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Posts Tagged ‘storytelling

Provoking the Gospel: Methods to Embody Biblical Storytelling through Drama by Richard W. Swanson, Pilgrim Press, 2004, 136 pp.

I purchased this book at the UCC General Synod this summer, and I had no idea how timely and helpful it would be. During the months of August and September, I preached a sermon series entitled “Living in Tents,” focused on the Hebrew Bible stories from Genesis and Exodus, loosely staying with the cycle of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. Rather than attempt to read a large amount of text from the Bible, I used the children’s sermon time to engage in biblical storytelling about the narratives. I called it a “story for all ages,” and took 10-15 minutes to give a good, thorough telling of the biblical story, beginning with Joseph and moving on through the death of Moses this Sunday.

I took some storytelling workshops way back in college, but I don’t really know much about the art of storytelling. Swanson’s book was a great way to engage me, as a beginner, in thinking about how to tell the scripture story in a new way, even though I did not follow his precise method (or even use the New Testament texts he highlights).

Swanson makes a case for the embodiment of the Gospel stories:

Biblical interpretation must concern itself first of all with bodies, not ideas. The characters in these stories are not symbolic ciphers; they are bodies, they are people, and their interactions take place in the physical and ethical space of the real world… In biblical stories people look each other in the eye and act. These acts sometimes heal and sometimes betray, sometimes protect and sometimes abuse. (viii)

He continues: “We need to poke these old stories, to poke them and provoke them a little. And nothing does that textual poking and provoking like public, physical performance.” (viii) This was definitely my experience in preparing to tell the story each week. Reading over the familiar stories with the intent to tell them drew my attention to the physical aspects in a new way. I had to imagine Pharoah’s stance and voice, put myself in the midst of each plague, respond to the burning bush. Learning to tell the story (instead of read it) put both me and the congregation in a different relationship to the characters in it.

Provoking the Gospel is both a “why-to” and a “how-to” book—both making the case for biblical storytelling, and teaching the reader how to get started. Swanson’s method uses a group process, with an ensemble experimenting and engaging the story together. He incorporates theater exercises, body movement, experimentation and script-writing into his process. He encourages making mistakes, taking risks and getting it wrong along the path to provoking the surprising presence of God in these familiar Gospel stories. Each chapter contains a well-informed theoretical exploration for the “why-to,” followed by a list of exercises and steps for the “how-to.” Although I did not follow these instructions, I still found the exercises helpful in beginning the process as a solo storyteller.

Both Swanson and the process of doing storytelling in my congregation have convinced me that we should be making this a part of our worship and teaching on a regular basis. If we want an embodied, vital life of faith, we need to share with people an embodied, vital version of the Gospel. Storytelling is what God’s people have always done to share the good news. It’s what Jesus did to share his message. We need to follow their example and tell the stories over and over again in new ways.

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Emotional Reunion of Rescued Miner (Photo from cnn.com)

 

I have been captivated by the story of the trapped Chilean miners. I cried when I read about the note reaching the surface 17 days after the collapse of the mine, announcing all 33 were alive and unhurt. I cried again when I read that rescue might not come until Christmas. I rejoiced when the drill broke through, and rescue came early. I am crying again today at the beautiful sight of each one emerging safe and whole into the arms of his family.

The courage, faith and endurance of these men witness to the power and triumph of the human spirit. It is the kind of story that should be told and retold for generations as a testimony to hope and survival. I believe that what it means to be human is to possess these kinds of stories and understand our life through them.

 

Capsule Cam capturing the view from the miner's perspective riding up in the rescue capsule.

 

However, I do want to raise a cautionary query. As I have watched this drama unfold, I have been attentive to staging. This story has been presented to the world as though it were not unfolding before us, but as though it were almost already packaged for television and movies. Just today, as I watch the rescue, we are treated to a camera in the mine to capture the send-off from the other trapped miners, a camera in the rescue capsule that shows exactly what the miner is seeing in transit, along with multiple surface cameras to capture the emotions of the waiting families, the work and determination and encouragement of rescue workers and (of course) the presence and involvement of the Chilean president. Each of these cameras has been positioned with a Hollywood director’s care. Someone is directing this show.

 

Trapped Miners

 

The same has been true of the daily briefings and reporting throughout the ordeal. The way that each of the miners has been given a character and identity (the pastor, the musician, the medic, the MacGyver-like mechanic) mimics Hollywood portrayals of disaster and war stories, where nameless and indistinguishable soldiers take on unique archetypal identities. Each day, we get small bits of news unique to each miner, which have obviously been carefully crafted to portray them as courageous, strong and hopeful. This reporting is thanks to the work of three miners, who have been given cameras and sound equipment. One is the official cameraman, the other two are sound engineers. Another miner has been officially named the group poet, writing daily verse about their ordeal and praising rescue workers. (Excellent article here about daily life in the mine.)

Someone is crafting this story, and has been since the very beginning. The narrative of the rescue workers has been meticulously edited to avoid news of major mistakes, and no one is even talking about what caused the collapse in the first place. Here in the U.S., we are always searching first and foremost for someone to blame. This story is all about the hope and courage and ingenuity of the Chilean people.

 

President Sebastian Pinera with the initial note from the miners, holding it up for the cameras.

 

The lead hero of the story is Chilean president Sebastian Pinera. He has been at the forefront of every briefing, and taken the privilege of announcing every breakthrough. Today, as the miners are rescued one by one in that tiny capsule, he stands at the side of the families, second in line to embrace each one—right before the cameras. Having watched him throughout this media moment, I believe he or one of his closest advisors is responsible for the attention to media direction. He or someone close to him foresaw the captivating nature of the story (and, I add, without cynicism,) the political opportunity for Pinera to become a hero by connecting to the miners.

Here’s my ultimate question, however: is this a problem? Does it matter? We could have been exposed to every bit of the mass information and daily doldrums of this 68-day ordeal, or we could have been exposed to very little—just a pool camera at the rescue site. We could have received this information via a raw feed, or carefully orchestrated for dramatic effect. What difference would that make, ethically? Is there a requirement that we receive raw information? What amount of crafting and spin on a story like this one renders it inauthentic or unjust?

 

Picture-Perfect Moment

 

As a professional storyteller (aka preacher), I spend my time every week reading the Bible and trying to figure out how to craft and spin and retell it for dramatic effect, so that it moves the hearts of the listeners and opens them to the Holy Spirit. The Chilean president and his advisors have done the same thing here, except they are attempting to provoke national pride and honor instead of spiritual awakening. We both know that there is a difference between a great story and a great story told by a great storyteller. Is the story any less true because it has been carefully manipulated and told for maximum impact? Or is it an even better story that way?

Stories like that of the Chilean miners captivate us because they are great human stories, in the same way that great human stories of courage and hope have captivated us throughout human history. I praise God today for their rescue, and pray for their healing and peaceful reintegration into their families. And I also ponder these questions about their story and how it is being told. How much has my relationship and emotional response to this story been crafted and directed by storytellers? And how much does that matter? What do you think?

Tonight, B told me the most elaborate story he has ever devised. It started when we were praying–he was repeating after me each line of the prayer. When it ended, he asked for more. While I was thinking about it, he said, “I have a prayer. You ‘peat after me.” This is what transpired. I left his room and immediately wrote it down, as best as I could remember. I’m grateful that I was repeating because it sealed some of his phrases in my head!

B’s Story:

There once was a dog. He didn’t have a father. He didn’t have a doghouse. He didn’t have a light. He was all alone.  He had dog food. He had a hurt paw. He was walking.

(At this point, he interjected that this story was about his stuffed dog, his most special friend that he sleeps with every night.)

He had to go to the doctor. He walked to the doctor. He looked out for no cars. He was walking, he was not driving. He didn’t have a car.

(Then he asked, “Where is the doctor?” I replied, “A long way.” B continued.)

He was walking a long way to the doctor’s. When he got to the doctor, he didn’t have anything for shots.

(He got off track here, and I forget exactly what happened. I eventually helped him back to the story by asking, “Did the doctor help his paw?” )

The doctor fixed up his paw. He went home. Now he had a doghouse. Then Santa—Santa is in my story too—then Santa came. He didn’t have any presents. Santa didn’t leave. Then he had one present. It was a tiny present. It was a really, really fast racecar. And they could be together. The end.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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