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It’s All about The Story

The university where I teach, Houston Baptist University, is hosting a consultation this week for the International Orality Network. I will be attending the consultation and learning all I can regarding this new and important missions emphasis that recognizes that most of the world consists of people who are oral preference learners. What excites me about the movement is that they focus on sharing the gospel by learning to tell great stories from the Bible in the mother language of the unreached people. This is exactly what we hoped to do with The Voice Bible.International Orality Network 1

One of the articles I read in preparation for the consultation is from Tom A. Steffen, former professor at Biola University and missionary for 20 years in the Philippines. In an article entitled, “Why Communicate the Gospel through Stories?” Steffen tells his own story about trying to teach new believers a simple version of systematic theology in the Ifugao language (one of Philippine dialects). Basically, his teaching fell flat because he insisted on relating the content using a western model of education, that is, teaching propositions and concepts. When he saw it wasn’t working, he decided to join his content with some wonderful stories from the Old Testament. He told stories of creation, the fall, Cain and Abel, the flood, and other stories on his way to telling the Jesus story. Once Steffen switched from teaching propositions and concepts to stories, the people caught on, got excited, and began to catch the essence of God’s redemptive love and purposes for the world.

I’ve said all along that human beings are hard-wired to tell stories. God has built that into our minds and hearts. So we are at our bests when we do tell stories. And we are good at it. Go on a trip and have something interesting happen to you and you can’t wait to tell someone. You call your best friend and tell them what happened. You put it on facebook. You may tweet it out. The point is that we are great producers and consumers of stories.

In the article I read Steffen quoted a statistic which I did know. I probably could have guessed at these numbers and gotten close but it is good to see it in print by someone who knows. Here is what he said: the Scriptures contain three kinds of literature: stories, poetry, and thought-organized material. Stories make up 75% of the Bible. Poetry makes up 15%. And thought-organized comprises the remaining 10%. By thought-organized he was referring to a good bit of Paul’s letters that make logical, linear arguments. But as N. T. Wright and others have pointed out, a lot of Paul’s theologizing involves retelling the essentially Jewish story around Jesus; so for Paul Jesus is the climax of the covenant story. In other words, even when Paul is making an argument for a particular idea (e.g., the resurrection of Jesus, the centrality of the cross) he is nibbling around the edges of narrative.
Amazing isn’t it that God chose primarily to reveal himself to us in these marvelous stories. I would have probably guessed that poetry was a higher percentage. I’d be interested to know how these decisions were made. For example, of Job’s 40+ chapters, all but 2 ½ are poetry. But Job’s poetry still tells a story. We might call it poetic narratives. The creation “story” in Genesis 1 is very poetic in its form. So how are these classified? I don’t know. And what about all the Proverbs, were they classified as poetry? I think they probably should have been because they are written in Hebrew poetic style.

It excites me to think is that in doing The Voice Bible we did something very different from other translations. We invited story-tellers, novelists, poets, and song-writers to help us retell the stories and poetry of Scripture. Scholars are very good at the technical bits of translation but we aren’t good at telling a story or of capturing the beauty and rhythm of a good poem. That’s why I think The Voice Bible has come of age when it has; we are moving deeper into a digital age that still recognizes the value of orality. Some scholars have taken to calling it a “digitoral age.” (I’m grateful to Dr. Samuel Chiang, executive director of the International Orality Network, for this useful term.) Too often we’ve tried to analyze the biblical stories using western logic to break them down into (4) points all beginning with the letter “P.” This way of preaching and teaching has had a tendency to obscure the story and make it hard to remember. Storytelling—God’s preferred method—has a way of capturing both the heart and mind for the sake of kingdom purposes.

If you’d like to know more about the International Orality Network, check out their website: http://www.orality.net/

What Is a Story?

“A story is a way to say something which can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say it.”  –Flannery O’Connor

I thought I’d revisit a post I wrote back in 2011 because it received a number of comments and continues to be relevant. I was inspired recently by a statement Flannery O’Connor made about “story.”  She was a gifted southern writer whose stories continue garner attention. 

We received a question on our Voice Facebook page from one of our fans.

Question: “What is propositional-based thought and how does it apply to us?”

The fan is referring to the introduction in one of The Voice products where we observe that people do not respond to propositions as well as they respond to stories. This, of course, is nothing new. People have been telling stories for thousands of years. Humans are hard-wired to tell stories, remember them and pass them along to others. 

Not long ago when people were sharing “the gospel,” they would boil it down to a set of manageable propositions:

1.  God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.

2.  But you are a sinner separated from God.

3.  Christ died for your sins and helps to bridge the gap between you and God.

4.  So put your trust in Jesus to be saved and you .

Now these propositions are true, but they make little sense when isolated from the greater story of God’s plan and purpose for the world and us. 

Let me illustrate it this way.  Here are some lines from one of the greatest films of all time (Casablanca 1942):

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

 “Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.”

  “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’”

 “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world and she walks into mine.”

 “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not on it, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon and for the rest of your life.”

Now these are some of the most memorable lines in the film. But without the rest of the story you have no clue what it going on. They might punctuate the story, remind you of the story, illustrate the story, but they are no substitute for the story itself.

Imagine deciding whether or not to marry someone based on a resume. You might say, “Well, he looks good on paper.” No. We would never do that. On a first date you don’t exchange resumes or give a list of your strengths and weaknesses (you don’t, that is, if you expect a second date!). No. You sit down over a good meal and begin to tell your story. You talk about where you come from, what you love to do, what it was like to be the older brother or sister in a family of four, or whatever is unique to your own story.  This is how we woo a potential partner and how we make friends, by telling our unique stories to those willing to listen. 

God did not give us a list of propositions to follow. He could have, but he didn’t. Instead he gave us 66 books that detail an amazing story of love and redemption. Thomas Nelson has created The Voice Bible because they recognize the power of stories to tell the truth and call us into a new life.

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