Storytelling and Preaching: Not the Same
More about The Book of the Dun Cow later, but today I wanted to highlight Walter Wangerin’s words about what a good novel is and isn’t:
What The Book of the Dun Cow is not–nor was ever intended to be–is an allegory. Allegories ask an intellectual analysis: “This means that,” “That detail in the story is equivalent to that fact, that doctrine, that idea outside the story.” The Book of the Dun Cow invites experience. Allegories are reductive of meanings; they bear a riddling quality; they demand the questions, “What does this mean?”
But a good novel is first of all an event; as distinguished from the continuous rush of many sensations and the messy overlapping experiences of daily lives, it is a composed experience in which all the sensations are tightly related, for which there is a beginning and an ending, within which the reader’s perceivings and interpretations are shaped for awhile by the internal integrity of all the elements of the narrative. Meaning devolves from (and must follow) the reader’s experience. Meaning, therefore, springs from the relationship between the reader and the writing. Should I, the author, ever state in uncertain terms what my book means, it would cease to be a living thing: it would cease to be the novel it might have been, and would rather become an illustration of some defining, delimiting concept. Sermons do that well and right properly. Novels in which themes demand an intellectual attention can only be novels in spite of these didactic interruptions. (245-46)
I’m not sure I fully agree with the sentiment that an author of fiction must never state in uncertain terms what his book means, but I certainly agree with the general thrust of Wangerin’s argument. He is making a crucial observation that storytellers and preachers both need to hear. A story is meant, first of all, to be experienced. The story is the point, even before it “means” something. Movies and novels that try hard to be explicitly didactic, usually make for poor stories and so-so lessons. The fiction is supposed to be felt and discussed, often with multiple layers of meaning or deliberately debatable meaning.
Preaching, on the other hand (as Wangerin rightly notes) is different. Sermons ought to define and delimit. They are deliberately didactic. When preachers try to make art preach, they ruin art. When artists try to make preaching a work of art, they ruin preaching. Let the novel revel in nuance, subtlety, and ambiguity. Let the sermon sound forth with clarity and authority.