by Dr. Phil Ruge-Jones
A woman has committed the entire Gospel of Mark to her memory. As she tells the two-hour story, a two-year-old plays by her mother’s feet. Sometimes she watches, sometimes she plays quietly with toys, other moments she gets a bit restless. When the storyteller begins the story of the blessing of the children, suddenly the child is completely attentive to the story. When Jesus blesses the children, she smiles brightly and claps her tiny hands together. She leans back against her mother’s legs and closes her eyes.
During Epiphany a family spends time every morning reciting together the story of Jesus’ visit to the temple. The parents discuss the anxiety Mary and Joseph must have felt. Their son notes that sometimes a 12-year-old has an opportunity come up that is so exciting that he or she forgets to communicate about it with the parents. The story of Jesus holds the stories of their lives with all the parental and youthful challenges therein. After revisiting the story so often they know it by heart, they divide it into sections that each in turn shares with their congregation on Wednesday night. Once more Jesus’ story opens up to receive the stories of other adolescents and their parents. The story becomes the place where they energize and focus their relationships.
Jason partners with a friend who has learned a story. She tells her story, and Jason deepens it with his digital storytelling. He edits in scenes from his favorite movies where similar emotions are in play. For example, when a decree goes out to enroll in the birth story, the video cuts to “Schindler’s List,” and the viewers remember political dimensions of the story they may have forgotten. Or, more humorously, when the leper is cleansed in Luke’s Gospel, suddenly Ron Burgundy from “Anchorman” is on the screen, stating, “I look good. I mean, really good. Everyone! Come and see how good I look.” Those who follow ANKOSfilms are moved by the story itself but also come to know that God’s Word and their cultural world can inhabit the same space.
These are but a few of examples of how biblical storytelling becomes a lively way of engaging the living Word of God. Those preparing to tell a story have a found a concrete spiritual discipline that deepens their relationship with God and God’s Word, and that equips them to share the Word in a profound way. Those who hear the stories feel directly engaged not only by God’s Word, but by God Godself! When these stories are learned in community, the participants discover in a visceral way that God’s Word is a mansion with many dwelling places in each story and not a rule book dispensing simplistic morals or messages. The Word becomes capable of holding the messy complexity of our real, lived life.
Preparing to Tell a Story
Preparation to tell a story varies from storyteller to storyteller. Thinking of the process as internalization rather than memorization is helpful to many of us. Too many people remember that time they stood up to recite the poem they had memorized only to find that it had left them. Internalization is a whole body practice including running through the story daily over a stretch of time. It incorporates gestures, thoughtful reflection on the story, recognition of repetition in the story that facilitates learning, imaginative engagement and intertwining of your personal stories with God’s story.
Here are some things I have found helpful as I internalize a passage of Scripture:
Retype the text in such a way that shows the shape of the language. Trying to learn straight out of a published Bible with its margins justified on both sides is very difficult. The contours of the story are hidden in a display of forced uniformity. If I were preparing to tell the Gospel for the last Sunday of Epiphany, I would lay out its first sentence like this:
Now about eight days after these sayings
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James,
and went up on a mountain to pray.
I would do this with the whole passage and use a new return justified left when I notice the narrator catching his breath and moving in a new direction. Looking at the page I could see the broad rhythm of the story. In the margins I would sketch stick people drawings to visually show me the order of episodes. Four people trudging up a mountain, then a shining Jesus, then Jesus with Moses (holding the ten commandments) and Elijah (eating a grasshopper), and so on. Each sketch sits in the white space to the left of the corresponding text. Carry this page with you wherever you go and look at it during down moments: While your oil is changed, when you are early for a meeting, during a commercial in the middle of binging on whatever.
My friend Dennis Dewey calls the practice of going back to a story again and again “marinating in the Word”. Over days or weeks, you become infused with the Word. My sense is that the longer you take to internalize the text, the longer it will in turn stay with you. I know people who can learn a text in a day, bless their hearts. But most of us need time.
I have also found it helpful to copy by hand my story according to the contours mentioned above. I speak it aloud as I write each word, and am amazed how much I absorb. Do this three times and see where you have internalized it and where you need more work.
Close your eyes and visualize it. Imagine how all of your senses would have perceived what was happening. As Jesus and the disciples climb the mountain, feel the stones under their feet and the wind blowing in their hair; notice if they are a tight group or if James is a straggler. How bright is the sun? Does this mountain look like some place you have climbed? Do you hear birds chirping? Remember that if you see a car crash, you don’t require notes to tell that story. You’ve seen it happen and thus internalized much of it. Simulate seeing the biblical event in your own imagination.
As you explore the story, notice its particularities: narrator, characters, setting, plot, surprising twists and difficult expressions. Why does the narrator tell us the disciples are sleepy? How can you say Peter’s word in such a way that the listeners will hear that he doesn’t know what he said? Why does this take place on a mountain? How does this story relate to the trip down the mountain and the encounter with the demon possessed boy? Perhaps do some research and find out that Elijah and Moses talk to Jesus about his upcoming “departure” or “exodus”. How might you connect Moses’ exodus with Jesus’?
Play with the story. It has lasted a couple of thousand years, and it won’t break! Try out different tones for Peter’s words: sleepy, confused, panicked. Imagine the voice of God in the cadences of someone who makes you feel loved. Speak Jesus’ words about the faithless generation in anger, then in frustration, then grief. How is each different?
The final tip I have might be the first you apply. Commit to a date and event when you will tell the story. Knowing that your efforts are driving toward a particular opportunity is a great motivator. When you choose the opportunity, remember that different times come with different expectations. Maybe you don’t want to do your first telling as the Gospel “reading” on Easter Sunday. I often think the best place to present the first time may be in a children’s sermon where there is no expectation for verbal accuracy. This will allow you the freedom to do your best even if some parts of the text get dropped. Or wouldn’t it be great to tell the transfiguration story on a bluff at a church camp? Or you could tell that same story on a mission trip and reflect on moving to places where you serve along side of other people with their gifts and needs? Or maybe after a powerful event the story reminds your youth that they cannot stay in that moment but must come down into life again.
Use of Storytelling in Ministry
Several videos of people doing biblical storytelling are available online. The Network of Biblical Storytellers, International offers several high quality videos on its webpage that could be used in Bible Study.
The most obvious way to use this form of ministry is to practice it yourself. Any place you are accustomed to using the Bible could be a place to bring in storytelling. Once you have done it for your youth, you may find some youth willing to join you in the practice. Often you will find someone who has been involved in performance competitively in high school (we used to call it forensics, but it’s name varies from state to state) or theatre. An ambitious but excellent project is to find five or six youth willing to learn and tell the passion narrative for Palm (or Passion) Sunday. This year Luke 23 would be about 10 verses each for a team of five. Share with them the learning practices outlined above. Meet several times as a group and share the stories. Have the performers present for the youth group before they present for the whole congregation. Since much of this story is familiar, it is a bit easier to learn than other parts of the Bible. And what a story for our youth to carry!
My favorite ways to allow storytelling to enrich a community is to have several people learn the same story and then present their versions on the same night one after another. Perhaps you might choose something short: “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing.” (Luke 23:33-34) After each person performs, have them say one thing they liked about the way it was performed. After watching several performances they will realize how spacious the Word is—taking in many meanings. They will hear how a slight change in intonation shifts the impact in important ways.
One of the beautiful things about storytelling is that it is intergenerational. The clapping toddler and the oldest member of the community each can enter a story with their own experience and find meaning. While this may seem like a new practice, it is likely that more people in the early church heard the Scriptures recited aloud than read it for themselves from a scroll. And even before that, the book of Deuteronomy made suggestions for internalizing the living Word which God has given to us: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)
Trust the Word to guide you, and God will use you to accomplish God’s purposes. Live into this great story of love, and you will find yourself living it out in turn.
Phil Ruge-Jones is an Associate Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. His performance of the Gospel of Mark is available online at his Youtube channel on the playlist “I Tell You, This is the Way It Is”.
The Network of Biblical Storytellers, International is the primary site for developing this spiritual practice. http://www.nbsint.org/ with special attention to “Watch a Story” and “Biblical Storytelling Behind the Scenes” produced by ANKOSFilms. They have an amazing annual event every August called the Festival Gathering.
The author’s telling of the whole Gospel of Mark is available on the YouTube station Phil Ruge-Jones in the playlist “I Tell You, This is the Way It Is”.
The most helpful book on the theme is Thomas Boomershine’s “Story Journey” which can be purchased on Amazon.