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Godly Play and the Enduring Power of Storytelling

Editor’s note: This post continues a short series on education, children, and the Church. Come back over the next three days to read more on our education page.

He began to teach them many things in parables.Mark 4:2 

I spent three days in September in Denver with the Episcopal priest, educator, and theologian Jerome Berryman. Jerome is the founder and author of the Godly Play catechetical program, a Montessori-based model of childhood Christian formation that enjoys widespread use in the Episcopal Church as well as in other denominations. It is used in over 40 countries and has been translated into Dutch, Swahili, Spanish, German, and other languages.

What makes Godly Play popular? Is it the familiarity that many already have with Montessori? Perhaps. But I believe that what distinguishes Godly Play from other catechetical models is its emphasis on storytelling. In fact, Godly Play is organized around a narrative time, after which children reflect on the story they’ve heard through creative action and play. This is what initially drew me to Godly Play and continues to hold my interest both as a priest and a scholar.

During my time with Berryman, our conversation kept returning to the social and collective importance of stories. As he wrote to me later, “Storytelling and story-hearing as a way of making mutual meaning is a matter of existential importance for me as well as for all of us.”

While the idea of storytelling might sound trivial or childish, the significance of narrating goes deeper than we might expect. Aristotle called humans “rational animals.” But others, from sociologists and clinical psychologists to theologians and philosophers, have expanded Aristotle’s anthropological insight to call us narrative and story-telling creatures.[1] Stories help shape the way we narrative animals see the world. Stories, both sacred and secular, give us a shared language, a means to relate to one another, to collaborate. This conviction animates Berryman’s most recent publication, Stories of God at Home: A Godly Play Approach (Church Publishing, 2018)a book that he wrote to help parents and caretakers integrate storytelling in the home as a way of building “a reservoir of meaning to draw from when needed” (p. 2).

Berryman says he arrived at this conviction as a result of his experiences of working with suicidal children at the Texas Medical Center from 1974 to 1984.

What these families had in common was that they did not tell stories. They did not tell stories about vacations, funny things that happened, sad things, grandparents, births, deaths, pets, hopes, significant trips, dreams, or any of the other tales I took for granted, since I had come from a storytelling family. Their communication was reduced to commands, demands, exclamations, briefexplanations,and questions requiring short, factual answers. The family members were like neighboring islands without any bridges. There was no narrative to connect them. What was the treatment? Tell stories face-to-face. (ibid., p. 22)

Stories make us more fully human because storytelling is already such an integral part of our humanity.

Godly Play encourages storytelling in church by teaching Scripture in a narrative way. Yet the work of catechesis can only do so much on its own. A partnership between home and church is crucial for formation. Otherwise, we risk creating a culture of conflicting formation. Sadly, this is usually the case; children, young people, and mature adults alike live disconnected lives. The messages they hear in the marketplace, the home, and the church conflict with one another. It does not help that Christians often present a less-than-compelling lived witness in their often compromised lives and convoluted relationships with the state and marketplace. The Christian story struggles to compete with the dramatic and sexy ethos of the marketplace and media.

The dominance of didactic catechesis in American churches and schools and the fate of the humanities in the American university suggests that, collectively, we’re not sure why we need stories or what they’re good for. Maybe this malaise stems from a deeper confusion about what we owe ourselves and each other. Parents are anxious to give their children the right answers when asked difficult questions. Open-ended answers leave the matter unsettled and leave our children with more questions. So, too, with our peers; we think that we need to offer neatly packaged answers to lived, existential, and theological problems. And yet the issues and questions that animate our lives — from relationships and careers to our relationship with God — aren’t easily answered; nor are easy answers what these questions demand.

Telling stories is a way of helping us ponder those questions by engaging us in an imaginative process of self-reflection and spiritual examination.Stories help us to confront and ponder the depths within us, others, and the world. And because stories aren’t didactic lessons and don’t offer simple answers, they can’t be reduced to a moral or a point. Yes, sometimes there seems to be an obvious “moral of the story.” But even when I can draw a moral conclusion, such as speed won’t always ensure a victory, especially when it is up against equally strong vices, there will still be more that I can say about the story. I can talk about humility versus pride, or that anxiety and pressure we feel to succeed, or what we learn about ourselves in failure. More importantly, difficulties invite me to hear the speech and communication of others.

(Here I’m indebted to Rowan Williams. See especially The Lions’ World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia [Oxford University Press, 2012], pp. 139–44, as well as his exploration of “extreme language” in The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language [Bloomsbury, 2014], pp. 150–55).

How does such an open-ended perspective of storytelling actually help us deal with life’s problems, or raising children, or teaching Christians? By helping us embrace open-endedness as endemic to both life and education. It’s easy for adults to rush to judgment or force an easy interpretation when talking to children or students about stories. It’s even easier to dismiss seemingly awkward or immature thoughts about a story when a child’s or student’s thoughts don’t fall into the spectrum of “correct” interpretations.

Likewise, it’s easy to pass judgment on or offer solutions to difficulty and pain, as Job’s friends did, rather than to sit quietly and offer empathy. We see the real difficulty of the religious life as one of relevance, as if things like the Eucharist and the Trinity find their value in their ability to solve the world’s problems. At the heart of our reactions, I’m convinced, is our generosity and good will. We desperately want to be helpful, to make a difference, to do the good work we’re called to do.

But when we reduce stories to a clear point or moral, we miss out on a rich experience. When we reduce difficult questions and experiences to simple solutions and answers, we miss out on the way a life is being shaped or a person is being formed. Likewise, when our first impulse is to neutralize that discomfort, we automatically block the thornier insights of the gospel, and in turn shortchange our spiritual development.

The genuine encounter with a story pushes all of us into a creative and curious space that affirms our humanity while challenging it and expanding it. When we hear a story, we look for familiarity and difference; we reflect on our lives, our experiences, struggles, and joys. In and through stories, we are challenged to reflect on ourselves before we pass judgment. We are surprised to find ourselves empathizing with one character, or frustrated with another. And all the while, we develop bonds, unknown to us at the time, with other readers or hearers. Through storytelling, therefore, we create culture. And we hand that culture on as long as we keep telling stories.

Unfortunately, the stories we tell do not always foster such healthy reflection. At times, we tell stories in order to escape from reality, or to reshape reality in ways that suit less than honorable purposes. At times, our stories romanticize awful situations or valorize questionable actions. Certain narratives can animate the imaginations of young people, fostering corrosive images of self, identity, community, and purpose. The problem with such a story is not always that it is bad. Rather, these stories and the way they are told short-circuit the work of reflection and engagement, the spiritualwork that would enable us to say or hear more. The virtue of stories is in their prompting us to keep listening, keep talking, keep reflecting, keep interpreting.

In the eucharistic lectionary in September, we encountered Jesus in the Gospel in conversation with a certain Syrophoenician woman from the region of Tyre. I’ve heard many homilies on this text that either make excuses for Jesus or condemn him. And yet by forcing a fast moral from the reading, such homilies rob us of something precious. They deprive us of our ability and right to sit with the tension of the story, to reflect on a difficult passage,and then to say more. A homilist who promotes a quick moral interpretation regularly will foster a church culture that is incapable of dealing with difficulties, whether in the Gospels or elsewhere. Similarly, a parent or teacher who stifles difficult questions will foster an environment that is resistant to wonder. By contrast, telling stories encourages wonder and reflection, which in turn fosters depth and resilience.

Along these lines, Godly Play promotes reflection through a series of I wonder statements. By placing the responsibility of interpretation and integration in the hands (and minds) of its youthful audience, the storyteller enlivens and enriches the imaginative and ascetical life of the hearer far more than is possible by interpreting the story for the audience. An integral part of storytelling in Godly Play is helping hearers integrate the story with their existential and theological situations, to make scriptural meaning in their lives. I’ll conclude by doing the same.

Think about your experiences. Where are you in all of this? Are you a storyteller? Have you appreciated being told stories? What stories do you enjoy telling and retelling today? What stories excite you? What stories make you uncomfortable?

It is worth reflecting on how often and why Jesus taught in thorny and hard to understand stories, figures, and allusions. Jesus’ parabolic and symbolic manner fostered an imaginative streak in the early and medieval Church. Contrary to popular perception, the denizens of the Middle Ages were very comfortable with ambiguity and multiple meanings in Scripture, a mental and spiritual habit that, for all its faults, fostered a rich culture of evangelism and discipleship.

Stories are building blocks of culture. At times, it may seem obvious which stories we are building with and leaning on; on closer inspection, however, we may find buried layers of narration that over time we’ve taken for granted or forgotten outright. Berryman’s work with Godly Play exposes and employs the imaginative power of storytelling by offering children (and the adults who teach them) scriptural tales of faith that encourage wonder, imagination, and investigative curiosity. Godly Play also enables children (and teachers, I’ve found) to become more comfortable with open-ended answers and multiple meanings. The way we tell these core stories and invite reflection on them will shape the church of tomorrow. The question is, what kind of stories will we hand on to those who come after us?

The Rev. Dr. Daniel W. McClain is chaplain to the College of William and Mary and associate rector of Bruton Parish Episcopal Church.

[1] The most notable is Walter Fisher’s critically acclaimed Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action (University of South Carolina Press, 1987), although more recently Jonathan Gottschall has written a popular account, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Mariner Books, 2012).



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