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Orality Newsletter #6 – Storytelling and

measuring Scripture impact


by Janet Stahl

Introduction
Recently, we noticed that much of the feedback we receive about our work links storytelling with impact. Part
of strategic planning involves planning for a desired impact. Measuring the success of a program in reaching
the desired impact requires careful thought to establish indicators that can be used to help determine
progress. So, the publication of a Bible might be seen as an output of a translation program and a possible
short-term indicator of progress could be the number of people reading it. An intermediate-term indicator of
achieving the desired impact might be behavior changes that can be directly linked to the understanding of
the Scriptures that they have read.
So as we think about oral approaches as part of a program, the immediate connection with planning for
Scripture impact might be to list a set of crafted Bible stories that people are listening to as an output of the
program. Crafting stories, training storytellers and establishing listening groups would be activities leading to
this output. These steps to include oral approaches in the planning are good but fall short of the full potential.

Retelling the Stories We Hear


I would like to encourage us to think further about how storytelling might help measure the impact of the
programs. We can help organize the crafting of Bible stories and contextualized Bible stories with a language
community, and we can help the community establish informal and formal storytelling events where these
stories can be performed. It is the occasions of secondary or unplanned retelling the stories that may be the
most significant in helping us to measure the immediate and intermediate impact of the Scriptures. It is fair to
assume that people will retell the stories that they heard performed well and that capture their interest. Who
are the people retelling the Bible stories, for what purposes and for how long are they retold before they are
dropped from the repertoire of stories?
There are numerous reasons we retell stories we have heard and that are outside our personal experience, but
three of the main reasons are: 1) the stories are interesting and newsworthy, 2) the stories stick in our mind
while we are continuing to process them in light of our own experience or body of knowledge and 3) and the
stories identify us as a community, giving the premise for our values and foundational beliefs of the group. I
am including the retelling of stories as teaching tools in the second category where the teller is prompting
others to process the story in light of their own experiences or body of knowledge. And I include retelling the
stories in order to make sure they are not forgotten in the third category of reasons for retelling stories that
belong to a community and identifies the group.

Interesting and Newsworthy Stories


We might expect that people would retell Bible stories as entertainment, or because they are fascinating
stories of people long ago in another land, or because they have now been crafted in their own language and
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by Janet Stahl
so they are exciting to retell. A wide range of people might be retelling the stories because they are new and
interesting. We would also expect that the retelling would in this case take place in informal gatherings, and 2
the duration or season of the retelling would be fairly short. New stories of interesting experiences and ones
of current events would probably replace the Bible stories that are told for this purpose. The short term result
of the Scripture telling would likely be that more people are familiar with the Bible stories.

Stories that Influence Our Lives


When a story captures the interest a person or group of people such that the images, motif, plot or character
of the story reminds them of something in their own life, the listeners will often process the story through
retelling the story. Kenneth Bailey, a noted Bible scholar with vast experience living and working in the
Middle East, writes of a panel presentation in Lebanon in which leaders were asked to share their perspective
of the Palestinian refugee situation. The final speaker was a well-known Lebanese nationalist who stood up
and told a parable of a camel and his Bedouin master sleeping in a tent. He gave the ending of the parable an
unpredictable twist and in so doing made a point that was easily recognizable to the audience, but was not
necessarily politically correct, and would have been awkward if he had stated the point forthrightly. Eighteen
years later, Bailey was able to recall the story well and wrote the parable in a report, which was the first time
to his knowledge that it had ever been written. During that same year, the story was retold to him intact in
England by a person who had heard it in Jordan several years after the first telling. Bailey found out the story
had survived in urban and rural Protestant circles and had been retold all over the Middle East for years. (See
the Kenneth Bailey article cited below.) These people understood the significance of the story in their lives
and continued to retell the story and reflect on it for years.
This retelling of stories in order to continue processing the images, motifs and main point, may happen
fortuitously with the Bible stories without any planning. However as some groups have experienced, it is
advantageous to create opportunities for this to happen. Some train the Bible story crafters to consider
bridges to the local culture when choosing the initial stories for the chronological set, thereby helping to
establish the links between the stories and the listeners‟ lives. Other groups advocate choosing the stories
based on themes relevant to the issues the community or local church is currently facing.
Here is a list of some of the questions we might consider as we evaluate the retelling of Bible stories beyond
the planned events for this purpose:
 Are the people retelling the stories as teaching tools in which the story helps shape their decisions
and influences their life style? In what circumstances do people retell vernacular Bible stories as
teaching tools? In these situations they are retelling the stories in order to influence their decisions
and lifestyle?

 Are they retelling the stories during meetings or events where they are making decisions and plans?
To what extent are Bible stories retold in meetings or other gatherings where decisions and plans are
being made?

 Are people retelling the stories with their personal stories intertwined or told sequentially? In what
circumstances do people retell Bible stories their personal stories, either sequentially or woven
together?
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by Janet Stahl
 Are they telling stories of how the Bible stories helped them make a decision or change their lives? In
what situations do people tell how Bible stories have affected their lives? 3
 Are the relevant Bible stories being told alongside the current narratives of the community? To what
extent are Bible stories retold and related to current events and narratives within the language
community?

So, for example, if the community faces the very real challenge of resolving land disputes, are they telling
Bible stories that help them in their decision-making and in their conflict resolution? As an indicator of
possible change early on in the process, it might be more realistic to measure the purpose, time and place of
the retelling of Bible stories. As some storytelling experts, like Tom Boomershine and R. B. Wilhem explain,
the retelling is part of a story journey. It often takes time and multiple retellings for the story to influence
change in our lives and in fact we should hope that the stories will continue to instigate Godly changes in us
throughout our lives. At the same time, we have to ask ourselves if we would recognize the appropriate
behavior change to use for measuring Scripture impact in each community. Are we certain that we can
anticipate the plan of God for a community and the influence of the Holy Spirit in working in people‟s lives?

Stories that Identify Us


The third category regarding the purpose for retelling stories is the intentional retelling of the story to ensure
it is not forgotten or neglected. These are the stories that identify a group and which are told as a way to
describe why things are the way they are. For my family, the stories of my parents‟ and grandparents‟ lives in
Pittsburgh make us all Steelers fans whether or not we like watching professional football or have ever spent
much time in Pittsburgh. As long as we are retelling these family stories, we are identifying with them (and are
winning more fans for the Steelers from among the in-laws and younger generation in the process.) In school
we learned the stories of Pinocchio and The Boy who Cried Wolf and understood that lying got one in
trouble. Hearing these stories supported our appreciation for honesty as a high social value.
Those of us who grew up in Pennsylvania knew that on Groundhog Day, if Punxsutawney Phil saw his
shadow and scurried back into his hole, we would have six more weeks of winter weather. Interestingly, this
story gained national acclaim when Hollywood produced a movie using the theme Groundhog‟s Day and
since then Punxsutawney Phil‟s annual exit from his hole is reported on the national evening news. What
started as a fairly localized tradition has become something of a national tradition by the retelling of Phil‟s
story. I would suspect that the Punxsutawney Phil story remains an identity story for some Pennsylvanians
but is still just an interesting story for the others who happen to see him on the evening news.
So an interesting question to ask is when the Bible stories become part of a group‟s repertoire of stories.
When do people retell the stories in order to state the values, attitudes and behaviors that they wish to be
characterized by? When do people tell the Bible stories as their own stories much like we do with Old
Testament Scriptures regardless of the fact that these stories belonged to the people of Israel long before the
Christian church adopted them. It might be easiest to recognize the occasions for when the stories are told
for this purpose when they are told in a formal situation such as during a worship service or when they
accompany a ritual event such as the participation in the Lord‟s Supper.
Recently, I read a comment that a characteristic of oppressed people is that other‟s determine and tell their
stories. While this may be true about an oppressed people being represented to the broader world, I wonder if
this can be said about the stories told privately within the oppressed community. At some point the Black
Orality newsletter #6
by Janet Stahl
slaves in America were impressed with the Bible stories and they identified themselves with the Israelites in
captivity and their songs incorporated key phrases and verses of the Old Testament. 4
Some stories become so integral to the community that they are seldom told in their entirety and need only to
be referred to for everyone to understand. This only works when the speaker is confident that listeners share
an experience with the story and have internalized the story so that their mind leaps to the same point of
reference when the word or phrase is mentioned. For example, the name „Goliath‟ immediately conjures
images of somebody or something extremely large. Using the term „Lone Ranger‟ stimulates images of a
masked cowboy and can imply somebody who works on the side of good vs. evil, but is often used to
describe somebody who works alone. And the phrase „after 9/11‟, assumes that the hearers not only know
the story of the hijacked planes and devastation in NYC, the Pentagon and rural western Pennsylvania, but
that they have also internalized the turning point regarding the need for heightened security measures and the
awareness that radical terrorists are improving their techniques and skills and are not bound by geographical
or political boundaries. Eventually the reference story for the term or phrase may be forgotten or never
learned by the majority of the people. So for example, many Americans might not know the story of King
Nebuchadnezzar behind the phrase “seeing the hand writing on the wall.” However, the adoption of Biblical
names and phrases in the idiomatic language can be an indication of a significant portion of the population
identifying with a particular story.

Stories that Have Undesired Outcome


There is always the possibility that stories can be altered to increase the entertainment value. I recently heard a
young girl retell Jesus story as; “So when Jesus‟ cell phone coverage wasn‟t effective, he had to walk out to his
disciples on their boat.” Or stories can be interpreted in such a way as to justify or rationalize a personal
decision or point-of-view. So go ahead and handle poisonous snakes without harm if you are a true believer.
(Luke 10:19) Or they can be adopted to support a previously held belief. The „ask and you shall receive‟ story
has been used to support a belief that accumulated wealth is a measure of a person‟s faithfulness and is a
desired goal.
We more commonly make this kind of evaluation of who is retelling the stories and for what purpose, when
the storytelling has led to an undesirable outcome. At least in the first example, the alteration of the story may
have little lasting impact and may not detract from the main point of the story. Years of hearing the story
about the „three‟ wise men that traveled from the east to honor the baby Jesus, has not had any detrimental
impact on my faith. On the other hand when a story is retold as a way to influence a decision or as a way to
support an ungodly value or belief, it becomes important to evaluate how widespread and accepted the
retelling has been received.

Retold Stories as Means for Measuring Impact


Herbert Klem wrote in his book, Oral Communication of the Scriptures, “(Jesus) intentionally structured His
sayings so that those who lacked special training in the communicational systems of the elite could
understand and remember them. Then oral communicators (including scholars) could rapidly spread His
word across the land. This recitation of the living Word from memory may have been part of what was in the
mind of our greatest teacher when He referred to His teachings. He communicated through life, oral artistry
and ritual rather than writing. He wrote no books yet He said, „Heaven and earth will pass away, but my
words will not pass away.‟ (Matt. 24:35)”
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by Janet Stahl
Jesus counted on his stories being told and retold and eventually written down, depicted in paintings and
sculptures and immortalized in song. We trust that God‟s story will be interesting, helpful for making 5
decisions and attractive enough to draw new members to the Kingdom. Paying attention to who is retelling
the stories and for what purposes may be a good indication of where and how God is moving within a group
and what impact the Scriptures are having in their lives.
What experiences have you had that might shed light on this topic?

End Notes:
Bailey, Kenneth E. Informal Controlled Oral Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels. 1995.
http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_tradtion_bailey.html

Boomershine, Thomas E. Story Journey: An Invitation to the Gospel as Storytelling. 1988. Abington Press.
Nashville

Klem, Herbert V. Oral Communication of the Scripture: Insights from African Oral Art. 1982. William Carey
Library. Pasadena, California

Wilhem, Robert B. Parables Today. March Issue. http://www.storyfest.com