Storytelling as Preaching: Technique or Theology?

As someone who preaches often — but not as much as parochial priests or deacons — I understand the anxieties of frequent homilizing. The questions are perennial: Will I have something fresh to say? Will it connect with the lives of those in the assembly? Will it contribute to the Church in its mission to the world?

Storytelling has been a vital aspect of my preaching over the decades for various reasons. Consistent feedback suggests that assembly members not only connect with the stories, but they want to retell them. Storytelling is undoubtedly an effective technique for engaging believers. Yet, because preaching is more than liturgical marketing, and homilizing has broader goals than filling empty pews or raising the collection, advocating for storytelling in the homiletic act requires serious liturgical and theological foundations.

One of those foundations is rooted in our humanity. Christians affirm that Jesus Christ is both truly human and truly divine. If one takes the Gospels seriously, it was not the divinity of Jesus that disciples first experienced; it was his humanity. It is only in Chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel (and Chapter 16 of Matthew’s) that Peter announces Jesus as Messiah: a proclamation that took years to achieve and more time to realize. Storytelling is one of the most human of activities, known across virtually every context and epoch. By exercising this most human enterprise, we begin the ascent to communing with the very incarnation of God’s story in Jesus.

The Human Side of Storytelling

Over the past century, anthropologists have documented the importance of storytelling in the construction of mythological paintings, as well as in the hunting and burial practices of our ancient forebearers. Contemporary social scientists have provided further insights as to why humans actually need to tell stories. Central is the work of Dan McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, who published in 1997 “The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self” (Guilford Publications, $39). In a memorable passage, McAdams summarizes:

“Human beings are storytellers by nature. In many guises, as folktale, legend, myth, epic, history, motion picture and television program, the story appears in every known human culture. The story is a natural package for organizing many different kinds of information. Storytelling appears to be a fundamental way of expressing ourselves and our world to others.”

As Herbert Anderson and I posited in our book “Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals” (Jossey Bass, $18.95), storytelling is not simply a way to express ourselves, it is also an interpretive tool. We create stories in order to make sense of our lives and the world we inhabit. That is why two or 20 people can be at the same event, or in the same family, and each will tell a different story of that event or the familial dynamics at play behind that event. Storytelling is, in effect, a hermeneutical tool. From a human perspective, we employ storytelling as a critical hermeneutic for enabling individuals and communities to make sense of those crucial moments of our lives.

That is a partial explanation why storytelling is so important in the grieving process. Wakes and funerals, deaths and burials bring out a particular strand of storytelling, especially around the deceased. We tell the stories to remember, to interpret their lives, but also to give us a way forward. Herbert Anderson has suggested that the goal of effective grieving is building a life-giving memory so that those who grieve can move forward not only in remembering, but also in realizing the mission and future gifts of the deceased. From my perspective, this is a useful frame for considering how the Gospels themselves developed: as a form of “grief work.” The Gospels were a way to remember focal stories about Jesus, but also to employ those stories both to interpret his life and to offer a pathway forward for those left behind after his death who themselves were seeking the way of resurrection. Storytelling is a critical, hermeneutical tool for the living, especially in the face of rupture, loss and death.

The Surprising Neuroscience

The field of neuroscience studies the brain and nervous system. While this might seem like an esoteric field, neuroscience actually has much to contribute to our understanding of storytelling. By employing MRIs, scientists have been able to discover what parts of the brain engage, or “light up,” in response to different stimuli. The results are quite astounding. If, for example, you experience a presentation (or homily) that essentially communicates information, only two parts of the brain ordinarily are engaged: the Wernicke area for language comprehension and the Broca area for language processing. When relating a vivid and compelling story, however, as many as five other regions of the brain can light up if specific sense perceptions are referenced — for example, the motor cortex if the story relates movement; the sensory cortex and cerebellum if it is about touch; the olfactory cortex if the narrative includes smells or scents; the auditory context if there are important sounds in the story; and the visual cortex if it effectively describes shapes and colors.

Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University pushes the neuroscience even further. In the past decade his lab discovered that a chemical in the brain called oxytocin is key to signaling that another person or situation is “safe.” He writes that “it motivates cooperation with others ... by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.” He further reports that compelling human stories consistently prod the brain to produce oxytocin, effectively engage listeners and motivate them to respond empathetically.

This neuroscience corroborates an insight from philosopher Richard Kearney who, drawing upon the work of Elizabeth Costello, argues that an empathetic imagination is a narrative imagination. The failure of the narrative imagination, according to Kearney, makes possible genocides and atrocities. He concludes: “If we possess narrative sympathy — enabling us to see the world from the other’s point of view — we cannot kill. If we do not, we cannot love.”

God the Storyteller

Christians have many traditional names for God (such as King, Creator and Father). While it is not one we often employ, there are biblical and theological reasons for considering God not only a divine storyteller, but the first storyteller. Salvation history is filled with stories that no human being witnessed firsthand. None of us was there at the creation of the world, the fall of Satan or the planting of the Garden of Eden. We know those stories because, through revelation, we believe that God told them to us. Thus God was our first storyteller, rendering storytelling a sacred act.

In the prologue to his elegant “The Gates of the Forest” (Schocken, $16.95), Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel weaves one of those magical rabbinical stories and concludes by suggesting that God created people because God loves stories. Jesus was a celebrated storyteller, and he particularly was adept at the form of storytelling known as parable. Parables can be powerful and often are driven by brief but compelling characterizations and mounting tension — two elements Zak argues contribute to the production of oxytocin in our brains. The most telling peculiarity of the parable is its element of surprise. Whether it is the prodigal love that the father lavishes upon the returning son (see Lk 15:11-32) or the Samaritan reversal on the road to Jericho (Lk 10:29-37), Jesus’ narrative teaching was designed to engage the listener, requiring them to fill in the blanks and come to a conclusion they were not always prepared to accept.

Jesus not only was a gifted parabler, but he was the very embodiment of compelling characterization, mounting tension and ultimate godly surprise as the veritable only-begotten; thus Jesus can aptly be called the very parable of God. He was the incarnate twist on a divine tale that disrupted religious thinking, put the pious on notice, opened wide the door for sinners and was unflinching in forging an unbreakable alliance between the Holy One and the marginalized.

It is both fitting and ironic that the only appropriate vehicle for adequately remembering and communicating this Jesus tale was a completely new form of storytelling we call “Gospel.”

Narrating the Homily

While there are innumerable hints and techniques to render our storytelling more effective, when it comes to homilizing I will only propose three.

The first is not to look for stories to insert into the homily, but to discover the story already embedded in the readings and the Eucharistic liturgy. Our readings, as well as the feasts and seasons at the heart of our Eucharistic worship, are filled with amazing tales of God’s loving pursuit of often recalcitrant if not unlovable creatures. Look for the narrative already there. Often the story appears to be so well known, whether it is some Jesus miracle or a dispute among disciples, that we leave it unexplored and wander off in some other direction. Eugene Lowry, in his compelling “The Homiletical Plot” (Westminster John Knox Press, $22), urges the preacher to “trouble the texts,” explore the unexplored motives, imagine the missing dialogue, dig beneath the surface of the story and retell it in a fresh and intriguing way. Of course, this takes time — but all preaching worthy of the name always does.

Second, rely less on humor and more on the parabolic and surprising. Preaching is not about entertaining but engaging. Like the image of God reaching out to Adam on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, it is about closing the gap between the human and the divine, not diverting attention with humor. Parables can be found in the plot of a great movie or novel or in the narratives of gifted storytellers. Hasidic tales, like that which Wiesel relates at the beginning of “The Gates of the Forest” is such an example.

And third, the stories first and foremost are not about us. They are about and for the people we serve. Thus, as Pope Francis reminds us, we need to keep our ear to the ground and listen not only to God’s word in the Scriptures, but also to the revelatory tales of people’s real lives.

I think Wiesel is right: God does love to tell stories. As preachers, we are called to a similar reverence and appreciation.

FATHER EDWARD FOLEY, OFM Cap, is the Duns Scotus Professor of Spirituality and a professor of liturgy and music at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where he was the founding director of the Ecumenical Doctor of Ministry Program.