Martin Goldsmith shares his thoughts on the importance of stories and how traditional stories in different cultures can be used to teach Biblical truths. He includes a brief discussion of how Jewish forms of teaching (Halachah and Haggadah) has influenced Biblical teaching.
Martin Goldsmith served for ten years with OMF in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Thailand before returning to the UK with his wife Elizabeth where they spent twenty-four years on the staff of All Nations Christian College. Martin comes from a German Jewish family background, but was born in England. In addition to writing a number of books, Martin has an international speaking, teaching, and preaching ministry.
Mission Round Table vol. 11 no. 1 (January 2016): 30-31
Stories exert influence. They can shape people’s religion and their thinking.
In our education and in our training as Christian workers in Asia we have to study the various religious faiths of the people around us. As adults we concentrate on their philosophical and theological beliefs, comparing and contrasting these with our Christian faith. But perhaps we need to ask how followers of these faiths have gained their religious worldview and so walk in their sandals.
Adult faith and practice is often based on what we have learned as children. Thus Jewish children are brought up with the story of the Passover, Exodus, and the giving of the Torah. The telling and enactment of these stories predetermine all later development of faith and self- understanding.
What we learn as children plays a significant part in determining our adult views.
It is interesting in Western contexts how our politicians and the media may use a heart-rending story to move public opinion in the desired direction. Thus the story of one horrendously sick person’s sufferings moves people to support euthanasia. Just one such story can gain greater influence than carefully thought-through arguments.
Jewish teaching has always come in two forms—Halachah and Haggadah. This Jewish approach has of course influenced biblical teaching and should shape our use of Scripture.
Halachah is direct theoretical teaching and particularly the demands of the Law—“Do this! Don’t do that!” In the New Testament we find considerable halachic teaching in the Epistles, but we may also find sections of halachic teaching in the Gospels and the Book of Acts. Western theology and preaching tend to prefer such halachic approaches and may even teach that we should base our theology on the Epistles— particularly Paul’s writings—although post-modern society may feel more at home in biblical stories and in the Johannine emphasis on knowing God in an intimate personal relationship.
Haggadah includes teaching through stories which may be historical or more parabolic. It can also include dramatic acts like a prophet burying a cloth until it rots or lying on one’s side for a long time. It is of course now an accepted truth that the Gospels and Acts are not just historical works, but also have theological axes to grind. Our traditional creeds fail in this respect—“born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified …” Was there nothing of importance between the virgin birth and the crucifixion of Jesus? In this way we ignore half the New Testament! And in our more existential world perhaps the stories of the Gospels might reveal Jesus the Messiah more relevantly.
If we were to visit a Jewish bookshop and ask if they have any Haggadah, they would take us to a shelf with copies of the Passover liturgy. The actions of the liturgy in the context of a delicious meal form the heart of Jewish teaching. Christians have something parallel in the acted symbolism of baptism and Communion services. But it is a challenge to us to rethink our worship patterns, asking ourselves whether they contain sufficient acted, visible teaching.
We may note that the Epistles contain haggadic teaching with the stories of Abraham, and James’ references to the tongue, rudder, etc. Likewise the Gospels and Acts include passages of less pictorial halachic teaching. But it is always haggadic teaching which grabs people’s attention and which people remember.
Not Just Biblical Stories
I have been in various conferences with seminars on story telling. With much rejoicing I always attend such seminars, but again and again have found them disappointing. They have only dealt with the need to make Bible stories contextually relevant and interesting. Of course it is vitally important that we learn to tell Bible stories really well. But this is nothing new. Sunday School teachers have always tried to bring Bible stories to life and relate them to the children’s context. Kenneth Bailey and others have already been helping us for many years to contextualise biblical stories and make them religiously and culturally relevant.
When I worked in Southeast Asia back in the early 1960s, I much enjoyed using Asianised versions of Paul White’s Jungle Doctor stories. I quickly discovered that local men loved to listen to such stories and they would stay listening even for an hour. Often they then returned to their village or housing area and retold my stories, so my Jungle Stories became widely known. South Thailand men loved the stories of the egg-stealing snake with its refrain of “Be sure your sin will find you out” and the one of the peanut farmer that illustrates that God could and did become human. Since our return to England I have found the peanut farmer can also fit Christmas celebrations ideally.
The cover of the February 1938 issue of China’s Millions records Frank England’s use of gospel posters while preaching in Zhejiang.
Most cultures enjoy traditional stories which can be used to teach basic biblical truths. Some cultures even have stories which seek to explain the origin of the world or of evil. For example, the story of the origin of the Kiwi relates well in New Zealand as a background to good teaching on sin and salvation. In many traditions an animal becomes a much-loved character. So in Indonesia there are lovely stories about a mousedeer (Sang Kancil). In Europe old fables used to be widely read and told to children. Such writers as Lafontaine in France, Krylov in Russia, the Danish Hans Christian Andersen, and the German Grimm brothers come to mind. The stories of traditional pantomimes and fairy tales can be beautifully related to the good news of Jesus the Messiah.
Some Christian workers may have a special gift as story tellers or may develop this art as a special ministry, but all of us can learn to tell stories. Many of us have sat on a sofa telling a story to small children or when they are tucked up in bed. As Christian workers we can enjoy telling stories in all sorts of contexts to adults as well as to children. When travelling in a taxi together with the driver and three other passengers we can ask them whether they have heard a certain story. When they look surprised and curious we can launch into one of our stories. When waiting by a bus stop or visiting someone’s home, a story can be introduced and people love to listen. In any and every context a story is always welcome.
Of course stories can be used with great effect in situations where it is illegal or dangerous to indulge in direct preaching or witness. Stories can quietly introduce people to more biblical religious approaches and so induce further questions about the Christian faith.
Different cultures tell stories in somewhat different ways. Jewish story telling often has a sudden unexpected twist at the end, while Korean stories are more drawn-out. Russian stories can seem rather morose. Chinese stories tend to illustrate ethical realities. So some cultural adaptation may prove useful even in telling stories.
May we in OMF become known throughout Asia as a story-telling mission! Don’t be shy! Start with just a couple of stories which you can prepare well with interesting vocabulary, attractive interaction with your audience, good use of the voice, and other oratorical skills. And God, by his Spirit, will use our stories for his glory and for the salvation and edification of the people with whom we live and work.
 Kenneth Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008).