Storytelling breathes new life into biblical texts

August 7, 2011

Never underestimate the power of a well-told story.

The Rev. Adam Bartholomew was converted to biblical storytelling when the Rev. Thomas Boomershine asked him to serve as his audience while he prepared an audiotape of Mark's Passion narrative as part of his dissertation at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where both were students in the 1970s. First Boomershine read the narrative. Then he told it.

"I was absolutely astonished at the difference. That converted me," said Bartholomew, a former United Church of Christ minister and now Episcopal priest-in-charge at Church of the Ascension in Mount Vernon, New York .

Bartholomew went on to help Boomershine, an ordained United Methodist elder, launch the ecumenical Network of Biblical Storytellers International. The organization offers resources, a certification program for storytellers and master storytellers, and an annual Festival Gathering for tellers of biblical stories and those who enjoy hearing them. This year's festival will run Aug. 10-13 at Ridgecrest Conference Center near Asheville, North Carolina.

"Our goal is to teach other people how to tell these stories so that they become a resource for their religious life and for the life of their communities," Bartholomew said.

Biblical storytellers perform the narratives -- and even the epistles -- of Scripture in many venues, including worship services, conferences, workshops, retreats and Lenten programs. Their foundation is the words of the Bible.

"The texts that we have are, in effect, transcripts of oral stories," Bartholomew said. The idea is not to find new ways to tell a story from the Bible, but to begin with the story text and tell it as dramatically as we tell other stories in our lives, he explained. "It's like playing a score of Beethoven's violin concerto as opposed to jazz."

The Rev. Dina Ferguson, an Episcopal priest and president of the network board, agreed. "The Network of Biblical Storytellers way of telling Scripture is very, very faithful to the text. We want it to be an accurate and not edited or elaborated version of the story."

But the experience of hearing the story told is entirely different from hearing it read, she said. "A book puts a barrier between the person who is reading and the rest of the audience. Storytelling is a very intimate kind of an experience where that person stands in the middle and engages in the experience in the telling."

People have told her that "a reading seems like ‘there and then,' whereas a telling seems like ‘here and now,'" she said. "So there's a real sense of immediacy and personal engagement."

Not the usual approach

The typical reading of Scripture in church is anything but dramatic, Bartholomew said. "We have a very dispassionate way of reading the stories. We read them very rationally, we read them so that they appeal to the mind."

"We prohibit people from bringing appropriate emotion to the stories and rhythm and volume … all the ingredients of oral language that are part of daily conversations except for delivering a lecture. They're part of every story that we tell through the day," Bartholomew said. And we typically tell our stories as dramatically as possible -- trying to elicit a laugh, for example, when describing a funny incident, he said.

"But the church has had a tremendous distrust of doing something that sounds dramatic with the Bible," he said. "The irony is that when people deliver sermons in the way that we read Scripture, people get bored."

At Ascension, the congregation hears Scripture told as story every Sunday. A group of Ascension parishioners is learning biblical stories and plans to invite members of Mount Vernon's other two Episcopal churches to attend storytelling workshops in October, leading to a community festival. Bartholomew previously told stories from John's Gospel during a combined Lenten series with the other churches.

"This is the most normal way of delivering these stories in Scripture and the church, and when you do that, it engages people," he said. "You're re-creating an event, and you're doing it in a way that you're trying to draw them into experiencing the event. When I do this, people forget about time completely. I could tell them a 25-minute story, and they don't have any idea that that's how long they were listening."

At St. George's Episcopal Church in Hawthorne, California, Ferguson launched a "Scripture by heart" group that learns and tells lectionary-appointed stories instead of reading them during Sunday worship about once a month. Roughly 10 people participate, and each story is told in Spanish and English at the church's bilingual service.

The aim is for a true "lively sharing of the word," an opportunity often missed in the church, Ferguson said. "Our liturgy builds in the stories of the lectionary. We hear them every week, but a lot of times it seems … that is a time when we are least attentive. We kind of sit through the lessons waiting for the preaching to happen."

"We reverence it and it is a beautiful part of our ceremony, but we don't necessarily roll up our sleeves and really engage with Scripture, as if we think that Scripture is not robust enough to take some rough handling," she said. But, she said, "I believe that that's exactly what we are called to do." And one way to engage the Scriptures "deeply and personally … is to really hear those stories."

Not everyone embraces substituting storytelling for reading the week's lessons.

"There is a lot of resistance in the clergy because we're educated not to do this," Bartholomew said. "In no other part of the liturgy do you want to do something in as deadly a manner as we tend to do Scripture, and it's a sad waste of not only a resource but the most important resource we have in the church, the most foundational resource."

While his church incorporates storytelling weekly and Ferguson's once a month or less, lay storyteller Pamela Grenfell Smith of Bloomington, Indiana, said she thought storytelling generally didn't work well at regular Sunday Eucharists for two reasons.

"The first is that it changes the shape of the liturgy in a way that I do not understand but that makes me uncomfortable," she said. "Sunday morning is my sacred grove where I go to worship, and I don't want to find that somebody has rearranged the trees."

Also, "storytelling from the Bible only works if people can question you immediately," she said. "We say you question the Bible, and the Bible questions you. So when you hear a Bible story, you have questions for it but you also have to take advantage of that time for how it questions you, how it riles you up, how it kind of irritates you. Those are terribly important minutes. If you are telling the story in a liturgical setting, you can't really say what bothered you."

She does, however, believe storytelling "fits beautifully" in other services such as Lessons and Carols or Easter Vigil. And she's contemplating the possibility of a multigenerational Bible story-based Christian formation program -- perhaps a "story squad" that visits people's homes to tell stories -- to serve the congregation of St. David's Episcopal Church, Bean Blossom, which draws worshipers from five counties and where "we have a very few kids, and they're hardly ever there at the same time."

Bible stories are different from other stories people encounter, Smith said. "I think the media culture saturates us with narrative, and it is rather boring, banal. The Bible stories … are stories that leave you more open and more confused, which is terribly valuable. They are not stories that leave you with the sense that everything came out right and you can be safe and buy another Buick. They are challenging stories, and when people get to listen to them, they like them a lot."

One aspect she likes about the Network of Biblical Storytellers is its strong scholarship component, with biblical scholars attending every festival. The network doesn't just teach storytelling techniques or ask storytellers to memorize something and repeat it but also expects members to research the stories and figure out why they mattered, Smith said.

Besides attending network festival gatherings, Smith studied her craft through the network's Academy for Biblical Storytelling. "That took me from being somebody who could tell a story in church now and then to being somebody with a pretty good grasp of the beginning literature and the subject, who knew how to put together a program, who had worked extensively with professional storytellers, who had written and meditated and reflected on what I was doing."

The academy offers a one-year storytelling certification, with an option for a second year to earn certification as a master storyteller, explained Tracy Radosevic, professional storyteller and academy dean. Most study occurs remotely, with students reading books, writing papers and submitting videotapes for critique. Students meet face-to-face twice a year, including for three days after the annual festival gathering.

So far, a few dozen storytellers have been certified. Six became master storytellers, and four more are in the master's program, Radosevic said. Cost is $2,000 per year, which includes registration and seven nights' accommodation at the festival.

Network members are mostly mainline Protestants, including a growing number of Episcopalians and Lutherans, and "we're actively trying to seek out more Catholics and anybody else," said Radosevic, a United Methodist. The network also includes a few Jewish members, and a rabbi will be the featured storyteller at the 2012 festival, she said.

This year's festival theme is How Many Times: Stories of Forgiveness and will include the study and telling of three Bible stories about forgiveness. More than 200 storytellers and story lovers attend the annual gathering each year, Radosevic said. They represent a fairly equal mix of men and women, clergy and laity, members and "newbies," and a range of denominations, she said. They range from pastors to church school teachers to grandparents who want to make sure their grandchildren know the stories "and realize telling is more engaging than reading."

For some, biblical storytelling is a calling.

"My discernment process toward ordination has always identified biblical storytelling as a major component of my ministry," said Ferguson.

For Smith, "My sense of ministry resides in pulling people back, giving people the confidence to enter the holy ground of Scripture again and to engage with it, respecting its story-ness and not needing it to be a history book or an infallible guide to what to do tomorrow, but to recover how to learn from stories … [T]hat is what my passion is."

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