by Tom Steffen
Storytelling is the answer to the boring cognitive approach.
One-third of the way into the semester in a classroom at a renowned seminary, one group of students found themselves doing quite well. They could follow the professor’s linear thought patterns and handle the assignments.
Another group of students did not find the course as user-friendly. While they enjoyed the course, they found the professor’s linear, sequential lectures not only difficult to follow, but often downright boring. One particular assignment finally brought the submerged problem to the surface.
The assignment required them to interact with class materials, focusing exclusively on the facts. The professor discouraged the use of personal pronouns or anecdotal material. In short, the students were to separate the facts from the framework.
The second group of students chafed under such rigid restrictions. How could anyone separate the facts from the framework? Life, as they perceived it, was an organized whole, not a host of isolated parts. They envisioned life as a plate of chop suey with all the ingredients stirred together so as to unleash all the distinctive flavors as they interact with each other, not a plate of steak, potatoes, and peas separated into distinct servings (Chang, 1984).
How user-friendly is your teaching style? Must listeners do mental gymnastics to comprehend what you are teaching? Why do Christian workers place so much emphasis on the cognitive domain to the virtual exclusion of emotions and feelings? Why do we often overlook storytelling as a viable teaching tool? Could storytelling, which connects the mind, the heart, and emotions, be an effective tool not only to facilitate comprehension but also to communicate with minimal content corruption (Steffen, 1993, 1994)? What baggage keeps Christian workers from using more stories in their teaching?
A number of myths surround the use of stories, not only in the classroom but in other public and private arenas. Such myths can kill our desire to learn, stifle creativity, suffocate emotions, smother holistic thinking, choke imagination, give the impression that stories lack value, or discourage us from using stories in ministry or academia. The case study above points out one such myth—stories are synonymous with fiction. Therefore, stories have no role in “real” education. Such a myth can easily damage effective communication and kill learning. Here are five such myths that surround stories.
MYTH NO. 1: STORIES ARE FOR ENTERTAINMENT
Some people understand stories to be separated totally from reality. Storytelling, or watching or listening to stories, is something one does for fun. It is something one does alone or with friends to kick back and relax, to have a good time. In short, stories entertain.
While stories certainly deal with fiction, some go far beyond it. Stories can also speak about the realities of life. In fact, stories identify who we are as individuals, a social class, a people group, a nation, a world. Should any of these entities not have a story, it stands without an identity. Without an identity, hopelessness tends to prevail. Stories give people hope and security because they provide an identity.
Names provide another insight into the reality of stories. What is in a name? Stories! Real stories! Stories (names) perpetuate ideas and ideals, both positive and negative. That is, of course, unless the name is forgotten. But ongoing storytell-ing assures that names remain alive. Remember Hitler? Gandhi? Esther? Saddam? Mother Teresa? Alexander the Great? Martin Luther King? Paul? Mary? Scrooge? Stories keep the memories of people (names) alive, and thereby provide “living” models to follow or avoid.
Stories create, maintain, and change world views. People express beliefs and behavior based on stories from parents, relatives, strangers, friends, and enemies. Stories influence how a person views the world. Stories are much more than fiction. They are symbols of reality because they create and shape reality; they are values and philosophy articulated.
Stories tie reason, emotions, and imagination together. They weave together the fabric of life, interlacing facts and framework. Such tapestry makes communication and learning a natural process. Rather than bypassing the mind, as some think stories do, stories involve the total person. This healthy contribution of storytelling may be missed by some because of a closely related second myth.
MYTH NO. 2: STORIES ARE FOR CHILDREN
During childhood, stories play an integral role in personal development. I remember my mother reading to us before bedtime when I was a boy. While I certainly never grasped the authors’ deeper intent behind such characters as Huck Finn, Jim, Pap, Widow Douglas, Miss Watson, Tom Sawyer, Aunt Polly, Becky Thatcher, Injun Joe, Sid, Muff Potter, Mary, Judge Thatcher or Joe Harper, I definitely experienced life as the characters knew it. I boldly rode the raft down the mighty Mississippi. I felt mud ooze between my toes. I trembled as I watched grave robbers do their evil work.
I also remember stories from Sunday school. Through Bible stories, skilled (and sometimes not so skilled) teachers pulled me into the lives and ancient times of people such as Moses, Cain and Abel, Caleb, the spies and Rahab, Balaam and his donkey, Jezebel, Jonah and the fish, Martha, Peter, Onesimus, the Sons of Thunder. I began to learn about the God behind these people (and animals), and what he expected of them, all of which molded my own world view.
There were also summertime stories. The local library hosted special times for children to listen to stories. I lived for stories. Yes, stories certainly are made for children.
Then I attended grade school and high school to gain an education. Sometime during those years the use of stories got lost. Part of the developmental process into mature adulthood seemed to include the extraction of stories. History became facts, dates, and places rather than human stories. I began to lose interest in history, and any other subject that separated abstract concepts from concrete realities. Schooling became a chore.
I went to school again to train for missions. Among other things, I learned about word studies and objective, systematic theology. Well-defined abstract categories, based on thorough exegesis of words, provided a complete picture of God and Christianity applicable for the entire world. The Bible became, for me, a theological handbook. I built my library accordingly. More layers of adult “wisdom” covered up the stories of my childhood.
Mark Shaw’s intriguing book, Doing Theology with Huck and Jim, attempts to reconcile story (concreteness) and theology (abstractness). To accomplish this, Shaw begins each lesson with a story from childhood classics or popular culture. The story is followed with theological commentary as the author highlights the “theology behind the story.”
Behind Shaw’s strategy lies the assumption that we must first “speak to the child within with whimsical parables and stories” to gain access “to the basic beliefs and values that might otherwise be denied” (1993:12). Once accomplished, “The commentary section speaks to the ‘adult’ within us, making possible mature understanding and mature decisions based on biblical truth” (ibid., p. 12). One wonders if Shaw has fallen into the same trap I experienced during my education journey, i.e., stories are for children while theology is for adults.
Paul claimed that when he became a man he put away childish things. It seems some interpret this to mean Paul gave up childish stories for adult theology. As an adult, he could now advance to a higher level of cognition. He therefore replaced stories with abstract, propositional, timeless theology. Could anyone reading Romans disagree?
But Miller astutely observes, “Even Romans must not be read as simply an abstract propositional statement of truth. The book is best understood within the story of Paul’s missionary journey” (1987:128). Witherington (1994) contends that Pauline theology cannot be understoodproperly without first comprehending all the stories that inform it: the Christian community stories (including Paul’s story), the Christ story (central), Israel’s story, and a world gone astray (Abraham’s and Adam’s story). Paul certainly strove to keep propositions in intimate contact with the stories that produced them. Paul never outgrew his need for stories.
Yes, stories are for children, including all the children of God, no matter what the biological age. When Jesus warned, “unless you change and become like little children,” he was talking about attitude towards God and simple trust in him, not learning styles. Adults never outgrow the need for stories.
MYTH NO. 3: STORIES ARE FOR THOSE LIVING OUTSIDE URBAN AREAS
There are those who argue (sometimes snobbishly) that stories are for those living outside urban areas. It has long been recognized that tribal and peasant people rely heavily on stories in order to socialize succeeding generations. Having no libraries to store knowledge, every member of society becomes a walking library. When death takes a community member, valuable stories become lost forever. Figuratively, a library burns to the ground. The old are to socialize the young through example and story.
The Ifugao tribal people of the Philippines introduced me to stories. In our seven years among the Ifugao I spent hundreds of hours listening to stories about the Flood, countless gods and ancestors, land disputes, farming, animal husbandry, hunting trips, typhoons, animal sacrifices, and World War II exploits. Certain stories would be retold over and over. While this made language learning ideal, it called for a major adjustment of my teaching style. My theological handbook failed to impress the Ifugao. I learned firsthand the sanctity of stories among tribal people.
A move to Manila continued my education. I soon learned that urban Filipinos have a similar passion for stories. Just as rural integrated communities relied on stories to socialize, educate, and entertain, so did urban segmented communities. While some media (TV, VCRs, comics) differed in some geographical areas of the Philippines, storytelling remained number one.
In relation to Baby Busters, experts argue that storytelling is a powerful tool for teaching the first post-Christian generation. Leighton Ford, who ministers to Generation Xers, stresses the power of narrative preaching, particularly stories that focus on Jesus and personal stories that make the storyteller vulnerable (Tapia, 1994). Urbanites have not outgrown the need for stories.
MYTH NO. 4: ONLY PROFESSIONAL STORY TELLERS CAN TELL STORIES
Anyone who has heard professional storytellers practice their trade may readily accept this myth. Professional storytellers have the innate ability to pull listeners into a contrived environment, surrounded by a cast of characters. Time seems to stand still as the plot unfolds.
While few of us may be professional storytellers, all of us tell stories. After work or school we tell our spouse or friends what happened during the day. When the police officer stops us for a violation we tell our story. At club meetings we swap stories, including the one with the police officer. When relationships break down we tell our story to whoever will listen. After a sporting event we tell stories about the muffs and miracles. All events produce storytellers. The world moves because people tell stories.
While not all believers may be professional storytellers, Scripture encourages all to be storytellers. As witnesses in a court of law testify before the judge and jury what they know about a case, so believers are to testify to people around the world what they know about Jesus Christ. Those gifted with the gift of evangelism may be more “professional” at the assignment than those without it. Nevertheless, every believer can tell the story of Jesus Christ to others. And all can improve their storytelling capabilities.
MYTH NO. 5: BIBLE STORIES AND THEOLOGY ARE UNRELATED
Some Bible teachersfeel that telling Bible stories wastes valuable teaching time. They would rather move a lesson directly to the heart of the matter—theology. That Bible stories may contain theology often goes uninvestigated.
Telling a story and telling about a story are as different as telling about a particular ethnic group and living among them. Telling a story requires listeners to interact with the characters and reach conclusions. Their conclusions may not always agree with those of the storyteller.
Telling about a story provides the storyteller opportunity to interpret the story for the listeners, which can provide much more predictable lesson outcomes.
Some teachers begin lessons with a Bible story to hook the audience, and then quickly move to exegete the theology from the story. They then recast the theological content from story to systematic theology.
If Bible teachers can exegete theology from stories, it would seem theology preexists in the stories. McLuhan (1973) would agree when he argues the message is the medium because the message is embedded in the medium. Storytelling is much more than a communication medium; it is the medium. When a Bible teacher exegetes theology from a story, he or she is exchanging teaching mediums, not message content. The question becomes, Which medium best communicates the message? Not, Which medium possesses theology?
Madeliene L’Engle argues, “Jesus was not a theologian. He was God who told stories.” If Jesus relied on parabolic stories to communicate his message, does this not imply theology resides in the stories?
Many of these myths surrounding stories can kill communication and learning. Never believe all the stories heard about stories.
While a ministry cannot be built and perpetuated solely on storytelling, it cannot be done without it. How much storytelling do you do in your ministry?
Chang, Peter S.C. “Steak, Potatoes, Peas and Chop Suey—Linear and Non-Linear Thinking,” in Missions and Theological Education in World Perspective. Harvie Conn and Samuel Rowen, eds. Farmington, Mich.: Associates of Urbanus, 1984.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. London: Abacus, 1973.
Miller, Donald. Story and Context: An Introduction to Christian Education. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987.
Shaw, Mark. Doing Theology With Huck and Jim: Parables for Understanding Doctrine. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Steffen, Tom. Passing the Baton: Church Planting That Empowers. LaHabra, Calif.: Center for Organizational and Ministry Development, 1993.
____. “The Use of Narratives in Evangelism and Discipleship,” in Church Planter’s Link, 5(1), 1994, pp. 4-7, 15.
Tapia, Andres. “Reaching the First Post-Christian Generation,” Christianity Today 38 (10), 1994, pp. 18-23.
Witherington, Ben. Paul’s Narrative Thought World: The Tapestry of Tragedy and Triumph. Louisville, Ky.: West-minster/John Knox Press, 1994.
EMQ, Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 178-185. Copyright © 1996 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.