One of the primary functions of a preacher is to be a storyteller. When a speaker really wants to engage a group of listeners, stories and narratives will captivate them far more effectively than doctrines and advice. Educational research bears this out, as lecture has been shown to be the least effective method of teaching. So preachers in the pulpit would be wise to pay attention here, as the vast majority of sermons are of the “one speaker, many listeners” variety. In short, if our sermons resemble educational lectures we risk losing an opportunity for our congregations to connect, engage, learn, and be transformed.
A lecture sermon might instruct or inform a congregation what the Kingdom of God is like. A story sermon can whisk them away into the alternate reality we call the Kingdom of God for a few minutes, captivating their imaginations and giving them a vision and a foretaste of what life can become.
And how do we become better storytellers? By reading stories. By reading poetry. By singing songs. By paying attention to how great storytellers build and release tension in the narrative. By having a romance with words and wordcraft. Great writing begins with great reading.
And that’s why I want to begin a new feature on this blog, the Writer’s Workshop.
If you’ve never listened to Boots of Spanish Leather by Bob Dylan, take a few minutes and check it out.
(I couldn’t find Dylan’s original on YouTube so here’s Nanci Griffith’s brilliant cover.)
In my mind, this one is a lyrical masterpiece. The lyrics are a conversation between two lovers who alternate stanzas. Dylan never tells you that’s the form, he allows his words to imply it. He assumes intelligence on the part of the listener by singing both sides of the conversation in the same voice. He never gives you “he said,”or “she said.” He didn’t record it as a duet with each singer playing one of the parts. He just allows each player’s words to lead you.
And the words are poetic and unrealistic.
Oh, but I just thought you might want something fine
Made of silver or of golden
Either from the mountains of Madrid
Or from the coast of Barcelona
Oh, but if I had the stars from the darkest night
And the diamonds from the deepest ocean
I’d forsake them all for your sweet kiss
For that’s all I’m wishin’ to be ownin’
No one talks like that. I have difficulty imagining any two lovers speaking to one another in such flowery, poetic language. I doubt that even Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning spoke to one another like that. But the poetic language is necessary to convey a depth of emotion. The language allows us to see with our imaginations the longing in their eyes, the tenderness of their touch, the fragility of their hearts. We feel the ache of the singer’s loneliness, an ache that begins long before she even leaves on her trip.
Like many conversations in real life, however, this one takes place over time rather than in one sitting. At some point in the song one of the lovers sails for Spain yet we only know it’s happened when the other says, “I got a letter on a lonesome day, it was from her ship a-sailin’.” She tells him she will be gone longer than expected. Then our lonely lover writes back,
Well, if you, my love, must think that-a-way
I’m sure your mind is roamin’
I’m sure your heart is not with me
But with the country to where you’re goin’
So take heed, take heed of the western wind
Take heed of the stormy weather
And yes, there’s something you can send back to me
Spanish boots of Spanish leather
The song is called “Boots of Spanish Leather.” But the boots are a red herring. Our lonely lover doesn’t want boots, he wants her thoughts, assurance that he’s on her mind.
What can a preacher learn from this kind of storytelling?
Sometimes folksy down-to-earth language gets the story across, but other times poetic language can say far more.
Stories don’t have to be long, twisty narratives filled with action. All the action in this song can be summed up in a few sentences: “a man’s lover is taking a trip to Spain, and she asks him what gift she can send home. He says he doesn’t want a gift, her love is enough. While she’s gone writes him a letter telling him she’ll be away longer than expected, so he writes back that he’d like a pair of boots. But he doesn’t care about the boots, he just wants to know she hasn’t forgotten him.” Yeah, the story is better Bob’s way. The poetic language serves to communicate that the action isn’t in the story itself, but in the emotional world of the singer. It speaks to the complexity and universality of anticipated loneliness, of jealousy, worry, and heartache.
We can learn that not every story needs to end with resolution. We shouldn’t always want to tie it all up with a neat little bow, leaving no loose ends and a complete release of tension. Did she ever send the boots? Did she ever come home? Were they still in love when she returned? Was she faithful for the trip? Was he? We will never know? Sometimes a great story leaves us with unresolved tension, with unanswered questions. And unanswered questions at the end of a story causes its hearers to think.
And isn’t that the point?