by John Ellis
During our annual church men’s retreat, I had the privilege of spending about thirty minutes discussing philosophy, art, and the Bible with the guest speaker. He’s an accomplished and feted theologian, and I was happy to discover that he is also incredibly knowledgeable and conversant about art, specifically storytelling.
At one point, our conversation turned to the parallels between ancient Greek drama (post-Thespis) and the Old Testament prophets, specifically Ezekiel. As we discussed the various dramas enacted by the priestly-prophet known for his vivid storytelling, the guest speaker threw in a rueful aside about how many within the reformed tradition are opposed to drama in the worship service. He then added the off-hand comment, “Pointing to Ezekiel, I tell people that skits and drama are appropriate for the worship of God.”
While I don’t fully agree, I didn’t tell him because it wasn’t relevant to our overall conversation. What’s more, I appreciate that a theologian values the art of storytelling and understands its central role in God’s Story. I wanted to bask in the happy surprise.
Where he and I agree is that drama not only belongs but is commanded to be included in the corporate worship of God. However, the Bible prescribes the drama that is to be included – baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The question is, does the Bible allow for dramas other than baptism and the Lord’s Supper to be included in the corporate worship service. I’m pretty sure that’s where he and I disagree.
That’s a question that I’m willing to agree to disagree on, and even willing to admit that I might be wrong about. At this time, though, getting me to agree that plays and skits written and produced by humans should be included in the worship service will be a very hard sell. And the astute reader will pick up that I hedged my bets with the word “should” in the previous sentence.
That being said, I believe in the power of stories: written stories and enacted stories. And I’m troubled by how dismissively many conservative evangelicals, including within the Reformed camp, view stories. At best, many conservative evangelicals believe that stories hold value almost solely for entertainment and relaxation. At worst, they believe that stories hold value as vehicles for pure proselytizing and/or values-based propaganda – the Christian film industry, for example.
I would love for brothers and sisters in Christ to reclaim their birthright of stories. Our Heavenly Father is the First Storyteller, and all stories either point to His Story or rebel against it.
I’m currently reading On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior (I’m planning on writing a review once I finish), and even though I don’t agree with her on every point, Prior’s latest book holds great value in helping Christians understand the value of stories. Reading the book has helped fan the flames of my love for stories and my love for storytelling, a love that’s smoldering embers had already begun to flame back up.
My childhood was dominated by stories. My siblings and I were encouraged to read and then to read some more. To be honest, either through genetics or the example of our parents or both, none of us needed much encouragement to read and then read some more.
Some of my favorite childhood memories involve reading stories. I think fondly about characters and plots that I loved as a child. Always an early riser, I would grab a book and begin reading before my parents were awake. But I also loved hearing stories read. Even now, as I write this, I’m remembering my mom reading me stories. Some of those stories’ plots still stir a boyhood love of excitement, adventure, and exploration in my soul.
It’s no wonder that I gravitated towards theatre. In fact, one of my earliest memories is of theatre. I was barely two. And looking back on it, I can’t help but see the Divinely ordained irony in the fact that my first memory of theatre took place in a church.
As his brothers threw Joseph off the church platform, it really appeared from my perspective that he had been thrown into a dark pit. I was too short to see over the backs of the pews in front of me. What I could see were the hulking, scowling bullies who were glaring down into the abyss that was hidden from my view. While the groans and pleading from Joseph reached my terrified ears, I could no longer see the man who had entered my memory wearing a multi-colored coat.
Sitting in rapt attention, I watched with horror as his brothers sold Joseph to some other hulking, scowling men. Those rough men pulled Joseph out of the unseen pit and drug him around the platform and out the door behind the piano off stage-right. Not long afterwards, Joseph’s brothers followed, dragging Joseph’s multi-colored coat behind them.
From that point on, I was terrified of the hallway behind the church’s sanctuary. I remember the stairs; the stairs were the worst. No lights ever illuminated those stairs. I knew that the hulking, scowling men were up there, and expected them to burst down those dark stairs at any minute and drag me away to wherever they were keeping Joseph. As I said, I was terrified of that hallway.
The actors in that touring Christian theatre company have no idea the effect they had on me. From that time on, stories, specifically stories enacted, whether in play with my siblings and friends or for an audience, sprang to a visceral life in me that allowed me to smell, taste, and feel my imagination.
During seventh-grade, I was cast in my Christian school’s annual senior play. While not tiny by Christian school metrics, there generally weren’t enough seniors enrolled to cast a full play (at least enough seniors who could memorize lines and walk and talk on stage without tripping).
Like many, seventh-grade was a rough year for me. Possibly the worst year of my schooling. Mocked, bullied, and ostracized, I hated going to school. For a few weeks, though, my world became bright; I enjoyed going to school.
I was cast as a student along with half a dozen students or so who appeared in only one scene. I had three lines, yet, in my mind, I may as well have been the star of the show. The popular, cute eighth grader who probably didn’t even know my name was cast as my sister. Or, rather, I was cast as her brother.
The onstage relationship carried over into real life. At least for me, at any rate. For me, it felt like she and I shared something that was real. That imaginative belief gave me the courage to talk to her as if we were peers. I wasn’t afraid to walk with her to lunch; she was my “sister,” after all.
From my vantage point of a seat thirty-years later, I can now better interpret the looks and whispers from her friends as I tagged along. They thought I was weird and wished I would go away.
I don’t remember any overt attempts to push me away, but I doubt that I would’ve paid them any mind if I they had tried. The relationship between my stage sister and myself felt real at the time. Although, in my mind, I knew it wasn’t. My feeling of relational intimacy with someone with whom I had no actual relationship with didn’t make sense to me, but I didn’t care. I enjoyed my newfound connection to popularity. And then the play ended.
After the play closed, I lost the ability to convince myself that I had the right to exist in her space. Reality came rushing back. Once again, I hated going to school.
I relate those two anecdotes to say that I am an actor; always have been. God has given me the gift (talent, if you will) to embody a story in such a deep manner that allows me to effectively communicate it to others. When playing a role, my perspective changes. I can see the world from inside my character’s perspective. What’s more, that perspective isn’t as an onlooker, it’s as a participant. I am an artist. Specifically, I am a storyteller.
As an adult, I have not only personally experienced the power of stories, I’ve seen the effects of stories on others. I’ve watched audiences respond to stories that I’ve told on stage. To this day, I still hear from people about how a story I told on stage moved them, changed them, and is still working on them.
This past weekend, I felt and saw the power of a well-told story through the medium of film. Having already watched it in order to write a review, I took my family to a screening of Gosnell on Saturday evening. As the final credits faded to black, the audience sat silently. After a few moments, people began to somberly stand and file out. During the car ride home, my twelve-year old daughter’s comments about the movie revealed that a well-told, non-didactic story is helping shape her view of abortion in meaningful ways that lectures about the evil of abortion cannot.
I believe that the calling to be an artist, a storyteller, is a noble calling. After all, as an acting coach once pointed out to me, the first time we meet God in the Bible, it’s as an artist. God introduces Himself to us as the Creator. By the power of His Word, God crafts and molds His creation to precise terms that He labels as “good.” And our Creator, the great Artist of artists, chose to reveal Himself through a story – the Bible. In fact, I believe that all Christians are called to be storytellers, even if not as a career.
So, then, why do some Christians become nervous when the word “story” is connected to theology? And why do many Christians dismiss the value of stories, relegating story solely to the purview of entertainment?
Considering that our Creator “wrote” us into a story (His Story), we shouldn’t surprised that stories shape us and affect our soul in life-altering ways. I’ve experienced this personally and I’ve observed it in others. More importantly, my experience, training, and observations conform well to the objective truths revealed in God’s Word. This is why I feel so passionately about encouraging my brothers and sisters in Christ to embrace stories and the power of storytelling.
Our lost family members, friends, and co-workers are embracing a story that concludes in hell. Mimicking the Divine Storyteller, the created being named Satan has done a masterful job of perverting God’s story and presenting a self-serving story that feeds our sinful hearts. Christians need to tell God’s Story of mercy and love to our lost loved ones. We need to challenge them with the undisputable reality that God’s Story is far and away the more interesting, exciting, and better story of the two and that God’s story provides the true and factual depiction of their problem (sinful rebellion that has resulted in an ethical estrangement from God) and, hence, is the only story that can provide the solution (the gospel of Jesus Christ).
Stories affect us in powerful ways. And they do so because that’s how God created us. Engage stories for more than just purposes of entertainment. Tell stories and learn to love stories. Read deep, rich novels. Watch deep, rich movies. Learn to tell the stories of your own life, making sure to frame them within their appropriate place in God’s Story. Learn to view the Bible as a story and learn to read and study the Bible as the Story that it is. Above all else, share the Story of how God saves His people from their sins.
As God’s people, Christians, of all people, should love stories.
Soli Deo Gloria