Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

Biblical Narratives: Some Comments on Structure, Themes, and Sermons

Biblical Narratives: Some Comments on Structure, Themes, and Sermons

Towards the end of last year I wrote an article arguing that most biblical narratives don’t have a main point. I was grateful to those readers who raised questions and engaged with me—both privately and on social media. Almost all of what I develop in this article is owed to those conversations and comments.

Before we get to my three headings below, I want to acknowledge that my previous article depended extensively on an analogy between biblical narratives and fictional stories. Though I do distinguish between the fundamental nature of the Bible and good books, this doesn’t change the fact that both tell stories. And stories evade simplistic readings, especially when they employ irony, satire, and ambiguity—all of which are readily utilised by the biblical writers. Thus claiming one main idea for each biblical narrative is often, in my opinion, reductive.

While writing the previous post and reading the subsequent comments, I found myself returning more than once to Michael Gorman’s Elements of Biblical Exegesis. There, Gorman cautions against the overweening confidence that tends to accompany the historical-grammatical hermeneutic, with its “hope that careful exegesis, attention to all the details, will produce a definitive interpretation of the text.” However, as Gorman continues, we won’t always reach “the meaning.” I gladly rely on that hermeneutic in my own preaching, teaching, and writing. Only, it’s a pre-held conviction—one might say a presupposition—that insists every biblical text communicates and contains just one main point.

Under the three headings below I attempt to further the claim advanced in my original post, explaining why most biblical narratives don’t have a main point.

1. Narrative Breakdowns and Shifting Main Points

Anyone who has attending a preaching class on biblical narrative—especially the Old Testament, for whatever reason—will be familiar with Freytag’s five points of a drama structure: (1) exposition to setting; (2) rising action or tension; (3) climax; (4) falling action; (5) resolution or catastrophe, also denouement.

However useful this structure is in both the writing and reading of stories, it wasn’t on a third tablet that Moses brought down from Mt Sinai. Of course, Freytag’s drama structure boasts impressive antecedents, such as Aristotle’s Poetics. However, both the Greek and the German lived centuries after the Old Testament was written. Perhaps this explains why Robert Alter, a preeminent scholar of biblical narrative, doesn’t mention the dramatic structure once in his Art of Biblical Narrative.

Furthermore, the idea of ‘structuring’ a story has a couple of challenges. Firstly, as I’ve already said, good stories resist imposed and reductionistic formatting. This isn’t to suggest that they don’t implement patterns and narratival tropes. They do. And it’s those similarities in storytelling that enables attentive readers to identify peculiarities and emphases. That being said, in the case of Hebrew narrative, I’d wager that if you keep finding five plot points it’s because you’re putting them there.

Secondly, Freytag’s plot points will vary depending on how one chooses to break up a biblical text. To my knowledge, there isn’t a single book in Scripture for which all the commentators have agreed on a structure—not even Philemon. So when you exegete a narrative, you must choose where the contained, smaller narratives begin in and end. This is obviously necessary, but it also means that your interpretation is governed by your—or some commentator’s—decision about that story’s parameters. This poses a significant challenge to any insistence on a main point, because you and I might be exegeting slightly different but overlapping portions of a larger narrative.

2. Sermons Have Main Points but Stories Might Not

Following closely from the previous point, we should probably all be quicker to admit that while sermons require a main point we can’t demand this of a Bible passage—least of all a narrative. One reader of my previous post offered this crucial clarification. He writes, “I often find it excruciating in preaching to try to find ‘the main point of the passage.’ But I often find it excruciating listening to a sermon that lacks a centre of gravity or main point. It seems that as a method of teaching, or preaching, main points are really useful; whereas as a method of exegesis they lead us down tortuous and gymnastic avenues.” Amen.

That reader continues, “I sometimes wish preachers would be more honest to themselves and the text by admitting that through careful pastoral and exegetical thought, they have taken a certain—and legitimate—angle on the text, but that this is not all that the text says, or every way in which it resonates, or necessarily the only point.” Can I get another ‘amen’?

Faithful preaching carefully exegetes the text to hear what God is saying. Simultaneously, the preacher asks which aspect(s) of that text the local church needs to hear. This will become the main point of a sermon, even if it isn’t necessarily the main point of the text. We should be careful not to confuse our homiletics and our hermeneutics. In my opinion, interpretation rarely results in a singular, incontrovertible meaning. But doesn’t mean sermons shouldn’t have main points. Conversely, the need for clarity in preaching shouldn’t be retrofitted to biblical passages.

3. Narratives and Themes

This brings us to one final point, which flows well from the previous one: when it comes to biblical narrative we might be better off identifying themes rather than enforcing main points—something David Cline argues in his Theme of the Pentateuch. This point was well made by another commenter on my previous article.

As he puts it, “Despite apparent complexity, an author almost always sets out to write about something as opposed to anything and everything. There is a driving idea that forms a selective principle for what gets included in a text and the purposes that that material serves in the story. It is very rare that an author writes about two problems that are unrelated or two characters that aren’t connected or has their story talk about, say, love and politics without intending any juxtaposition of the two. In other words, an author is normally bringing all the elements of the story into a relationship, and that relationship is the ‘one thing’ that the story is about. If the story doesn’t do this, it tends to be seen as disjointed.”

This is a very insightful corrective, which ties in well with my previous post, comparing biblical narratives with good fiction. One of my favourite novels is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Is it about just one thing? Did Shelly set out to make a singular point? Maybe. But probably not. That being said, can we identity a handful of themes in the work? Certainly. Those themes are in a sense the meaning of Frankenstein. For, as this reader says, “We should be comprehending the relationships of the parts of a book to the whole.” This is as true of great fiction as it is biblical narratives.

I’m Not Denying That There’s Meaning

Years ago, reflecting on Art of Biblical Narrative, I wrote that because “narratives are nuanced and elusive in their meaning depending on who is reading them,” we’d be wise to assent to Alter’s resistance to supplying “a fixed and absolute meaning for any literary text.” As I did in that post, let me reiterate that this needn’t mean we steer wildly into the other gutter—into a postmodern panoply of possible interpretations. There is authorial intent and meaning. However I’m reticence to insist on “the meaning,” as Gorman says.

Above I’ve added a few more reasons for that hesitation. Firstly, how we choose to divide up a larger chunk of narrative—say, Genesis—inevitably corrals plot lines and narrative arcs. Secondly, sermons are clearer when arranged around a main point, however there are far more of those ‘main points’ than passages exegeted. This suggests either that a lot of preachers and commentators are wrong or that many biblical texts resist such reductive handling. Finally, I’m not suggesting that biblical narratives don’t communicate meaning, often clearly. However, as with other literature and stories, this meaning is conveyed through a series of enmeshed themes rather than a thesis statement.

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