To Utter Things Hidden: Striking a Chord without a Sermon
I will open My mouth in parables;
I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.
Most of us have probably read books and watched films that left us cringing—for the author or filmmaker, however well-intentioned, heaped a sermon’s worth of contrived Christianese dialogue onto a story that swayed beneath the weight of the preaching.
Many Christian writers are faced with a dilemma: They recognize the importance of writing as a ministry, and they want to write in a way that effectively delivers a message of truth without turning off the secular readers who need to hear it most.
How do we communicate biblical themes without preachiness?
Ultimately, it boils down to one of the basic tenets of fiction-writing: Show, don’t tell.
Portraying what you preach
If a story does not convey Christian values without an explicit statement of those values, the story does not convey Christian values. Unless good and evil are portrayed as such, and a glimmer of hope shines at the end, no amount of religious discourse will embed biblical morality into a story or pierce the hearts of readers.
Jesus told many parables. Some directly mentioned God. Some did not. Often He did not explain their meaning, at least to the crowds. But in every case, the stories He told conveyed themes of selflessness, diligence, perseverance, sacrifice, and others. If those qualities were not integral to the stories whether or not the moral was spelled out, what would be the point? If He told vapid stories void of values, and afterward taught a lesson, what good did the story do?
A story must be delivered in such a way that if or when its meaning is made clear, the audience has a tangible example of the values the storyteller sought to convey acted out within the story—just as our lives must be lived in such a way that, when we speak plainly of the gospel, observers will have tangible examples of the principles we preach acted out within our lives. The message must not be merely a theoretical abstraction drawn in the dialogue of philosophizing characters, but a reality portrayed during the course of the plot. The theme must be inextricably woven throughout the story, rather than tacked on in a long-winded monologue. Otherwise it is not the theme.
If the story alone fails to effectively deliver its intended message, and the author wedges a theological exposition into the dialogue, the story is superfluous to the sermon.
On the other hand, if Christian values are manifested in the plot, a sermon would be superfluous. As actions speak louder than words, so the simple telling of a story communicates truth with greater potency than an in-story analysis of its themes. Why gild a lily?
And all that’s not to say that it’s always out of place for characters to outright discuss God or the Bible, or ask probing questions about morality, or pray, or for a more mature character to lecture another who has a lot to learn. To avoid such a conversation feeling forced, however, the story must be crafted in such a way that it would be unnatural for the characters not to discuss these things. The characters must behave, well, in character, whatever the topic at hand. They must ask questions, make assertions, or give advice that is believable coming from them given the specific circumstances. And often, the most potent dialogue is not a lengthy debate, but a brief exchange, a piercing counter-question. (Jesus was a master of these.) Don’t underestimate the power of brevity.
And for that matter, don’t underestimate the power of silence. Not all stories will naturally bring about direct mention of Jesus, and not all stories need to. Creation proclaims the glory of God without a word spoken of His attributes. Certainly a story portraying virtue and sacrifice can do the same. Sometimes silence rings loudest.
Also, characters who do things will leave a far greater impression on readers than characters who merely talk. This is especially important for redemption stories. If your drug addict has a change of heart and overcomes his addictions, the surest way to achieve an emotional impact on the audience is to show his redemption in action. If you present him with another opportunity to take drugs, which he declines, if you portray him reaching out to others with addictions, you will move the reader more profoundly than any explanation of his reformation could accomplish.
So how do you craft a story propelled by an eternal principle? How do you tell a tale that breathes a message of life and grace and hope and beauty?
The answer is rather simple: Write.
We are apt to write about the things that are near to our hearts. If we extol virtue, regard excellence, lay aside self-interest, and anticipate another world to come, our words will tend to reflect those values. After all, we are fashioned in the image of a God who made Himself evident in His creation, whose nature is understood through what has been made. Our passions, our longings, our agonies, our loves tend to manifest themselves in our work, abstractly or concretely, whether we like it or not. We expire what first coursed through our own veins.
Depending on your style, you may or may not consciously select a theme to weave throughout your work. Either way, your story won’t dodge all of the values you hold dear, whatever they are.
So study the craft, and learn the most effective way to tell a story. And in so doing, if you love the truth, you will learn the most effective way to tell the truth.
Not every reader will understand, just as not everyone who listened to Jesus’ parables understood them. But those who have ears, let them hear the chords of eternity resounding in your stories.
Categories: Guest Post