By Greg Jones
Many of us know that story time is essential with children. I love the time I spend reading and inventing stories with my daughters. I cherish it. But as the brightest minds have begun to ‘rediscover’ – stories are not just for kids anymore. Studies show in fact that story-telling is the most effective way of communicating a complex of ideas – about truth, about culture, about expectation, about social norms, about values – to any person or group of people. Scholar Harold Cole explains that story telling is defined as transferring a picture in the mind of one person to the minds of others through the full-bodied experience that embraces the mind, the imagination, the emotions and the human will. Anybody who has heard a good sermon, seen a good play, or heard a great ballad understands this.
And, because it is so effective – being indeed the fullest communication a human is capable of perhaps – it works in all environments and settings. When I was a missionary in Honduras, I wasn’t particularly effective at explaining the systematic theology I had read with my illiterate parishioners. Notably, I am still not particularly effective at explaining it with my college-educated North American parishioners. But in both contexts, when I simply told my story and how it was a part of God’s story – in the local language – everybody connected.
It’s that simple – and that brilliant.
And this is why the Bible is filled with stories – shaped and influenced by the inspired telling of thousands of faithful human beings across centuries, nations and languages. Amazingly, they all seem to speak of the same things: the loving God who made us, redeemed us, and sustains us – if only we abide with Him.
The live telling of sacred stories forms the oldest foundation of the biblical tradition. The utterance of the Word was first and foremost an oral communication, only to be written down and put into a finalized form at long last. As such, the heart of the bible is story – story upon story upon story. All of which fit together into a master story, an overarching narrative which encompasses the whole bible.
Thus, part of the magic and mystery of the Bible is that it is telling a universal and eternal story – through many small stories – and we may find ourselves within that story of God and Creation which is the Bible.
It is quite clear that human beings, and Christians especially, are ‘story-formed people.’ The importance of stories and storytelling cannot be underestimated, and in non-literate cultures oral story telling is a highly developed art form. Even for most of the history of the Hebrew Bible, for centuries after it was finally fixed in written form, the vowels were intentionally left out. The bible was not intended to be read silently by literates, but vocalized and intoned and read aloud in a community setting – wherever two or three or more were gathered.
The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones (“Greg”) is husband of Melanie, father of Coco & Anna, rector of St. Michael’s Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.