Teaching Scripture through storytelling

Bob Hartman is well known for his use of storytelling to introduce people to the Bible and understand its message. He is now celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Lion Storyteller Bible, which has a new edition out to mark the occasion. I was able to catch up with him and ask him about his approach to Bible teaching using stories.

IP: How did you get into storytelling?

BH: The first church I pastored initially had an elderly congregation who really knew their Bible. So when I would begin to tell a Bible story, I got a lot of “been there/done that” looks. I took to retelling those stories from a different point of view in the hope that I would surprise and intrigue them and then lure them into the stories that way.

One of those parishioners suggested that I try to get them published, and that set me off on that course. A year or two later, I left that church and returned to my hometown (Pittsburgh). My brother had been working in children’s theatre and had decided he wanted to do something simpler and that storytelling seemed to tick that box. So we created a storytelling duo and visited schools, learning the craft pretty much by trial and error. A year or two later, The Pittsburgh Children’s Museum hired us, and we visited schools on their behalf in the greater Pittsburgh area. Due to the separation of church and state, the stories we told in that context were not Bible stories, although we worked very hard to choose stories that echoed biblical truths. And at the same time, we created storytelling shows for a local Christian theatre company, which we toured in churches.

IP: What made you develop The Storyteller Bible? What challenges did you face?

BH: When my brother and I had been storytelling for five or six years, I came up with the idea for the Storyteller Bible. By that time, I was pretty confident with what I had learned about storytelling, and Lion Hudson had already published a couple of my books, so I thought it was worth suggesting a project that combined both of those things. As far as I knew, no one had ever tried anything like that before, and fortunately they were willing to take a chance on the idea.

The trick was to write for the ear, in hopes that the text would not just be read, but delivered orally in a storytelling fashion. So I incorporated the kind of rhythm and repetition into the text that is part and parcel of the oral storytelling experience. My brother and I had also developed an interactive technique that invited the audience to join us in bringing the stories to life. Actions, repeated phrases, that sort of thing. So I wove those into the text, as well. There were no instructions on how to do that in the first edition of the book, but by the time we got round to expanding the text for the second edition, we knew that people were actually using it as a storytelling resource, so we added a section in the back with some simple “telling tips” for each story.

I would also add that the illustrations (by Susie Poole in the first edition and Krisztina Kallai Nagy in the second) made the book really attractive.

IP: Why do you think stories are so compelling? Why is engaging with Bible stories helpful?

BH: Stories are compelling because we live our lives as stories. And we communicate with each other largely by telling stories. We identify with characters in stories—sometimes because they are like us, and sometimes because they are what we would like to be. We join them on their storytelling journey—because every a story is a journey—and often we discover what they discover. And sometimes, because stories can be incredibly powerful, we are even changed by the discoveries that change them. That power is rooted in the subversiveness of a good story. Yes, we have all heard stories where the point, the message, the meaning is obvious, almost from the start, and where the story acts as a cudgel to hammer the lesson home.  But a story is more effective when it acts like an invitation and let’s the reader or listener discover what nuggets of truth it holds, subtly, organically, as the story progresses.

This is what is so compelling about biblical stories. We often treat them as stories with messages, and there is no doubt that there are lessons to be learned from them. But that approach sadly sometimes simplifies those narratives to the point where the awkward edges are rounded off for the sake of the lesson. Remembering that these narratives are about real people in a real place and time helps to rescue us from that kind of reductionism and serves to preserve the complexity of the characters that we also find in our own lives. For it is in that complexity that we discover a place where we can relate—both to them and to their encounter with God.

Now, it’s also fair to say that the way we tell the stories, and indeed which stories we choose to tell, is age dependent to some extent. But even then, there is a responsibility, I think, to bring the whole character to life as appropriately as we can and not leave the children with a cardboard cutout, flannel graph style stereotype of an individual.

IP: What have you learned from being involved in this? And what do you observe about Jesus as story teller?

BH: Retelling Bible stories has made me spend more time with the text itself. When I train storytellers to create their own retellings, I always insist that the first thing they do is to read the story in the text. It means they are not retelling someone else’s retelling. It forces them to unpack the text and see it afresh. And it encourages them to discover those details about characters, setting and conflict that they may have previously missed. I think it also potentially creates a renewed sense of wonder at the narratives, particularly when it comes to retellings those very familiar stories.

I also encourage them to seek information from commentaries when they don’t fully understand a story, or its context. I do the same thing , myself, so I’d like to think that years of storytelling has resulted in a better understanding of the narratives, and, indeed, the overarching narrative of scripture.

As for Jesus’ own storytelling, it is interesting how he makes use of  traditional storytelling techniques. In the Good Samaritan, he not only employs a repetitive device when he describes the Priest, Levite and Samaritan passing the beaten man, he also works with a “group of three.” And apart from a few occasions, Jesus does seem happy to let his audience work out what his stories are about, rather than hammering home a point.

IP: Some people might argue that the Bible is about much more than stories, and by focussing on the story elements you miss out important parts of the Bible. How would you answer them?

BH: I suppose I would suggest that many, if not most, of the other elements arise from the stories and not the other way round. So if we don’t know the stories, so much of what we find in the Psalms, for example, makes little sense. Not only do they reference Israel’s story, time and time again, but even those psalms that don’t directly reference those narratives, do reflect an understanding of who God is and what he does based on those stories. And that is also true, though perhaps in more subtle ways, with some of the other wisdom literature. As for the prophets, they constantly draw on the story of Israel’s past to challenge its behaviour in the unfolding story of its present and to project God’s response in its future.

It is through God’s dealings with his people, spelled out in their history from Abraham to Moses to David to a Divided Nation to Captivity, that they understand who he is. Is it any wonder then that Psalm 78 should challenge its readers to pass God’s story on to the next generation:

“that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
7 so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
8 and that they should not be like their fathers,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God.”

As for the New Testament, again it is the story of Jesus that lies behind the other texts. The epistles serve to unpack and seek to understand the work and nature of Jesus, whose story was relayed by his followers, and then to apply his teaching to their daily lives. And while it is true that the formal written gospels arose from those communities, the story of Jesus and the reflection on that story which we find in the epistles was a kind of living and developing conversation that would not have existed in the absence of that story.

I think that is also true of the stories of the early church. Conrad Gempf and I jointly authored a book a couple of years ago called Paul: Man on A Mission. We wanted to provide an introduction to Paul as a resource for families, and part of what we hoped to accomplish was to shed some light on Paul’s teaching by telling his story.

IP: What kind of feedback have you received? Has it been encouraging?

BH: The feedback has been consistently positive—and that’s not just down to all those five star Amazon reviews. 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication. (And, yes, there is a 25th anniversary edition for sale.) As a result, I have reached the point where I am now meeting parents who use the Storyteller Bible with their kids who were introduced to it when they themselves were children. That is incredibly encouraging.

Even more encouraging, of course, is that the book has been the main text for Open the Book throughout its 20+ year history. Started as a Millennial Bible Storytelling project by churches in Bedford back in 1999, Open the Book is now a part of Bible Society. Over 17,000 storytellers now use it to tell God’s story on a regular basis to 800,000 children in over 3,000 schools in England and Wales. It is an enormous privilege to be a part of that initiative and well beyond what I imagined might happen when I wrote the book all those years ago.

IP: What next for the Storyteller Bible? And what projects are you working on next?

BH: The Storyteller Bible has already been developed into a series of other Storyteller books that seek to tell particular kinds of Bible stories in more detail. So there is The Storyteller Christmas book, the Storyteller Easter book, and the Storyteller Book of Parables. Just this year, we have gathered stories from all those collections into something called The Lion Storyteller Family Bible. The idea was to create a family Bible that would not just sit prettily on a shelf but would actually be used by families to explore the Bible together. So we expanded each story from one spread to two, and then pulled out pictures of characters from those stories to ask the readers questions about the text. There are also links at the end of each story to help families explore other stories connected to that narrative as well as suggestions for prayer. Care for the Family has been very supportive of this project and my hope is that it will be a helpful resource as parents seek to make Psalm 78 a reality in their families.

Lockdown has seen the release of several new projects. I wrote something called The Link-It-Up Bible for SPCK which tells the big story of the Bible in a way that brings to light the links between Old Testament and New and the links from one story to another. There is a lovely Baby Board Book series that retells Bible passages as simple prayers. The Good Book company published a beautifully illustrated version of Paul and Silas and the Philippian jailer called The Prisoners, the Earthquake and the Midnight Song.  I used the sounds in the story to tie it together, and Catalina Echeverri has cleverly made those sounds a part of her wonderful illustrations. I know that people like collections of Bible stories (I have written more then a few, as I have said!), but there is something special about the immersive way that a good picture book can draw the reader into a story and make it even more memorable.

Upcoming projects include an “Act Along Bible” for five and six years olds, a book called “Welcome to the Journey” for baptismal services, and a series of four picture books based on the parables of the kingdom.

IP: It sounds as though you have been busy! Thanks for taking the time to chat—and we pray God will continue to bless this wonderful ministry!


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12 thoughts on “Teaching Scripture through storytelling”

  1. Hi Ian and Bob,
    Thanks for this. I have only just started writing short stories based on Bible characters. This is encouraging me to continue. My ideas spring from decades of being in Bible study groups.

    I recently wrote the story of Job from the children’s perspective. I posit the last messenger to reach Job was the Accuser himself. Irritated that the first reports didn’t destroy Job he embellishes the truth by stating the children were dead instead of captured. This allows them to have an adventure. By the time they return all is well with Job. They become the icing on the cake. Moral: just because the accuser says so doesn’t mean it it the whole truth.

    I hear you sigh, “he’s going to want me to read it.”
    Yes. I’m completely unpublished.

    I would love to see stories establish a soil where doctrinal truth can be viewed without the weeds obscuring it.

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  2. Good interview Bob is a mensch! And his Storytelling Bible required reading and gifting. What I appreciate about it is the physicality or musicality which he builds into each story. Brilliant.

    Separately, I am halfway through leading a Zoom series for Storyingthescriptures (website of the same name) where the group learns off by heart 4 OT stories and 5 stories from the gospels one per week. And each member commits to telling each story to another person before the next session. There are 6 questions which accompany the telling. The creator is Christine Dillon an OMF missionary in Taiwan who uses stories for cross cultural evangelism. The power of bible stories is that the interpretation unlike so much Christian proselytising is not under the control of the teller. But emerges in the discussion. And the hearer engages with the story and has to make sense of it. It is a sea change from home group bible studies where there is no requirement to share with those outside of the group and the meaning is often nailed down by a resident authority figure. First impressions of this method are very powerful and great that we can meet online to do it even if finding people to tell the stories to under lock-down is more challenging than would usually be the case.

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    • Isn’t it rewarding, even just personally, preparing a story for telling rather than preaching on. Hope your participants are able to stick with it.

      Very interesting it’s started by someone who lives cross culturally. We realised once we started living amongst a variety of cultures that we often put our own spin on stories, influenced by our culture and personal agendas, but that Jesus came from a culture that might actually be closer to theirs than our own in certain respects. I love the work by Kenneth Bailey which talks about how to ‘read’ the different accounts in the Bible, especially Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.

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  3. For years taking school assemblies I adopted the technique of assuming the identity of one of the disciples— usually Peter. So almost every week my assembly would start with “Hello, my name is Peter — you remember when I first met Jesus? He asked to borrow my boat….. “ and then when I’d finished the introduction which was the same every week, I could then go on to tell any other story about Jesus— maybe a parable or a miracle. And often kids would come up to me in town and say “Hello , Peter!” It was a technique which worked for me and seemed to be effective.

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