Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Bedtime Stories and the Bible

Why Christianity Requires Storytelling

One night when I was putting my boys to bed in their little one-room barracks (4 boys + 2 sets of bunk beds + 1 dresser = huge mess), I heard the inevitable plea: “Dad, would you tell us a story, PLEASE?” It had pretty much become part of our bedtime routine: lights out, prayer, kisses, story. Usually, it took me a minute or two to work one up because they didn’t want just any old story. They wanted a “Grandma and Grandpa Story”—a story about my life as a kid, complete with appearances by my brother and sisters, our various pets, the places we grew up, and on and on. It had to be true, and it had to be new.

Apparently I had fallen into a boring and predictable opening for my G&G stories, but only one of my boys noticed it: our four-year-old jokester, Braidin. But he didn’t just come right out and tell me I was getting dull. Instead, on this particular night when someone asked, “Dad, would you please tell us a story?”, his quick little wit went into action. Before I could launch into my latest and greatest tale, he butted in and, lowering his voice like mine, he began with my predictable line: “Well, one time…”

He stopped right there, but the other boys were already giggling and wiggling under their blankets. Of course, I laughed, too, appreciating both his keen observation and his comical style. He was funny, and in his own little way, he was making a good point: “boring” and “story” shouldn’t go together.

Everybody loves a good story. Postmodernism, with its schmaltzy enthusiasm for “narratives” over against propositions, hasn’t stumbled upon anything new or profound here. People have always been this way. No matter where or when they live(d), people of all ages love stories. Yesterday I picked up three new books at the library—all fiction. Why? Because I, too, love a good story.

I’m pondering storytelling for a couple reasons. First, I’m having a very hard time preaching these days. We are studying through the book of Acts at our church, and I’m finding it very tough to write good sermons on the great stories in this book. I think a major part of the problem is my badly conceived notion that a sound, expositional sermon has to frame up the text in a number of distinct propositions that make a nice outline. “Point one: Jesus sees the lame man. Point two: Jesus speaks to the lame man. Point three: Jesus heals the lame man. Conclusion: A poem about lameness.” How lame. (This isn't a real outline of mine, but the point is I need some help badly!)

I bought four books today about how to preach narratives. Hopefully, help is on the way! I need to get this figured out, because well over half of God’s word has been revealed in narrative form. Theological storytelling is what it is really, and I believe it calls for a type of preaching that honors the form in which it was originally given. God could have revealed all our theology in abstractions like an encyclopedia of systematic theology, but He didn’t. I think good preaching will honor that, not only in how the passage is interpreted but also in how it is presented. That’s my theory anyway; I just need help working it out practically.

The other reason I’m interested in storytelling right now is that I’m seeing more and more how the whole Bible is one big story. One conflict: sin ruined God’s good creation. One plot: God redeems a people for Himself. One Hero: Jesus Christ. One resolution: the cross.

In other words, the Bible isn’t a collection of nice little tales about heroic feats and noble characters. It’s not like Aesop’s Fables—a bunch of random stories each with a helpful little moral at the end. No, the Bible tells one unified Story—the Story of redemption. Sometimes the Bible’s main Story develops in a straight line, as new details are revealed and the plot slowly moves forward. And sometimes the Bible’s main Story moves in a circle, retelling the same plot with foreshadowing or typology.

Many narratives in the Bible actually do both: they move the main Story’s plot forward (in a line) and rehearse its basic features (in a circle) at the same time. For example, the story of David defeating Goliath does both: it shows us a little bit more of what Jesus will be like in the person of David (moving the Story along a line), and it also retells the main Story where God’s people are delivered from their enemy by a single Champion (moving the Story around a circle). It adds to the Story and retells the Story at the same time.

If this is all just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to you, I’ll try to clear it up by offering this excellent analogy from professor Bruce Waltke:

The Rainbow Bridge spanning Niagara Falls began as a kite. Those building the bridge flew a kite across the majestic waterway, until it came down on the other side of the gorge, linking the two sides with a thin string. Using the string, its builders pulled strings, then ropes, and eventually steel girders across the gorge. The more the bridge changed, the more it became what it was always meant to be.

The kite string represents, you might say, Genesis’ description of salvation, while the rest of Scripture represents the developing bridge—first strings, then ropes, then steel girders.

So, I hope you’ll learn to approach the Bible as one great story, THE great story, the Classic of all classics. And if you tend to shy away from fiction as somehow less spiritual than theology, let me encourage you to reconsider. Read good stories. Tell great stories.

I believe we love stories because we were hard-wired by God that way. He put a love for stories within us because He Himself is the Great Storyteller, the Master Author who wrote the ultimate Story, the Creator who designed us in such a way that we cannot help but be captivated and changed by the greatest Story ever told.


Unknown said...

I think that's a really awesome way to wrap up the struggle you're having, Josh -- that the whole Bible tells the same story.

If it helps any, the falling in love with someone happens when you hear their stories, spend that time with them, & learn what was important enough in their life to remember as a story one day. When you preach narratively, you're just helping your congregation fall in love with the Person who thought it was important that these parts of the story get told. Right-o?

Josh said...

GREAT point. Well put. Thanks!

Gretchen said...

Josh, this post is GREAT. I am currently working on a series of posts for the CBMW blog on reading to kids, and I really want to point out the importance of using stories. They are what win your heart, and delight your mind, right?

I love it. I am linking to this for sure.

~Gretchen Neisler

Rhonda Towne Archibald said...

Check out, a ministry delveloped by some people at Calvary in Normal, IL.


Josh said...

Wait a second... "Rhonda Towne Archibald"? ...of the Famous Madrigal Choir? My friend from long ages ago?!

When your comment first hit my email inbox, I was delighted to hear from you, then curious why there was no "Hello, how are you? I'm Rhonda from...", and then alarmed that perhaps my post was so bad it didn't warrant any greetings but only a strong hint that I should seek some remedial therapy for my anemic storytelling. :) Just kidding. I checked out the link right away, actually. Cool ministry.

Last night I was reminded of the power of stories again as I retold an old favorite to our little daughter. She was supposed to be in bed, but she'd been sick with the flu all day and was finally feeling better. The very last thing she wanted was to go to bed, now that she finally felt good again! So she had come up with every excuse in the book - scared, thirsty, cold... I've made up a series of stories about two little frogs called Flip and Flop, and just a simple "Flip and Flop story" on Daddy's lap put everything right again. Bedtime is always easier with a story.

Great to hear from you. What in the world brought you to this blog?!