Instead of the sermon, Kingsolver has turned her considerable talent to the novel, the essay and the short story. “What makes writing good?” is the question she asks, but the answer she gives could have been provoked by asking about good preaching.
“It is the successful execution of large truths delivered in tight spaces.” That is her compressed definition of a sermon.
Well, not really.
Her article is not actually about sermons, but it could be. Consider this: “It’s audacious enough to send a sermon out into the world, asking people to sit down, shut up, ignore kids and work or whatever important things they have going, and listen to me. … It had better be important.”
That is the way two sentences would read if we changed just a couple of words, words the now famous writer directed not toward the skill of preparing sermons but toward the craft of writing stories.
I am sure, however, she could write about sermons. She grew up in the Carlisle Christian Church here in Kentucky and, no doubt, has listened to her share of Sunday morning sermons. The Poisonwood Bible is her best-selling book about four daughters of a missionary couple in Africa. It was inspired in part by her parents’ work in a medical mission on that continent.
Instead of the sermon, however, Kingsolver has turned her considerable talent to the novel, the essay and the short story. “What makes writing good?” is the question she asks, but the answer she gives could have been provoked by asking about good preaching.
“Probably the greatest challenge of the form,” she writes, “is to get a story launched and landed efficiently with the whole worthwhile journey in between. The launch is apparently easier than the landing, because I’ve been entranced by many a first paragraph of a tale that ended with such an unfulfilling thud that I scrambled round for a next page that simply wasn’t.”
That sounds very much like the advice of my homiletics professor a quarter century ago. Launching and landing a sermon, to use Kingsolver’s evocative image, is as important in preaching a sermon as it is in writing a story. Had more ministers taken such advice, fewer of our people would depart the sanctuary muttering, “Well, the Reverend started strong but petered out toward the end.”
Kingsolver penned her observations in the introductory essay to the 86th edition of The Best American Short Stories, for which she served as editor.
The 20 stories in her book range from 4 to 44 pages in length. That’s an average of 17 pages, twice the length of a modern sermon. However, Nancy Reisman’s 16-page story about sex, revenge and personal identity took me 24 minutes to read, about what it takes to listen to a sermon. A chief difference is this: If the story bogs down, you can shelve the book; if the sermon fails to connect, you have to wait it out (even if the mind is a million miles away).
Were Kingsolver invited to write the introduction to The Best Sermons of 2001, she could duplicate with justification such assertions as, “I believe fiction should inform as well as enlighten, and first, do no harm.” I have heard my share of sermons that failed this Hippocratic test, including too many from my own lips!
Most ministers would describe their attachment to the homiletic habit in words very similar to those she uses to confess her calling: “These stories [these sermons] were my pleasure, my companionship, my salvation.”
Reflecting on these things (and reading these stories) has made me recall the older and wiser pastor who years ago encouraged us to prepare for preaching by reading fiction.
I suspect Kingsolver would agree.
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.