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The Novelist and the Preacher  

By Duncan Macpherson

Features Editor, Catholic Permanent Deacon and retired Principal Lecturer in Theology at Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham.

Preaching from Year B, August to October 2024


Dominican theologian Jean Michel Poffet is reported as once advising his students that the reading of novels is essential for preparing good homilies. American homileticist Alyce McKenzie in her book Novel Preaching explores the ways in which preachers can learn from novelists in their use of creative imagery and the development of plot.[i] Rod Garner in his feature article in this issue My Palace of Books spells out why he regards this as true: ‘Novels exist to break the ice in our heads that stifles thought and dulls imagination. This remains the task and privilege of all aspiring preachers …’ (Alyce M. McKenzie, (2010) Novel Preaching: Tips from Top Writers on Crafting Creative Sermons. Westminster John Knox Press)


Contributors to the sermon section which follows have all probably benefited from novels that have broken the ice that might otherwise have stifled their creative imagination. However, only two have referred directly to novels in their sermons.

Grace Thomas in her sermon for 15 September on Mark 8:27-38 (‘Living in the Story of God’) draws a powerful parallel between the self-sacrifice of Sydney Carton in Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities and ‘Jesus’s own journey to the cross’ together with the ‘difficult and sobering call’ to his followers to ‘take up their cross.’

Mary Cotes’ remarkable sermon on Mark 9:38-50 for the 29 September (‘Where do we draw the line?’), finds inspiration in Agatha Christie mysteries, where ‘the stories overturn traditional expectations. The doctor or the judge – supposedly, respectable pillars of the establishment – often turns out to be the murderer. Meanwhile, the unlikely outsider is the ultimate insider.’ So too in the Gospel, John had rebuked an exorcist for driving out demons in Jesus’ name, because he was not ‘one of us.’ But Mary finds that Jesus challenges the boundaries between insiders and outsiders and ‘whereas at the close of Agatha Christie’s stories the murderer is deftly identified and arrested, the characters in Mark simply can’t be divided.’ Or, as Paul Rowan warns in the conclusion to his feature article on G. K. Chesterton, ‘we are wise to remember that none of us come up to scratch before God – we are all a mess and imperfect in the divine light.’


Rod Garner confesses that his inner life has been enriched and deepened by writers in a literary canon that includes Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse, Emile Zola and Albert Camus, Tolstoy and Solzenhitsyn. He sees these as ‘a repository of wisdom offering a broad, imaginative space in which new thoughts become possible and foolish ones are laid to rest. They rarely disappoint and bring gifts in their train: moral, philosophical, and theological insight concerning what it might mean to be properly human, hopeful, kind, and wise.’ However, he admits that they also bring the baffling contradictions in our experience.


For several of our preachers these ‘baffling contradictions in our experience’ include the October 7 attack by Hamas and the disproportionate genocidal retribution being indiscriminately visited on the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza by Israel. Writing in the April 4 number of the London Review of Books, Brandon Taylor finds Zola’s vivid description of the horrors of the Franco Prussian War in Zola’s novel La Débâcle as mirroring the horrors of the current war in Gaza. Taylor concludes that ‘For Zola the greatest act is to be bear witness’, prompting me to suggest that for the Christian preacher bearing witness should involve hope as well as protest. (Brandon Taylor, (2024) Is it even Good?’ Two Years with Zola. London Review of Books, Volume 46, Number 7, 4 April 2024, 15-21) Or as Rod Garner has it from Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics ( Karl Barth, (1961) Church Dogmatics IV/3.1 Jesus Christ, The True Witness. T and T Clark International), we can find ‘secular parables of the kingdom’ in pathos as well as beauty: ‘God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub or a dead dog.’ Rod goes on to describe novels as bringing ‘sanity and strength in a floating world, and a point of balance when we might otherwise feel overwhelmed.’

Far from feeling overwhelmed, priest, poet and novelist, Rachel Mann, sees ‘novels, as rich fictitious narratives’, presenting ‘the most wonderful opportunity for any preacher to tell the old story of God in fresh ways’ and gives the final word to Jane Austen that ‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.’ Or, if that seems too extreme, at least the reading of novels is essential for preparing good homilies!


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