Much is made of Stories in youth Ministry. Lets get it out there. Stories communicate a message through appealing to imaginations. We connect with character, with script and with narrative arc. Jesus told stories. Story telling is key in the communication of the Gospel, often stories illuminate when proposition disengages. From a theological and philosophical perspective Paul Ricoeur, the french philosopher, is credited with bringing narrative interpretation of the Biblical text into the conversation, although using narrative to understand the Biblical text goes back further.
We understand story, because stories are everywhere, from Disney to Doctor Who, Breaking Bad to Big Bang, in Books, comics and magazines. Stories invoke passion, provide an empathetic outlet for us, and cause us to relax about our own circumstances for a little while, or be inspired by another.
Story comforts and settles, like the bed time story, the camp fire story or the primary school story time. They might distract, and they take us away. They are also abstract, the story is some elses, some one else has lived it, written it, and all thats being done is reading it out aloud. And no one reads a story that hasnt been finished, or do they?
The problem with story as it gives no clue. It is a pretty neutral word. It needs a descriptor, such as ‘poignant’, or ‘long’, or ‘childrens’. If you asked me to a tell a story, i could regurgitate about my trip to tescos, my holiday in the cotswolds or about how I saved a young persons life, all might be correct as all are stories, as there was no way of gauging what king of story it would be from asking about story.
Back to youth Ministry, the Gospel story might be one that is told.
Theres many ways of doing it, some that relay its complexity better than others. And we tell a gospel story so that young people might believe it. Adopt it, and cause it to be the ideological story that they shift their personal life narrative to coordinate around. So it forms their identity. Which is great. Job done. Marvellous. And we can go home then.
But if story is just about telling, and belief is just about accepting, then what happens next? Believe in the story of God, seems to make light of participating in the ongoing mission of God. It doesnt seem much, to opt God into our story. Feels a bit, well short changed doesnt it?
In Short – we need to change the metaphor from story to drama. But not throw out the ‘story’ out with the rest of the bath water.
Regular readers here will know a little about Theodrama ( Gods Drama) but if this is the first post you have read from me, then heres a bit of a reminder. In this post I asked the question: What does Theodrama mean in Youthwork? (and this is kind of a part 2 to this):
Various Theologians, Von Balthasar, Vanhoozer, Sam Wells, Trevor Hart and Wesley Vander lugt have proposed that the metaphor of theatre and drama is a suitable, if not vastly illustrative and informative lens to use for the Gospel, a eucatastrophe, a tragedy that brings about Good. They, and NT Wright, make the proposal that drama, rather than story is helpful.
Lets go back to basics, what Drama there is in the Biblical narrative!
In each moment of the Biblical narrative there is tension and drama, from Act 1 where Creation breathes life, Human made in Gods image, expulsion from the Garden
The Covenant and ongoing communication of God to Moses, Aaron and Joshua, right through to David and the prophets, Kings, and just before the arrival of the Christ, there is silence. Nothing.
Then Christ in Flesh. A life of drama, unease in his surroundings, the rabbi who asked others to follow, the leader who served, who listened, included and healed. Who voluntarily went to Jerusalem, died, and then rose. The greatest story ever told, the most dramatic of drama in 33 years.
Then emerged the church, foretold in Peter, and emerged from the Resurrection, the organisation of the disciples, yet God still spoke, prompted and gave cues for the action, from Philip on the road to Gaza, to Paul in Jerusalem, and the disciples deciding their routes. That God spoke in creation, and to Moses , as Jesus and in the church is key.
Story might mean that Gods story is finished, and that there is no intersection with ours. The metaphor or Drama, allows Jesus to play alongside, all the way. But it is not finished. It is not a 4 act play, but 5.
For the last part has yet to be played. It may have been predicted, and illustrated in the last book of the Bible, but is yet to be played. There is an immediate tension. There is a Drama in the Drama. Yet knowledge of what might be, even metaphorically in the future, is enough to give hope. As Kenda Creasy Dean says, often in Youth Ministry we have an ascension deficiency disorder. Without Future hope, the present is more anxious. Without a concept of the future, and the imagination of the future Kingdom, how might we enact hope with young people, how might they be hopeful themselves without purposeful metaphorical direction?
So, Drama helps to describe the Story. The Whole story. That bit is fairly easy, thats a framework von Baltasar created. The Biblical narrative is dramatic. The Human plays parts, God speaks and directs. Yet that is not all.
The drama above helps us locate ourselves in the story. Helps us, and young people know our place. As Sam Wells says, we are not the Hero, the church is not the hero. It is merely the vehicle and witness, the place of the saints, not to be heroic. The flawed but gatherer of community, the one who projects the action onwards, the wise sage. (see this post for more on Heroes and Saints in the Theodrama
Drama also secondly describes the ongoing search. For the current action might take place on the Stage of the World, and we might be in the middle of participating in Gods ongoing story of redemption towards the final fifth act. But within the performances, certainty, control and consistency are often absent, instead even the search for God, in a world of distractions is dramatic itself. It is hard work even to communicate with God at times, that is drama itself. This is where story really doesnt help does it? Story might give us the impression that discipleship is like Disney, when the reality is that it is more like a live ongoing play that takes place every day of the year with different challenges , distractions and cul-de-saqs that prevent even resting and meditating on God a challenge. So, not only is the Gospel Narrative a drama, the search for God is a drama too.
But thirdly, and maybe more importantly, Drama and Theatre appeal to our imagination, just like Story. Drama is live and present and unique – often unlike story, which may be read with different voices, or shown in different cinemas, but the story has a fixed element. Drama is open, creative and responsive. Our part might be to respond to the offers of others, or create performances for others to participate. For young people as theologians, (see previous post) it is that they are attuned, like us, to hearing and responding to God in the midst of the everyday situations, and to not perform a moral play, but a hopeful, intuitive one that loves the world. And yes, Drama rather than Story envokes performance. Story might just seem to cause God to fit into our story (and we do what we want), Drama implies that we participate in Gods and perform it, whilst still retaining human freedom.
Theodrama is an adventure into the unknown scenes with God speaking and where we might fit ourselves into his tasks to walk humbly, love mercifully. A dangerous prophetic act of rehearsing and practicing acts of the new kingdom. Not just see where we fit God into our lives and story.
Theodrama causes us to have an imagination to see God , hear God and make a response to God in the Midst of the action.
Maybe in Youth Ministry we need an imagination shift, a metaphorical picture of God continually at work, of ourselves a humans performing along with others ( for it is not a lone performance) on the stage of the world. It is a performance that is inclusive to all to perform to the best of their formation. (Forming performers is what ill write on next). In wanting to help young people make their story connect with Gods, we might omit that they might already be performing, and how they might continue to do so. Salvation might be to hear that ongoing call.
So, some of that might make a dramatic difference for young people. Drama gives us the expectation of what discipleship is like, what the story is about and what we are tasked with doing, once we begin to participate. It is story in need of improvising and acting, with a hopeful but dramatic ending, present and past. Drama is what it is. Disney is what its not.
Hart, Vander Lugt – Theatrical Theology, 2014
Ricoeur P – Figuring the Sacred, 1995
Root, Dean, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, 2011
Von Balthasar – Theo Drama – the Prolegamma, 1980
Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005
Vander Lugt Living Theodrama, 2014
Wells, Samuel, Improvisation, 2004