Art and Faith:
The Art of Storytelling
(from my lecture to Guatemalan Pastor's conference, January 2011)
To begin our session this morning, I would like to look at a story we are probably all familiar with. It is the story of David and Bathsheba. Do you remember it?
King David, a man after God’s own heart, is supposed to be off at war with his army, but is instead lounging around his castle in his capitol city. While wandering around one afternoon on the terrace, he spies Bathsheba, one of his top soldier’s wives, bathing. He sends for her, he has his way with her, he sends her home, and assumes his sin has gone undetected. But sin always complicates things and the next month Bathsheba sends word to the King that she is pregnant.
This is, you remember, a problem because her husband is where King David is supposed to be… off at war. And the punishment for adultery (well, for women who commit adultery – not that she had a choice) is stoning. As if being forced to participate in an adulterous act weren’t enough, now Bathsheba faces certain death should her neighbors notice she is showing. King David tries to cover his sin by bringing Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, home from war, congratulating him on his hard work and giving him a few days to recuperate with his wife. One would think the unsuspecting Uriah would be thrilled! A compliment on your service from the king and paid vacation with your wife, who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity?
Unfortunately, what King David forgot was that during the last war, in a moment of zealotry, he had made a law forbidding anyone in military service to participate in sexual acts. Their devotion must be reserved only for God and winning the current battle. Uriah was a faithful man, and even though the King granted him permission, he couldn’t break the law by going to bed with his wife when all his comrades were still at war! So passing off Bathsheba’s pregnancy as Uriah’s own doing wasn’t going to be an option for King David. And as David’s sin entangled him even more, he sent Uriah back to battle with a letter to the general of his army Joab, “put Uriah in the front line of battle.” Yes, Uriah carries his own death sentence to Joab. But of course, because Uriah is a faithful man, he doesn’t open the letter. King David’s request to Joab that he put Uriah in the front line of the troops and then have the rest of the troops pull back seems suspicious to Joab. Don’t ask questions, just do it, the letter read. But while Joab doesn’t know the King’s reasons for this strange act – putting one of his best military leaders in the front line to have him killed, Joab devises a better plan and puts Uriah on the task of fighting near the wall of the opposing city, also a position that would ensure his death, but one that would look much less suspicious to the troops. Uriah goes there to fight and of course dies.
Upon his death, King David and Bathsheba mourn for the required period and then in an act of false chivalry, King David takes Bathsheba to be his wife so the his valiant warrior’s wife is taken care of. Sin committed. Sin protected. It took a lot of work, but King David got away with it.
Or so he thought.
Because who then pays a visit to the King at his castle?
And what does Nathan do when his request to see the King is granted?
He tells a story.
He doesn’t read from the Mosaic Law scrolls, he doesn’t call down the wrath of God upon him. He doesn’t even ask the King what really happened.
He tells a story. "Once upon a time," Nathan starts, "there was a man with a little lamb..."
Nathan uses his imagination to communicate creatively with his king, to help him understand what he had done wrong. Nathan used a familiar art form to talk about God.
The imagination is inseparable from the human mind. It is a gift from God to color our language and brighten our minds. Whether or not we pay attention to it, the act of imagination is all around us. We must first recognize this. Recognize our inability to escape imagination and its function in our language and theology, and secondly we must allow our imaginations to be used by God to help us better understand theology and ultimately our relationship to our Creator. Imagination must not be seen as secondary to intellectual pursuits or theological propositions, imagination is not superfluous or something we do when we have time. To fail to use our imagination or render it secondary to theology or hermeneutics or morality is to deny a part of whom God has created us to be – imaginative people.
When we hear the word art, we often thing of the physical arts: paintings, sculptures, mosaics. But for this session, I would like to focus on an imaginative art form that we cannot see with our eyes, but rather hear with our ears, process with our minds and connect to in our hearts. I want to talk about preaching, the art of storytelling.
One of our greatest preachers spoke mostly in stories; often using the rhetorical device we call parables. Of course I am speaking of Jesus Christ. Think back with me. What did Jesus say when the Pharisees would approach him with a trick question? He told a story. What happened when the disciples asked him to explain something they’d been arguing about? He told them a story. When he preached on top of the hill we now call the Mount of the Beatitudes, he told stories.
Once upon a time, there was a woman searching for a coin. Once upon a time, there was a farmer planting seeds. Once upon a time there was a Samaritan man traveling on a road…
Jesus was a great storyteller and we can learn from him how to design our own sermons. But first, I would even like to look even further back than Christ’s lessons and return to the book of Second Samuel.
While many of you may probably remembered the first story we re-told today, there is another story just a few chapters later that I would also like to examine. After the Bathsheba incident in Second Samuel, King David has a string of bad things happen to him (most of which the prophet Nathan predicted would happen as a result of his sin with Bathsheba). The son born to Bathsheba and David becomes very ill and dies. David’s son from a different marriage, Amnon, rapes his half-sister, Tamar. And his son Absalom, from yet another wife, murders his half-brother Amnon for the sin he committed against their sister Tamar. Absalom then flees Jerusalem and David in left to mourn the division of his household and the violence that has befallen his family. Turn in your Bibles to 2 Samuel chapter 14. Remember Joab, King David’s general from the last story? Well he returns in this one. Noticing how devastated his King is over the loss of two sons (one to death and one to exile), Joab devises a plan. Read 2 Samuel 14:1-11:
Now Joab son of Zeruiah perceived that the king’s mind was on Absalom.Joab sent to Tekoa and brought from there a wise woman. He said to her, ‘Pretend to be in mourning; put on mourning garments, do not anoint yourself with oil, but behave like a woman who has been mourning many days for the dead. Go to the king and speak to him as follows.’ And Joab put the words into her mouth.
When the woman of Tekoa came to the king, she fell on her face to the ground and did obeisance, and said, ‘Help, O king!’ The king asked her, ‘What is your trouble?’ She answered, ‘Alas, I am a widow; my husband is dead. Your servant had two sons, and they fought with one another in the field; there was no one to part them, and one struck the other and killed him. Now the whole family has risen against your servant. They say, “Give up the man who struck his brother, so that we may kill him for the life of his brother whom he murdered, even if we destroy the heir as well.” Thus they would quench my one remaining ember, and leave to my husband neither name nor remnant on the face of the earth.’
Then the king said to the woman, ‘Go to your house, and I will give orders concerning you.’ The woman of Tekoa said to the king, ‘On me be the guilt, my lord the king, and on my father’s house; let the king and his throne be guiltless.’ The king said, ‘If anyone says anything to you, bring him to me, and he shall never touch you again.’ Then she said, ‘Please, may the king keep the Lord your God in mind, so that the avenger of blood may kill no more, and my son not be destroyed.’ He said, ‘As theLord lives, not one hair of your son shall fall to the ground.’
So what happens in this text? Two things that I see: again we have a woman telling the king a story, using imagination to communicate a message of truth, but because she is given the words to say and told to act them out, I think we also have one of the earliest recorded theatrical plays here in this chapter! While many of us know Nathan’s story to King David about the rich man and the poor man and the many sheep versus the one little lamb, often we skip over this similar passage where Joab hires a woman to tell David another story to help him see the grievous sin he is committing.
Let’s go ahead and finish reading the story so we know how it ends… verses 12-23.
Then the woman said, ‘Please let your servant speak a word to my lord the king.’ He said, ‘Speak.’ The woman said, ‘Why then have you planned such a thing against the people of God? For in giving this decision the king convicts himself, inasmuch as the king does not bring his banished one home again. We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up. But God will not take away a life; he will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished for ever from his presence. Now I have come to say this to my lord the king because the people have made me afraid; your servant thought, “I will speak to the king; it may be that the king will perform the request of his servant.For the king will hear, and deliver his servant from the hand of the man who would cut both me and my son off from the heritage of God.” Your servant thought, “The word of my lord the king will set me at rest”; for my lord the king is like the angel of God, discerning good and evil. TheLord your God be with you!’
Then the king answered the woman, ‘Do not withhold from me anything I ask you.’ The woman said, ‘Let my lord the king speak.’ The king said, ‘Is the hand of Joab with you in all this?’ The woman answered and said, ‘As surely as you live, my lord the king, one cannot turn right or left from anything that my lord the king has said. For it was your servant Joab who commanded me; it was he who put all these words into the mouth of your servant. In order to change the course of affairs your servant Joab did this. But my lord has wisdom like the wisdom of the angel of God to know all things that are on the earth.’
Then the king said to Joab, ‘Very well, I grant this; go, bring back the young man Absalom.’ Joab prostrated himself with his face to the ground and did obeisance, and blessed the king; and Joab said, ‘Today your servant knows that I have found favour in your sight, my lord the king, in that the king has granted the request of his servant.’ So Joab set off, went to Geshur, and brought Absalom to Jerusalem.
Storytelling. It’s not just something we do to entertain small children or make people laugh at parties, storytelling is essential to our very nature and when used creatively can communicate with people messages from God.
How many of you can tell me the story of the Good Samaritan? How about the story of the 10 Bridesmaids? Or what about the story of the shepherd and the one lost sheep? Or the story of the wicket tenets?
Now how many of you can recite the laws concerning violence from Exodus 21? Or can you tell me the decree made by King Darius in Ezra chapter 6? Or can you list the neighbors or even the tribes of Israel who receive Judgment in the book of Amos?
Maybe you can. But I can’t. What I can remember though are stories. Because storytelling is art. And art changes us.
Let’s review the overarching Biblical story…
- Patriarchs/Matriarchs (Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel... and Joseph who ends up in Egypt)
- Egyptian Slavery
- Exodus (Moses!)
- Wilderness Wanderings (40 years)
- Period of the Judges (Deborah, Samson...)
- United Monarchy (Saul, David, Solomon)
- Divided Monarchy (Israel & Judah, a whole slew of kings and prophets too)
- Babylonian Exile
- Second Temple Period (Persia conquers Babylon and lets the Israelites return to Jerusalem)
- (Maccabbean Revolt – Apocrypha, intertestimental books)
If we want to reach our congregants in a new and fresh way, we need to learn how to be storytellers. We need to learn how to re-tell the text for the week in our own language. You’ll notice that at the beginning of our session, I re-told the entire story of David and Bathsheba. Often when a text is read, people zone out, they stop paying attention. They’ve heard the words too many times, or maybe the style of the words is so foreign that they’ve learned to mentally check out before the text is finished being read. But when we, as pastors, retell the story in our own words with our own language, then the people begin to hear the story fresh and new again.
Retelling the stories we hear over and over again in our own words is one way to engage our congregations creatively.
When we read a biblical story, we are already hearing it filtered through many people and communities already. Think with me. We have the author of the text who is first telling the story. Then we have the biblical redactors, the people who put the story like the one of King David and the wise old woman in the specific book like Second Samuel and then there was a community of people who decided which stories needed to be included in the canon of the Bible and where they should go within the canon. Then there is the church’s interpretation of the biblical stories throughout history from the first church fathers, to the Christian mystics, to the Roman Catholic Church to the Greek Orthodox Church to the early Protestants to Christians who were born after the Enlightenment and the list goes on and on. And finally we have the story filtered through our own tradition, and we interpreted by our pastors, teachers and parents…
In other words, these stories are complicated and before we even read them out loud, they have thousands of years of interpretation and storytelling already imposed upon them.
And when we read the stories, we bring our own story to the text as well.
Flannery O’Connor writes that “What we bring to and do with texts matter… as much as what texts… bring to and do with and to us.”
Our stories are important, and they affect how we read the Biblical story.
And truthfully, God is not just asking us to tell the biblical story. God asks us to tell our stories too. And so today I would like to give you some time to practice that.
Your story is sacred. My story is sacred. Why? Because it is the story of the people of God and we are God’s creation. God, the first artist, molded us from clay, breathed into our lungs and offered us this world to live in and create our own art in.
So we need to tell our good stories. We need to tell our bad stories. We need to tell the story of a good God who is at work in our complicated lives. We need to tell our stories of life lived abundantly.
Now, there’s a catch. You live in a predominantly Catholic/Protestant nation. You are in the majority. And when a religion is in the majority, just like we Christians do with texts we’ve heard over and over again, so do our neighbors begin to tune out the Christian message when it is told over and over again with the same foreign jargon.
So when you begin to think about your story, I want you to think about telling it creatively. It is easy to tell your story using church or religious words. I could probably write each of our stories out here on the board.
"I grew up in church where I received the gospel of Jesus Christ when I was years old. I confessed with my mouth that Jesus is Lord and believed in my heart that God raised him from the dead and I was baptized in town by Pastor . And I felt the joy of my salvation and have been trusting in the Lord’s providence ever since."
If this is your story, scrap it. Wad up the piece of paper and throw it out the window and start over. Instead, when you tell your story, you need to tell it the way you would tell any story. Make it creative and make it yours. Leave the churchy talk behind and use your own words, your own metaphors, tell your own story. Jim Rayburn once said, "It's a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel." What he means is, be creative. Don’t preach doctrine. Preach your story.
When you are speaking to people who aren’t Christians, or to people who are hurting and need to hear a story of hope, words like salvation, justification, sanctification and all those other “tion” words don’t make since. Those are words that shut people out. They are words and concepts that people “within” the club of Christianity know and they are not words that invite people into conversation or into the church.
In other words, you don’t have to know a certain language to be able to tell your story. You and your parishioners can tell your story with the two things God’s given you: the language of your culture and the imagination in your mind.
What makes your story sacred is not the verses of the Bible you can recite or the path to salvation that you can lay forward, what makes your story sacred is that it’s yours. When the Pharisees come to Jesus and ask him about the laws of adultery, Jesus tells them, “You’re missing the point.” The point of the law is not who can deliver a letter of divorce and in what time frame. The point is we are supposed to love one another and do our best to respect each other.
You don’t have to know a single thing about the Bible to tell your story. The members of your congregation don’t have to have memorized the Baptist distinctive, the four spiritual laws or even the 10 commandments. They just have to be able to talk… about their parents, their first job, their spouses, their children, their jobs, their hobbies, their pain, their passions, their traditions, their favorite song on the radio, and in that, they are telling the story of them and God.
A pastor in my hometown writes, “The Western church has had four centuries of viewing salvation in a mechanistic manner, presenting it as a plan, system or formula. It would be much better if we would return to viewing salvation as a song we sing.”
Your story is sacred simply because it is yours and you are a child of God. My story is sacred not because I’m an ordained Baptist minister from the United States of America with a Masters degree from a seminary there, but simply because I am a child of God.
Good art points beyond itself and helps us recognize the human condition and hope in a divine intrusion. Good art calls us to more faithful relationship with the world, a relationship that witnesses to beauty of a Creator. In this way “art can be a powerful source of truth-telling, sometimes even uncovering the stories we would rather forget.”
And we were fashioned by a creative Designer. Vigen Guroian writes, “God is more like a cantor who chants his Creation into existence and rejoices everlastingly over its beautiful harmony. His song continues, and its melody moves and inspires humankind to restore beauty and harmony to a Creation that is fallen and misshapen.”
So What’s Your Story?
 The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key