When I was in graduate school at Regent College, I once asked my professor, Eugene Peterson, for suggested readings on the art and craft of preaching. He suggested to me Fred Craddock. “Start there”, he said. And I did. I began reading various books by Craddock and found him to be a wonderful guide in the art of storytelling the Bible, the celebration of narrative as a genre and also in the care and use of language.
A few days ago, John Blake of CNN did an excellent piece on Craddock in an article entitled, “A Preaching ‘Genius’ Faces His Toughest Convert’. Craddock is candid in the article, talking about his struggles as a child with the shame of his family’s poverty and his struggles as an adult with his dad’s silence (“I struggled with his silence. I wanted him to say he was proud of me.”).
The following part of the article was especially good, where Blake talks about Fred Craddock Sr.’s love of stories and the web they spun in inspiring his own son, who would become a legendary preacher.
“Fred Craddock Sr. had plenty to say about other subjects. He stood 5-foot-7, weighed 150 pounds and even in his 50s could do one-arm chin-ups. He liked to dance, race his horse at county fairs.
Most of all, he loved to tell stories.
His son and namesake, Fred Jr., was one of his most devoted fans. Father and son developed a storytelling ritual. At the end of the day, the elder Craddock would return to his home in the small town of Humboldt, Tennessee, roll a Bull Durham cigarette by the fireplace and say to no one in particular, “Boy, I never hope to see what I saw today.”
Craddock, his three brothers and his sister flocked around their father.
“What’d you see today?”
“Oh, you kids still up? No, you go to bed. You don’t want to have nightmares.”
His children protested. Back and forth they’d go before Craddock Sr. finally said, “Well, sit down, but don’t blame me if you have nightmares.”
Craddock Sr. thrilled his children with adventure stories about Chief Loud Thunder, Civil War battles and, on occasion, stories from the Bible. The elder Craddock taught his son some of his first lessons in theology.
Each student in Craddock’s first-grade class was required to answer morning roll call with a Bible verse. Craddock didn’t know any, until his father taught him one. One morning, he stood up “like a bantam rooster” and repeated his father’s scripture:
“Samson took the jawbone of an ass and killed 10,000 Filipinos.”
The teacher sent Craddock home with a stern note to his parents for his use of profanity. Ethel Craddock chided her husband, but he chuckled, saying, “I bet the class enjoyed it.”
The elder Craddock developed a following. Storytellers were admired in rural Tennessee during the first half of the 20th century. Television was nonexistent. Books were expensive. People spent their day around pot-bellied stoves, whittling wood and spitting tobacco while swapping stories.
When Craddock Sr. stopped on a corner to roll a cigarette, crowds gathered, because they knew a tall tale was coming. They rarely guessed how it would end. Craddock Sr. would uncork a story, lead his audience up to the edge, then suddenly announce that he had to go to work and walk away.
Says his son: “I’m convinced now that he didn’t know where his stories were going when he started.””