Preaching “Secondary” Characters (by Naomi Walters)

Screen Shot 2016-09-26 at 11.22.26 AMNaomi Walters is an Associate Professor of Religion at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, MI, and in the final stage (read: defending this week) of the Doctor of Ministry program at Lipscomb University. Naomi enjoys reading Scripture with others, and imagining the kingdom of God described therein, a passion that informed her preaching ministry at the Stamford Church of Christ (CT) before beginning work at Rochester, where she now teaches courses such as Introduction to Preaching, Spiritual Formation, and Theology of Worship. She and her husband, Jamey, have two young children: Simon (Big Brother) and Ezra (Little Brother). When the kids let her, she enjoys reading, running, playing soccer, and watching TV.

Preaching the “Secondary” Characters

One of the first books I remember reading, and loving, as a child was The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. This book begins, “Everybody knows the story of the Three Little Pigs. Or at least they think they do. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Nobody knows the real story, because nobody has ever heard my side of the story.” It continues to share the story of A. Wolf (the A is short for “Alexander”), who had a bad cold and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – that “wrong place” being the vicinity of three pigs who were very bad at building houses.

Screen Shot 2016-09-26 at 11.22.39 AMThough, of course, my preschool-aged self could not have articulated or explained my fascination with this book, I think it was the first time I realized, as the saying goes, that “there are always two sides to every story.” It was the first time I became aware of the role of a narrator in shaping the way a story is told. And I started asking questions: Was it really Goldilocks’ fault that the bears just left their house unlocked? Wouldn’t it have caused a lot of trouble for the rest of the village when Jack cut the beanstalk and a dead giant fell from the sky? Why would Hansel and Gretel go back home to the parents who abandoned them in the woods in the first place?

It was this literary imagination that led me, when I first began college, to declare an English major. When I changed majors to Biblical Studies, my literary imagination came with me. I knew that the narrator’s perspective on events, or the character the narrator chooses to place in the foreground, shapes the way a story is told – even in scripture.

I brought these interpretive, imaginative questions with me into my first preaching course, where I realized that preachers are storytellers too. As such, preachers shape the way the biblical stories are retold. As I had since I was young, I continued to ask questions about the stories I was reading. Whether motivated by a self-aggrandizing quest for novelty or by a pastorally sensitive attempt to make space for a fresh hearing of the text (or more likely, a bit of both), I began to look at the biblical text sideways, to wonder what it might look like in my preaching to follow Emily Dickinson’s advice to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

My interpretive stance was surely also impacted by my own social location. I am a woman raised in and committed to a faith tradition that is not particularly welcoming to women in public leadership roles. It was this religious history that led me to declare a Biblical Studies major rather than Christian Ministry; I truly did not consider “ministry” an option for me. In fact, perhaps the fact that I had no intention of ever preaching anywhere other than in that preaching classroom dispelled any pressure there might have been to stick with a “head-on” interpretation of the text.

At any rate, as a woman who was coming to be aware of her own marginalization, I found it impossible to ignore the non-primary characters poking out their heads around the edges of the stories of scripture, saying, “We’ve got a story to tell too. We matter too.” These characters are, literally, marginalized – pushed to the margins of the page, pushed so far that they have almost fallen out of the story altogether. Granting them agency, giving them room in our imaginations to speak, often reveals new dimensions of the old story. This change in perspective gives the reader some space to see what truth emerges, and often, for the preacher, this enables us to “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”

Yet another way to think of this distinction is that biblical interpretation for preaching looks at the way a story is told, rather than just at the events of the story; the how instead of only the what. An invitation to look at the text sideways is not an invitation to re-write the what of the story, to delete events or details that we are uncomfortable with or to add events that would make things a bit cleaner; but it is an invitation to imagine how those same details might be viewed another way by another character.

For instance: How would our understanding of 1 Kings 17:7-16 change if we imagined how the widow of Zarephath would have reacted to Elijah marching into town and demanding food? How would our understanding of the end of Genesis change if we wondered what living through a famine had been like for Judah, Reuben, Levi, Simeon, etc.? How would our understanding of the golden calf incident in Exodus 32 change if we were looking at the story from the ground, with the people who have been wandering through the wilderness for ages only to watch Moses disappear up a mountain for days, wondering if he’s ever coming back (instead of locating ourselves on the mountain with Moses, looking down at the people in disgust)?

I propose that this “sideways glance” at the biblical text isn’t just good literature theory or good homiletic practice (though I think it is both those things); it is also good theology. There are good theological reasons – reasons located at the center of the person and mission of God – for looking closely at the peripheral (marginalized!) characters. Jesus was constantly bringing these people from the margins into the middle of his ministry, sometimes against their will, and almost always against the will of the people who were used to being the main characters. Zacchaeus climbed a tree, and couldn’t get away. The woman with an issue of blood hid under cover in a crowd just to touch Jesus’ cloak, and he drew her out. Jesus kicked the main characters out of his dinner parties in order to invite in, and make space for, the people we would call the supporting cast (if we let them into our stories at all).

What we see Jesus doing in his earthly ministry is grounded in what the Trinitarian God has always been doing in Godself – making space for the other, making room for many stories in the one story. I have come to view preaching the secondary characters as one way of following Jesus’ advice in Luke’s parable of the Great Dinner, to “go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” May we go out into the margins and the spaces of the text, and bring in the “secondary” characters we see there, peering around the corners and poking their heads around the edges!

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.