Lowry Preaches Plot; Reveals Gospel

Plot_12122013Eugene L. Lowry. 2001. The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Orig pub 1980). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In Greek, John’s Gospel begins: Εν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος (John 1:1 BNT). The English translation reads: in the beginning was the word. By contrast, Spanish follows the Vulgate and translates λόγος, not as a noun, but as a verb: in the beginning was the verb. This translation is generally interesting because Hebrew is a verb-based language which makes it easier to tell a story.  It is specifically interesting because Jerome observes John’s choice of Εν ἀρχῇ mirrors Genesis 1:1 reminding his reader of the creation account.  Creative work requires creative words–action verbs, not passive nouns.

In The Homiletical Plot, Eugene Lowry likewise sees a sermon as a narrative event rather than as a content transmittal (12, 90-91). The narrative event discovers content and meaning rather than merely reporting it. Lowry explains: the sermon is a bridging event in time, moving from itch to scratch, from issue to answer, from conflict to resolution, from ambiguity to closure born of the gospel (118).  Motion, not information, drives the sermon.

For Lowry, the sermon does not so much tell a story as adopt a narrative structure. He outlines this structure in five moves: (1) upsetting the equilibrium, (2) analyzing the discrepancy, (3) disclosing the clue to resolution, (4) experiencing the gospel, and (5) anticipating the consequences (26). Lowry’s craft is displayed in how well he unpacks these five moves.

In the first move of the sermon, for example, the preacher upsets the equilibrium by introducing dramatic tension, conflict, or ambiguity. Lowry’s illustrates this move with the dilemma presented in the film High Noon (1952). In the film, tension arises as the marshal has promised his pacifist fiancée to retire only to discover that a band of desperados just released from prison have vowed to take revenge on his town.  Here is the dilemma:  if the marshal retires with his fiancée, he is a coward; if he stays, he breaks his promise (57).  The backstory on the film is that only a decade earlier a pacifist America had sat on the sidelines in the early stages of World War II.  Just like the film helped Americans relive their dilemma, Lowry’s sermon strives to help the congregation feel the tension.

Eugene Lowry is the William K. McEvaney Emeritus Professor of Preaching at Saint Paul School of Theology of Kansas City. This printing commemorates the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Homiletical Plot. The forward is written by Fred Craddock, another well-known homiletics professor and author. The book itself divides into three sections—the sermon as narrative, the stages of the homiletical plot, and other considerations. These sections are preceded by an introduction and followed by an afterword which reflects on how things might have changed over preceding 20 years.

Lowry’s The Homiletical Plot is a short book and a good read. Why is an average Christian interested in reading a preaching (homiletics) text?  Because the Word of God is meant to be read out loud, the gospel itself lies within the ambiguity and tension of the narrative event.  That makes homiletics a key to biblical interpretation. Consequently, Lowry’s book is more than just another preaching text and is worthy of careful reading.

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