary to being a good story teller.

Those who are committed to faithful expository preaching will be both pleased and challenged by this book.  They will be pleased because the approach to preaching the Miller lays out in this book provides a valid and useful way for expository preachers to incorporate narrative into their messages.  He does not fall into the trap that Eugene Lowey did in The Homiletical Plot of insisting that that entire sermon must cast as a narrative.[1]  Instead he presents a method that is able to respect the authority of the text but still incorporate narrative in the message.  They will be challenged by the unique approach that he brings to sermon preparation and exegesis.  This book is probably not a good text for the beginning or novice preacher who has not yet developed the basic hermeneutic and homiletical skills necessary for expository preaching.  However, everyone else needs to read this book and to see how to incorporate the Art of narrative into their messages.


[1] Eugene Lowery, The Homiletical Plot: the Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)

 

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