What is a story?
According to the Network of Biblical Storytellers International, “A story is an oral event that is created or re-created through the voice and body of the teller in such a way that the audience experiences the event.”
Have you ever heard someone tell a story? Have you ever told a story? Of course you have! We tell stories every day. Especially in our digital culture, our lives revolve around stories.
When you take all of our stories and put them together, they all become an infinitesimal part of one larger story– God’s story. The Bible tells God’s story starting with Creation and giving us a glimpse of the story as it continues to be written. So if the Bible is a story, isn’t it appropriate to tell it as we would any other story?
What is biblical storytelling?
Biblical storytelling is a spiritual discipline that entails first committing to the deep memory a narrative text of the Old or New Testament and then engaging with it in a lively telling as a sacred event that binds teller and listeners in community. (Definition by Network of Biblical Storytellers International)
When we tell the Bible as a story we strive to make it more personal, to make it our story and to share that story with others. We should be striving to tell scripture as if it was our own story, because it is our story.
Spiritual discipline…deep memory…narrative text…engaging with it…sacred event….
Which one scares you the most? In my experience, for most people the scariest part is the committing to deep memory. First, let’s make one thing clear, this is not about memorization. This is about telling the story by heart. Most of us remember memorizing things as child. If you were in a parochial school or even at Sunday School each week, you were probably asked to memorize scripture pass
ages. How did we do that? Usually, we tried to learn it word by word, by rote. In most cases, if we missed one word, we were told that we didn’t get it right and to try again. If our parents were helping they would stop and correct any words we got wrong. When a passage is learned in this way, we learn it in our head and as soon as we no longer “need” it, it slips away.
Biblical storytelling is about learning stories by heart. In this case, we work to get the story into our “heart” our inner being and make it our own. These stories do not slip away as easily. In biblical storytelling, we are aiming for 95% content accuracy and 75% word accuracy. The content of the story is the most important part, not that we can recite it “word for word.” The exact words change from translation to translation, so who is to say which one is right and which one is wrong. Ok, so there are a few considerations when choosing a translation, but I’m talking about the principle of the matter here. We’ll talk about translations later.
Now, it’s your turn! Think of a story from your past – keep it short. No, really, write it down to make sure it’s short! Now tell your story to a mirror.
What did you notice? What gestures or body movements did you use? What did your face tell you? Did your body, voice and face bring the story to life?
Why biblical storytelling now?
What makes biblical storytelling appropriate for us today? First, the stories in the Bible were originally told orally. The stories of Israel were told by parents and grandparents to their children and to their children. The words of God were written down, but few, if any, copies would have been available to anyone but the priests or king. In the book of Jeremiah, we read that King Jehoiakim burns the scroll on which Baruch has so carefully written down the words of Jeremiah. There was only one copy of the scroll, so when the scroll is destroyed, Baruch must once again write as Jeremiah dictates the prophecy over again (Jeremiah 36).
Even when scrolls were available they would have been “read” aloud to the hearers. David Rhoads, professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, explains, “Because scrolls were cumbersome and words were compressed together, a reader would have had to know the contents extremely well to ‘read’ it.” 
Could you read this? Maybe, but it wouldn’t be easy.In the New Testament church this tradition continued for the same reasons. Paul dictated his letters expecting that they would be read to a congregation in a public forum and in whole.
Rhoads explains: Paul probably composed his letters mentally or in conversation and then dictated them orally to be written down by a scribe. Then Paul would send the letter with an emissary who probably would have heard Paul dictate it and who would have gotten instructions from Paul about how it should be performed. It is likely the emissary memorized the letter and performed it with little reference to the scroll itself.
An even better reason for practicing the art of biblical storytelling is God’s command through Moses in Deuteronomy 4:9, “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely…do not forget the things your eyes have seen…teach them to your children and to their children after them.”
In today’s digital culture we are bombarded with stories. How many of you use Facebook? Instagram? These are just a couple of ways in which we share our stories each and every day. We go to the movies or watch television to “see” stories. Our digital culture has much in common with the early church. We are a very visual society and we are surrounded by stories.
Our shared stories create communities. There is a commonality in shared stories. We bond together through our common stories. When we get together with our friends, we tell stories.
In addition, storytellers create community. There is an interaction between the storyteller and the audience. When you are listening to a good storyteller, do you find yourself more engaged in the action? Do you find yourself “leaning in” as you anticipate what is coming next? A good storyteller will draw the audience into the story so they “participate” in the story. When we hear stories, the text becomes alive and easier to understand. A storyteller allows us to experience the story ourselves. We enter into the story.
So, if we are going to become biblical storytellers, where do we begin?
Biblical storytelling is a spiritual discipline, so a good place to start is with daily Bible reading. Start now to make this a habit. If you are constantly in the Word, the stories will become more and more familiar. When it is time to learn a new story, chances are that you will remember having read it in the past. I can’t stress enough what an enormous long-term investment daily Bible reading can be in your ability to tell God’s story.
Which story should I tell?
Choose something familiar as your first story. (If you’ve been reading the Bible daily, you’ll have many from which to choose.) Keep it short, no more than 10 verses at first. Choose a narrative story, a story that has action. Something that has personal meaning is also a good choice. You cannot tell a story with integrity if you don’t care about the story at any level.
Next, which translation? There are a number of translations to choose from ranging from “word for word” translations to paraphrases. I would caution against using paraphrases such as The Message in that they are not always the most accurate. On the other hand, translations like the English Standard Version (ESV) are difficult to speak. A familiar translation is a good one with which to begin. Translations such as the New International Version (NIV) or the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) are popular choices. Of course, the venue for your telling can also be a factor. If you are telling in worship, make sure to clear your choice of translation with your pastor.
Now that you have chosen a story and a translation, start reading. While reading the story work to listen, visualize, and connect with the story. Ask questions:
What is happening in the story?
Where does it take place?
Who are the characters?
When is it taking place? Morning? Night?
What emotions bubble up as you read the story?
Is the story a call for forgiveness? A challenge to action?
How does the story connect to your own life?
What is God saying to you through this story today?
Now read the story again. And again. And again. Learning a story takes time, you have to live with it in order to make it your own. Beginners should tell the story at least three times a day for a week to a month. As you gain experience and the learning becomes easier, you can be more flexible with time, but maintain a regular discipline. Meditate on the story. Biblical storytelling is a spiritual discipline. Speak a chunk, pause, meditate. Record your thoughts in a journal. Make the story yours.
Now it’s your turn– Choose your story and find the scripture reference. As we are coming up on Advent and the Christmas season, some suggested stories include:
- Mary and the Angel – Luke 1:26-33 (13 verses)
- Joseph and the Angel – Matthew 1:18-24 (7 verses)
- Jesus is Born –Luke 2:1-7 (7 verses)
- Shepherds – Luke 2:8-16 (9 verses)
- The Magi Find Jesus – Matthew 1-12 (12 verses)
- Read your Bible every day
- Read your chosen story out loud at least three times each day
- Listen, visualize, and connect with the story as you read
- Meditate on the story
Watch this space here in “The Abbey” in the coming days for another installment in the series.
 David Rhoads, “What is Performance Criticism?” in The Bible in Ancient and Modern Media: Story and Performance, eds. Holly E. Hearon and Philip Ruge-Jones (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 86.