How to Preach a Parable: Designs for Narrative Sermons is a title pregnant with meaning. The title seems to suggest that this book is a how-to-preach-on-parables manual of sorts. However, the book’s title is hinting at a much broader topic. Lowry also wants this book to be about how to turn every single one of your sermons into a parable. Lowry’s love for the narrative sermon is clear right from the introduction as he admits, “…I always preach narrative sermons” (13). Thus his purpose in writing the book is not only to encourage preachers to write sermons based on parables and stories, but also to write sermons that are both parabolic and narrative in nature.
Lowry’s book is neatly divided into two sections: Section 1, entitled Preliminary Issues and Assumptions, and Section 2, Narrative Sermon Designs. In Section 1, Lowry helpfully defines the term narrative. “Sometimes when writers in the field of preaching speak of narrative sermons, people think they mean that every sermon ought to be chalk full of stories, or, two, that every sermon ought to be one long story. But there is another option. The intended meaning of the term may well be that the writer thinks all sermons ought to follow a narrative sequence (of opening conflict, escalation, reversal, and proleptic closure)” (p. 25). Lowry uses the term narrative in the latter way. Besides defining terms, Lowry spends some time showing why he believes narrative sermons are the best sermonic form. He believes that narrative sermons are non-confrontational, engaging, and that they share multiple truths in a moment in time.
In Section 2, after briefly going over what a typical sermon study might look like, Lowry introduces the four designs for narrative sermons: running the story, delaying the story, suspending the story, and alternating the story. Rather than discussing each design technically, Lowry wants the reader to “experience” each sermon design (p 40). Therefore, the rest of the book is a series of four actual sermons printed in the book, followed by a running commentary, and ended with a discussion of terms. In order to experience each design for narrative sermons, the text of each sermon is to be read aloud.
The four sermons, which form the heart and soul of this little book, will leave any confessional Lutheran disappointed. For example, in the first sermon offered, our preacher paints Noah into an alcoholic. After a rather long and entertaining period inside of and outside of drunken Noah’s thoughts, the preacher connects the gospel to Noah and alcoholism through the Sacrament. This allusion to the Sacrament is the closest the preacher comes to proclaiming the gospel. “Made to be fed by a God who cares so much that God transforms the Divine body into bread that we can eat and into a wine that anybody can drink” (49). Since I do not wish to speak for other preachers, I will only speak on behalf of this confessional Lutheran preacher. I could not and would not in good conscience preach any of these four sermons. They contain precious little preaching of the law in its first use and even less preaching of the gospel. Jesus’ death and resurrection are almost never mentioned in any of these four sermons. If this were not enough, at times these preachers explicitly and broadly deny the inspiration of Scripture. In the second sermon, a professor preaches to a group of seminarians. “True, we have been taught to disassemble our rifles and to name the parts – you know, J, E, D, P, Q, Proto-Luke, and Deutero-Paul. But now we have trouble getting it back together. Some of us are afraid that when we need it most, it will not work for us the way it used to; while others wonder whether there is any firepower at all in such a scripture as the Bible turns out to be” (p. 81).
Is there any value to reading this book at all for the busy, confessional, Lutheran pastor? If you choose to read this book, you will find some precious diamonds in the rough. Want a discussion on the term narrative preaching? This is the book for you. Need a fresh approach to sermon studies? His discussion on how to do a sermon study is useful. Want to know all about narrative sermon technique with technical terms? This book has all the discussion on the topic you will ever need. The book finds a good balance between the practical and technical aspects of narrative sermons.
I might start by suggesting that you rather read another of his books The Homiletical Plot to learn more about narrative preaching. Even though Lowry has poorly exemplified narrative preaching for a confessional Lutheran, there are some redeeming qualities to the style. For example, while we might find these sermons lacking in many ways, we would never call them boring. If Lowry could learn a thing or two about gospel-centered preaching from the Lutheran church, could we learn a bit from him about engaging preaching?
Eugene Lowry is William K. McElvaney Professor of Preaching at Saint Paul School of Theology, Kansas City, Missouri. He is author of The Homiletical Plot and other books on preaching.
How to Preach a Parable: Designs for Narrative Sermons, by Eugene L. Lowry. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989. 173 pages.