5. The Use of Story in Spiritual Formation
The Use of Story in Spiritual Formation
An Introduction and a few Definitions
I think we would all agree that we love to hear a good story. We recognize that something happens when a story is told. Stories move us emotionally and yet move us into action like nothing else. Thus, there is power in storytelling and the power of storytelling is needed more today than ever before. Yet, sadly, the church in general and evangelicals in particular have not used the power of story when it is most needed in this postmodern generation. I am not sure that storytelling was not needed in the modern era and perhaps had the church continued to use the storytelling principles of Jesus, perhaps there would not have been a decline in many of the traditional churches and denominations. Miller points out that the reformation brought in an unnecessary dichotomy between faith and the Word and creativity and the arts. “In the name of reform, the Church was stripped of art, image, and anything else that would cause one to be distracted from the reading, preaching and hearing the Word of God.” 53
If we define story as the “telling or retelling of something”, we recognize that words occupy an important part and yet not exclusive part of storytelling. (Miller 31) Indeed our gospel story is the greatest story ever told and yet many today feel that this “good news” is irrelevant to them. Is it because we have tried to communicate the “Biggest Story Ever Told” using methods and forms that do not touch the heart? As we let people feel the power of our story, Miller suggests we can once again be heard in this postmodern world in which we live.
I must confess that before I took this class, I never thought much about the power of storytelling. Not that I am saying I didn’t enjoy a good story; I did! My entire family is voracious readers and whenever or wherever we travel; we rarely are without a good story.” One of my favorite activities in recent years has been going to movies and my idea of a good movie has always been one in which I forget for a few minutes where I am. Yet, somehow storytelling was not a part, for the most part, of my own spiritual journey. I say this to my great regret. There are a number of reasons for this and some of these may be addressed in the section of this paper titled, “The Power of My Story”.
I think I can safely say that some of the blame for not valuing story and spiritual formation can be placed on the type of educational system in which I grew up and in particular, my ministerial training at Dallas Theological Seminary. I gained an excellent education at Dallas and to this day, I am grateful for my education in gaining a greater facility in using the Biblical languages as well as establishing a sound biblical and theological foundation for the ministry. I am not saying that no one ever talked about storytelling, creativity and the use of the imagination but I don’t remember many of those lectures and quite candidly, I was probably not ready to explore my own story at that time (which seems to be a pre-requisite if we are to help others discover how their story is intimately connected to that of the story of Christ).
Yet, here is where I am beginning to see how storytelling and spiritual formation can and need to be connected. If spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others” (Mulholland), then as a spiritual director and a spiritual friend (see Benner), then storytelling needs to be made an integral part of helping people see the life of Jesus become part of their story. In the following pages, I would like to consider the value the Bible places upon story and the unique power story has in communicating some of God’s most important truths to us. And, as I finish, I hope to make some suggestions on how storytelling can be integrated into a program of spiritual formation.
The Power of My Own Story
What I have begun to discover is that as I share stories about my own journey with Christ (struggles with sin, human weaknesses and grace enabling moments), others have begun to feel comfortable in sharing stories about their own journey with Christ. Many of these are stories that they have never told anyone else. As Buechner writes in his book, Telling Secrets, most of us have the same secrets and we all have a need for someone else to know our secrets.
It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we are going. It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about. Finally, I suspect that by entering that deep place inside us where our secrets are kept that we come perhaps closer than we do anywhere else to the One who, whether we realize it or not, is of all our secrets the most telling and precious we have to tell. Telling, 2-3
Indeed this has come true for in the telling of my own stories, it is becoming more natural for me to tell others about how significant my daily journey with Jesus is in my life. Buechner says elsewhere that he writes about his own life “in the hope of encouraging others to do the same—at least to look back over their lives, as I have looked back over mine, for certain themes and patterns and signals that are so easy to miss when you’re caught up in the process of living them.” Now and Then 4
Martureo is the Greek verb meaning to witness or to testify. It is used over 70 times in the NT (martus, its noun form is used another 35 times) to describe the story that a person has personally witnessed or testifies about. Although primarily used in the gospels, it is also used elsewhere to emphasize the importance of story. The resurrection has validity because of the story of those who saw the resurrected Jesus (1 Cor 15:15), Paul uses the story about the generous giving of the Macedonians as a teaching moment for the Corinthians (2 Cor 8:3). Paul often encourages believers in their faith by mentioning the stories of faithful brothers and sisters (1 Tim 5:10, Col 4:3). Hebrews 11 is full of the stories of men and women of faith which are given so that we may imitate their faith and endure the race before us.
Storytelling and the Word of God
As I have mentioned earlier, I come from a tradition in which expositional preaching of the Word is the priority. In recent days, while visiting a new church, the content laden focus of the sermons stood out to me. And yet this Pastor stated that he wants to move away from a tradition of folks taking lots of notes, getting a lot of information and Bible knowledge but little passion or love for Christ and the world. Why is the application so often left out of our Bible church sermons? Could it be because of our failure to use story in our preaching?
Mark Miller in Experiential Storytelling says he is writing to help the church tell God’s story and to tell it well in order to reach today’s generation. He says, “A sermon tells people what to think. A story forces people to do the thinking for themselves.” 41 He does warn about making sure we do not lose the integrity of the biblical story. “The message you are trying to convey is of much more importance than the methods you employ in telling the story.” 47
Recently, I have been teaching a class on Spiritual Formation and what has made the class to rich for me are the stories emerging from the people’s lives in the class. I am encouraging people to read the Bible “formationally” instead of just “informationally”, expecting that God will speak to them today and He is doing that. I believe that in hearing one another’s stories, something is beginning to happen in the class that would not otherwise have happened had I just lectured and “dumped information” on them. “Sharing the intimacies of one’s spiritual journey puts a much higher demand on relationships than sharing study of the Bible.” Benner 175 Even though today’s postmodern generation are said to be particularly receptive to stories, my class made up of people in their 40’s and above has responded powerfully to the story approach. Why is this? “When powerful stories begin to be told, and when a person can identify with another person’s journey, the arms drop, the defensiveness wanes, and a receptive ear is gained.” Miller 37
Jesus the master storyteller
It is interesting that in my church tradition, the epistles of Paul are more common sermon fodder than the gospels. Why is this? One reason might be the frequent use of story by Jesus. The gospel writers all reveal the frequent use of stories and parables by Jesus as he taught. There are a few discourses in which he “teaches” as opposed to telling stories (Sermon on the Mount, Upper Room Discourse and Olivet Discourse to name three) although Matthew 13:34 says “he did not say anything to them without using a parable.” Although the message of the parables sometimes had to be explained (Mk 4:10), sometimes was not understood at all (Mtt 13:13), at other times, his point was well made by the use of story. (Matt 21:45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.) It is interesting that on several occasions, when Jesus is asked a question which appears to demand a factual, propositional statement, He replies with a story. When the Pharisees ask him why his disciples do not fast, he tells a story about how inappropriate it would be for the attendants to a bridegroom to fast when he is around (Mk 2:18-20). When asked if taxes should be paid, he tells the Pharisees (Mtt 22:17) and disciples (Mtt 17:25) a story. It seems that when the Pharisees try to trick him in John 8 about the woman caught in adultery, he may have used story to avoid their trap (perhaps writing various story words that might self-incriminate the accusers?).
Paul the Teacher?
Was Paul a storyteller or was he a modern-day Bible teacher who lectured to his audiences? Certainly, there were parts of Paul’s writing that was difficult to understand (2 Pet 3:15, 16) and we have one example of young Eutychus falling asleep while Paul waxed on eloquently into the hot night (Acts 20:9). However, in Acts (one long story about the continued story of Jesus in the life of the apostles), Luke repeats the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus three times and in two of these, Paul himself is using the story of his conversion as part of the good news he so boldly shared (Acts 22 and 26). His story about the vision in Troas was recorded in Acts 16; he shared the story of God’s kindness to the nations in Acts 14; when he sat and began to speak to the women assembled in Philippi (16:13), I suspect there were many stories used. Paul used the stories of the Athenians in Acts 17 as part of his witness to them; certainly stories were part of his emotional departure in Ephesus (Acts 20:37) and in Jerusalem, he told stories to the leaders when he arrived there (“he began to explain in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry” Acts 21:19). It seems that story was a regular part of Paul’s as “They strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith.” Acts 14:22 Paul also had quite a story in 2 Cor 13 that he told and in doing so helped us to understand why weakness is not always taken away.
Stories and the Old Testament
The stories of the Old Testament are part of the beginning foundation for most of our children’s Sunday school classes and indeed the Old Testament is full of the stories of God’s mighty deeds. David focused in at least two Psalms on the stories of God’s making Israel a nation (Psalm 105, 107). Indeed, one of the reasons the nation of Israel fell into apostasy was because they forgot the stories of what God had done for them. As I recall the great leadership transition in the Bible (David to Solomon and Moses to Joshua), a key element was the retelling of the stories about God’s faithfulness. It seems a shame that we use story so much in teaching children stories about the Bible but neglect those very same stories as people get older. Perhaps this is one reason our youth and adults claim to be so bored with the Bible.
Ordinances: retelling the story
Is it not interesting that the two ordinances that we celebrate on a regular basis celebrate stories of our faith. Communion celebrates the death, resurrection and return of Christ on our behalf. Baptism is the telling of our own story in coming to faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps these two ordinances should remind us of the need to stay focused on story in our journey with Christ.
Stories and Theology
While it is valuable and necessary to learn in a theology class about the doctrines of redemption, salvation, reconciliation and sanctification, are not these doctrines best understood at the heart level through story? Once again, we are thrust back into the parables of Jesus to see theology at work (Prodigal Son in Luke 15; Parable of Talents in Matthew 25 as examples. When Killian received the “million dollar” hat, he learned more about grace and the generosity of God than any theology book could teach. 66 In his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, Yancey shares many powerful stories about grace and one in particular, Babette’s Feast, stands out as an illustration of the power of grace to change lives. In a similar vein, the film, Chocolat shows how the kindness of one woman brought life to a town and revealed the ugliness of the most self-righteous. When Killian wrote about learning about the story of homing pigeons, I was given a concrete picture of how and why my heart longings are truly to be at home in heaven. (76) (Phil 1:21-24)
Hi, my name is David; I’m Joe’s pastor
What power and intimacy the care of a pastor or Christian friend can have in the lives of other believers! As we minister one to another, we communicate that the other person’s story is important to us, that we are listening and in doing so, we become part of their story as it relates to Christ. Seamands talks about the power of the story of the Cross to help us gain healing when we suffer pain.
In Christ, we can open our arms to embrace the pain and endure the suffering necessary for healing. Christ’s grace not only enables us to embrace and endure suffering, it also transforms us through our suffering. Suffering we feared would be destructive becomes redemptive. Self-destroying, spirit depleting suffering turns into self-enlarging, spirit-strengthening suffering. The suffering we were so determined to avoid increases our passion for life. We discover treasures in the darkness.” 127-8
When we keep people focused upon the story of the Cross, this kind of healing can take place. Miller says, “My belief is that when a story becomes personal and people begin to become unsettled and challenged by it, then they have been touched in a place where facts fear to tread. It is a place so personal than it can spark an inner transformation. 41
Killian recalled a one-hour memorial service in which the church body “attempted, inadequately, to put into words the story of the life and ministry of one about whom volumes could have been written.” 101 Some might say that God does not care or is impotent when tragedy strikes but it is the story of the church community that makes such statements sound so hollow. (Killian 139-40)
Challenges in using storytelling in spiritual formation
Once we begin to see the power and necessity of story for our own and other’s spiritual formation, challenges remain. Sometimes, coming from my family and church tradition, I had few examples and models of good story tellers. However, I must admit that the more I reflect on story, the more God recalls stories from the past that previously had been forgotten. Reading the stories of others helps stir up my own stories as well as provide the stories of others that I can use. With some reflection, the Bible provides an abundance of stories for spiritual formation as well as a keen observant eye and listening ear as life is lived.
If I am honest, another challenge for me in telling stories is my own fear. There is a fear about my own perceived lack of ability to tell stories well. Killian warned about the need to deal with the old tapes of the past when this fear arises. Indeed fear of failure can immobilize a person as they think such thoughts, will they really be interested in my stories? Will they laugh at my jokes?
Buechner talks about self-doubts as he begins to write his autobiography and whether or not anyone will be interested. He says, “But, I do it anyway. I do it because it seems to me that no matter who you are, and no matter how eloquent or otherwise, if you tell your own story with sufficient candor and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and in some sense a universal story.” Now and Then 3
Delivery of our Story
Miller notes that both the content and the delivery of the story are important if they are to be effective. He suggests a number of ways to be an effective storyteller. We should know our story—“you must know the story inside and out. Work on your story by retelling it to a friend. Then take time to retell the story to yourself.” We should know our Audience—their limitations, their language and their culture. We should honor our story by maintaining integrity in the telling the story. Finally, we should be asking lots of questions about our story to make it effective. 43-49
Once we are aware of the power of story in spiritual formation, we need to be alert for stories going on all around us. First of all, we must listen well, to others and to the world around us. Dahl suggests that we must write down our story ideas lest they be forgotten.
You never know when a lovely idea is going to flit suddenly into your mind, but by golly, when it does come along, you grab it with both hands and hang on to it tight. The trick is to write it down at once, otherwise you’ll forget it. A good plot is like a dream. If you don’t write down on paper the moment you wake up, the chances are you’ll forget it and it’ll be gone forever.
So, when an idea for a story comes popping into my mind, I rush for a pencil, a crayon, a lipstick, anything that will write, and scribble a few words that will later remind me of the idea. Often one word is enough. 203
If we are looking, we will find many stories that demonstrate God’s faithfulness such as the story that Killian narrated about how the prayers of a grandmother saved her grandson under enemy attack. 128-30 We need to ask people to tell us their stories and be willing to listen to them. After returning home from this class, I began asking my mother-in-law about her vacations and how she used to make “ant houses”. As she was finishing her story, my wife began relating how she had similar experiences as a girl. A connection took placed in the telling of the stories.
This week I met at church a long time friend and fellow OMF missionary, now retired. I was reminded of needing to honor her by listening and learning to her stories. I also was reminded of the biblical commands to not neglect the poor, the widows and orphans and how we are to care for the sick and elderly. I need to go by and visit her at her assisted living facility and honor what God has done in her life by eliciting stories from her. In this way, I can pass on the legacy of the faith of our leaders as Heb 13 reminds us to do as we imitate their faith.
In order to use the power of self-disclosure in story and our spiritual journey, the use of pictures and drawings as we did in our class could be very helpful. Recently in meeting with two friends to deal with some baggage from the past, I brought an actual photo of the person that had harmed me which triggered others stories. The use of art in biblical meditation is another way to make stories come alive. Scroggie says we need a baptized imagination as we seek to find a connection between our life stories and God’s stories. He suggests a meditative reading of the text of Scripture is essential in this. 280-82
As a missionary, I have discovered that the key to communicating my story is to provide a common ground for our churches in the United States with people and events in the Philippines. I have been most effective in doing this when I use stories that are filled with characterization and as much detail as possible so that they can see the story in their mind.
Other sources for story material
There are endless sources for stories that can be used in spiritual formation to bring alive our gospel story. We can examine current events and newspapers, read books, journal about life events, listen to people around me, watch movies, live life with people in community and in particular in eating with them (see Killian 85). As we study and learn about the story/mission/vision of different organizations, we gain insight into their values that can be incorporated into our own spiritual growth as Killian did in his story about the Cracker Barrel Church Model. 122 My reading should be quite wide, novels, trade journals outside my normal sphere of experience and of course Christian fiction which illustrates by story the growth of people’s faith (Dante’s Inferno, Pilgrim’s Progress, Hinds Feet on High Places, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and the Space Trilogy), the Iron Sceptre series by John White etc.)
Summary and Conclusion
As Killian said, “Forgetting our own history has a way of distorting the truth.” 87 Thus it is important for me and others to take time to identify and reflect on our stories, especially as they relate to our journey with Christ. Killian recalled his grandmother saying that everybody writes his own 23rd Psalm with a focus on verse 6 that says “Surely goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” 110 How God’s goodness and mercy will be worked out in each one of us will involve a different story that must be told.
I am grateful for the growth that is taking place in me as a result of reflection on my past stories under the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit. God continues to touch those unfinished and unhealed places of my past. When combined with insight from my reading on spiritual formation and counseling, the healing journey continues. I am also excited to see the development of new stories of my faith journey being worked out every day.
Why is story important? It touches the heart rather than just the head and Eldridge says, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” (Waking the Dead) A critical component in this is the awakening of our heart to our own story and to His story. Storytelling thus is able to bring about growth in my own spiritual formation and in others. As I model telling my own story, others are more willing to open up and share the neediness that is involved in their own faith journey. Storytelling involves dialogue, creativity and brings challenge to enable us to effectively reach our post-modern generation. As Miller says, our use of storytelling requires that we “stop trusting ourselves”, “ask God to help us trust those attending our gatherings” and trust in the Holy Spirit. 88
Buechner’s words about why we must remember our stories provide a fitting end to this paper.
Maybe nothing is more important than we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually. Telling 30
Buechner, Frederick. Now and Then. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc: 1983.
Buechner, Frederick. Telling Secrets: A Memoir. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc: 1991.
Dahl, Roald. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Killian, Charles D. Climbing Mayodan Mountain. Madison, N.C.: Empire Publishing Inc, 2006.
Miller, Mark. Experiential Storytelling: (Re)Discovering Narrative to Communicate God’s Message. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
Scorgie, Glen A. “Hermeneutics and the Meditative Use of Scripture: The Case for a Baptized Imagination.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 44.2 (June 2001): 272-85.
Seamands, Stephen. Wounds that heal: bringing our hurts to the Cross. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2003.