|I have been a member of the Network of Biblical Storytellers International (http://www.nbsint.org/) for about 23 years. I was just looking at the program for this year’s Festival Gathering in August and noticed the keynote speaker’s series of talks is titled, “Hearing Between the Lines, bringing the audience into God’s story.” This prompted me to write to you about something that has been on my mind for the last month and that I noticed again yesterday during our worship service.
First some background. The ancient sacred stories we have gathered together in our Bible were first told during preliterate times to preliterate communities. For the most part, these stories were told, learned by heart, and passed down, long before a permanent recorded was written. Even epistles were most likely learned and told to the hearers by the messenger who then handed over the written letter as a record.
In our literate society we have come to think of the Bible as literature, words to read, rather than stories to listen to. I believe there is much to be gained from reading the scripture, listening to it read, and hearing the story told. With an excellent oral reader, the listener definitely picks up on things missed when reading silently, and vice-versa. Even in listening, the receiver of the word hears it differently when it is told versus when it is read, sometimes these differences can be profound. All three; reading, listening to a reader, and listening to a storyteller, have their own merits.
Now, I am not a fan of having the week’s lectionary readings printed in the order of service. Since we started using this new bulletin format, here is what I noticed. The majority of the people in the congregation are not listening to the scripture, they are reading. Yesterday we had two excellent and expressive readers, Dan and Lindy. When Dan was reading Isaiah, “Lift up your eyes and look around,” over 50% of the people had their heads down reading the bulletin. When Lindy read the story from Matthew, more than 75% of the people were reading, rather than listening. (“Ah but, I can do both,” you say. It is different. I promise you, it is different.)
One way that storytelling is different from acting is that there is no “fourth wall.” Storytellers make eye contact with listeners. Listeners see the expressions and gestures of the tellers. Tellers see reactions on the faces of those hearing the story and themselves react. There is a give and take, a physical and emotional connection. The last time I told the story, during Advent, closer to 90% of the people in the congregation had their heads down in their bulletins. This never happened before in more than 20 years that I have been telling sacred stories by heart. Almost no one other than my wife, Leigh, and Lindy and the children sitting down front, made eye contact with me. I could not interact. It was distracting and disturbing. Of course there were always a few people who would open their Bibles and turn to the passage, but never had it been the overwhelming majority.
I promise you, you will hear the word differently if you listen. Listen with your ears and your heart. Listen with your eyes. Listen for where the word surprises you, where it intersects with your life or the world right now. Listen for new insight that God has for you in a familiar story. Does the story touch you in a deep place or make you laugh? Does it bring comfort or questions?
Read the scripture before the service or after, but I urge you…I challenge you…during worship, put down the bulletin and listen to God’s story being read or told. Hear between the lines. Open your eyes and ears to God’s story, our story, and hear.
Suzanne Tyler Stock