|House on the Isle of Iona, Scotland|
Characters are living things. Even fictional ones. And they resist one's attempts to box them in or predict where they will go. The main character in my play is an older priest. I am taking a bit of license with the role, but in general he is a faithful, well-respected, and honest man. Or so I thought. Before I had finished the first page he was exhibiting a tendency towards profanity, a lack of self-control, undercurrents of violence, and some obsessive compulsive behaviour. Huh? What happened to my straight-forward good guy having a bit of a mid-life crisis? What was going on? I just wanted him to face his humanity for a scene or two, but this guy was going overboard! That's what characters do. They surprise you with their depth and all the different layers of their personalities. If you let them, they will show you things you never dreamed could lie beneath such benign exteriors. As a writer, you will soon notice that your characters will inevitably show you something about yourself and reveal what is important to you. And they seem to have fewer problems baring their souls than we do. That is the role of characters in stories, after all. They let others see what is going on inside them so that the audience can wrestle with the implications.
One of the most effective and simple forms of real-life storytelling is a format adopted by Playback Theatre which was founded in the 70s. In a performance someone in the audience tells a moment or story from their life, and then actors use improvisation and various theatrical techniques to bring the story to life. It has been used in schools, in the aftermath of a hurricane, in racial reconciliation events, in prisons, in immigrant and refugee organisations, and in workplace training. One of my favourite stories is from a hospital where a young child on the cancer ward was afraid to talk about his fears regarding his illness. The playback performers asked if he would like to have his story told and he agreed. It gave everyone present a chance to see and hear things he found difficult to articulate.
Stories are also meant to be mirrors. They can show us who we are, provide us with much-needed perspective, offer clarity, validate our experience, help us own our mistakes, allow us to laugh at our mis-steps, bring issues to light, or help us face painful experiences we might have buried. Narrative is a powerful tool indeed. One of the mistakes I believe we often make as followers of Jesus is to forget that the Bible is basically a narrative, not a how-to manual or a doctrinal document. Here we find the stories of people like us or people we know, but mostly, we find the story of God. A God who is a Father, living and active in the world, a God who creates, loves, is wise, and has the ability to redeem and remake. This book is meant to grip us in its story so that, as N.T. Wright says, we might read it and realize that this story can be our story too.
I recently began teaching a series on "How to Listen to the Bible" and a few weeks ago I offered some starting points to help us stop reducing scriptural stories to moral instructions or treating the Bible like a celestial information centre. Instead, let us engage with these earthy, dynamic, complex stories by entering into them. That's what good stories do: they draw us into their world.
Here are the starting points:
1. Pay attention to the Bible. (Not as easy as it sounds. For anyone who has lived with a person or done a job for a number of years, you know that over time we start to pay less attention to what's going on and instead start to assume things.)
2. Do not sit in judgment over the Bible. (Authority does not reside with us, ultimately.)
3. Don't come with a preconceived notion of what a particular story or passage has to mean. (Even though we have read it many times before or heard someone knowledgeable teach on it.)
4. Let God speak truths new to us through the Bible. (There is always something God can show us that we haven't seen yet.)
5. Be willing to live with texts that don't make sense to us and be uncomfortable with them, for years if necessary. (It's hard, but necessary, not to try to make things make sense before we receive revelation. It's okay to say "I don't know.")
6. Do not impose one view on a section, never letting that be enlarged, informed or changed. (There are multi-faceted implications to every story.)
7. Let the Spirit brood over us as we read this book. (I often ask Jesus to sit with me and explain things while I read the Bible.)
8. Read with a sense of scripture as a whole, reading stories as a whole. (For example, only by reading Exodus as a whole, N. T. Wright observes, do we realize "the awful irony whereby the making of the golden calf is a parody of what God wanted the people to do with their gold and jewels.")
9. Keep in mind the purpose of the Bible: to glorify the Creator and heal creation. (If we don't see these points in a story, we are probably missing the point.)
10. People who engage with the Bible are people who should be being remade, judged, and remolded by the Spirit. (YES!)
Most of these points are adapted from N.T. Wright's article, "How Can the Bible be Authoritative?" Vox Evangelica 21, 1991, 7-32.