Rob Lacey, best known for writing ‘Word on the Street’ (formerly The Street Bible), has spent 20 years exploring the role and value of story as a professional author and actor. Here he outlines some of the lessons and challenges he feels God’s been teaching him during that time doing the hard motorway miles. I can still remember it: there I was, about nine years old, dressed in my Sunday School Brethren best being wowed by our favourite story teller, the venerable Mr Len Reid. This unlikely middle-aged man had us all gripped by the tale of a little boy who caught two fish and later that day went off with his packed lunch to hear Jesus tell stories. And yes, wonderfully, Len’s twist had it that it was this boy’s fish and bread that Jesus used in the miracle of the 5,000 plus al fresco feast. It’s still vivid in my memory from, what…34 years ago! Hats off to Len Reid – my Sunday School teacher! Or should that be hats off to the lasting power of stories? But stories are just for kids aren’t they? No, our soap-soaked, movie-marinated culture proves that all ages are enthralled by a good story. Much of our post-modern society is influenced by the plot lines and characters in our weekly soaps; it’s where many people learn their values. Steve Chalke once said, “If you put a discussion about euthanasia on Panorama the vast majority turn off, but if you put the same subject into the plot of EastEnders, everyone’s talking about it the next day.” But should we be just aping society or is this approach Biblical? Why Stories? God chooses to speak to us primarily through a story! Breaking down the Bible into simple categories of communication style shows that approximately 51% of the Bible is story; about 29% is poetry; leaving 20% for direct, didactic explanation (including some statistics, genealogies and hard facts). Yes, it’s all teaching - the full 100% jam-packed full of lessons for life, but 80% of that teaching is in the form of stories and poems – sometimes both at the same time! There are biographies; there are testimonies, even autobiographical song lyrics. The evangelist, J. John, has said, “Jesus always seemed to be asking questions and telling stories. Many Christians seem to be giving answers and ‘preaching’.” Now, I’m totally into apologetics and love a good dose of expository preaching – but my experience with whole ‘word on the street’ touring project is that some people’s knowledge of the Bible is pretty dire - we all need clear, logical, systematic teaching. And this is where the Team Approach comes in: the role of the storyteller is to heighten people’s hunger for this meaty teaching by adopting the approach of the founder of our faith who primarily told stories and asked questions when connecting with his public. A big part of the story teller’s brief is to pack the pews with punters hungry for more – surely, an apologist’s and expository preacher’s dream! Where from? We have a wealth of flawed heroes in the Bible – let’s endeavour to tell their stories so people get that ‘a-ha!’ moment of realising how the Bible is packed full of stories/poems/images that resonate with the big issues of today. How perfect for a post modern culture where many people assimilate their values from a TV or iPod. As ever, God’s ahead of the game - He’s been teaching us principles through stories from the off. Did God teach us about the problem of evil through a technical essay on a morally fallen planet, or was it through the story of one righteous man who lost almost everything and yet still clung tenaciously onto God? God knows how we’re wired and His Good Book is full of characters engaging with Him in an experiential way. Back last year, I was leaving my ‘writing cave’ having spent a morning working on my new Liberator book, I looked up and saw a hoarding for the film ‘Hotel Rwanda’ which has the strap line: “the true story of a man who fought impossible odds to save everyone he could” – and, before I knew it, I’d shouted out, “Oy! That’s OUR story!” And it’s not a one-off. How many feature films can you think of which are inspired by the plotline of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Classical storytelling tutors actively instruct would-be film writers to find ways in which ‘the worst thing possible can become the best thing imaginable’. And where do they get this from? Exactly, our Bible! We have a wonderful, gripping, thrilling story to tell. May God help us find a whole range of creative ways in which to tell it. Do we have a mentor? Having just spent two years studying the gospels while writing The Liberator book it still wows me how much the characters come alive when you dig into the story. Jesus’ friends didn’t know the plot twist of the empty tomb: imagine Mary Magdalene’s ‘diary page’ for the very first Easter Saturday: would her demons come back now Jesus was gone? How can Matthew go back to collecting taxes for Pilate? How can Peter ever go fishing again, now he’s walked on water?If you don’t know the ending, the journey’s more vivid. And Jesus’ stories often didn’t give people the ending – did the elder brother ever join the prodigal’s party? When Jesus spoke with the religious leaders he often uses stories, but he also debated the finer points of theology with these highly educated, rational thinkers – he was such an astute debater that they eventually gave up trying to catch him out (Matthew 22:46). Switch the audience type to the disciples and Jesus was, again, very direct – ‘Team Jesus’ being the only group of people we read of who get to hear direct explanations of the parables. Change the faces in the crowd: erase the disciples and Photoshop in the general public, and Jesus was almost exclusively telling his deep-as-you-like stories – some people listening for days on end apparently not even realising they were hungry (Mark 8:2)! Jesus was undoubtedly the master communicator – we have much to learn from our mentor! Mark 4:33,34 (NIV) says, ‘With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his disciples, he explained everything.’ Matthew 13:34 has a similar summary of Jesus’ approach and Mark 7:1-23 shows Jesus using all three approaches in sequence, utilising a different style according to which group he was addressing - check it out. Even Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount fits this ‘know-your-audience’ pattern: Matthew 5:1b,2 says Jesus began teaching his disciples and, apparently, allowed the crowds to eavesdrop! So even in his ‘Team Induction Sermon’ Jesus is still using visual metaphor and story to illustrate his message. I love that fact that he was so aware of how mysterious the kingdom of heaven was - and therefore so hard to explain - that all the way through the gospels he kept taking stabs at painting it in people’s imaginations with word pictures. Are we so sure that we’ve got it all worked out that we feel we can explain it! Is this why we rarely feel the need to resort to word pictures or parables to attempt a description? How much should we explain? Not only did Jesus regularly use stories but the gospel records show that He rarely explained them, and then, only backstage with his team – the only two examples of unpacked parables being the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23), and the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). Jesus clearly had the security and wisdom to allow the Holy Spirit to wing it home to people’s deep places even though this ran the risk of some listeners getting the wrong end of the stick. Imagine a farmer hearing, say, the parable of the sower and thinking Jesus wanted him to invent a machine to reduce the wastage whilst sowing seeds! Why didn’t Jesus spell it out for the crowds like he did for the disciples? As I’ve explored ways of applying Jesus’ approach in, primarily, evangelistic contexts I’ve recognised that it takes a lot of restraint on my part not to go all didactic and whip out my seven point summary of what people are supposed to learn from my story! I’m still, sadly, insecure enough to need people to recognise that I’ve got something important to say. But as I’ve explored leaving things a little open ended I’ve always been amazed by how much more passionately I’ve prayed – since God’s really going to have to turn up! And how God seems to say a whole range of things to people that I’d not even realised were in there! Wonderfully humbling stuff! One time I was performing my one man show of the Prodigal – called The Prodigal Grandson - which takes Jesus’ parable on into the next generation, asking ‘What if the elder brother had a son?’ At the end a silver haired member of the audience said he’d sensed God telling him to spend more time with his grandchild – something I’d never considered my show to be dealing with – and I thought I was ‘doing evangelism’! Another time, someone came and thanked me for ‘treating them as an adult’ by allowing them to think for themselves! What approach, other than open-ended story, can say such diverse things to so wide a range of people at the same event according to what’s going on for any one person at the time? Only God can do this, but maybe only when we allow Him the space to do what He does best. I dread to think of the crushing effect on this grandfather if I’d pointed out ‘my moral’ of the story. Might this man have dismissed his God-provoked thoughts of improving relations with his grandchild if the ‘important’ guy with the mic had insisted the moral was about something else?! Plus if I’d told him directly that he should spend more time with his grandchild, would it have made the same impact on him? Working it out on his own with God meant that the moral he walked off with was his, not mine. And when God speaks like that, it lasts. Jesus’ use of deep-as-you-like stories, images and riddles seem to suggest that people prefer their crosswords with just the clues listed and not all the answers pre-printed in the grid; they want there to be some clues to wrestle with; they want to enjoy the satisfaction of discovering the answers for themselves. There are plenty of stories to tell! Whether we tell them in a crafted way or just stutter them out, God can use them to inspire, stimulate and challenge. So, just for kids then? Matthew sums up Jesus’ “storyfying the kingdom” approach by quoting Psalm 78:2: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old – what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from our children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord.” (NIV) This verse about not hiding truths from children also seems to endorse the use of parables? But wouldn’t the use of riddles confuse the children? Or does the Psalmist propose this method precisely because children click onto the meaning of stories straight off and it’s, perhaps, only us adults who are metaphorically challenged!? Given what Jesus repeatedly said about the First and Last reversing and how he regularly talked about children being awarded top status in the kingdom – maybe my title question is actually correct. Maybe stories are just for kids – and all of us need to return to that childlike quality of total absorption in a story and complete identification with the characters portrayed. As Jesus (sort of) said, “I tell you straight, anyone who’s not into accepting God’s New World Order like a kid accepts a present will never get through the border controls into Heaven on Earth” (Mark 10:15 The Liberator). And again, “All the credit flying up to you Boss of Heaven, Boss of Earth, ‘cos this is the stuff that you’ve kept under lock and key; stuff that the boffins and academics have debated for centuries, and who gets a look in? It’s the kids, the uneducated kids! And I just know you love doing this!” (Luke 10:21 The Liberator) So, stories – just for kids? Maybe! Discuss. Rob Lacey is an award winning author, actor and broadcaster. He heads up Lacey Theatre Company who tour his writing extensively. He is commissioned to write a book about his struggles with terminal bladder cancer during the writing of both the word on the street and his new book The Liberator. Saltmine Theatre Company tour a dramatisation of “The Liberator” this March www.saltmine.org. Rob also serves as the co-artistic director of The Gate Arts and Training Centre in his home City of Cardiff, Wales (www.thegate.org.uk) He’s married todancer/choreographer Sandra Harnisch-Lacey and they are both heavily involved in the exciting ‘creative project’ of parenting their five-year-old boy Lukas and their nearly nought new arrival.