Only Stories

Spoiler alert:  If you haven’t seen the movie “Atonement” and want to, don’t read this.In this movie, a young teen falsely accuses a man of a heinous crime.  The man is the lover of her older sister.  The movie shows the man being released from prison to fight in WW II and eventually reuniting with his lover.  You find out at the end of the movie that is not what happened at all.  The man was released to fight in the war, but died of a wound before returning home.  The older sister was also killed in an air raid.  The younger sister thinks she has made “atonement” for her sin by giving them a happy ending in the book she wrote about the incident as an adult.  That’s not atonement; that’s story telling.

Is that all we Christians are doing in the face of sin, death, and the devil: telling stories?  Are we like the people in the 14th century novel The Decameron? This is the tale of several young adults fleeing the Bubonic plague.  They hole up in a villa outside the city.  To distract themselves from the Black Death raging outside they take turns telling love stories.  It is said that in these hundred stories every boy-girl plot known to man is played out.  (By the way, this book is not suitable for young people.)  Is this all we Christians are doing on Sunday morning: telling each other stories to distract us from the sin, death, and the devil raging outside?

No we gather to be graced, gifted, given a real atonement.  We are guilty of heinous sins.  We have messed up our own and other people’s lives.  Rightfully under the law we see the wrath of God behind every twister, cyclone, earthquake, problem, disease, affliction, and death.  But the Gospel isn’t a mere story of a happy ending.  It is God coming down to do the right we don’t do and not do the wrong we do.  Moreover, it is God in our flesh and blood drinking the very dregs of God’s wrath till the cup is empty.  We stand safely under the outstretched arms of the crucified Christ as the wrath of God strikes Him again and again till there’s no more sins that need punishing not even ours. 

The Gospel is not a mere story of a happy ending.  It is the message of a real atonement achieved by Jesus.  Narrative preaching, which is related to narrative theology which is related to the attractive notion of psychobabble that we all have a story which we need to tell, does not say the Gospel is a mere story, but in effect treats it that way.  Fred Craddock circa 1971 wrote a book about narrative preaching (He calls it inductive preaching) titled As One Without Authority.  I was at an Army chaplain school with a UCC chaplain that studied under him.  He “preached” beautiful, engaging, narrative sermons.  They were masterpieces of that art form, but they were only stories.  No one was told they were a sinner; consequently no one was told their sins were forgiven.  No one was told that God was angry at them for their sins; consequently what need did they have for atonement in Jesus?  An entertaining story was enough.

But it’s not.  Like in the movie “Atonement,” there are things in our lives that need to be set right, not just or even mainly, as in the movie, things with people, but above all things with God.  But much modern preaching is giving us only stories.  Like in the movie, in narrative preaching nothing really is changed, but we feel better.  And that’s dangerous.  Before you freeze to death to you feel warm and sleepy; before the wicked witch sends her flying monkeys to get you, you fall blissfully asleep in a field of poppies.  “Sleep my pretties sleep,” she purrs.

Narrative preaching purrs us to sleep rather than confronts us with our problem.  It tells us more or less entertaining stories but stories just the same.  There are no true or false stories only more or less entertaining ones.  Entertainment admits only a distinction of degree.  Theology is based on a distinction of kind.  “Atonement” shows a bad deed and tells an entertaining story as the solution.  Much modern preaching does the same, and like the movie, it gets good reviews but doesn’t atone for anything.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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