Why do we tell the story?

I’m working on my talk for our upcoming Storytelling training morning (June 11th at St. Luke’s, Watford – free! Talk to Julie to book your spot, by emailing youthoffice@stalbans.anglican.org.)

Storytelling is central to so much of our work, and we often take it for granted. We talk about doing it well, but how often do we pause to think WHY we’re doing it in the first place?

And of course, our theology of storytelling – our thoughts on why we do it – will inform our practice.

These are some of my thoughts on the function of storytelling as part of worship and Christian nurture. Of course, many people will have elements of many of these – they’re not in direct competition with one another. But which ones are most important to you, and why, will probably affect which stories you tell, and how.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.storytelling

Stories pass on meaning.  Stories help us figure out the world and our place in it, the struggles of our lives, our relationships with one another, and – in Biblical storytelling – our relationship with God.  With this theology, the story becomes a gift or a road map – something you equip the child with to help them through their journey.  Central to this theology of storytelling is the idea that we each have to make that meaning for ourselves. We have to struggle with the story and figure out how to apply it to our lives. Storytelling based around this theology will strenuously avoid being didactic. It may focus on the struggles of Biblical characters, and of the whole people of Israel, more than their triumphs.  It will seek to address broad themes, such as belonging, loss, and salvation.

Stories create a group identity. When you come into a new organisation, you hear anecdotes about the people and events that have gone before, and by becoming familiar with these stories of the past, you become integrated into the group.  Storytelling that focuses on this theology may be focused on the stories of “the people” as a whole, rather than stories of individuals.  It may emphasise the historical elements of the stories more than the mythical.  It may focus heavily on the stories of the church since the time of Jesus, and on the saints, looking at the community of believers through the ages and our connections to them.  Part of creating this group identity is telling us where we come from – part of what binds the group together is the claiming of our shared history.  “This is who we are, because this is what’s happened to us.”

Stories create an individual identity.  One place in modern society where this function of storytelling is very obvious is in fan culture. By claiming a kinship to the story – be it Star Wars, Doctor Who, or The Hunger Games – a person makes that story a large part of their personal concept of themselves.  Storytelling that focuses on this theology may be very missional, seeking to change individuals’ concepts of themselves. It may focus very heavily on an individual becoming part of a particular subculture (like a “fandom” with fan fiction).  A personal testimony of salvation may be important to this kind of storytelling.

Stories explain our practice, both in our daily lives and in our worship.  This is rooted heavily in our Jewish ancestry. The Passover Seder is a good example of this – the night is designed to make children ask, “wait, what are we doing?” and providing parents with an opportunity to tell the Exodus story by way of an answer. This has become ritually enshrined in the Seder meal itself.  Joshua leaving the stones at the edge of the Jordan is another example of this – he specifically says, “these stones are left here to make children ask why, so that you can tell them this story.”  We see this in Christian worship most clearly at the Eucharist – in order to explain what we’re doing, the priest tells the story of the Last Supper, every time she or he celebrates Communion.  Storytelling based around this theology is similar to that based on the group identity, but links it specifically to a particular culture of worship.

Stories tell us who God is.  Think of how often God begins a discussion with his people by saying, “I am the Lord your God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who brought you out of Egypt …”  The Judeo-Christian God doesn’t take authority from abstract philosophical principles, but from a relationship – and a relationship is built on stories.  Storytelling based around this theology will focus very heavily on the character and nature of God, and his relationship with his people. It may focus on emotion and symbolism rather than facts.  The nature of the Trinity, and the ways of knowing God, will be central to this type of storytelling.

It’s important to note that storytelling serves almost all these same purposes within FAMILIES. Stories of your parents’ and grandparents’ lives provide a narrative of where you came from and a group identity, and stories that focus on particular family traits (“that Wilson sense of humour again!”) help family members build an individual identity that includes membership of that group as a dominant trait.  Stories of “why we always use real candles on our Christmas tree” or “why we always go to the same place for holiday” explain our practice.  When family members form new romantic relationships, telling the old family stories is a key part of bringing that person into the group and making them feel like they belong.  Storytelling in church is God’s family doing all these things.




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