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Keeping in Focus

What do preachers do after a busy day of preaching?

I often like to wind down with a TV series or film. Yesterday, after a busy day of preaching in Riga that included an unexpected extra service at 3pm I cooked some pasta and sat down to watch a film.

The film was All Quiet on the Western Front, which has won numerous awards, including multiple Oscars. The film is based on the brave and rather bleak novel of the same name, written in 1929 by a German First World War veteran, Eric Maria Remarque. It’s an honest and stark portrayal of the horrors of war which were perceived to be unpatriotic and which led to the book being banned and burned in Nazi Germany.

The film begins with a group of friends in a class of cadets in Northern Germany who enthusiastically enlist to fight towards the end of the war. They believe all the propaganda and head off to war with the idea that they will be in Paris within days. The cold reality of war immediately hits them when they are given the task of using their helmets to bail out freezing cold water from their trench.

The film is mainly seen through the eyes of one of these classmates, 17-year-old Paul Baumer. Paul is in the opening scene and the closing one which occurs doing the last 15 minutes of the war.

Preachers can learn the following things from this persistent focus on one individual throughout a 148-minute film.

1. Clarity of focus in preaching helps the hearer have a clear sense of what is being communicated. Vague and blurry focus creates a sermon that is all over the place, is unsure of what it is saying and where it is going. Hearers are grateful when they get a sense of where the preacher might be going in the sermon. It can be disorientating to go on a journey without maps!

2. Having one central character as the main lens for viewing the story, All Quiet on the Western Front captures the personal experience and narrative of one individual as a representative witness of the many. When there is a lot going on in a film or a sermon it is good to have a hook on which we can organise the flow of the story.

3. In telling the story of an individual one avoids falling into the trap of talking generally about the horrors of war. We see the whole range of these horrors through the eyes of one individual. From the bright-eyed optimism of the 17-year-old recruit, through the wide-eyed terror of the soldier in the trenches, to the old-before-his-time vacant eyes of hopelessness.

One pair of eyes are the lenses through which we see the whole story. Preachers, particularly when preaching on biblical narrative, do well to develop this skill.

I wonder what this might look like in a sermon on the Waiting Father in Luke 15. What would a sermon look like that viewed the different stages of the younger son’s experience through his eyes?

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