Sean Gladding is the author of The Story of God, the Story of Us (InterVarsity Press, 2010), a book that tells the story of the entire Bible. Described as a full-on immersion experience, The Story of God transports listeners into the story, allowing them to experience the Bible in a way that most have not. Sean is passionate about sharing the story of the Bible in this way. Below he shares his thoughts on storytelling and provides advice to those getting started.
What was your reason or motivation for translating the Scriptures into story in The Story of God, the Story of Us?
Ten years ago I was taking a class in New Testament theology with Mary Fisher at Asbury Theological Seminary. Three quarters of the way into the course we were still deep in the Hebrew Bible, and Mary asked us to read The Challenge of Jesus by N. T. Wright. That course—and that book—transformed the way I read and understand Scripture. I was introduced to the epic Story that Scripture is telling for the first time. The challenge of Jesus, as Wright might put it, is to understand Jesus not as the beginning of the story of Christianity, but as the climax of the story of Israel. Accordingly, if we do not understand the story of Israel, then it's quite possible that we will not understand what the gospels are telling us about Jesus. And if we do not understand Jesus, then how will we know what it means to be his church?
The version of the Story of God that I grew up with was severely truncated. The Story that is told in close to 2,000 pages in my Bible seemed able to be reduced to "four spiritual laws," and was primarily about how to avoid hell and get into heaven. It was a story based in fear, with a thin veneer of love laid over the top. Even though my understanding of Scripture grew over the years, I still thought that was basically the story Scripture was telling. It was not until Mary's class that I finally heard the Story of God in all its epic beauty and majesty, a Story that I found compelling and which captured my imagination. A Story within which I have daily been finding my home for the last decade.
The summer following that class, I spent eight weeks in Houston, Texas, working with my best friend, Matt Russell, who was three years into a church plant within a mega-church. Mercy Street had become a safe place for people who had been wounded by the church, many of whom were recovering addicts and alcoholics. Matt asked me to lead a Bible study that would cover the whole Bible in those eight weeks, as most of the community had either never read the Bible, saw little use for it, or had been beaten over the head with it. With the epic Story of God I had heard still fresh in my mind, I began to write a version of the Story—Genesis to Revelation—and teach it with the 70 or so folk who gathered every Wednesday night. That summer was one of the best experiences of my life. I watched people open up to the Story of God as they heard it for the very first time, or for the first time all over again. This beautiful love story, of the Creator God who will not abandon the creation to the devastation that sin has wrought, of the God of the exodus who liberates people from bondage, of the God who became one of us in order to make it possible for us to be the people we were created to be, of the God who will one day make all things new, and bring an end to death, to suffering, to pain and tears—that is good news, and a Story that many have yet to hear.
That first time, I told the Story in more or less a lecture format. Upon returning to Communality, the small missional community I was part of in Lexington, I was invited to tell the Story, but this time as a story—to re-write it in narrative form. I did so, and have been telling that Story ever since, alongside my wife Rebecca. The Story of God, the Story of Us is the written form of the oral narrative we have been sharing with others.
What does teaching in this way communicate that traditional teaching/preaching lacks?
Traditional teaching and preaching tends to be conducted as a monologue. It often is a presentation of information that leaves the listener asking the question, "Do I agree with this or not?" Now, many preachers and teachers tell stories as a way of engaging the congregation, or by way of illustration. If we're honest, sometimes it's only the stories that people remember! But that makes sense. We love stories. We love to tell stories, and we love to hear stories. Stories help us make sense of life. Stories involve so much more than mere information: good stories, well told, draw us in and engage us on multiple levels. What might it mean for us to rely less on stories as illustrations or 'icebreakers' and more as a primary means of communication? What if instead of preaching or teaching on, say, the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 and telling people what it means, perhaps with three points, nicely alliterated, we simply told the story? What if we told the story from several perspectives: how did Zacchaeus experience Jesus' visit to Jericho? What about the crowd? The disciples? Walk around inside the story with your congregation, and give people the chance to find themselves in the story. What does it look like? What can you hear? What does it smell like? Who do you identify with? Where would you have been that day? What would you have said to Jesus? To the crowd? I wonder what would happen if we saw ourselves more as storytellers, and not solely as imparters of information? Clearly Jesus was a storyteller—and seemed content to leave people scratching their heads as to what he was talking about!
One of the things that I discovered early on as I began to tell the Story of God as a story, was that storytelling gives people permission to ask the questions they actually have—the ones that really matter to them, not just the ones we think they ought to ask. Perhaps the questions they have been afraid to ask in the past, or even been told they cannot ask. And asking questions is contagious. Once it begins we move from monologue to dialogue—and discovery, which makes for lasting understanding. Just when I think I've heard every possible question about a part of the Story, someone will ask a new one and open up space for me to understand the Story in new and deeper ways. And when someone hears another person ask a question they have wanted to ask, but maybe been afraid to, it validates not only their question, but also them as a person.
A pastor or church leader interested in teaching the Bible as a story obviously has limited time during a sermon or class. How would you suggest they get started? Are there parts of the Bible that lend themselves to a story narrative better than others?
Well, as I am convinced of the importance of knowing the Story of God—the whole narrative of Scripture—of course I think that reading The Story of God, the Story of Us would be a good place to get started! Not only because it walks the reader through the Scriptures in just 12 chapters (or 12 weeks), but also because I hope it whets the appetite of church leaders to begin to think creatively about how to tell the Story in their own context.
When Rebecca and I tell the Story with groups, it takes about 20-30 minutes to read the narrative (which in some traditions would be a fairly short sermon or study!). We use art to interact with the Story, asking people to draw, or paint, or sculpt something that struck them from the story that week, and/or a question they have from the story. People share their art and questions in groups of 3-4, and choose one picture and question to share with the whole group. Typically, a session with the Story takes about 75-90 minutes. And then we often go out for coffee afterwards to continue the discussion. That's possible in the evening or on weekends when people have more time. During a Sunday School class, it may be that the narrative is simply read and discussed for the remaining time.
When it comes to worship services, for those interested in exploring Scripture as story in their preaching, it may be helpful to begin with one of the stories from the gospels, and to try storytelling along the lines of the story of Zacchaeus that I describe above. I have sometimes re-written stories from Scripture, setting them in the context of the specific community. So, for instance, when preaching through 1 Corinthians, when I got to chapter 11, and Paul's critique of the common meal in verses 17-34, I imagined the scene, and then re-wrote it from the perspective of a day laborer describing to a friend what happened when he attended his first church potluck supper, and arrived late because he had to catch three buses from the jobsite, by which time all the food had been eaten. Rather than talking about the story, find ways to place the congregation in the story. There are so many ways to be storytellers in our preaching, and I encourage pastors to explore as many as you can in your own preaching.
What has been the response of people who have heard the Story of God for the first time?
There are so many stories I could tell. Like 'Big John,'* who was part of that first group I went through the Story with, who was three months clean off crack cocaine but was really struggling with ongoing surrender to his Higher Power. John, who after hearing the story of the cross in the seventh week, pulled me aside in the coffee shop afterwards and asked me, "So you're telling me Jesus did that for me? And that God raised him from the dead? Well, I need some of that kind of power if I'm going to make it. I'm in. What do I have to do?" Or Nicky*. Who heard the Story of the God who cares for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, and years later when I ran into her at a book signing told me that she and her new husband had decided to buy a big house so they could adopt a bunch of kids.
Then there are all the people who tell us that it's like they're hearing the Story of God for the first time. "How come I never heard this Story before?" is something we hear over and over again.
One thing most people say is that they never knew it was a story. They either thought it was a rulebook ("Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth"), or a religious self-help book. Many knew it only as something negative, a book that was used to make them feel guilty, or less than, or excluded. They had never heard the love story that Scripture is telling, nor experienced the hope that is written large throughout.*The name has been changed.
In your book you suggest having people voice each character of the story. If this isn't possible in a Sunday morning church service, how might the pastor effectively tell the story on his or her own?
The suggestion to have different people read the different characters is for groups who are reading the book aloud. If a pastor wants to do that in worship, then I can't think of a reason why that would not be possible. I imagine that to do something like that for 12 weeks would be an enormous shift from most people's expectations of what constitutes preaching, and so it may be that the pastor takes the material, and re-writes it in his or her own words—something which several campus ministers and preachers have done in the past. However, I hope that pastors will consider giving 12 weeks to walk through the Story with their entire congregation in the weekly worship service. There is something about hearing the Story together that is so different that reading it alone. For the majority of Christian history, Scripture has been something that has been heard rather than read. And I have discovered that there is something about hearing Scripture told as story that causes people to lean in, as we hear what for some of us are very familiar words in new and surprising ways. Over the years, churches and campus ministries have taken the Story (which we made freely available as a Word document), and found all kinds of creative ways to tell the Story in their own context. And then, most importantly, to ask the question, "What is our role in this Story? How will we play that part faithfully?" so that the Story is enacted in our lives.
What advice would you give a pastor who receives backlash to storytelling or is accused of not upholding the integrity of the Scriptures?
Having never had this experience, I hesitate to offer advice. I suspect that it is not storytelling per se that some may object to, but rather the content of the Story that one is telling. I believe the church has done a very poor job of telling the Story that Scripture is telling. In writing The Story of God, the Story of Us, I have tried to redress some of the harmful ways we have told (and embodied) the Story, especially in highlighting some of the stories we have received in Scripture that have been neglected, or that have been told poorly. As we begin to tell and live out of the Story of God in all its beauty and majesty, there will always be those who find that Story threatening the story they have given themselves to—both within and without the church—and who may object to or reject it. The opposition of Israel's religious elite to Jesus' life and teaching shows us what happens when you tell the Story of God in ways that others find offensive. I find the Story of God as compelling and hopeful today as I did ten years ago—I hope that becomes true for all those who read the book and then return to the Bible to rediscover the love story it is telling us.
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