The key message of Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling: Creating Fictional Stories that Illuminate the Message of Jesus is simple: storytelling is the most effective way of communicating Biblical truths to youth. Author Jon Huckins makes this point by first showing that not only did Jesus do much of His teaching through storytelling, but that the Bible in itself shows a grand story. A story the author missed at first, despite growing up in church.
He saw the Bible primarily as a road-map, a user’s manual for the Christian faith. Only in his late teens and twenties did he discover all the stories in the Bible were connected. An experience that’s eerily familiar I must admit and one that has led me to stress the importance of painting the bigger picture whenever I teach.
Huckins shares some interesting details about how teaching was done in the times of Jesus, explaining the importance of Jewish agada, or fictional stories rabbis used to illustrate a spiritual point. He then places Jesus in this tradition, but stresses how odd His choice of disciples were, for they were not the excellent students most rabbis would have picked.
And the author is right of course, about Jesus often using stories to make a point. But he also shows something that often stays hidden: Jesus often didn’t explain his stories. There are few of His parables explained in the Bible, most of them have a message that the hearers, and now we as readers, have to distill ourselves. It’s not all cookie cut, clear and obvious. There’s a lot of room for conversation, discussion and interpretation.
This was actually my main ‘take away point’ from this book: don’t always make the point you’re making too obvious. I’m really good at getting a key message across and I love using personal stories and stories in general (though I’ve only used ‘real ones’ so far, not fictional ones). After reading this book I think I may want to experiment a bit more with leaving the key message for the post story conversation and discussion.
Huckins then goes on to explore the science of listening, or at least that what the chapter is called. The ‘science part’ is only one page effectively and could have been much more developed in my opinion. There’s a lot of research done that shows the effectiveness of stories scientifically. Huckins uses this chapter to show how the process of conversion changed after Constantine. Interesting, but a bit off the point.
After two more chapters stating from different viewpoint how effective stories can be, it’s time for a practical approach on how to create and develop your own stories to use in teaching. As an aspiring fiction writer, I’ve read a lot of books on writing stories so this didn’t bring much new insight to me, but that might be different if the concept of creating a story is new to you. It’s certainly practical, sound advice he gives here and I agree with him on every bit.
What’s interesting is that the author promotes using stories as almost the main method to teach. He described telling a story in several ‘episodes’ with teens wanting to hear the rest. That in itself is amazing. His youth group also spends time when a story is finished to completely unpack it and discuss what it means. I’m not sure I am comfortable spending that much time on discussing a fictional story rather than God’s Word itself, but maybe they actually do that as well by using the stories as a vehicle. That’s not completely clear to me I must admit.
The book ends with four examples from stories. This is where I experienced some friction, I guess is the best word to describe it. Of course these stories are meant to be told, not read, but it wasn’t the sometimes too factual style that made me disconnect with them. It was the fact that despite trying to be real-life, they had a happy ending.
Two guys living a selfish life come to believe in Jesus and end up helping a homeless man, taking care of him till he dies. A girl starts cutting but finds healing through her youth leader. A guy ends up in prison after shooting another guy but finds Jesus there. A guy having lots of casual sex start to have doubts about the meaninglessness of it and longs for a deeper relationship with God. It was all a little bit too…easy for me.
Taking the cutting story. I think that a topic like self harm and cutting is very suitable to address through stories. But when a story of a girl that starts cutting ends like this:
“Chloe decided she wanted to kick her spiritual bulimia and seek healing from the pain that her false identity had caused her so she could enter more fully into her identity as a follower of Jesus”
that doesn’t ring true to me. Those aren’t the thoughts of a teen, but of a spiritually mature adult writing about a teen. That was a bit the case with every ending: it was just too mature, too spiritually perfect. And that’s coming from a girl who loves a happy ending more than anything…in fiction. But if we want these stories to sound real to teens, aren’t they supposed to have more of an open ending?
Anyway, Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling was a very interesting book and it certainly challenged me to experiment with fictional stories, which was the whole point of the book. I’d really encourage you to read it as well and see if you could use this method in your youth ministry. Because I’m convinced that stories work, especially in our story-saturated time and age.