Theostorying as Creative Reflection

Excerpt from Chapter two of Theo-Storying:

Theostorying is “the act of creative reflection on God, and our associated relationships with Him and each other, crafted artistically into the medium of the story, so as to allow the listener to join in the reflection through experiencing the story, being challenged by the story, and inspiring further questions.”

Let’s work through the proposed definition.

1.  Creative reflection. Theostorying should neither be a rehashing of dogma, nor be (inherently) heterodox. It should, however, push and challenge our understanding of truth. It should look at theology from a different perspective. It should provide a new voice to old questions, as well as new questions.

2. Crafted artistically. Storying (both the creation of stories and the telling of stories) is an art. Storying in this case would normally be a short story or anecdote rather than a novel or epic. It should draw interest and entice the listener. But regardless of the form, creativity and imagination are required to create the story and transmit the story.

3. Medium of the story. The story is the medium but it is also inextricably intertwined with the message. If one ends with “the moral of the story is” or “the lesson we can learn from this is,” such a lesson would only be one prepackaged idea drawn from the story… not the total sum of all possibilities of the story. If the story could be adequately summed up in one sentence, the story, does not adequately inspire theological reflection.

4. Experiencing the story. We are given the opportunity to be drawn into the story. We tend to learn best through reflection on our own life experiences (and sometimes through the life experiences of others). A good story allows us to join into the story… often from the perspective of different characters. Doing so, we experience, reflect, and learn.

5. Challenged by the story. A good story doesn’t just tell us what we already know, or what we already believe, or what we already believe we know. It challenges us culturally, theologically, and personally. An example of a personal challenge: The parable of the ewe lamb, challenged King David. The story did not challenge him culturally or theologically… he knew theologically and culturally what should be done and the story did not question that. Rather, it challenged him personally when he was told that he was experiencing the story from the wrong perspective. He was experiencing it as the kingly judge, when he should be experiencing it in the role of the rich neighbor.

6. Inspire further questions. Good theostories don’t just give the full answer. They inspire questions. They might inspire questions because the story seems unfinished, or because the story doesn’t explain why things went in one direction versus another, or because it suggests conclusions that are personally uncomfortable.

What are some good questions associated with theostories?

  • What next? In the Bible, we don’t know what happens to Jonah after chapter 4 of the book. We don’t know (for sure) what happens to Japheth’s daughter. What did the Prodigal Son’s elder brother do next? In missions we often do case studies where the situation is set up but the ending is intentionally unfinished. We are supposed to place ourselves within a specified role in the story and say what we would do next and why. It is highly educational and far superior to memorizing a bunch of rules.

  • What if? What if pharoah had let Moses and the people of Israel go without a fight? What if Judas had confessed and asked for forgiveness? What if Job did curse God? What if Zedekiah had stood up to the power elite in Judah?

  • Why? Why did Judas decide to betray Christ? Why did God place enticing fruit in the garden and then tell His inquisitive creations not to eat it? Why did God save us through a blood sacrifice? (Was God “handcuffed” into doing it that way, or did He choose that way as a lesson for us?)tumblr_inline_mij0dqjvoi1qz4rgp

  • Who? Whose perspective do you connect to in the story. What if you placed yourself in a different perspective. What if you were not one of the Israelites invading Canaan, but a person living in Jericho desperately trying to protect your family? What if you were the Levite, in the story of the Good Samaritan, hurrying to your next appointment… perhaps afraid of being attacked, with no medical skills)… how would you respond seeing the dying (possible dead) man… honestly?

But there is more. Stories are part of the message. In this, one is going along with the popular Marshall McLuhan statement that “The Medium is the Message,” the idea that the message as it is received is an amalgamation of the medium used and the purposed content. There is a growing belief that theology is inadequately handled by propositional truths. Stories are not merely a vehicle to transmit a propositional truth. If stories were transporting truth without affecting truth or being a part of that truth, at the end of the storying process, the hearer or reader could simply extract that truth and discard the story, like the waxed paper that can be discarded from a fast food lunch. However, the story IS part of the truth. Narrative Theology and Asian Theologies place a greater focus on the story over just “facts.” Likewise, new ways of interpreting the Bible, to a large extent a book of stories, sees the story as part of the teaching.

Medical Missions Reprise

Some things go away but don’t stay away. For the most part, my wife and I stopped doing medical missions back in 2010. From 2005-2009, we were with a group called Dakilang Pag-Ibig Diadem Ministries. During that time, we served about 30,000 patients in about 70 different sites. Then, in the first couple of years But of our present ministry (Bukal Life Care) we continued to do some medical missions– especially when tied to disaster response. I think the last medical mission that we organized and ran was in 2013… although we have helped with bits and pieces of some since then. I think it is a good ministry… but does have some potential pitfalls.

But just in the last month, we have been asked by three different groups advice regarding medical missions. That can be tough because there is such variety that can be involved in the methodology and long-term strategy. But since questions keep coming in, here are a few resources. Some are directly related to medical missions… and some a bit less so.

Article #1.  Healthy Medical Missions

Article #2.  Models for Church-Based Relief and Development

Article #3.  Changing Priorities and Practices

Article #4.  From Baguio to Baguionas

Book:  Principles and Practices for Healthy Medial Missions41l78twlool



Joshua on the Plains of Jericho

A reflective story loosely based on Joshua chapter 5.

When Joshua was near Jericho,religion-war-cartoon-02_slideshow he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in His hand. Joshua approached Him and asked, “Are You for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither,” He replied. “I have now come as commander of the Lord’s army.”

“Ah,” said Joshua, “We are the chosen people of the Lord. So you are for us.”

“No!” responded the man.

“Then you are for the enemy!” declared Joshua, readying his sword.

“Listen to me. I will say it again. ‘Neither. I have now come as commander of the Lord’s army.'”

The man continued. “The fool speculates whose side does the Lord favor. The wise rejects such nonsense and declares, ‘I will serve the Lord.’  I have now come as a commander of the Lord’s army. Who do YOU side with?”

Then Joshua bowed with his face to the ground in worship and asked Him, “What does my Lord want to say to His servant?”


Papa Don’t Preach

No, I have never been much of a fan of Madonna’s music (although the 1989 tune, “Cherish,” is catchy), but the 1986 song, “Papa Don’t Preach,” does poipeter-preachingnt to one occasion that a person– in this case a father– should not preach. You can websearch the song– you certainly don’t need my help. But the song does hint at something that many of us know, or at least feel… that preaching often is not particularly helpful.

Consider some terms that are considered synonymous with aspects of preaching:

Advise       Enlighten            Exhort         Lecture         Orate            Pontificate

All of these terms overlap in meanings, but as you move to the right, the shade of meanings get a bit darker– a bit more negative. The ones more to the left are a bit more positive. In fact, in the song “Papa Don’t Preach,” the lyricist is asking her father for good advice… rather than venomous outbursts and blame.

But even the ones to the left, advise and enlighten, are in themselves suggestive of times when one really should not preach. Here are some:

  1.  When we need to listen. The old joke that God gave us two ears and only one mouth because we were meant to listen twice as much as speak, is not so far from the truth. Preaching is unidirectional. But frankly, we don’t know what to say until we know what needs to be said. That typically takes listening.
  2. When we need to learn. Mystical enlightenment is not very reliable. Most of what we learn is through reading, hearing, and experiencing. Preaching is done when we feel we are in a position of authority and knowledge to those who need to be enlightened, advised, exhorted, and lectured by us. Ultimately, we can ‘t give what we don’t have.
  3. When we need to discuss. Preaching often drives people in the opposite direction of what we intended. People react against the sense of being verbally coerced. Also, preaching can be interpreted as disrespectful. Discussion demonstrates respect. Besides, in many situations, we know truth in part, and discussion can, hopefully, bring our small truths together.
  4. When we need to think.  The old Wild West advice, “Shoot first, ask questions later,” can become in preaching, “Talk first, think later.” I have heard many well thought out, crafted sermons, but I have also heard many sermons that are full of style and passion, but lacking clear evidence of thought or reflection. We need to think first, speak later.
  5. When we need to empathize. When someone is suffering, they don’t really need to be preached at. They need to sense compassion. They need to hear your heart more than hear your voice.
  6. When we need to act. Talk can all to often be cheap. Sometimes, talking is a way to not act. Modeling what is right, true, and good is often a better “sermon” than talking it.
  7. When we need to be silent. Dead time on radio is a “sin” but silence can indeed be golden. Sometimes we need to quiet our minds and our hearts. It may be in the form of meditation, or preparing ourselves to hear what God is speaking to us. Filling the air with our own voice is not always of value.

That is not to say that there is no place for preaching. Preaching has value. But check the above list first. And if it is the correct time to preach, recognize that the best preaching will incorporate the other items:

Preaching should

  • be in response to listening to God and to others
  • be in response to what is learned and preparing for what will be learned
  • be dialogic, interacting with the hearer, not just talking at.
  • be empathetic… speaking that comes from the heart, and listening to the heart of God and the hearts of others.
  • be the result of thoughtful (and humble) reflection.
  • be linked to action. Preaching should clarify/explain action, rather than inform in a manner that is in opposition to action.
  • be unafraid of silence. Filling the air with one’s voice is not not always more effective. A sermon, like a painting, is enhanced by negative space.

Preaching and Teaching and Storying

Nice chapter/article in the book Preach the Word513spybqhtl-_sx397_bo1204203200_, edited by Greg Haslam.  The Chapter (28) is “Preaching from Narrative” by  Chris Wright. The chapter is fairly short but has good info in it… especially on the nature of narrative. Under How Do Stories Actually Work?, Wright puts some good notes. I will just give the main points here, with my own thoughts after.

  • Stories express cultural world-views. To me, this is a strong point. Often worldview is described in terms of categories and propositions (I did that, in fact, in my book on cultural anthrology). But we really think in terms of stories, and the world-view that that guides our beliefs, and from that our behaviors and interpretation of experiences, is more about stories than facts. As such, to hit someone “deep” one is better off using a resonant, or at least relevant, story.
  • Stories are used to preserve people’s identities.  Each of us exists in relationships that go beyond simply I and You. Relationships also include We and They. To a large extent how “We” is defined is in terms of what stories are shared. That is part of the reason that a new person joining a close group feels alienated, at least for awhile. The new person doesn’t share the stories of the others. It is only after the person shares enough new stories with this group, that he or she feels truly part of the We identity.
  • Stories teach moral values and transmit group memories across the generations. Stories are often better at expressing moral truths than propositions. While a statement such as “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is pretty straightforward, it is actually in that straightforwardness that we get lost. What does it really mean to bear false witness? The answer generally comes in a story. The concreteness helps. Does, for example, bearing false witness include telling jokes, or expressing a story that fictional? No, but that is more obvious in a story. For example, story where an individual falsely accuses a person of wrong-doing or falsely alibis a wrong-doer makes it clear that this sin is not simply saying something that is fictional… it is tied to motive and malice. Also because they define groups, they help provide continuity in a group even as the group changes over time.
  • Stories engage our imagination.  I have talked enough about this elsewhere, particularly in Theo-Storying.  A good story draws us in, and we essentially experience something that, technically, did not happen to us.
  • Stories are dependent on having a well-constructed plot. You might think this is obvious, but it is not. Many a story (such as in a movie) has a weak plot, due to the apparent belief that having good special effects, sex or violence, humor (whether witty, ribald, or physical), or a twist ending can substitute. Economically, sometimes they are right. But a story with a poor plot tends to lose steam quick. It does not engage the imagination. It fails to have impact.
  • Stories need good characters. Characters need to have a stamp of reality to them. Even robots or aliens in science fiction stories need to have an authenticity to them. A failure often in the church has been to develop stories too much after the model of morality plays… with wooden saints and equally 2-dimensional sinners. This is strange considering how the Bible tends to present humans as 3-dimensional, both wondrously made and flawed.
  • Some stories have gaps in them. I would argue that ALL stories have gaps in them. For non-fiction stories  this is true since a plot essentially picks bits and pieces of what happened and seeks to combine them with causal relationships into a consistent plot. People don’t have stories… they have life, that can be rearranged into an infinite number of stories. For fiction stories, there are gaps because we only see and here what is “on stage.” Before the opening of the curtain, we don’t know much. After the closing of the curtain, we don’t know much. And off stage is a mystery. But that is a good thing. It gets us to think and imagine. In fact, filling in too many of the gaps may be detrimental to the story. For example, in many classic jokes, the story has three parts. Two parts to set the pattern, and a third to have a surprising break in the pattern. Two is enough to set the pattern… one does not have to list 50 parts supporting the pattern (even if such a high number may have an element of accuracy to it).
  • Good stories invite the reader to be the judge. It is often tempting for the storyteller to tie up all of the loose ends. But it is often better to allow the reader to judge for himself or herself. In fact, many stories in the Bible appear to be arranged for rabbinical purposes. That is, they are meant to be read an interacted with in a group setting for religious and moral education. The story of Jonah, for example has lots of questions unanswered, and many opportunities for hearers to question and come to their own conclusions. This is not a bad thing. Sometimes in church we are too quick to tell people how to read a story and what to think of it. This can be a mistake. For example, in Galatians 2, Paul tells the story of how he chastised Peter and Barnabas for eating with Jews when members of the church of Jerusalem were present. In church, this story is often relayed as if we must accept the story as Paul being right and the others being wrong. However, if readers take the time to bring themselves into the story, many might discover that Paul’s behavior was not above reproach here. Perhaps some will not see the story as primarily Paul versus Peter, but the problems of not discussing things properly.

I would like to add a quote from a different section of the chapter:

Avoid being too dogmatic.  We need to remember that a story can have many levels of meaning and new meanings will often suggest themselves as we take time to ponder and reflect upon them. Furthermore, other people will often see meanings that would never have occurred to us, and people from other cultures will often see a story in a totally different light, which can lead to a fascinating exchange of ideas. I think God gives us stories and says, ‘Well there you are. What do you make of that?’ Sincere there is such a tremendous richness in the stories of the Bible we should avoid giving the impression that there is one solitary monochrome meaning and, once you have explained that, you can go on to the next one.

Stories, like metaphors, have a wide range of meanings, although not infinite. When we say Jesus is the Good Shepherd, this metaphor has a rich diverseness to it that cannot be narrowed to a single meaning. If it could be narrowed to a single meaning, the metaphor would be unnecessary. The same is true with stories… as a rich collection of symbols and metaphors.

Of course, this provides a hermeneutical challenge. Centuries ago, scholars saw the Bible as have several layers of meaning, such as literal, spiritual, and allegorical. Present thinking is to see the Bible as having only one meaning… the literal. So when one reads a passage of Scripture, one must seek that one single meaning. While recognizing the dangers of allegorical interpretation (among others), stories, like metaphors, resist a single interpretation. Even focusing on “author intention” may not be enough. When I tell a story, I often have more than one message or interpretation… even for fictional stories. For non-fiction, my selection of the events I use and connect may limit the range of possible interpretations, but non-fiction has a special “muddiness” to it that even more so draws us into the story with important different perspectives. For example, why did Judas betray Jesus? Was he seeking to “force Jesus hand?” Was he disenchanted with the lack of direction of the “revolution?” Was he possessed by the devil? Was he simply greedy? The fact that the Bible doesn’t clearly tell us why may (as Walter Wangerin pointed out) in fact point out to us some acts are just inexcusable and unjustifiable.

Or maybe not.