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Real Life Stories for Sermons that Matter
By Scott Hoezee
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Show, Don't Tell
In past years my wife attended some summer seminars at the Writer's Workshop sponsored by the University of Iowa. These conferences are attended mostly by aspiring novelists who want to learn from the pros what makes for good writing—the kind of writing that would help each such would-be novelist achieve the dream of getting an acceptance letter from a publisher one day. One year my wife returned home sporting a new t-shirt she had bought at the University of Iowa's bookstore. The shirt was emblazoned with a slogan that is trumpeted with regularity at novel-writing seminars: "Show, Don't Tell." Of all the skills aspiring writers of fiction need to learn, "Show, Don't Tell" is touted by the experts as one of the more important writing components to master.
Preachers do not write fiction or novels, of course. Sermons represent a literary form that can be readily distinguished from any number of other writing genres, including novels and short stories. But preachers can nevertheless learn a lot about how to compose compelling sermons by paying attention to the conventions of good writing in other literary forms. Of all the techniques preachers could pick up from writers of fiction, "Show, Don't Tell" may be one of the most vital. Since this is a book about how to weave narrative reality into sermons—and since those stories will usually enliven the power of a sermon to take root in people's lives precisely because they are examples of showing over against telling—it makes sense at the outset to devote some space in this volume to this part of the literary (and of the preaching) craft.
As noted in the introduction, however, there are skeptics out there who doubt that preachers need to learn this technique. Some have grown up hearing so many sermons that were essentially discursive lectures on doctrine—all tell and no show—that they cannot conceive of preaching any other way. Innovations like this whole "Show, Don't Tell" facet to writing look like foreign intrusions into sermons that just possibly the Holy Spirit does not need. But the lack of this in past homiletical practices is no reason to conclude we preachers cannot still learn to become better communicators in the future. If God created us in the unity of our being to be narrative animals, then "Show, Don't Tell" has much to offer the preacher after all.
When experienced writers talk about showing versus telling, they are describing a writing practice that at once makes for more interesting reading and that at the same time conveys information in a manner that will stick with the reader for much longer. The author Ron Rozelle, for instance, points out that by the time you finish reading Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, one thing that you as a reader are convinced of as much as anything else is that this novel's hero, Atticus Finch, is the epitome of a good man. Atticus Finch is the embodiment of goodness. But as Rozelle notes, not once in the course of that entire novel do you ever encounter the line "Atticus was a good man." Harper Lee never once told her readers that Atticus was good. Instead, in scene after scene, Lee showed her readers this man's goodness in ways that are indelible.
Showing through Details
My favorite scene from both the novel and from the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird demonstrates this principle of "Show, Don't Tell" in ways that are properly instructive for preachers. It is also a fine example that good storytelling comes from the details that get included. In the story, Atticus Finch is an attorney who nobly defends the wrongly accused black man, Tom Robinson, against the charge of having molested and raped a white woman. Despite Atticus's having mounted a credible case to demonstrate Tom Robinson's innocence, the all-white jury finds Robinson guilty anyway. From the courtroom balcony, Finch's children, Jem and Jean Louise (or "Scout"), had been watching the proceedings among a great crowd of black people who had come to see the trial but who were segregated from sitting on the lower level. After the guilty verdict is announced and the court begins to clear, Harper Lee wrote the following in the narrative voice of the daughter, Jean Louise/Scout:
Dimly, I saw Atticus pushing papers from the table into his briefcase. He snapped it shut, went to the court reporter and said something, nodded to Mr. Gilmer, and then went to Tom Robinson and whispered something to him. Atticus put his hand on Tom's shoulder as he whispered. Atticus took his coat off the back of his chair and pulled it over his shoulder. Then he left the courtroom, but not by his usual exit. He must have wanted to go home the short way, because he walked quickly down the middle aisle toward the south exit. I followed the top of his head as he made his way to the door. He did not look up. Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus's lonely walk down the aisle.
"Miss Jean Louise?"
I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes's voice was as distant as Judge Taylor's:
"Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin.'"
This scene shows us the goodness of Atticus Finch—and the respect it garnered for him among the downtrodden people whom he served—in a way vastly more memorable and more meaningful than if Lee had written at any point in her novel, "Atticus Finch was a good man." But of course, that is but one such scene throughout the novel that shows what goodness looks like in action, even if the trait of goodness is never once singled out for theoretical consideration. As Rozelle points out, it would surely be much more expedient to write, "Atticus Finch was a good man," as opposed to the scene just quoted, which requires many more words and takes up considerably more space on a page. But it is precisely the level of detail and the grain of real life that is experienced in the longer scene that makes goodness vivid.
Preachers take note! A few well-chosen narrative details deliver the freight of what needs to be conveyed better than dozens of abstract words or descriptions ever could. Of course, a novel and a sermon are two very different kinds of writing, but the underlying principle here applies to preaching as well as to novel writing: people learn best not primarily when something is explained to them, but when, through the inclusion of detail and elements of everyday life, people recognize in a narrative way truths that resonate with their experience.
If you know someone in real life similar to Atticus Finch, then when you talk about that person to someone else, you also will reach for stories, vignettes, and details that show this person's goodness in action. Indeed, if you were merely to say to someone, "My friend Jane Hogan is a good person," the average person would likely respond, "What do you mean by 'good'? How so?" The answer to such a logical question will inevitably lead to stories chock-full of real-world details that will flesh out Jane's goodness.
Sermons do not exist merely to tell stories, nor do they move along only the way a novel would proceed. But whenever sermons talk about scenarios of real life, justtelling people that scenario X exists in the world will never be as effective as showingone clear and detailed example of that scenario in action. And please notice: if just mentioning Jane's "goodness" in the abstract would not be enough to satisfy a conversation partner on a Tuesday morning over coffee, then it will not be acceptable on a Sunday morning when talking about the goodness of God. When the preacher says, "My Savior is a good person," those listening will respond in their hearts, "What do you mean by 'good'? How so?"
The writer John Gardener once noted, "Detail is the lifeblood of fiction."
Instead of writing "She felt terrible," [the writer] can show—by the precise gesture or look or by capturing the character's exact turn of phrase—subtle nuances of the character's feeling. The more abstract a piece of writing is, the less vivid the dream it sets off in the reader's mind. One can feel happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways: the abstract adjective says almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment. This is what is meant when writing teachers say that one should "show," not "tell." And this, it should be added, is all that the writing teacher means. Good writers may "tell" about almost anything in fiction except the characters' feelings. One may tell the reader that the character went to a private school ... or one may tell the reader that the character hates spaghetti; but with rare exceptions the characters' feelings must be demonstrated: fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events—action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting.
The details flesh out an idea or a circumstance in a way straightforward, linear descriptions cannot accomplish. Details put us viscerally in touch with circumstances and situations we all experience every week. The novelist Francine Prose once quoted a friend who teaches creative writing as saying, "'Trust me on this,' my friend said, 'God really is in the details.' If God is in the details, we must all on some deep level believe that the truth is in there too, or maybe it is that God is truth: Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth—a fact that every liar knows instinctively and too well." Prose goes on to quote the philosopher and theologian Alfred North Whitehead, who observed, "We think in generalities. But we live in detail."
The Bible as Source for "Show, Don't Tell"
But this facet of the writing craft that pays such careful attention to the grain of real life through the inclusion of vivid and specific details is found not just in contemporary fiction: it is on display in also some of the most memorable parts of the Bible. Think of Jesus's landmark parables of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son. Today welabel the former parable "the good Samaritan," but like Harper Lee with Atticus Finch, the truth is that in his telling of the parable as reported by Luke, Jesus never oncetells us that the Samaritan is good, but just asks, "Which of those three, do you think, was a neighbor?" Later Bible editors added subheadings like "the good Samaritan" because they, too, caught what Jesus was showing.
The father of the prodigal in Luke 15 is likewise known to Christians everywhere as a loving and gracious man, even though Jesus never once told his listeners that this was the case. In his parables, although Jesus was not adverse to telling us information here and there, mostly Jesus is a paragon of "Show, Don't Tell" by allowing some of the most important parts of his stories, parables, and sermons to emerge, not through brief descriptive sentences that hit us over the head by telling us something obvious, but through our seeing the characters in action. Along the lines of what John Gardner noted, Jesus in Luke 15 also never tells us that the father was overjoyed, happy, or giddy at his lost son's return. But only a fool could fail to notice that every single one of those emotions was present in the father's heart. You could see it in his actions and hear it in how he later defended those actions to his upset older son. In the introduction I asserted that what good stories really do in preaching is bring us into contact with the living presence of God in our lives. That's what Jesus did, too: he did not tell people about the God he called his Father but brought his listeners into living contact with that God.
When this is done well in writing and in storytelling generally, descriptive "tell" sentences either before or (most certainly) after the story actually become superfluous and even clunky. Writer Nancy Kress counsels aspiring novelists and even experienced writers to beware, therefore, of the tendency to overexplain or to ruin a well-constructed "show" section by giving in to the temptation to "tell" what it all means after all. "Ironically most writers tell after they show not because they mistrust the reader's intelligence to 'get' the point, but rather because they lack faith in their own prose."
To connect this to what was just observed about Jesus' own parables, it is not difficult to perceive how ham-fisted it would have been of our Lord—or of Luke in reporting the parable—to tack on after the parable's final words something like, "And so we see, beloved, that the father was loving, the younger son was repentant, and the older son was a bit of an entitled twerp. And remember, too, that I told this parable and those other two about the sheep and the coin because, you see, I am trying to give some hope to these 'sinners' sitting in front of me whose presence upset the twerpy Pharisees who, just so you know, are represented in this last parable by the older brother who just cannot generate any joy over the fact that sometimes the lost come home, which in this case I should point out is not really some person's literal home but by 'home' I mean the kingdom of God ..."
This is not the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God!
Jesus typically did not tack on such long "tell" sections. Alas, very often preachers conclude their stories or their sermons by doing precisely this. To the minds of some people—both those who preach sermons but also to the minds of not a few people who listen to sermons (and that is probably because they have been trained to listen for all the wrong things)—it's just not a sermon until or unless there are long stretches of didactic teaching and linear descriptions, all capped off with a heaping helping of moralizing, in which listeners are told not just what it all means but what they must now go out and accomplish on account of what it all means.
More often than not, however, what we preachers struggle with is not yielding to the temptation to mess up our fine "show" sections with unnecessary "tell" sentences but rather the struggle is to remember to include "show" sections in our sermons to begin with. Left to our own devices, many of us tend to have a default setting of writing and preaching sermons that are exceedingly long on "tell" but very, very short on "show." In some ways, this is a hazard of seminary training, where in typical academic fashion we are required to write essays and formal papers that are chock-full of "tell," but that pass muster with professors just fine, even if those writings display very little by way of "show." That works in academic discourse but not so well in pulpit speech.
Balancing Tell with Show
But before we consider other reasons why we preachers tend to do this—and see some examples of this tendency—it needs to be noted that nothing in what we are considering here is meant to convey the notion that sermons may never "tell." Sermons, as a matter of fact, absolutely need to have a decent amount of "tell" in them because all sermons include a significant teaching component. Mostly what preachers teach and tell the congregation about is the meaning of the scripture passage on which that particular sermon is based or perhaps necessary definitions of various doctrines or theological terms or the meaning of this or that fruit of the Spirit.
The linear and "tell" parts of the sermon are the necessary parts of the sermon in which information is conveyed: What is the setting of this Bible text, where does it fit inside the larger book or epistle of which this text is a part, where does it fit inside the larger witness of scripture and of salvation history, what do the various words and phrases in the text mean? If a preacher wants the congregation to come away from a given sermon understanding some important elements of Mark's Gospel (and how those elements are on display in the passage under consideration that week), then those thematic and literary elements will need to be explained, detailed, laid out before the people in a fairly systematic way. Also, for the simple sake of clarity, at many points in sermons the preacher will need to label some phenomenon, some spiritual discipline, some practice of piety and define what each such item is. At times it's important to point out for the congregation the difference between the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit, and there may well be no better way to do that than by telling people the differences. All good sermons help to answer such vital questions about the text at hand, and doing this requires sections of "tell" in the form of straightforward descriptions.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. As John Gardener points out, novelists do their fair share of telling inside the story. But then the telling is inside the larger story, not outside of the narrative or disconnected from it. Ron Rozelle gives the following example from Masuji Ibuse's novel Black Rain that involves the dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Nowhere in this novel does Ibuse write the line, "The city suffered great damage in the blast." Instead, at one point Ibuse wrote the following passage that displays a beautiful way of telling inside the story:
Among the ruins, the reflection of the sun on the pieces of broken glass on the road was so strong that it was difficult to hold your head up as you walked. The smell of death was a little fainter than the day before, but the places where houses had collapsed into tile-covered heaps stank vilely and were covered with great, black swarms of flies. The relief squads clearing the ruins seemed to have been joined by reinforcements since I saw some men whose clothes, though bleached with frequent washing, were not soiled with sweat and grime as yet.
Excerpted from Actuality by Scott Hoezee. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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