Storytellers and Transformation

By Peggy Eastman

In an era of instant electronic communication, inspired biblical storytelling still draws spiritual seekers, just as it did 2,000 years ago. About 240 people gathered at the 2015 Festival Gathering of Biblical Storytelling in Chevy Chase, Md., Aug. 5-8 to hone their narrative skills.

The conference, sponsored by the Network of Biblical Storytellers International, based at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, featured dramatic presentations of scriptural passages, talks on how to bring a Bible story alive for modern audiences, and in-depth workshops.

Theme stories included “Bricks without Straw” (Ex. 5:1-6:1), “A Crippled Woman” (Luke 13:10-17), and “The Syrophoenician Woman’s Daughter” (Mark 7:24-30). The conference included an evening of epic storytelling from Acts.

“We started the network in order to support people who were doing biblical storytelling in their ministries,” said the Rev. Tom Boomershine, who founded NBS in 1977.

“Storytelling was not something that was thought about” before the early 1970s, Boomershine said in an interview with TLC. “It was not taught in seminaries.

“There was a common misunderstanding, and storytellers heard, Oh, you tell Bible stories to children.” But “storytelling was the primary means of communication in the ancient world,” in which 85 to 95 percent of people could not read. “Biblical storytelling is a recovery of the original character of the Bible.”

Biblical storytelling is a new paradigm of the Bible in a post-literate world, said Boomershine, a former professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and author of Story Journey: An Invitation to the Gospel as Storytelling (Abingdon, 1988), and Messiah of Peace: A Performance-Criticism Commentary on Mark’s Passion-Resurrection Narrative (Cascade, published in June). “My own conclusion is that the renaissance of storytelling has been a response to digital electronic communication.”

“One of the roles of the network has been to demonstrate that storytelling is a viable form of biblical communication,” Boomershine said. “Doing it has proven its viability 2,000 years ago and now.”

During a workshop at the conference, he added: “The assumption by literate people is that pre-literate people were ignorant. That is a lie.” Instead, pre-literate people learned well from oral histories and had strong communal/social memories from the stories they heard.

The network strives to be a global community of storytellers who will be a force for world peace. “I think there is a growing fear that is manifesting itself,” Boomershine said. “It is a steady reinforcement of the myth of redemptive violence.”

The theme of that myth plays out constantly in movies in which heroes use the latest high-tech weapons to wipe out enemies at great personal risk. “That’s our foreign policy,” he said. “People believe that myth.”

But the gospel is not about meeting violence with violence, but about the power of love, reconciliation, and forgiveness, which biblical storytellers can bring to audiences worldwide.

“Storytelling is part learned discipline and part artistic,” said the Rev. Marvin A. McMickle, president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in New York. “You need to understand it so well yourself that I could wake you up at 4 o’clock in the morning and you could tell me in one sentence what it’s about. The biblical storyteller needs to assure that every story makes “one clear, compelling, biblically centered and contextually relevant claim that sets some aspect of God’s will and God’s word” before a specific audience, McMickle said.

People’s knowledge of the Bible is declining, their likelihood of hearing a biblical story is declining, and they are bombarded by electronic communication. “You have to make me believe that what you’re saying makes a difference in my life,” McMickle said.

He added that the goal is not just to tell a compelling story but to suggest a course of action: “Pathos is what is required to get people to treat as urgent the course of action you have just suggested. Imagine a house on fire.”

McMickle urged storytellers to imbue their craft with passion, urgency, and conviction through their delivery. “The danger for storytellers and preachers is predictability,” he said. “You ought to at least own a lectionary. … Somewhere in there is something that you can use. The lectionary moves you around so that you don’t get stuck in the familiar.”

“Pick some stories that correspond to national holidays,” he advised, such as a scriptural passage illustrating gratitude to correspond with the Thanksgiving holiday.

He emphasized the importance of preparing to present a biblical story, as one would prepare for a sermon. “God is not just entrusting the story to us. God is entrusting the congregation’s time to us,” he said, noting that Harry Emerson Fosdick said he spent one hour of preparation for every minute of his sermon.

“Stories require more than your mouth to be true; they require your body,” said Richard Swanson, professor of religion, philosophy, and classics at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

“You owe people the service of taking off the blinders on these stories,” added Swanson, director of the Provoking the Gospel Storytelling Project and a collaborator with composers on performances of the St. Mark Passion and the Book of Job.

For those who want to take biblical storytelling to a higher level, the network’s Academy for Biblical Storytelling offers training in both the performance and teaching of biblical stories, said the academy’s dean, storyteller Tracy Radosevic, an adjunct professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and the Institute of Theology in Baltimore.

Radosevic told TLC that the academy offers two levels of certification. “It’s intense; we call it an academy on purpose. It is rigorous.”

She said some academy students are pastors, some Christian educators, some teachers, and some make their living as full-time biblical storytellers. Still others attend the academy to deepen their devotional life and have no interest in performing. But some of those students find that once they have completed the academy curriculum “they have to go out and share it. The power of the biblical stories is meant to be shared.”

Radosevic said the academy encourages students to rely on a formula of 95 percent content accuracy and a minimum of 75 percent word accuracy.

She used the analogy of jazz musicians who riff on a melody. “They can’t riff on the melody until they know the core melody,” said Radosevic, who has led storytelling pilgrimages to Israel and Palestine and presented at conferences in Australia, Gambia, and England. The academy advises students to read several different translations of a Bible story in order to make it their own.

Radosevic, a former director of Christian education at the First United Methodist Church in Cherryville, North Carolina, is committed to bringing the Bible to those with low scriptural literacy. “The rate of biblical illiteracy is rising,” she said. “Many people either don’t know it at all or find it boring. Reverent doesn’t mean you have to be boring.”

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