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Why Bible Stories?

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.

Pastor

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.

Bible story-crafting group meeting

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.

Seeing Culture

What you see is what you get. . . . .

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across and hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

What do a sheep’s head, a crowded thoroughfare, and a hole in the ground have to do with each other? When you take your time to actually see your surroundings and meditate on them (instead of just looking at them), they begin to teach you culture.

Two days ago, I was running up a mountain in the early morning mist (training for a local trail run). At the top of this rocky slope is a viewpoint where you can see Toliara stretching out underneath, and just past that is a large hole in the ground.

It’s nothing special . . . just a hole in the ground with a lot of trash in it. Or is it?

The hole

On my way back from a Bible story-crafting group, I noticed a stand on the side of the road. A lady sat swinging a rag back-and-forth over a roughly constructed wooden table. On one side of the table was a neat mound of leafy greens, in the middle, boiled cassava root, still steaming underneath its plastic wrap. This lineup was then concluded by a severed sheep’s head, plopped prominently, if not unceremoniously, in a tin bowl. Let me just confirm, all these items were for sale.

I moved on from this to enter the clogged artery of rickshaws, people and freight trucks squeezing around each other on the main road. No one seems to be paying attention to each other. People cross the road with little more than a side-ways glance at the oncoming traffic. Both bodies and bicycle rickshaws are pressed as close together as possible. At the last minute, people and vehicles swerve ever-so-slightly to avoid certain collision. All this happens at such a pace and velocity of back-to-back snap judgements that I actually feel as if I’m entering into some kind of sentient organism. Is this hive mind?

The unpracticed eye might not make anything of these observations; they are events or arrangements of items that merely appear strange. If we’re especially not careful, we’ll start abstracting moral lessons from what we see: these people are trashy, not concerned with hygiene, unaware of proper social boundaries, etc. What we would be missing is the lessons these familiar scenes offer about Malagasy culture and the material reality from which their worldview arises.


You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.

Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia

Take the hole. On my second lap, I stopped and did my best Sherlock Holmes impression: I tried to not just see but to observe.

Approaching the pit it is clear there have been many visitors to this place. Smouldered remains are scattered all around: ashy rocks, blackened sticks, dark spots where flames have flickered, makeshift fires started in darkness. There are bits of tattered clothing left behind; the leftovers of a rope tethered to a root hangs limp by the edge of the hole. That’s where they tied it up, I think. Sure enough, a quick scan reveals a horn, chicken feathers, and oily, crimson stains along the mouth of the shale cavity.

It’s not just a hole, this is a place of sacrifice. And that’s not just trash. True, the hole is littered with plastic bottles of various shapes and sizes. Yet the spilled-out innards of those containers reveal they are charms, filled with earth and seeds and hair: bits of life brought together to forever alter it with other-worldly knowledge. This place is a symbol of animism. Spirit and material reality are a unified entity and even at a place that, at a glance, looks like a trashy hole in the ground.

Then there’s the seller’s table with the sheep’s head. Everything about the seller communicates hardscrabble ingenuity. The table is made from leftover scraps of wood. The roots and leaves of the humble cassava are sold and eaten as food. Even the base of the plant is dried and stored away to be planted next season. The best part, the thick, potato-like root, has been boiled and wrapped in dusty plastic, plastic that once encased high-priced filtered water bottles. Now, salvaged from the trash and repurposed, the plastic traps the heat of this staple food, boiled in dirty water. Nothing is wasted. The epitome of this is the sheep’s head. It is not sitting on the table as a ghastly warning. It is prime food. Like the cassava, animals are harvested for every valuable piece. Hide, hoof, and head, yes, even down to tongue and cheek, will be sold and eaten. Nothing is wasted because choices are limited.

And the roadside manner. People here are used to living very close together. Personal space has not been invented yet in Madagascar. I joke, but in many ways that is true. There is a connection between poverty, limited choices, and closeness. Affluence grants distance, independence, autonomy, true. But people with many choices do not have nearly the social IQ, they don’t have to. There is a certain paradox seen in the street where raised in interdependence are both highly aware of their own responsibility and yet simultaneously aware of others’ as well. I will step off the road just before you run me over, because ultimately I have to fend for myself. But I also know you will swerve just before you hit me, because ultimately it behooves you to keep yourself disentangled from me and my problems (which of course will end the moment you crash into me). The careening sea of humanity is humming along to the song of interdependency: sometimes discordant harmony of expectations and roles. And the worst thing someone can do is step into the middle of that song and try to belt out a solo. Most likely they will get hit by a bus, literally and figuratively.

The best way, then, is to notice these curiosities. Store them away and ponder them, like Mary, in your heart. Take your cue from Sherlock Holmes and learn the picture between the pieces, that s logic. Or like Annie Dillard marveling at the gift of sight and how often we do not make good use of it, don’t miss the daily miracles surrounding you. If we can practice seeing the people and place around us, we will finally know where we are and what it means. And we may even start to understand if and where we can fit in among these strange new scenarios.

I believe in every place and in every culture God has already placed an invitation for us to accept and join him in his work. But if you do not ever slow down, you may never see it.

New LMCO Video

Since Christmas will be here before you know it, we have our yearly Lottie Moon update:

The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering (LMCO) is the yearly offering that Southern Baptist churches take up every year to support thousands of IMB missionaries (like us).

Thank you to all of you who support us and others like us!