The Art of Biblical Storytelling
Dennis Dewey, who calls himself a minister of biblical story, has performed and led storytelling seminars all over the United States and Canada as well as in Europe, New Zealand, Australia, Korea, South Africa and Israel. Ordained as a minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA), he has been engaged full time in this itinerant, ecumenical ministry of biblical story since 1992.
Dewey has been a featured presenter at the Annual Festival Gathering of the Network of Biblical Storytellers (NOBS), and has performed and/or taught at hundreds of churches and institutions such as Princeton Theological Seminary’s Institute of Theology, the Joseph Campbell Festival, the National Storytelling Festival, and the 209th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). In 1997 he performed for 36,000 Lutheran youth in the New Orleans Superdome and in 1998 for the Thanksgiving Day television special “A Gift of Stories”.
Dewey is a graduate of Hartwick College, where he majored in philosophy but lived in the theater, and of Princeton Theological Seminary, where his academic concentration was in liturgy. He also holds a master’s degree equivalency in education from the State University of New York. He makes his home in Utica, New York, with his wife and three children.
When we met with Dewey, he was preparing for a trip to Greece. We found a booth at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Cheektowaga, New York, where we recorded this conversation.
HOMILETICS: What is NOBS?
DEWEY: The Network of Biblical Storytellers exists to encourage everyone to learn and tell biblical stories. The fact is that when people learn these stories and tell them, they are experienced entirely differently by those who hear them from the way in which they are experienced when they’re read, and not only that, they are also experienced entirely differently by the teller, the one who learns the stories and tells them.
HOMILETICS: So you’re not talking about telling a story as in: “There was once this little boy with five smooth stones for his slingshot who once upon a time used them to slay a big giant.”
DEWEY: We’re talking about telling the stories in the words in which they’ve come to us in translation. People who’ve not experienced this cannot imagine that there’s anything creative in this, or that it could be worthwhile. That’s because most people’s experience of Scripture is that it’s dull, deadly and dusty. They’re accustomed to hearing it read as Scripture in a culture that has pretty much made normative the “dead-on-arrival” delivery of the text, as not only normative, but preferred lest any human taint of emotion enter in, which we in the Network hasten to point out is in itself an interpretation, because in the attempt to avoid interpreting the text, or tainting it, the flat-line rendering of the text is an interpretation which does not comport with the storytelling tradition of Israel and with the rabbinical tradition of Jesus — which was very lively, demonstrative, passionate.
So people ask, “Are you talking about reciting memorized text? Rote, mechanical recitation of text?” At which point I usually say, “Let me tell you a story, and you tell me whether this sounds like a rote recitation of mechanized text!”
HOMILETICS: But the fact is that when you’re engaged in the biblical storytelling enterprise, you’ve either gone into “deep learning” or something, so that what you say is — what? — 90 percent biblical text with a little Dennis Dewey thrown in?
DEWEY: We have a goal of 95 percent content accuracy, and 75 percent verbal accuracy. So there’s a little bit of wriggle room there. Understand, that oral communication is different from a silent reading.
HOMILETICS: So when you say “75 percent verbal accuracy” you mean you’re not making mistakes.
DEWEY: We’re sticking close to the text. You know enough about translations to know that there are judgments in that process. And there are performative judgments made about how a line is rendered or how word order is expressed, and other interpretative issues may enter into the storytelling.
HOMILETICS: And does each storyteller have a preferred version he follows, or does NOBS have a standard version?
DEWEY: It varies quite a bit. Typically, when we engage in epic — storytelling, we encourage each participant to use the same translation, the NRSV, although that’s not — from a storyteller’s perspective — the best translation, because it’s a “silent reading” translation.
For example, the translators have gone through the gospel of Mark and removed all the “ands” at the beginning of each speech or sentence or line, because that’s bad literature. They’ve subordinated clauses where there aren’t subordinations, where there are simply lists. An oral culture lists things; it doesn’t subordinate. And “and” is oral punctuation. So I go through and rework the text. If I use the NRSV, I go back and put back in all the “ands” and so on.
But a translation like the CEV (The Contemporary English Version) which had among its top translation criteria how it sounds out loud, can be a preferred text, depending on the story. But I look at several translations, to the extent that I’m able, to get a sense of the story behind the words. Because storytelling is based in the internalization of images and feelings. I make a distinction between the process of memorizing and the process of learning by heart. Memorizing is learning words. Learning by heart is learning the images, the feelings, the complexes, the structures, the muscle tensions, the visceral cues that are beneath the words. The “tongue in cheek,” the tone — all those things that are involved in communicating the story as story have nothing to do with memorizing the words.
In a sense, we start from the inside out — much in the way we remember and tell a joke. We don’t take it apart line by line. We hear the joke, and weeks later, we have sufficient mental Velcro to be able to recall it and tell it pretty much word for word.
HOMILETICS: So can any pastor do this?
DEWEY: Well, Elie Wiesel said, “God made humanity because God loves stories.” So I start with the assumption that we all have storytelling gifts. We live in stories. We talk about who we are. Our identities are shaped by the stories we tell. In a sense, we’re hard-wired for story.
Every preacher has had the experience of wading through some thick theological morass and watching the congregation’s eyes go south, the chin bumps, and so the preacher switches and launches into — “It reminds of the time I went fishing in Canada, “ and there’s this collective suck of air, as people sit forward in their seats, and the lights come on: “Yes!” It’s as though we have this radar-sweeping device looking for incoming narrative material and lock on it. It’s the stories. It’s the stories people remember, because stories are a means of compressing, as it were, the data and making it instantly retrievable — as in a joke.
So we’re all storytellers by nature; that’s how God made us.
HOMILETICS: But some of us are better storytellers than others. What can a pastor do to make storytelling effective?
DEWEY: You know, I just happen to know the answer to that question! [laughter all round]. Everybody has a modicum of storytelling gifts. Some people are supremely gifted: They have acute memory, deep understanding, an expressive faith, a wealth of experience, great eyes, magnificent voice, they can move their bodies like a dancer —
HOMILETICS: Yeah, what if you don’t have all those things? [laughter] Like, what would I do?
DEWEY: Well, the stock answer is: “Come to the NOBS Festival Gathering and do some workshops!” Or go to a local workshop, which by the way, are designed to not just train preachers, but people of all ages in the church, teams, to be biblical storytellers.
But I’m absolutely convinced that biblical storytelling is a spiritual discipline, not just a liturgical art, not just something to jazz up worship, not just something to make the kids interested — which it is, but it is first and foremost a spiritual discipline that changes the person both telling and hearing the story.
It’s the difference between studying a butterfly pinned to a piece of cardboard, from which you can learn a lot, by the way, and actually watching a butterfly in flight, or simulating the flight of a butterfly. And I think that ancient Israel knew this. When we call Israel the “people of the book,” it’s really an anachronism, because the text was experienced as performance; people didn’t read them, and even those who read them, used Scripture as cue cards, because the primary repository for the tradition was the memory of the heart, and by extension, the community’s memory.
HOMILETICS: Like the great text in Nehemiah where Ezra stands up and reads the text, and the people weep.
DEWEY: Yes. And probably recited, actually. The ancient way of reading in antiquity was that you committed to memory what you read first, especially if you’re going to read it in public, using the written text as a cue card. In Deuteronomy right after the Shema — when I do workshops, I often ask people if they can name any of the five corollaries that follow the Shema which have to do with the transmission and the perpetuation of the love of God generation after generation.
Most people can remember “Teach them to your children (catechize), talk about them (theologize), wear them as jewelry (we’ll call that accessorize — symbolize), post them on your doorposts and your gates (publicize).” The one that almost nobody remembers when I do this little enterprise — I can almost guarantee that it’s going to work. This is the element of surprise —
HOMILETICS: Are you going to tell us, or just go on and on?
DEWEY: [laughs] It is “All these things that I command you today shall be upon your heart.” It was the nature of Hebrew spirituality. The deep learning of the word as sound from God. This is downloaded, backup storage, spare hard drive.
So, it is deeply internalized and then remembranced, embodied, breathed, and voiced by a teller-performer as a sacred event in community with an audience/congregation.
HOMILETICS: So that’s what it is. How do you do that?
DEWEY: I want to be clear that it’s not about the technique, which is important, but the technique is a way of arriving at the spiritual disciple. But the process is: Read it out loud. [laughter]. You might be surprised at how many people don’t understand that. You’re taught to not read out loud. Reading silently is a recent innovation — beginning of the 20th century. All reading in antiquity, even privately, was out loud. Augustine, in the Confessions, says of Ambrose: “The man did this strange thing: He moved his lips and no sound came out.” [laughter] He dedicates a whole paragraph to this strange practice of reading silently.
Second step: Read it out loud. Third step: Read it out loud. And so on. And then, close the book and tell it, preferably, get up on your feet, walk around and tell the story, as you remember, like a joke you just heard.
Then, the next step is the engagement of it in the deep places. Meditation with the text, praying with the text, just remembering from your own experience how this text comes at you. Perhaps it is just a phrase. Begin to connect with the story at the level of life — story and feeling.
Then, you script it. You look at the Bible, and most versions have double-sided justification. It’s very uniform. We’re taught when we read not to break at the end of a line, but to wrap around. Take the words off the page and rearrange them so that each line stops at a sensible place, so that it chunks into three-line sections. I also put all the dialogue in uppercase caps so that I can see the dialogue and the structure just looking at the page.
Then, you look for verbal threads, semantic cues, patterns that repeat. Then, there’s what theater calls blocking, but what I call in storytelling “mapping the geography of the story.” In my workshops, I often use the story of Jesus as a boy in the temple. One of the things we observe is that the story is laid out on an axis. Nazareth-Jerusalem. Every year they went up to Jerusalem for Passover. When it was over, they left. When they saw Jesus was missing, they returned to Jerusalem. Then they found him, and they returned to Nazareth. So there’s this back-and-forth dance going on.
Repetition is the last step. But not just the repetition of the words, but going through it intentionally observing the other elements, so that in the story of the woman anointing the feet of Jesus, the smell of the ointment, the smell of the off-gassing of the wine at the table as they come into the room, postures, positions — all of these things; every repetition of the story.
HOMILETICS: Can you do books like Ezekiel and Revelation?
DEWEY: We did Ezekiel last year. You see, it wasn’t composed to be read in tiny smidges on a few Sundays of the year. David Barr wrote a piece a few years ago on Revelation, and it made a lot of sense to me. I’ve performed the whole book of Revelation — not recently. I don’t get a lot of calls for Revelation. “Will you come and lay a little Revelation on us for the Ladies Tea?” [laughter]
But Barr argues that it was not just a “talking” letter, as all letters were, but that it was to be performed by a troupe of letter-talkers, or storytellers, so that it was taken around to the churches by this traveling troupe.
HOMILETICS: So you have the book of Revelation and the gospel of John memorized. Anything else?
DEWEY: Learned by heart.
HOMILETICS: So you have the book of Revelation and the gospel of John learned by heart? [laughter]
DEWEY: We don’t use the M word.
HOMILETICS: You probably have the whole New Testament down cold.
DEWEY: Big chunks of it, yes. But people will memorize Scripture in a sort of literal way. But in a post-literate culture, a digital culture — I have no way of knowing how Jesus was educated, but I’m pretty convinced that Jesus probably had a big chunk of the Old Testament learned by heart. He may have had 20,000 hours of oral instruction. And the comments that are made in the gospels — first of all when he’s 12 years old, the CEV says, “They were surprised at how much he knew.” And in the gospel of Mark which says, that after he enters the synagogue, “They were astonished at his teaching because he taught them as someone who had authority, and not in the way that the scribes did.” He had so deeply internalized Scripture that he was able to present it in a powerful new way.
A few years ago I had an opportunity to do some storytelling for Bread For the World in Washington. The preacher was a priest from Nicaragua. The two appointed lessons, lessons he appointed, were Zacchaeus (which I knew) and a passage from Nehemiah which has since become one of my favorites.
Basically, in the sermon, he said, “You know, there’s a big gap in the Zacchaeus story. Jesus calls him down out of the tree, he goes to his house and then there’s a fade-out until after dinner when Zacchaeus says ‘I’ll give away half of what I have and if I’ve defrauded anyone I’ll pay them back four times over.’”
This preacher then asked, “Wouldn’t you like to know what Jesus said to him in that timeout, that intermission, that fade-out? I mean, healing the lame, restoring the sight to the blind. Even raising the dead. That can be done. But making people give up their money?! Jesus knew the biblical story like our friend Dennis Dewey! And he might have told them this one”— and then he asked me to tell the biblical story from Nehemiah — here it is:
[Here Dewey storytells the text from Nehemiah 5:1-13.]
That’s the story that Jesus told to Zacchaeus in the narrative gap. No wonder Zacchaeus says, “Look, Lord, here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
For more information on Dennis Dewey and his ministry, and the Network of Biblical Storytellers, see the following links: www.DennisDewey.org, and www.nobs.org.