What and Why Biblical Storytelling?
by Rev. Beth Galbreath
The mission of the Network of Biblical Storytellers International is simple: to encourage everyone to learn and tell biblical stories by heart.
We testify to the power of the spiritual practice of learning and telling biblical stories by heart, and to invite you to try it yourself.
Because – well, what is the Bible anyway?
Is sheet music really music?
Do you experience music by reading the sheet music silently?
Can you hear the music by listening to the page?
No, sheet music is just instructions for how to make the sounds of the music, to make it live. Sheet music isn't written for folks to read silently, but to perform!
We call the Bible “God’s word,” but the paper and ink are not the word of God!
The paper and ink are simply instructions for how to make the sounds of the stories, to make them live, to perform them!
And we are witnesses who testify that through such tellings, God’s Holy Spirit speaks powerfully!
The word of God is the story of God’s relationship with humanity, from creation to Abraham and Sarah to Jesus and his followers – and on beyond the written story, through apostles like Thomas and translators and churches right up to your story and my story, here and now.
The Bible is amazing and precious, but it is not the paper and ink. The Bible is the story. Every bit of the Bible – patriarchal stories, history, law, poetry, sermons from prophets, even letters – all were first told by persons who had made the effort to learn them and tell them by heart. And when they were written down, it was not so they could be read silently, but to help train those entrusted with telling them by heart.
In fact, it wasn't until the invention of the printing press that silent reading even became a thing, at least in Europe.
So – do we still need to learn the stories by heart? After all, we have this wonderful book! We can look them up any time we wish! Yes.
For many reasons. Here are five:
5: Sharing God’s stories by heart creates community. The point of the Pentecost story is that through the telling of God’s powerful deeds in every person’s heart language, the story not only grabs our hearts and pulls us individually to receive God’s grace, but the sharing of the stories creates community.
The people weren’t just baptized on that first Pentecost and went home! No, the stories of the powerful deeds of God, told in their heart languages, formed them into a community across those language barriers.
In that community they learned the stories of Jesus from Jesus’ apostles, so that they could tell the stories to others. After the death of Stephen and the rise of persecution in Jerusalem, those who left town went from place to place telling the stories!
4: We tell God’s stories by heart because it is a powerful spiritual practice that blesses us as tellers. The stories tell us who we are and whom we serve. The stories have power, power to bring us into community with God and with one another. And we testify that the Holy Spirit can speak God’s grace to us most powerfully when the stories live in our hearts so that, without having to look them up, we live out of the stories.
3: We tell God’s stories by heart because God speaks all languages, including the language of younger folks.
I was born at the middle of the last century, and I learned to learn by reading books silently and writing about what I read, just as students had been doing in the West since the invention of the printing press 400 years before my arrival!
But silent reading and writing are not the preferred language of young folks today! They are people of the screen, whether tiny, medium or large.
We are in the middle of a global revolution in communication systems, from print to digital, from explanations to stories. And that’s great news! Because digital communication is a communication of story. And the gospel is the best story in the world!
2: We tell God’s stories by heart because the Bible stories are human stories. The stories are not cleaned up. Every joy and every trauma humans experience is in the stories.
When the stories are in our hearts and connect with our own stories, they are available “in real time” to remind us that God knows, God understands, and through the stories God speaks to us in our struggles. And we can be a channel of God’s word to others who are struggling – without having to open the book and look up the right page, just speaking powerfully heart to heart.
And the Number 1 reason:
We learn and tell God’s stories by heart because God says to!
And so, in the Network of Biblical Storytellers International tradition, we begin by learning to tell the great statement of the faith of the people of Israel: the Shema, which means hear! Listen up! It’s from Deuteronomy 6:4-7:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God,
the Lord alone.
You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your might.
Keep these words
that I am commanding you today
in your heart.
Recite them to your children
and talk about them
when you are at home
and when you are away,
when you lie down
and when you rise.
In the Shema, God tells us to love God completely and passionately, with every part of our lives and being (Hebrew nefesh, usually translated “soul” but indicating so much more)!
God also tells us how to start doing that: keep these words in your heart. Not “read these words,” but keep these words in your heart.
And how do we do that? God very helpfully tells us exactly how to learn by heart:
Tell whatever story you’re learning to God every night when you go to bed and every morning when you get up.
Tell it to your children.
Tell it out loud when you’re doing chores at home and when you’re on your way to work.
Whenever you can, tell it with your voice, face and body, not just the words.
Tell it several times every day for two or three weeks, and it will be kept in your heart.
Because the Bible is not paper and ink. God intends the Bible stories to live in your heart so that you can live out of the Bible stories.
We have another NBSI tradition, in which we end our tellings at NBSI events with the words:
This is the story of our people.
And the response is:
And what a story it is!