READING the BIBLE TOGETHER for all its WORTH
The practice of STORYMAKERS
“Let the redeemed of the LORD tell their story.”
Psalm 107:2 (TNIV)
Psalm 107:2 (TNIV)
I don’t know many Christians who admit to viewing Scripture as unimportant in the Christian life. I do know many Christians who admit to reading Scripture very occasionally, if at all. And yet, reading, studying, teaching Scripture is, as many of us believe, critical to healthy Christian living. For this reason I have devoted my career to encouraging Christians to read the Bible, all of it, more often and more meaningfully. I’ve also written about more effective and meaningful ways to handle Scripture, ways that entice people to live with and in this Book we love.
My search for better ways to more meaningfully read the Bible that contains many stories, led me to attend more closely to the role of narrative in spiritual formation. As a result, I have been steeping myself in story as a way of knowing and discerning meaning, rather than merely using story as an attention getter, for illustration or for entertainment, as is so often the case in the church. Based on my research about, and experience with story I developed a holistic and unique approach to Bible study that I chose to call Storymakers, because the focus is on telling and living the story. It’s an approach that pulls participants into the biblical text, engaging their whole being, not only their mind in order to read the Bible together for all its worth. Storymakers has been the most exciting and effective approach to Scripture study, both for the individual and small groups, that I have experienced. I tested Storymakers with a multi-generational small group and also with college students in my course on narrative and spiritual formation. Student evaluations were positive and enthusiastic, describing it as: ‘a beautiful process;’ ‘creating space to learn from one another;’ ‘we were invited into story.’
Storymakers, as a practice of Bible reading, proceeds through five movements. It is deeply rooted in the spiritual discipline of lectio divina, since I have sought to incorporate some of its practices into Storymakers. I suggest you also read my article “Reading the Bible for all its worth” which gives an explanation of lectio divina. Before explaining the five movements, I begin with some background about the name storymakers and its meaning.
Origin of the name: Storymakers
The name, storymakers, is a reflection of how we journey through life. According to Eugene Peterson, in his foreword to Douglas Webster’s, Finding Spiritual Direction, how we journey through life fits into one of two ways—storymaker or listmaker. Both ways, Peterson writes, “use the stuff of ordinary life, but the way they use it is very different.” Listmakers, as the name suggests, turn the ‘ordinary stuff of life’ into multiple lists that then shape how they live. The lists enable them to live efficient, productive and even successful lives. While a useful and sometimes even necessary way to live, the dangers for listmakers include legalism, hypocrisy and a greater concern for progress than the process of living. Storymakers, on the other hand, seek to turn the ordinary stuff of life into a story-ing venture. They are focused on process rather than progress; the journey rather than the destination. In other words, they seek to live in the present moment. Not only that, relationships (with God, self, others, all creation) take precedence over setting and achieving goals. Finally, they immerse themselves in story, particularly the Grand Story of Scripture, wondering about the kind of person they desire to become as they live this Story of redemption. Peterson concludes, “A list-making life can be extremely useful to society, but it is the story-making life that glorifies God” (from Webster, 1991: 9).
Since we (and I mean Westerners) live in a listmakers’ world, this is the way with which we’re most familiar. Becoming a storymaker, a person shaped by the Story (Scriptures's meta-narrative) will take conscious and disciplined efforts of immersing ourselves in the Grand Story of Scripture through reading, and reading often, its many ‘little’ stories. Since I believe that it is critical for the Church of Jesus Christ to restore storytelling and listening to a prominent place, I chose to call this unique approach to looking at Scripture that focuses on its stories, Storymakers.
The Movements of Storymakers
Storymakers consists of five distinct yet overlapping movements that are designed for prayerful reflection on biblical texts in order to experience a living and real encounter with God in Christ Jesus. They help us bring head and heart together as we read and are intended to lead participants, as John Goldingay puts it, “right inside the story, so that we relive it.” He adds, “We need to allow ourselves to be sucked into it… taking its stories as told for us, its questions as addressed to us” (2011: 112-113). Storymakers, because designed for practice with stories, does create space to get sucked into the story and hear it as though it belongs to us alone. While intended for narratives, with adaptation, these movements can also be applied to other genres in Scripture. Despite the fact that this explanation focuses on practicing in a group, Storymakers works equally well when practiced individually.
I deliberately chose to designate each stage of Storymakers with the term movement rather than step for two basic reasons. First, as in lectio divina, movement happens, often imperceptibly, deep within the person transforming them from inside out. Second, participants are gently moved to proceed from one stage to the next as they pour over a biblical text and are ready to go deeper. While it isn’t necessary to be rigid about following the exact order of the movements and there will also be considerable overlap between them, Storymakers is best practiced in the suggested order. Because it can become a long process when working with a group, plan two hours to get through all the movements in one sitting. Finally, Storymakers is practiced most effectively with a group that has some biblical background, although this isn’t essential.
What follows is a practical guide to leading and participating in a Storymakers group. In this paper, I describe the practice as it relates to small groups, but each of the movements can be adapted for personal individual use.
Before beginning the Storymakers’ movements with a small group, some preparation is necessary. First, appoint a leader to act as facilitator throughout the process. One of the advantages of Storymakers over other more common Bible study methods is that the leader isn’t required to put in hours of preparation. It isn’t the leader’s responsibility to bring interpreted information to the group in well organized lessons. Rather, the leader’s role is to facilitate mutual learning and discovery as together the group listens for the Spirit’s call in the story. The primary role of a leader is to ensure that there is a biblical story for examination, which could be chosen by any member of the group, and then ensure that each participant is given an opportunity to contribute and that the group moves through the process at an appropriate pace.
Second, appoint a volunteer to record people’s comments, especially during the first three movements, so that they can be referred to and built on in the final movements. It’s the leader’s responsibility to ensure that paper and pen are available.
1st Movement: Be aware
By be aware, I mean the practice of cultivating an attitude of watchfulness over your own person; being fully awake in mind, body, spirit, and thus conscious in and to the present moment. Awareness includes the ability to think clearly about who you are, where you are and what you are doing, feeling and thinking at a given moment. It is an essential practice for the Christian since it is frequently commanded in the Bible (see Matthew 26:41, 1 Corinthians 16:13). Storymakers, therefore, begins, not with the Bible story, but with awareness of our inner most being, of those around us and of God’s presence among us, in other words, with our personal stories.
To facilitate this awareness the leader begins with an invitation to participants to name an immediate personal and/or communal s story. By ‘story’ I mean a present emotion (what they now feel is going on inside them) or an event/story that dominates their thoughts at that moment, however brief and seemingly irrelevant. We all have a dust-bowl of thoughts whirling inside our heads, often unconsciously. By becoming aware of these and naming them, we are prepared to get sucked into the Bible story as a participant not merely an observer. Naming our stories at the beginning also helps participants see connections from their stories to the Bible story and opens them to experience the redemptive work of the Spirit and live the Grand Story of Scripture. The stories may be shared with the group, or written down for personal use only.
Periodically in the process, the leader may introduce an ‘awareness pause’ to allow people to reflect on their story as it relates to the biblical story under examination. Finally, and in preparation for the second movement that begins with a reading of the assigned text, this first movement concludes with a brief silence in which people prepare to receive the Word. A brief prayer for insight, invoking the Holy Spirit to come, may also be offered before turning to the story.
2nd Movement: Be observant
Begin with a slow and prayerful reading of the selected text, reading in the same slow way as for lectio divina, a way more concerned with knowing what is seen than seeing only what is already known. Participants listen to receive and also observe what the text says, resisting, at this stage, the temptation to figure out what it means. Be detailed-oriented observing words, phrases, people, events, whether they are understood or not, naming and recording them without commentary. Observing details doesn’t come naturally to many of us since we were trained to read quickly, gather specific information, ignore the rest and move on. Storymakers requires slowing down in order to notice as many details as possible.
Since observation without commentary can be difficult it helps to focus first on some of the common elements of story. In other words, notice how the story begins and ends; notice the physical setting and what is included or omitted; list all the characters, the named and unnamed, what each did and said; observe characters that were probably there but the writer fails to mention. In longer stories, discern the different scenes and what happens in each one; wonder about an inciting incident; suggest the conflict, climax and, if there is one, the resolution. Encourage the group to freeze a scene or frame to see further details. After this, observe the words used and their tenses and mood; details given or omitted; and so on. At this stage the task is merely to notice and record. Resist the temptation to get sidetracked into interesting discussions and commentary.
An awareness pause
Once you’ve observed as much as possible, and before beginning the task of the third movement, pause to once again practice awareness. Invite participants to be aware of their reactions, thoughts, emotions to the biblical story. Ask: What about this story excites me? Disturbs me? Fails to move me? What questions and thoughts do they now have? What connections to the personal and/or communal stories mentioned in movement one do they discern? Also encourage them to reflect on a character or action with which they identify or struggle. The purpose of awareness pauses is to give space so that people can be sucked into the story as willing participants. Keep the awareness pause brief and then move into the third movement.
3rd Movement: Be attentive
The third movement is related to the third step of meditation in lectio divina. By be attentive I mean the necessity of being fully present in and to the story itself. This attending takes place as the group begins to unpack various items on the list of things observed in the story, ‘chewing’ on them in dialogue with each other. The task must be done in a way that engages the whole being—imagination, intellect, emotions, heart. Pick any of the items on the list, regardless of where it appears in the story, and wonder about it in dialog with each other and the text. This is the stage where commentary, discussion and questions can be made, encouraging everyone to contribute. Practice looking at the passage through the different senses of Scripture; together make connections to other Scripture; visually imagine the scene and different reactions from different characters, make use of commentaries if they’re available.
Once again, freeze a scene or action in the story and use your imagination. This is what artists do when painting a story. They pick a single scene, freeze it and then use their imagination as they interpret and draw it. For instance, in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-11) freeze the moment Jesus comes up out of the water and sees the Spirit descend upon him, then use your imagination to visualize it. Was Jesus dripping wet? What expression might have been on his face? What might his emotions have been when he saw the Spirit and heard the Voice from heaven? Imagining this isn’t for the purpose of gaining an accurate interpretation, but to get in touch with our own thoughts and feelings as they relate to this story and become a full participant in the Story so that it narrates the way we live today.
This third movement, because it involves discussion and commentary, often requires the most time. It is the leader’s responsibility to determine when the group is ready to move to the fourth movement: be creative. It is also the leader’s responsibility to discern whether or not an awareness pause would be appropriate before moving on. Because this movement can be the longest, pausing to be aware may be appropriate. However, don’t force it if the group doesn’t need or desire one.
4th Movement: Be creative
This fourth movement, which is related to lectio divina’s oratio, builds on the previous three by imagining a creative response to God. Participants are encouraged to be creative as they reflect on how to respond to God’s call in a story. The point of imagining creative responses is not in order to come to a better understanding of the text, but in order to discern how the text can speak into our lives and shape us in the redemptive way of Jesus.
The following suggestions for being prayerfully creative with the story are ones that I find work well, both in a group setting and also individually. Some of these suggestions will overlap with the third movement, enhancing the ability to attend more fully and keep head and heart united in wholesight.
Imagine between scenes
Many stories obviously have a gap between the recorded scenes. Details have been omitted, giving the reader an opportunity to imagine what might have happened. In the story of Legion (Mark 5:1-20), for example, there is a gap between the time the swineherds rushed into the city with the news of their loss of pigs and when the townspeople arrived on the scene. Imagine what Jesus, the disciples and Legion did and said during that gap. Did someone clothe and feed the former demoniac? Then wonder what you might have done. Where are you in the story?
Imagine a conclusion
Some Gospel stories end rather abruptly, failing to give a conclusion to the story. This is the case with the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) which ends with Jesus’ gentle rebuke to Martha about being busy over many things. What happened after that? How did Martha take the rebuke? Did she join Mary at Jesus’ feet and ignore the meal preparation? What ending would, in your opinion, be most redemptive? What about the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4)? What happened to her after her bold proclamation to the townspeople about Jesus? The Gospel doesn’t tell us. We can only imagine a creative and redemptive response.
Draw or write a scene in your own your words
Drawing a scene isn’t possible for many of us who are artistically inept, however, it is possible to describe ways that we would want to draw a particular scene—what we’d place as the focal point; where we’d place ourselves; how we’d pull others into the scene, etc. For others, rewriting the story for today can help them enter the story more deeply and be changed by it. One example of rewriting a story I’ve used with some effectiveness, follows the format of NPR’s very popular StoryCorps project where a person tells her/his story, sometimes in interview format with another and sometimes alone. Imagine interviewing John the Baptist about Jesus’ baptism; or, as one of my students did, interviewing Paul during his journey to Rome about his conversion experience. Choosing a period some distance from Paul’s conversion enabled her to incorporate themes from Paul’s life since his conversion as well details from the Luke’s account of his conversion in Acts 9. Obviously, in a group setting, neither the painting nor the writing necessarily gets done, depending on time and the group. But, people are being sucked deeper into the story, seeing connections to their personal stories and experiencing very real encounters with Jesus as they talk about it. And that’s the point.
The list of creative responses could go on, but this is sufficient to help you begin the creative process of retelling the story or simply looking deeper into a single scene. The point of this creative movement is not to come to correct understandings or, for that matter, any understanding. Rather it is to enter more personally into the story in order to be made whole as we follow in the Jesus Way. What we think about the different characters and behaviors in the story, the way it could have ended, or what happened in between scenes, will be a good indication of how we would and perhaps do behave today in similar situations.
5th Movement: Be still
Storymakers ends in the same manner as lectio divina, with contemplation; that is, being still and also silent. Physical stillness helps us become internally still in order to receive from Jesus. In the stillness take note of what you believe God is saying directly to you through the story. Hear questions as though addressed to you. For instance, in the story of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), Jesus asked: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Wonder how you would respond. Attempt completing the sentence: When it comes to my story, I see more clearly now….
This final movement brings together the previous four as each participant sits still, gazing lovingly at the One who was and is the focus of the Story, Jesus. Sit for as long as you can, and then conclude with a prayer or rereading of the story.
And, just as lectio divina doesn’t really end because we take the Word into our day, so too Storymakers doesn’t really end. Those who have experienced Storymakers discover the text they prayerfully wondered over through these five movements stayed with them afterwards as they continued to ponder and hear God speak to them. Storymakers enticed them to keep reading and wondering about the Book we love.
I conclude with one student’s evaluation of Storymakers. She was in my course on Narrative and Spiritual Formation (Spring 2014) and required to lead a group through the five movements of Storymakers. She led her small group through the process using the account of Jesus in the boat in a storm. Her evaluation is a perceptive summary of Storymakers. She wrote,
Overall, the Storymakers journey through Mark 4:35-41 taught me about the joy of learning in community. When we slow down and take time to dig deeper into the text and listen to spiritual insights of our fellow Christians, scripture often comes alive with profound meaning. The Storymakers journey disciplines us to be observant of details, be in-tune with our emotions, wonder through difficult questions, and use our imaginations as we read God’s word. This experience stretched me to go beyond the surface-level understanding of God’s power over the waves into a new appreciation for Jesus’ presence in the storms of life—even when he seems to be asleep.
Jackie L. Smallbones. 2015©
Not to be copied without permission from Jackie (contact me to request permission).
The explanation of movements was originally published in my article, “Storymakers: A holistic approach to Bible reading and study” in Christian Education Journal Vol 12, No 1, Spring 2015. Used with permission.
Goldingay, J. (2011). Key Questions about Biblical Interpretation: Old Testament Answers. Grand Rapids, IL: Baker Academic.
Webster D. D. (1991). Finding Spiritual Direction. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.