Monday, December 05, 2005

Why story-telling counts

The Old Testament reading assigned for Sunday Evensong was the story of Micaiah ben Imlah the prophet confronting Kings Jehoshaphat and Ahab with a truth that neither of them wanted to hear, about the impending disaster of their joint expedition against the King of Syria. It was a long reading, 28 verses in all, but even so, it stopped short of the tale's ending with the death of King Jehoshaphat, a dozen verses later on. The reading was curtailed as it was employed to make a point about the real prophets being those who know God's will and tell the truth even if it hurts, but I just had to keep going to the rather unpleasant end, so as not to impeach the integrity of the story told.
Reflecting on this later in the evening, it occurred to me how much the propagation of Christian faith relies on the energy and commitment believers put into telling and re-telling all the stories that shape the Christian world-view, making those stories live in the imaginations of those who hear them. Which is not quite the same as the Church passing on its interpretations of its stories or the inferences believers draw from them.
The way one tells a story is of itself a kind of interpretation, but it's possible to tell stories in a way that is open and descriptive rather than closed and prescriptive. I think if you look carefully at the storytelling of Jesus in the Gospels you can identify material that reflects his open and descriptive approach, but also those elements that reflect the closed and prescriptive approach of those who followed him without grasping his revolutionary perception of life to the full.
Jesus, it seems to me, encouraged us to think with creative and responsible imagination applied to life, rather than systematising and abstracting the truth in an effort to manage it as a commodity. He told stories to get people thinking without wanting to second-guess the outcome. To do that was an immense act of faith in the work of the Spirit in the human heart and mind, a delighting in the risk entailed in every honest creative process.
As Anglicans, we read the whole Bible in public worship systematically throughout the year, if you attend Eucharist Matins and Evensong daily. If you just attend the Sunday Eucharist you'll hear all the Bible's most significant passages read once if not more often during a three year cycle of scripture readings, regardless of the ritual and ceremonial that clothes the act of reading.
Spiritual renewal movements and churches that identify with them can be very strong on prayer and devotional songs and contemporary relevance, but will dwell in depth upon small scripture portions in public worship, leaving systematic reading and study to individuals or groups in their own time. This is perhaps more popular currently than the traditional way of just reading and re-reading, with simple explanation of context though introductory comments or a basic homily that gives listeners time to digest, letting them loose on their own train of thought, stimulated by hearing the Word read aloud. I like to think this is compatible with the approach of Jesus to telling stories, but at the same time I'm, not always too sure that it is. We speak of reading a lesson in church, as if its sole purpose is didactic, as if it is the text for a lecture.
Standards of reading vary enormously. They may reflect an understanding of the subject matter or not. Some readers have a natural feel for words and the general meaning of the text, whilst others struggle. Good liturgy requires clear intelligible and confident scripture reading, but a reader may fulfil all these demands and remain dull and uninspiring. Why? Because they have not understood their text as story to be told, containing movement, drama, emotional content, wisdom, insight that needs conveying to an audience. Ask theatre people to read at a carol service and they'll demand to know well in advance what their text is, and they'll rehearse it like any other script, to get the best out of it, to stimulate the imagination of their hearers.
I get requests for Church carol services in which it's proposed that scripture readings are replaced by 'meaningful' poems and secular christmassy readings, which make a service more like a seasonal concert. I've no objection to the latter, but why have them in church when a church is the place that was built around reading scripture and telling God's story in as unadorned a fashion as possible. To use substitutes for scripture however imaginative and charming to hear, is an act of distrust in the ability of listeners to let the story conjure its meanings in their hearts. Why have we lost confidence in such a simple 'given' of Christian tradition?

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