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Where Did You Get that Script?: An interview with biblical storyteller Dennis Dewey

It isn’t often that listening to Scripture in a worship service is absolutely riveting. But listening to Dennis Dewey proclaim Scripture was one of the most powerful parts of COLAM 2001, a worship conference cosponsored by Reformed Worship and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Wheaton, Illinois. I spoke with him one afternoon during that conference.

Dewey describes himself as a minister of storytelling. An ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), Dewey left the regular pastorate to become a full-time biblical storyteller, a vocation he describes as “helping people hear the biblical stories again for the first time.” He helps pastors and teachers perform biblical texts as lively stories at churches and conferences and through the Network of Biblical Storytellers (www.nobs.org). Dewey will be a presenter at the next Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts in January (see the ad on inside front cover). You can reach him at www.DennisDewey.org.

—ERB

RW: Since you were already an ordained pastor, when did the reading of Scripture become so powerful to you that you decided to pursue it professionally?

DDI: suppose, with a background in theater, I always thought that there was much more in the texts than I was used to hearing when they were read. I was in a small theater program in a very small liberal arts college. Because it was small, we all got a lot of individualized attention. I had a wonderful director. So I learned by doing.

The first thing that I did was the Passion narrative from the gospel of Mark in place of the sermon one Palm Sunday. After the service, people said to me, “That was fantastic!” “That was wonderful!” “Where did you get that script?” And I said, “It’s the Bible.” And they said, “You’re kidding!” “No. I didn’t put any extra words in it. It’s just the words of the Bible.” That led me to believe that maybe I should pursue this some more.

Soon after I met Tom Boomershine, who eventually founded the Network of Biblical Storytellers. He’s a professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. Tom had studied with Walter Wink, and his dissertation had to do with the gospel of Mark as oral performance. He gathered a few people together and they began learning these stories. They

discovered that there was great power in learning these stories by heart and telling them; that you stand in a different relationship to the text when it is inside you than when it is “out there.” Tom helped me conceptually make the shift from understanding what I was doing as theater to understanding it as storytelling.

Theater and storytelling are two different art forms. The theater tradition comes historically from the Greco-Roman culture; the storytelling tradition in Israel came from a rich, rich tradition of oral culture. There is so much, for example, in the Old Testament, that is rich with humor—I mean, fall down, hold your side, side-splitting humor. Christians don’t get that often enough. One of my favorite stories is the story of Sarah’s laughter. That is a real hoot. In church that humor is often missed. And you don’t usually think of the gospel of Mark as having a lot of yuks. But this programmatic denigration of the disciples is both funny and sad, both tragedy and comedy. The disciples are the gang that can’t shoot straight. They just don’t get it. When you listen to the whole story as opposed to hearing little snippets on Sunday morning, you start to get that part of the picture.

How did you start developing a ministry that would help others approach Scripture in a new way?

A number of things conspired to discern this vocation. Probably the efficient cause was that I was in a church. I was pastor of a church that was not a good fit, and I found it necessary to leave. Then I needed some work to do. I had wanted to try doing this, and I knew that I wasn’t ready to go back into the parish right away, so, with my wife’s blessing, we set out to do this for a year or two at the most. That was ten years ago.

One of the first things that I did was meet with Tom Boomershine in Ohio to tell him that I had this idea. He said, “You are not going to be able to support yourself performing; you are going to need to develop an educational component.” Very graciously, generously, he invited me to come to one of the retreats he was leading at a conference center in Pennsylvania. That was the beginning.

As I began to put together packages and work with churches, and as word got around, I came to see the teaching as being more fulfilling than the performing. It’s a real thrill to do a workshop and see the flicker of excitement in people’s eyes when they realize, I can do this! To see people move from a kind of reluctant skepticism to a converted, convicted Yes! Yes! Where has this been all my life? That connection with people has been very powerful.

Just telling the stories also creates a very intimate kind of relationship between storyteller and audience. It is highly interactive in a way that theater isn’t. Partly because as a storyteller you are looking at people. You are making eye contact. You draw them into relationship. I read years ago that Fred Craddock said that the preacher’s task is not to say what the people want to hear, but it very often is to say what the people want to say. The preacher is the spokesperson of the community; he or she is called out and identified by the community to articulate the deepest rumblings of their heart and soul in the dialogue with God. That is very much how I feel as a storyteller.

I use the word performance unabashedly. It’s a good word. It means to form fully. It has come to have the connotation of showing off, but if we do what we do with integrity, it has nothing to do with showing off. When we go to the hospital for surgery, we certainly want the surgeon to “perform” the surgery; and we don’t think the surgeon is showing off by performing it. When I perform, I am very much a part of the community, though I may be the only one who is speaking. I am drawing energy from the community, and I am telling the community’s story. That’s why when I perform, I choose to wear an alb as a symbol of the reality that these are not just my stories, these are stories of the baptized imagination.

You don’t like to be asked to read Scripture; in fact, you don’t want to memorize Scripture. And yet, you “tell” Scripture by heart. Say more about that.

Nomenclature is like clothing. We have clothing that we get used to wearing, like shoes that feel good. New clothing is a little strange; you have to break it in. Within the church there is not yet a general understanding of “telling.” People will often introduce me as the Scripture reader for the day, or they’ll speak of how they appreciated my reading of the Scripture, when I wasn’t reading at all. They don’t yet have the category to express what this biblical storytelling stuff entails, which is the telling of the text, or the performing of the text. I steer away from using the word recitation because that connotes a flat delivery of memorized text. I am very keen to insist that the process I use is not memorization but rather internalization, or learning by heart, which comes from a different place. It is not kept in the head. It is kept in the whole person. It’s not that words are stored in the brain and then recited like text read off a teleprompter; rather, it is the expression of images and feelings and emotions and patterns that come deep from inside, that use the words that have been transmitted to us to articulate.

In some respects there is a commonality between the performance of the biblical story and the performance of music. The music is not the ink on the paper. You don’t “read” music. But that is how we speak sometimes. We say, “Who took my music?” But we don’t mean someone has ripped out our vocal chords or taken our instruments, do we?

A musical performance can be wooden and slavish to the notes on the page, rather than using the page with freedom. Similarly in “reading” Scripture, most people don’t take time to internalize it completely so that they can speak without the words before them from Sunday to Sunday.

How do you help people to internalize the text so that they can tell it with more life?

First you have to realize that this is an economic decision. You make the decision; you make the commitment that this is a worthwhile activity and so you are going to spend the time doing it. There’s no way around the fact that it takes a lot of time and effort. Every minute of story told takes hours and hours and hours of work to get it right. And I don’t mean just getting the words right. I mean getting the story in a place that has some integrity. I tell people that if you are planning to learn a story, you need to back up about six weeks. The process takes time; like a pregnancy, it has to gestate. It needs time apart from when you are working on it so that it can grow and work on you and develop in its own way and in its own time.

In the workshop, I teach some skills and give some tools for facilitating that work. These skills and tools don’t necessarily make the process go any faster, but they make it better. And they impart a level of confidence—a sense that yes, I can do this. Many people are terrified at the thought of standing up and telling a story from Scripture that is ten verses long, a chapter, or a book. And yet when they have planted their flag on that reality—when they have said, I can do this, I’ve done this—it opens up the possibility of doing all kinds of stories that way.

Do you have any advice for worship leaders for approaching Scripture on a weekly basis, if they don’t have the time? You speak of investing lots of time, but what about the people who simply read?

It’s basically the same advice. I encourage everyone to go the Network for Biblical Storytellers Festival Gathering at least once. When you hear a whole book told by twenty-five or more people, you experience something new with each one. We look at the Bible and we all see the same book with even pages all the same size, the ink on the page all neatly arranged with exactly the same margins, and the illusion we come away with is that it is all the same for everyone. Then you hear someone tell the story and it comes alive.

The first thing, I think, is to get it off the page, and it doesn’t take long to do that. Take a story and rewrite it—literally, type it or write it out longhand. Write it on the page so that it reveals the story’s structure. Get it off that flat, uniform, homogenized page and put it on your page in a way that reflects visually how the story is going to sound. Then listen to the story. Read it out loud. This may be self-evident, but read the story out loud several times. Then I encourage people to close the book. Put it away and tell the story in your own words. Do that by visualizing it. Try to imagine the story. At this point the object is not to get it word for word but simply to tell the images, evoke the feelings, and start to absorb the patterns in the way that we remember a joke.

If the reader can be so familiar with what is going on in the story that he or she is essentially telling the structure, the images, the emotions, and the characters of the story, the words just fall into place.

How loosely do you use the word story? When you get to Paul, for example, in a letter, to what extent are you using the word story there?

Biblical storytelling is a spiritual discipline that involves the deep internalization of the narrative text, so it’s in the definition as narrative, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of doing other texts. But narrative certainly would be the place to begin.

I do the whole book of Galatians, for example. It has drawn me into an appreciation of the person of Paul. When you do that, you can’t help but struggle with questions like, Who is this person? What does he sound like? What is he getting at? Why is he so upset? His personality comes through. All stories are interpretive. A flat, expressionless, reading is itself an interpretation, but one that does not comport with the storytelling tradition of Israel or the rabbinical tradition of the time of Jesus.

The fact that every telling is an interpretation is a marvelous thing—with a constellation of many tellings we have many approaches to the story. Every telling can be heard in a different way. Something new will be noticed or some nuance will be suggested that has not been there before.

Any closing thoughts?

This work is a spiritual discipline. Many people are drawn to it out of a desire to “jazz up the Bible” because their experience of Scripture has been dull, deadly, dusty—somehow they feel they need to help it survive. I’d like to suggest that if we approach it that way, we cast ourselves into the role of Dr. Frankenstein and what we create is a monster. The perspective from which we start is that Scripture is wonderful and alive. As a storyteller, I don’t make it come alive. My task is to find the life, to take it into to myself so that we breathe together, the story and I.

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