I’m sitting in the teacher’s chair in front of a handful of students at a local church’s classroom. I’m teaching how to craft Bible stories, and right now we’re working on the story of the Demon Possessed Man from Mark 5. But the roles have been reversed. The teacher has become the student.
If you’re not familiar, Mark 5 tells the story of a wild man, possessed by an army of spirits, living among the dead with self-destructive behavior that means he’ll have his own grave soon. His family tried to stop him, but he can’t, won’t be stopped. Then Jesus shows up and the spirits start groveling before the all-powerful. Long-story short, The demons are exorcised and the guy gets his life back.
When we teaching a Bible story, we tell the story several times and then ask a series of questions to get people talking and thinking. I have already asked the question, “Was there anything you didn’t understand about the story?” No one responds. “Was there anything unclear in the story?” Still nothing. The terror of looking stupid is global problem.
So, I opened my mouth to get us talking. “Many times I’ve told this story, people struggle with why Jesus allows 2,000 pigs to die and the village to suffer such a financial loss. I don’t know about you all, but I don’t really understand this . . .” Short-story long, the army of dead afflicting this guy need a new home. They ask to possess the herd of nearby pigs. Jesus consents. Chaos ensues. The fallout is so bad that, once news gets out, the entire village shows up and ask Jesus to kick rocks; the implication being that Jesus may be bad for their health and bad for business, no matter who he saved.
The students were honestly dumbstruck that I was asking the question. I’m no stranger to playing devil’s advocate, so I insisted this really was unclear. The look on their face was the look of people accustomed to incompetence. If translated, I think the verbalized look would be , “Sheesh! Another one?” They instructed me this was the whole point of the story, that Jesus would rather 2,000 pigs die than this man—this man’s life is that valuable to Jesus.
Now it was this dummy that was struck. From my perspective, the 2,000 pigs are completely arbitrary. But my students-turned-instructors were right. Our salvation comes at a cost. The danger is we (Westerners at least) abstract salvation to the point we often think of it as a muttered prayer or a couple of lifehacks that cost us nothing. Untrue. Evil, true, unfettered malevolence, does not go quietly. These spirits were not going away until they completed their chaos with killing. Evil’s lust for destruction cannot be satiated without a ransom: something on which to pour out their violence.
C. S. Lewis famously illustrated this “ransom theory” when Aslan, the great lion, is killed by the White Witch. Aslan’s at the hands of his enemy breaks the long winter spell. Dietrich Bonhoeffer who ended up paying the ultimate cost for resisting evil, also taught that grace is not cheap: it is a costly discipleship. My Malagasy students understand this. And Jesus considers the economic tragedy of 2,000 dead pigs a cost worthy of a man’s life. A person past the point of no return, no less. Yet, the true tragedy is that most of us, like the townspeople in the story, if we’re really honest, think it’s too high a price to pay for anyone’s life.
I thanked the students for reminding me of this. Salvation is a gift, but it is not cheap or free.
There are a lot of aspects to crafting Bible stories. We often say it’s something you can’t explain, you have to experience it to understand it. I (Nathan) recently started teaching weekly at a local school for pastors. We thought it might be helpful to do a series of posts walking through the process of training others to tell and craft Bible stories. Would you like to see behind the curtain?
I was sitting in a Bible story-crafting group. Pastors and members from three different Baptist churches meet together weekly here in our city, slowly meditating, discussing, telling and retelling, and then finally recording certain passages of Scripture. These are the stories they then tell to others throughout the week, as sermons, in evangelistic conversations, and counseling one another. As we began our time, others in the group had already told about five different stories, just shooting the breeze and catching up on local news and events. Per usual, many of these stories centered on the use of charms.
One of the pastors spoke up, adding his own story:
There’s a group of huts near us I visit almost every week. The families that live there have such vulgar mouths most people can’t stand to go through there. I’ve even had people on the road question my motives. They’ll ask me, “Why do you keep coming over here? What are you looking for? Don’t you know these people have charms buried all over this yard?”
I tell them I’m just interested in talking with the people there, getting to know them better. People tell me it is a waste of time. Many church-folk have made their way back there and they always stop coming after a while because they just can’t stand those people. It’s true, they disrespect people and berate them day in and day out, even they do it to one another.
But one day I was sitting with them. I usually don’t say much because you can’t possibly respond to all of the nonsense. They’re constantly trying to pull you into debates. But one of the girls sitting there attends the local Lutheran church. Her mother and her grandmother are well-known church-folk, and she goes to church every Sunday. She was telling everyone sitting there about the sermon from Sunday. It was about not serving two masters. The girl recounted, “The pastor said, ‘You cannot serve two masters. You will hate one of them and love the other one.’ But I don’t really know what he meant.”
I told her the story of Jesus’ temptation. Even after Jesus had his confirmation and was baptized, God led him into the wilderness to be tested. And the devil tested his spirit. When he couldn’t deceive him with food or possessions or power, he turned to the holy writings themselves to deceive him. That is how the devil tries to get you to serve two masters.
Haven’t you seen people who go to church and take off their charms. Then, once they returned, they put the charms back on again. And when people bury charms here, do they pray Jesus’ name over them? No. They know that the master of the charms and the master of the church are enemies. That is what your pastor means when he says you cannot serve two masters.
She went and got her family and they burned their charms right then and there.
His story was, of course, a huge encouragement. Praise God for this pastor’s faithfulness and these changed lives! Also, though, our pastor’s story struck me as a poignant illustration for why we do Bible story-crafting in the first place.
Stories acknowledge and resource the local church
I’ll start with perhaps the subtext of this example. Our presence as foreign missionaries here in Toliara, or even in Southern Madagascar, is not the only Christian witness. There are many, many Malagasy believers and many Christian churches. True, their theology–the ways these believers understand and interact with God–is sometimes very different from our own. Yet many of these Christians show in the good fruit of their lives they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Bible story-crafting is then a way that we can come alongside these Malagasy brothers and sisters and give them an additional resources as God’s primary witnesses in Madagascar. For example, this little community, vulgar and lost in idol worship as they may be, has a witness to God’s Word and love. However, even though there is a church in walking distance, even though they preach God’s Word, even though this young woman heard God’s Word proclaimed in that church, she still did not understand.
Our local team composes stories that allow people to hear God’s Word crafted to their daily life experience (missiologists call this contextualization). The stories are told in the dialect(s) they are used to hearing and communicating in every day. They do not use Christian lingo or Bible words. They do not include a lot of names or titles people cannot understand let alone pronounce. And because they are not crafted by foreigners but endlessly workshopped by indigenous believers, they are a faithful retelling of God’s Word from a Malagasy perspective. Essentially, stories allow people to bear witness to God’s continuing story in a way that is not foreign but very natural to them.
People can understand and apply stories
The more overt lesson borne out in the pastor’s story is that people here (and I believe everywhere) simply understand stories better. The girl had heard someone preaching verses from God’s written Word, but still needed someone to flesh out the meaning before she was ready to apply it. If you don’t understand what God is saying (or why), you’re going to have a hard time obeying. Like Philip, whom God used to explain to the Ethiopian the meaning of what he had read from Scripture, stories equip people with ways to understand the Bible, even after they’ve read it or (more likely in our context) heard it read aloud (in a language not quite their own).
There is a lot that could be said about this principle, in terms of communication theory, culture, etc. However, suffice to say that content (what is said) is incomprehensible outside of context (how, when, to whom, and for what purpose something is said). “It hurts!” is a simple enough sentence to understand. But your reaction will vary greatly depending on whether it’s someone who just broke their finger, or your starved-for-attention four-year-old drama queen, or the character of Gollum as you host your annual Lord of the Rings marathon.
The girl in the pastor’s story did not understand the principle, “You cannot worship two masters” without the context of the story of Jesus’ Temptation, and then that story applied to her own context. I venture to say, if this article was simply the header above, “People can understand and apply stories,” it would make a lot less sense than it does when you understand the story behind that observation.
And don’t forget, this was story number six in our group. Stories are by far the most natural way people communicate here. Does that mean people cannot learn from a three-point sermon? It does not. But it is not the most natural way for people to learn, or communicate that information to others. While I have seen people listen to a story once to then turn around retell the whole thing perfectly, I have never seen anyone repeat a sermon after hearing it. Speaking of that, you might be surprised to learn that this particular pastor, who was telling this story, is an oral learner. The sermons he shares on Sundays are stories. He asks congregation members to read relevant passages aloud to the group, or memorizes key passages ahead of time with his wife, as he doesn’t read at all. And yet, through storying and story-crafting, he is equipped to bring God’s Word to bear on the everyday lives of the people in his community.
If you want to know more about the Bible story-crafting movement, you should follow along with the podcast That Reminds Me of a Story. They do a good job of walking through the different elements of the process, explaining origins, and how methods have developed over time.