Reading And Telling Stories

I love reading, always have. Give me a good story or clever use of words and I’m a happy man! Ideally I’d get paid to read. I’d have a large high back armchair in a study full of books, a small table beside me with four or five texts awaiting my perusal and a constant supply of good quality tea in a china cup.

When my wife asked me what, for me, makes a good holiday, my response was easy; time to read, time to sleep and some historic or cultural excursion thrown in for good measure. Having just returned from a week in the Isle of Wight, I can say “She listened well!” Although I didn’t get the high back chair or the good quality tea, I did take some good books and managed to collect five great second hand books for just over a fiver!

I was re-reading ‘The Flood’ by David Maine and was struck by how well the translation of an ancient story has been done. The final chapter sums up my thoughts well,

‘…what’s the point of telling a story if we can’t even get it right?.. Of course people will tell something, it was the end of the world after all. A story like that won’t be forgotten. But things will get added and left out and confused, until in a little while people won’t even know what’s true and what’s been made up…When the story gets told, and told again and then again, things will change. They always do. Not on purpose, but just because people don’t ever really listen. So we should at least make sure we understand what happened to begin with.’

Looking back over my reading this week the theme of ‘story’ has come up again and again. It’s caused me, due to the story of Noah in ‘The Flood’, to consider the stories of the Bible and how they are told and, having received some comments on the last post (see Monasticism and Asceticism post), how prophets like Isaiah are seen as anti ‘loving God’. On our way to the Isle of Wight my wife and I were listening to the audio book of The Magician’s Nephew. At the end, Digory asks why Aslan can’t comfort his uncle and speak to him. Aslan explains that he can try and comfort Digory’s uncle but it would be no good, as he would only hear roars and growls. As humans we come across stories like Noah and Isaiah and we question the God in the passage, we hear roars and anger. Maybe we, like Uncle Andrew, aren’t tuned into the voice of God at times. Maybe our ancestors have heard the story changed and have changed it themselves (it’s bound to happen). We hear the story wrong or we tell it wrong.

These thoughts remind me of the feeling I had during Durham Mysteries last month (see Wrestling With Truth (part IX)). How, then, are we to know the story? If we assume the story has changed, how do we understand what happened to begin with? There’s no real way of knowing, except that we know, or at least claim to know, the God who’s in these story. Digory and Polly hear Aslan’s voice because they connect with him and so, when Digory is tempted by the White Witch, he is able to stand against lies or misconceptions of Aslan.

I’ve also been reading ‘The Passion Drama’ by Hugh Bishop. It contains six sermons on Holy Week. Like most sermons, it tries to help us, the reader/hearer, to place ourselves in the story of Christ’s Passion. It’s textbook in it’s structure and content but really made me reflect on how powerful this style of preaching is. All we, as Christians and therefore missioners, are called to do is to tell the story and to help people connect with the story. This is why the theatre needs to be at the centre of the church’s ministry because it has at its core an understanding of the art of storytelling.

This leads me onto the final book I’ve been reading; ‘Organic Community’ by Joseph Myers. Two quotes have stood out to me in this book so far. The first helps me to understand the role of artists within the church.

‘An artist is someone who enables art to emerge from a canvas’

You can’t manufacture art. Art is not painting by numbers, it’s allowing a story of emotion or something essential to emerge from within. Theatre practitioners have a way of allowing a story to emerge, to fully participate and communicate a story and bring others into the story. Yes you can all learn the technique of good storytelling but for some it’s natural, organic.

The second quote leads us to something powerful that I, like other church leaders, need to remember.

‘Story is the universal measure of life.’

How do we measure a successful ministry? By counting how many people turn up? How many bums made contact with the pews? No. Listen to the stories. How do we know if someone has ‘come to Christ’? Asking if they have been splashed with water? Or said the simple prayer? No. Listen to their story.

I must remember that next year I will have the privilege of joining with other people to tell stories. My job is to listen carefully and remember them and to see where they fit with the big, meta narrative, the greatest story ever told which is still being told and, with each breath we take, we participate and engage with it.