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Discipleship, Orality, Storying Basics

Escaping the Death Grip of Analysis

Viceroy Butterfly by Piccolo Namek used by permission

Viceroy Butterfly by Piccolo Namek used by permission

Ray Neu was doing a masterful job describing the beauty of a Bible story in Simply the Story training. Ray pantomimed his hands in a way that looked like he was holding an imaginary butterfly. He described its grace and beauty. Then he began to wonder aloud what made the butterfly work? He ripped off a wing, tore apart the legs, and popped off its antenna. He laid the lifeless pieces before him conveying the shock at what he had just done. Although this was all imaginary and nothing was actually in his hands, the tragedy was obvious. The audience got it.

Without explaining anything, Ray conveyed that analyzing a Bible story robbed it of its beauty. And its life. It’s not what a Bible story was designed for. Bible stories were a thing of beauty to appreciate. It had life. And that life while living had value to those in its presence. The dissected insect drained purpose away into inanimate chunks.

So is it wrong to exegete a Bible story? I don’t think so, but it depends upon who does the dissection. When taking an inductive approach, the small group facilitator becomes a discussion leader asking open-ended questions. The understanding and meaning and albeit analysis is voiced as a testimony of the participants in the group. Just as a butterfly can be described without evisceration, so can God’s Word be appreciated and applied without going word-for-word, but perhaps concept-by-concept.

Literate worldview people have been taught a technique akin to a biologist. Words have particular meaning and application to them. An emotional “feel” is fostered that leaves them feeling empty if that part of their spiritual diet is not nurtured. And what do they do with it? Usually nothing because the analysis is usually highly specialized. Just as the dead butterfly cannot go from person to person, so words carved out of sentences are very difficult to convey to others.

Jim Slack, the orality pioneer, has often said, “A primary learner has never seen a word.” While we are often surrounded by words conveying messages to us, it is the rare word that stands alone. Words convey thoughts and themes and transitions.

Now, this is the hard part. The Bible was written in only two or three languages out of 6,900 known languages. There are almost twice as many dialects. Translation of the Bible requires an understanding of words within the reality of its local context. It’s easy to camp out on words like “love” with three meanings behind it: philo-, eros-, and agape. What about “koinonia,” meaning godly fellowship? And then there are names of leaders, people, and places. Some special words like “legion” in Mark 5, conveyed a different mental image than in our day.

Handle specific words and their understanding prior to telling the Bible story. Be upfront with your audience that the following story has a word or two that might be unusual. Know what they are and how to convey them. The danger is that your explanation becomes part of the Scripture; an oral Bible. In other words, the story cannot be told without the definition. Words and concepts must be understood, but they must contribute to understanding and not distract.

The Bible story like the butterfly can be studied and understood. Lead your small group to dissect it if it’s really necessary, but to appreciate what God has provided to us.


About Mark Snowden

TruthSticks originated from the book I co-authored with the late Avery Willis. Truth That Sticks: How to Communicate Velcro Truths in a Teflon World was the book and this blog and Bible studies have resulted. It's great to be partnering with churches who are committed to making disciple-makers. Request a catalog of Bible studies using orality at SnowdenMinistries@gmail.com.


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