April 17 marks the 40th anniversary of the splashdown of Apollo 13. It was a happy ending to a nearly disastrous and tragic mission. It was also a tribute to the bravery of the three-member crew and the ingenuity and teamwork of the crew, flight controllers and support personnel who brought the crippled spacecraft home.
Twenty-five years later, the events of the "successful failure" of Apollo 13 were dramatized in the movie by the same title. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, the movie has ranked among my favorites since the first time I saw it. Film critic Roger Ebert praised the movie as "a powerful story … told with great clarity and remarkable technical detail, and acted without pumped-up histrionics." I have always been amazed by the creative genius of director Ron Howard and his ability to create tension and suspense in retelling a story to an audience that already knew the outcome.
Howard's remarkable ability as a storyteller has also provided a spiritual lesson for me. It is a reminder of the challenge that confronts every preacher, Sunday-school teacher, Bible-study leader or spiritual formation small-group facilitator: How does one take the well-worn stories of Scripture and retell and recast them in ways that are interesting and compelling? How do we, living this side of Easter and the empty tomb, retell the story of Jesus in fresh and imaginative ways to an audience that already knows the outcome?
I have tremendous admiration for the skill and artistry of the master storyteller and Bible teacher. I have a profound appreciation for the pastor who brings the gift of storytelling to the pulpit Sunday after Sunday, a gift complemented by a love for the scriptures, an intellectual curiosity, a lively imagination and a vibrant personal faith that lead to fresh discoveries in familiar, plowed-over texts.
Yale Divinity School professor David Bartlett (now professor emeritus of Christian communication) noted in the prestigious Beecher Lectures a few years ago one of the most important things he tried to communicate to students in his classes on preaching. "I tell them that preaching is always good news," he said. "Preaching is news; it is fresh, involving, surprising. It is not the repetition of tired formulas or one more self-serving plug for whatever program the deacons or the denomination have voted for that month. At the very least, therefore, I remind our students, preaching is a lively word. It is not a sin to be interesting."
This challenge of retelling the stories of scripture and the ways God is still at work in the world demands nothing less than our best, whether in the pulpit, in the classroom or around the dinner table. Thankfully and wonderfully, there is more at work than the talent of the narrator or storyteller. Through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, God is present in the retelling of the Story. That makes all the difference.
David Wilkinson is executive director of Associated Baptist Press, which distributed this article.