Biblical Storytelling as Spiritual Discipline
By Rev. Beth Galbreath
Biblical storytelling is at heart, in its roots, a spiritual discipline. It takes discipline to study, visualize, plan movements, learn a text and share it by heart. It is a revival of several ancient practices with a new purpose for the 21st Century. But first, what biblical storytelling is not.
In my youth, the main spiritual discipline young folks were pounded on to adopt was “learning memory verses.” The aim was sound but the focus was way off! This is not about “memorizing” words of “verses.”
Rather, this spiritual discipline invites us to learn and tell by heart, step into the story so powerfully that we begin to live out of the story! It helps us live the Gospel as well as share the Gospel.
The most ancient instruction: The Shema
It should be no surprise that God tells us explicitly why and how to take this spiritual discipline to heart. In the great declaration of faith, the Shema, in Deuteronomy 6:4-9:
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.
Bind them as a sign on your hand,
fix them as an emblem on your forehead,
and write them
on the doorposts of your house
and on your gates.
Shema, “hear,” is the sort of hearing that means “Listen up! And DO what I tell you!” Everett Fox’s translation, The Five Books of Moses (New York, Schocken, 1995) translates this "with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your substance."
In a footnote Fox notes that “heart” here is “often the equivalent of ‘mind’” and that nefesh, usually “soul” in English, does not mean something contrasted to “body” but implies life, life-essence, breath, self, and appetite. His substance means might, capacity, or excess. He adds, “the couplet ‘heart and being’…might also indicate ‘mind and emotions.’”
So however you translate it, it’s clear that the passage’s first order is that we connect with God, personally, powerfully, and intimately. We are to love God with all our heart, mind, and whole being. To do that we need spiritual practices or “disciplines,” and God then helpfully prescribes one.
Not prayer. Not even worship. No, the first spiritual discipline recommended here is learning and telling biblical stories by heart.
OK, it doesn’t actually say “stories,” but “words.”
And then God helpfully tells us how to “keep these words…in your heart”: Practice!
When you have thoroughly studied a story with your mind and emotions, tell it to yourself – and to God - every evening (when you lie down) and every morning (when you rise). Tell it to yourself – and to God - when you do chores around the house and when you’re on your commute to and from work.
And then don’t keep it to yourself! Practice by telling it to someone else, such as children – but also spouses and friends and your Bible study group. Tell it to different people so you get different responses.
When you have done this in a disciplined way for a time, the story will connect you to God so powerfully that you will live the story which will shine through in what you do (a "sign on your hand"), in the way you relate to other people (an "emblem on your forehead" or face) and in your life in the world (beyond your gates).
“Lectio Divina writ large”
All the texts of the Bible either began as stories learned and told by heart or were composed to be learned and told by heart.
I like to say that biblical storytelling is lectio divina writ large. Lection divina is Latin for “Sacred reading.” The practice has developed formally over time from the 3rd Century, though Benedict of Nursia is credited with making it a monastic discipline in the 6th Century, and Guido II formalized it as a four-step process in the 12th Century:
read, meditate, pray, contemplate.
Today there are various explanations on how to use it individually or in a group setting. Such a process might take 20 minutes to an hour.
But we as biblical storytellers follow a similar path in learning by heart, over the course of a few days, weeks or months.
We read for the surface meaning and study the back story to understand the social, historical, geographical, political and literary contexts.
We meditate, that is, imagine the story, visualize the story as powerfully as we can.
As we plan our voice and face expressions and body language (gestures, movements), we are planning how to embody the story, and in embodying it we are also praying it because we’re asking the Holy Spirit to guide our understanding and expression.
Finally, while “contemplation” implies quietly waiting for the Spirit to speak, the ultimate quiet is sleep – and it is during sleep that everything comes together in our brains to be firmly engraved in long-term memory!
Dr. Tracy Radosevic, dean of the Academy for Biblical Storytelling, shares the acronym “MULL” for how we meditate, or mull, a story.
Master the story by repetition.
Understand the story by deep study.
Link the story to your own life.
Live the story by telling it “when you lie down and when you rise…” and by telling it to others.
When you link the story to a story in your own life, ask yourself “Why? What is it about this situation that reminds me of the story?” Pay attention to the emotions that bubble up as you meditate about the story. It can be joyful, or it can be hard to face what a story reminds you of. Sometimes a story needs to be set aside for a time, to be learned and told later.
Do something in response to your new understanding. Ask Christ’s healing to help you deal with the negatives and respond in ministry to the positives. Now the story is your own!
Movement and imagination
As you plan the voice, face and body expression in your story, at least once, close your eyes, imagine the story as powerfully as you can, and move through the story, embodying it with your face and body expression, but silently.
This exercise is a powerful one for a small group of three to five. Seat the participants in a compact circle or square. Tell a story. Give each participant a card with the name of a character in the story, face down on his or her lap.
One at a time, each person lifts and shows the card, and then says, “I am____” and tells that character’s “backstory.” How they came to be in the story. Their emotions and reactions in the story. Anything at all, as long as they are speaking in the first person as the character , not about the character.
This is not intended to be an accurate history or social-political lesson, though participants may use facts they know – or not. It’s an opportunity to try to temporarily “put on” the personality of a character, and look at the story through that person’s eyes. In so doing, deep connections with our own stories are often discovered.