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Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling
By Jon Huckins
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Jon Huckins
All right reserved.
Chapter OneUnderstanding the Bible as a Story We Can Be (Are) a Part Of
"The significance (and ultimately the quality) of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part."
—Wendell Berry www.crosscurrents.org/berry.htm
As we explore the theology of teaching through storytelling, we're beginning to see that much of the way Jesus taught and the forms in which he learned took place within the context of story. This understanding is paramount to our foundation as communicators who teach through the art of storytelling. And while it's important that we understand the context of Jesus' teaching and learning, it's equally important for each of us to come to our own understanding of the Bible—in its original context and free from our presuppositions.
To some degree we each have differing theologies based on our backgrounds, our personal understandings, and our overall view of God and faith in Jesus. Many would probably even disagree with my last point, saying, "My theological doctrine is written down and clearly explained in my denominational statement of faith" (or some other generally accepted foundational list). And to some degree I believe those articles are very important for us as we partner in our faith and move forward in a common, basic understanding of what we hold as truth. But I also believe we must acknowledge that we each look through different lenses of experience and understanding regarding the themes of Scripture based on our personal revelations and formative conversations and interactions.
One of my main intentions for beginning to teach through the art of storytelling was to create an atmosphere of a conversational, growing, and Spirit-led encounter with the Scriptures and our roles as individuals within that story.
I'm very grateful for my upbringing, and many people—my parents, in large part—have encouraged me toward a faith that was real and growing. In many ways, their examples have been and continue to be a living and breathing picture of the life that Jesus intended for his people. That said, it's been essential for my development as a sincere follower of the Way to take an objective inventory of my theology and practice that's so easy to accept as the only articulation of Christian faith.
While I was growing up, my basic understanding of Scripture was that the Bible is a road map or user's manual for the Christian faith. There are some individual stories within the manual that taught me, but I had a hard time seeing a connection between those individual stories. This mentality led me to a faith that was confusing, frustrating, and extremely unsettling at times. The older I grew and the more I looked at each story within the Bible as a stand-alone lesson, the harder it became for me to understand some of the ways this book was supposed to lead people to a God of justice, compassion, grace, love, judgment, and ultimately relationship. It was as though I had a bunch of puzzle pieces that showed little bits of the larger picture, but they didn't make any sense on their own.
What led to even greater frustration were those television evangelists with their hair-sprayed silver locks who kept showing up on my local stations. They'd use one verse to explain why I needed to give them a certain dollar amount in order to receive the wealth and happiness that God had intended for us all. Or they mutilated a verse and claimed the Apocalypse was only six short years away, so I'd better turn to the "god" they described, or else I'd better put on my fire suit and lava boots. This skewed interpretation can lead to a posture of fear and condemnation rather than hope and invitation into the redemptive Story of God.
I didn't want to buy into their sales pitches, but I also didn't know of another way to look at the Bible that would explain this disconnect between what I believed to be true of God and what these people were telling me about God.
Thankfully, as I grew into my late teens and early twenties, I was surrounded by individuals who gave me room to start putting some of the puzzle pieces together. And that's how I received a much more comprehensive and holistic view of the Bible and its teachings. Toward the end of my high school years, I was blessed to have a youth pastor named Chip. (Isn't that every youth pastor's name?) He was a very gifted storyteller. We'd hear about his adventures skateboarding down Seattle streets or his near-death voyages among killer sea lions in a canoe he called "The Battle Ax."
Somehow—and I know many of us can relate—Chip was able to tie these ridiculous stories into beautiful and challenging pictures of what life could look like in the way of Jesus. The more I talked and shared life with him, the more I realized that his understanding of story didn't end with skateboarding, but it paralleled a larger biblical story. And I wanted to know more about this story.
So with Chip's mentorship and challenge, I began my quest for a more holistic picture of the Bible and its endless connection to story. I found that the Bible is filled with both fiction and nonfiction stories that use literary devices such at humor, syntax, rhetoric, character parallels, and irony—and the list goes on and on. In addition—and what I consider my most important discovery—I came to realize that all of the stories were somehow connected. Somehow all of the pieces came together to create this beautiful, profound, artful—and whole—mosaic. One may even call it a masterpiece. All these stories were part of a bigger story, and I wanted to be a part of it. But could I? Didn't the story end when John finished writing the book of Revelation? I needed to find out.
Why So Many Divisions?
The more I looked and the more information I found, the more excited and engaged I became. Maybe the Bible was more than just a "road map for life" as I'd learned in Sunday school. Maybe my hair-sprayed friends on TV weren't telling the whole story. Maybe there was another way of looking at this book with which I'd become so disenchanted. I soon discovered that it wasn't the Bible that had disenchanted me; it was the incomplete way I'd learned to apply it to my life.
I learned that the current translations of the Bible, which I'd studied for so many years, might not have been organized in a way that made sense to the authors of the day. For example, I found that the writings of Paul were, in large part, placed in order from longest to shortest book or letter: Is that how Paul would have wanted them arranged? Did such an order accurately reflect the real-life story that Paul was working so hard to tell?
Later I discovered that the chapter divisions in New Testament books weren't employed until the year 1205, and verse divisions weren't added until the 1550s (The Books of the Bible). Sometimes chapter divisions prevent complete thoughts and, conversely, force much smaller discussions within the context of one chapter. Is that how the chapters were intended to be read?
In regard to the verses, when they're treated as stand-alone units, they tend to encourage us to read the Bible as a reference book or road map (as I'd been taught while growing up). This leaves room for verses that are part of a bigger story to be taken out of context and distorted—much like what I'd observed on TV with "Hair Spray Guy." (The Books of the Bible, preface, v) If studied or read with the wrong understanding, these divisions could be toxic to understanding the larger biblical story.
Like many, one of my biggest theological hang-ups was the Old Testament. It's full of the good, the bad, and the ugly—sex, murder, genocide, natural disasters, a bunch of lists, and detailed building descriptions. But how do these things relate to my faith in Jesus?
Without going into too much detail (as there are many other books that focus on this topic alone), I hope to present a basic framework of some of the bigger storylines in the Old Testament. When read as a narrative, as is the form of so much of the Old Testament, it's evident that the individual stories are woven into the fabric of the overall narrative. As storytelling communicators, it's of paramount importance that we identify and articulate the Master Story. In regard to the Old Testament, theologian N. T. Wright describes it as "couched not in the terms of later philosophy but in the narrative of God and the world, and particularly the story of God and Israel" (Evil and the Justice of God, 45, emphasis added).
Early in Genesis we see that God created a good, beautiful creation with great care and attention to detail. God makes it very clear that this is his intimate handiwork, and his creation of human beings is the culmination of this handiwork. It's a perfect world made with perfect intention. Then things get out of order. In chapter 3 we see the rebellion in the garden of Eden when humans disobey God's one command not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In chapter 4 we see the first murder, which leads to widespread violence in chapter 5.
Finally, we observe in chapter 11 how the people come up with the crazy idea of building a tower—what we now call the Tower of Babel—that's supposed to reach up to the heavens. What's the human race—which God created in perfection—doing with what God's given to us? In response God scatters the people all over the earth and confuses their languages so they can no longer pursue their "great" ideas.
But God doesn't give up on humanity; instead, he finds someone willing to start putting it back together the way God intended it. In Genesis 12:1-3, we find God speaking to Abram (later called Abraham):
Go from your country, your people and your father's household to the land I will show you. "I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
So God has charged Abraham to bring renewal to a people who've turned from the way of God. He promises that God will bless this nation (Israel) and that, ultimately, it will bless others by pointing them back to the one, true God. It's evident that through Abraham and his family, God will bless the whole world.
Now at this point, the story takes turn after turn as God's chosen people, Israel, are on a quest to bring the world back to the way it was originally intended. Many of its leaders are brought up to power, and many leaders fail. In fact numerous times the biggest hurdles in the mission of Israel were the Israelites themselves (Exodus 15:22–24; 32:1).
As we continue the story of Israel that started with Abraham and was carried on by Isaac and Jacob, we find that after the death of Joseph, the Israelites are reduced to slavery. But God hasn't forgotten his promise of renewal, restoration, and the mission of bringing the world back to its originally intentioned form.
In Exodus 3:14–17, God talked to Moses: "I AM WHO I AM." He said further,
This is what you are to say to the Israelites, "I AM has sent me to you." God also said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.' 'This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation ... I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land ... flowing with milk and honey.'"
God is known to the Israelites as Yahweh or their God (monotheism in a polytheistic world), which creates more intimacy between God and his people, as well as more connection between God's Story and the characters he freely chooses to tell it. Yahweh's promise to Moses came true: God led the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt, and they began their adventure to the Promised Land. That's the story of Passover, which is still celebrated today. Of course, we know the story isn't over. Later on, the people ask God for a king. First, they get Saul; but they're eventually led by the "man after [God's] own heart"—King David (1 Samuel 13:14).
The story of the people whom God chose "to bless the world" (by putting things back together) continues in a saga that leads us to a book of stories compiled by an educated Jew. The book is Daniel, and it "emphasizes the underlying hope that the whole world will somehow be brought to order under the kingship of the one creator God, YHWH, the God of Abraham." (Simply Christian, 79) Of course, this doesn't happen quickly enough. However, Daniel also prophesied that a Savior would be central to the story and finally bring the mission of Israel to a climax, returning the world to the way God had originally intended. We know that man to be Jesus.
This is the bigger story—the story I'd missed for so long. It's full of interesting characters, plot twists, and changing settings that we all can be part of and do our best to share with the world around us. The Old Testament story doesn't end with Jesus' arrival; it continues. And it's in his life, death, and resurrection that we find the climax to the Christian story and to where I turn for much of the proceeding. I turn not only to the story that Jesus embodies but to the stories that he tells.
Excerpted from Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling by Jon Huckins Copyright © 2010 by Jon Huckins. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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