This post was the winning post in our Blog-Excellence writing contest. Congratulations Malcolm!
As writers, we study our favorite authors, and meditate upon why we find their stories so pleasing. We try to replicate their methods in the hope we might one day reach the same standard and, if we’re honest, the same fan base. Yet, each person’s list of favorite authors is undoubtedly different from anyone else’s.
However, one storyteller stands head and shoulders above all others. His work should be the standard we should all seek to emulate, especially as Christian writers. Who is this amazing author? It’s Jesus. Jesus? Really? We usually think of Him as Savior, Lord, teacher, preacher, healer, and God, but not primarily as a storyteller. Yet, He told stories like nobody before Him. And what stories they are. Stories so powerful, everyone knows them; stories so profound, they have changed the world.
So, what can we learn from how Jesus told a story?
Jesus talked about nothing else other than the kingdom of God. It takes a disciplined approach to stick to a theme. But, in the bigger scheme of things, there cannot be a more crucial subject than explaining what God’s kingdom is like, and how a person enters it. It would be wonderful if we, like Paul, resolved to know (or write) nothing except Christ and Him crucified.
Jesus told stories about subjects everyone could relate to. There is an art to being relevant. We are often advised to make our message as universal as possible, to reach the felt need of the largest number of our readers. Did anyone ever listen to Jesus and conclude His message did not apply to them? It’s hard to disregard a story when its fundamental design is to engage with the deepest spiritual and eternal needs of all people.
Everybody understood Jesus whenever He spoke. The meanings may have been hidden from some, but He spoke with words familiar to all, and used terminology appropriate to His hearers’ comprehension. When Martin Luther preached, it is said he had little concern for the doctors or lawyers who were listening to him. Instead, he preached as to be understood by the milkmaids. We sometimes regard simplicity as a negative, yet it gains access to a vast audience.
Jesus wasted no words. He could tell a story in one paragraph that remained with His hearers for the rest of their lives. In Matthew’s gospel, eighteen of Jesus’ parables are recorded. When these are written down together, the entire word count is less than 3,000 words. Most of our prefaces are longer than that! Eight of the parables have less than one hundred words, and four of them have less than fifty. A story doesn’t have to be long to be effective.
Jesus spoke to people who may not have enjoyed hearing what He had to say, yet He said it anyway. He spoke as one who knew what His audience needed, not necessarily what they wanted. Again, it takes a strong will to write what needs to be written, rather than pander to our readers’ demands. Paul urged Timothy to continue to preach boldly, even if his words caused offense. He reminded him of the power of truthful words within an environment where people just wanted to receive what their ears itched to hear. If Christ had no fear about setting forth God’s truth despite the backlash, shouldn’t we who are filled with that same Spirit do likewise?
His Plot Twists
I’m pretty sure nobody ever listened to Jesus finish a story and then declared, “I knew He was going to say that.” What makes any story compelling is when we don’t see the ending coming. A good author leads us along a path, makes us fascinated by how it will all end, and then satisfies us with a conclusion that not only makes perfect sense, but which entirely takes us by surprise. Imagine the immediate responses to Jesus’ stories:
“What, the father took the son back?”
“Hang on, the tax collector gets justified?”
“So, the people who just worked one hour got the same as those who worked all day?”
“Wait a minute, the Samaritan helped him?”
“You want us to take the lowest seat?”
“Whoa, the guy couldn’t even cancel a tiny debt?”
Surprise is what we remember. It’s not the ordinary that sticks in our mind, it’s the unexpected.
Here, finally, was a teacher who knew what He was talking about, unlike the teachers around Him. Who could speak with more authority about the kingdom of God than the one who had just come from the kingdom of God? I’m convinced God not only calls us to write, but to write with the authority that comes from knowing Him, knowing our calling, and knowing the Word of God. I love that the first six letters of ‘authority’ spell the word ‘author.’
Jesus may have never written in the particular genre we have chosen. However, His communication strategies resonate with every major piece of writing advice I’ve received: “Know your theme; be a mouthpiece for God; be relevant; use understandable language; edit constantly; write bravely; keep your readers fascinated; and write with accurate authority.”
We love Jesus as the author and perfecter of our faith. Let us also see Him as the inspiration and model for how we write.