Have You Been Read Like a Book?

According to Oxford University’s online dictionaries, the phrase to ‘read someone like a book’ means to be able to ‘understand someone’s thoughts and motives clearly or easily’. This saying took on an interesting twist for me today when I stumbled across the Human Library™ on the internet today. In this unusual library, you withdraw not the latest novels or timeless classics, but a person who will share their life story with you.

So where did this unusual twist on a library come from? It started in Denmark after the stabbing of a youth in 1993. Friends of this teenager, who fortunately survived, started a group called ‘Stop the Violence’. Asked to provide an activity for the Roskilde Festival, they brought together 75 human books, who could be taken out so that ‘readers’ could find out about the person behind the stereotypes and ask awkward questions – and hear possibly honest and challenging responses. Apparently before the first book was withdrawn, the hall was full of conversation between the books themselves as they listened to each other’s stories, the policeman sitting down with the graffiti writer, the politician with the youth activist and the football fan with the feminist. Since this first event, the Human Library has taken off with similar presentations taking place in more than 70 countries around the world. You can even go to their website and get a taste of some of the books you might get to read, the soldier with post-traumatic-stress-disorder, the convert to Islam, the brain-damaged, young single mother, the unemployed, the body mod extreme and the refugee amongst others.

Personally, I think this is a wonderful idea. We’re all too quick to judge others simply by the tags we put on them, failing to think beyond these simple labels to the complex human being beneath them with their mix of emotions, pressures and insights. Perhaps it’s important to remember that to others we are tags as well. Don’t forget, to some we are ‘Christians’. Colossians 1:19-20 describes God’s mission as reconciling the world to himself through Christ. I can’t help but feel that this Library could be part of that process, enabling people to come together and begin to appreciate other’s stories and the people behind them. Got me wondering how we can help others hear our story, but perhaps more importantly, how can we begin to hear the stories of those around us.


Are You Sitting Uncomfortably?…

I remember as a child entering into a competition held by Radio Four in which people were invited to enter mini-sagas, 50 word stories. Fifty words doesn’t sound like many does it, anyone can come up with fifty words (to give you a sense of scale, the newsletter front page article is usually 4-500 words). It might be easy enough to come up with fifty words, but coming up with a gripping yarn in only fifty words is a totally different matter – I see that Radio Two has taken pity on current children and asks for five hundred word stories instead!

Here’s a challenge for you – can you encapsulate in some way your experiences of God in fifty words? Answers in an email, a couple of texts or a scrap of paper please! You could write about your story of coming to faith, your ongoing questions about him, or a particular experience. It could be a straight account, or a story or even a poem. I’d love to turn next week’s front page into a collection of them.

Of course, the master of the really-short-story was Jesus with his parables. Can you name anyone else who has come up with such enduring, captivating and surprising tales as his? Many of these are fifty words as well, or even less. It’s amazing that even now, some two thousand years after they were first told, that they still have the power to shock and transform, or to make us face up to who we really are. I’ve spent much of the last few years thinking about them and reading about them partly because of various bits of course work and sermons I’ve had the joy of preaching, but mainly because I find that I can’t get away from them, there’s something about them that teases and keeps calling me back to them. What did Jesus mean by that? If he told them today, how would he change them? What is Jesus saying to me through them now? And how about to us, his church?

There is a downside to their popularity. Sometimes we can become deaf to them, we’ve heard it all before. Or we come up with ways to make them comfortable to listen to or to explain away the awkward bits and make them suitable for church consumption. Symon Hill has come up with a great way to listen to them afresh and cut through the traditions we’ve built up around them in his book The Upside-Down Bible. Rather than turn to scholars and commentaries to get answers to these questions, he took a novel approach. If the parable was about crops or sheep or soil, he’d go and tell the story to a group of farmers and see what their reactions were. A story about workers and their treatment? He asked a group of trade unionists for their views. The Good Samaritan? He asked some Jews for their thoughts. He also made a point of asking non-Christians, those who hadn’t really thought about or heard the stories before. Sometimes their answers were what he expected. Often they were not, and jolted him into seeing them in new ways. Got me wondering who to talk to next time I get stuck in sermon prep, or for that matter, who might be interested in hearing these stories if we got them outside the church and into our communities…

The Importance of Story

Just read this by Joanne Harris in the Telegraph:

Stories – even fairy stories – are not just entertainment. Stories are important. They help us understand who we are. They teach us empathy, respect for other cultures, other ideas. They help us articulate concepts that cannot otherwise be expressed. Stories help us communicate; they bring us together; they teach us different ways to see the world. Their value may be intangible, but it is still real.

That’s why our politicians, far from closing libraries, should be opening new ones. That’s why our thinkers, instead of dismissing fairytales as fantasy, should celebrate creativity. That’s why our schools, instead of teaching literature in the way that gets the best grades, should be using it to fire pupils’ enthusiasm and imagination.

In the dark old days, the storyteller always had the best place by the campfire. Those days may be gone, but the power of story remains. It’s time we acknowledged that, and brought our authors out of the cold.

Couldn’t agree more!

As a lover of stories, both ‘recipient’ and ‘writer’ (apostrophes to recognise that a story is always a cooperative experience/event even if the author wrote the words in another continent and century to the reader) I see time and time again how stories have change our perceptions and thinking and consequently our lives. Stories have the power to shape our identity and outlook in a powerful way. As a Christian I also want to say yes, being the lover of what has sometimes been branded the greatest story ever told and a follower of the Word made flesh.

The Power of Reading (Neil Gaiman)

Just picked up a link to Neil Gaiman’s Reading Agency lecture 2013. Fantastic talk on the power and importance of reading. Covers a wide range of topics from imagination, children, China, Apple, invention, pleasure, prisons, ebooks, libraries, empathy, truth, obligations, day dreaming, the future and the dead! Listening to this I repeatedly found myself declaring ‘Yes!’ out loud, even though I’m sitting at home in front of a computer screen on my own.

The power of sharing stories and learning about and expanding our understanding of ourselves, our world and our God through them is something I’ve become increasingly convinced about. We can accumulate so much information, be given so many rules and guidelines, but only stories, spoken, read or sung, take in not just our brains, but the hard-wiring of our being, changing who we are and our capacity to embrace and appreciate our surroundings. To me it is no wonder that Jesus spent so much time telling tales and so little time giving lectures.

Like Gaiman, I spent much of my childhood in libraries with my head in a book, and upon returning from them, my head would remain in a book until all the books were read (fairly soon after) and I went back for more. They are far from being stuffy places (although some could do with a does of fresh air). They are amongst the most subversive, revolutionary, life changing and liberating places I know.

Anyway, enough of my waffle, go listen to what the man himself has to say…

Love the quote about Einstein and fairy tales – still reading them to myself today in the hope that it might just work in the end!

Review: The Storyteller of Marrakesh

The Storyteller of Marrakesh
The Storyteller of Marrakesh by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Last week the latest addition to our household arrived, our first Kindle. This was something I’d resisted for some time, despite my geek credentials. I love books, proper books, hold in the hands and smell and savour books with covers and pages, no swiping required. Ereaders were, to my point of view, second class and to be shunned! But then Amazon offered us a coupon with mooney off, and in a moment of weakness I succumbed. Having tried it, I’m a convert! Not a complete convert, you understand, but I’ve come into the light and realised that these are just as valid ways of consuming books, just different. For those who are concerned, I still love ‘proper’ books and haven’t given up on them in the slightest.

So what to read first on our new Kindle. ‘The Storyteller of Marrakesh’ seemed a suitable first choice. This is a delightful read, a rich tapestry of colour and senses, and all about stories and truth – entirely fitting for my first Kindle outing. The storyteller in question is Hassan, who plies his trade in the Jemaa el Fna, the square. The story for this particular night is that of a foreign couple who visit this Moroccan centre to savour the atmosphere only to fall foul of some misfortune. As Hassan skilfully weaves his narrative, others join in, enlarging, dissenting, piecing together the events of that fateful night layer by layer.

I was totally entranced by this novel, both on the level of its narrative, which I found enticing and intriguing, and it’s exploration of the nature of truth and story, and it’s involvement of both teller and audience in shaping and interpreting it. I found the writing successfully conjured up the foreign atmosphere of Morocco and left me wanting to know more.

My favourite quote? As a preacher and rpg-gamer this particular passage caught my attention:

‘A story is like a dance. It takes at least two people to make it come to life, the one who does the telling and the one who does the listening. Sometimes the roles are reversed, and the giver becomes the taker. We both do the talking, we both listen, and even the silences become loaded.’ (Roy-Bhattacharya, Joydeep (2012-03-16). Storyteller of Marrakesh, The (p. 8). Alma Books. Kindle Edition.)

That dance is a very familiar one to me as a story-teller in my own right.

Thank you for the dance ! It was a delightful whirl across the floor. I look forward to another sometime.

View all my reviews

The Nature of Stories

Reading ‘The Storyteller of Marrakesh’ by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya at the moment. Delightful and rich book – so far thoroughly drawn in by it. A wonderful passage at the start of the book which I thought was worth capturing here,

A story is like a dance. It takes at least two people to make it come to life, the one who does the telling and the one who does the listening. Sometimes the roles are reversed, and the giver becomes the taker. We both do the talking, we both listen, and even the silences become loaded.

As a preacher and an avid reader, I know the truth of this. Any story or speech is only a collection of letters on a page or sounds in the air, unless there is an audience who hears and reads, engaging and interpreting, bringing their heart and soul to the dance of the story as it is woven. The resultant movement belongs to both parties and has something of each of them in it, even if only one side speaks or writes. A story heard or read is an event, not a static transfer of information.

Telling Tales

A few weeks ago we went as a family to the Globe to watch Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. It was a magical night, my first time there, and I am determined not my last. Before hand, though, I put a lot of work in to make sure I’d read the script and understood the story so that I could navigate my way through the beautiful but sometimes undecipherable language of ‘The Bard’.

In last Sunday’s sermon I alluded to a conversation I had with David L… about the language we use to talk about God. The underlying question was, how can we talk about God in language that is accessible and meaningful to today’s culture? The question was not simply how can we translate old versions of the Bible removing the ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s etc. so that the words themselves are modern equivalents of the original word, but how can we talk about God and faith using contemporary concepts and understanding. Often when we talk about God we use Biblical imagery or Biblical stories, and this certainly has its place, but dare I say it, this runs the risk of two related dangers. To begin with, you can take a 50’s love song from the charts of the day and get a modern chart topper to sing it, but the song is still the same song, using the same words and pictures from past era and may seem twee or outdated to modern teens. Similarly, you can dress a story from the Bible up in modern words, but the content it talks about is still the same content, and the danger is that you’re telling a story that doesn’t relate to contemporary hearers.

The other danger is that by doing this we run the risk of being unfaithful to Scripture and Jesus’ method of communicating. How did Jesus communicate his faith and understanding of God? One of the main ways was through stories. Stories are fantastic tools for not only capturing people’s attention, but also helping them grasp concepts that can’t be described in conceptual language – and let’s face it, it’s notoriously difficult to describe God, he’s beyond straight description. But what stories did he tell? He didn’t retell the old stories that often, the stories of the Bible of his time, the Old Testament as we might retell his stories today. I’m trying to think of an example of him telling the story of David or Moses or Elijah, and I can’t. No, he told stories that related to the people of his day, using the language of his time and the concepts that folk of his day thought in. He told stories of farmers and masters and plants. Underneath, it was the same truth he was telling, but in the language and framework of his time. Surely to be faithful to Scripture we should do the same?

There’s no doubt that some of his stories still work – the parables are still dramatic stories and this says a lot about what a master-storyteller he was – but often they require a lot of work for us to really get it, just as we have to work hard to understand Shakespeare. The question I wonder is – and I’d love you to help me answer it – how would he talk about faith and God today? What language and concepts would he use? What images, occupations and news-stories would he reach for – I can’t see him talking about agriculture so much can you?

Church Newsletter 16th June 2013

I am the Good Story

On a recent interview for BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme (29th Oct), the children’s author Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials trilogy) discussed his latest book, a retelling of 50 of his favourite Brothers Grimm fairy tales to mark the bicentennial of their first publication. He was joined by Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Coraline, Doctor Who) who explained that these dark and scary stories were important as they warn us through fantasy that there are monsters out there that we need to be wary of.

This discussion highlighted one reason why sharing stories is so important. One of the major roles of stories is that they help us to explore with issues that we may face in life, to work through what they might involve and how we can respond to them, in a safe way – similar to children playing ‘let’s pretend’ in order to make sense of the world around them.

Some authors recognise this power in stories and so deliberately set out to harness the power of story to shape our thinking. C.S. Lewis is a prominent example, his Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series being a ‘fantasy’ retelling of his understanding of the Christian gospel. Pullman is another, some might describe him as ‘the anti-Lewis’, an atheist using fantasy to warn of the danger of organised religion.

I am aware that there are many Christians who would ‘boycott’ his books because of this, avoiding them because they are dangerous. I can appreciate why they have this stance. Although I disagree with the portrayal of God within them, there is a ‘prophetic’ aspect to them if we can see past the ‘shock value’ to what he has to say about religion and ask ourselves if his criticisms have any weight to them.

Because of his stance, it might be seen as surprising that during the interview he claimed that there are three books that every child should read, ‘There’s Grimm, there’s The Arabian Nights and there’s The Bible and I think those are the three great repositories of stories that everybody ought to know about. It’s a great shame if someone reaches adulthood or puberty without knowing those stories, without having read those stories at least once.’

I am not surprised. Whatever your view of faith, you can’t get away from the fact that the Bible contains a collection of fantastic stories from the political machinations and prophetic visions of the Old Testament to the parables of the master story-teller Jesus himself – not to forget his own story. There’s also a wealth of good common sense wisdom stored in within; whatever our world-view, we can all gain from reading it. But the Bible is, of course, more than just a depository of thrilling yarns and wise sayings, it is one of the main ways in which God himself reveals himself today – he too knows the power of a good story. He is the Good Story.

As the Bible Soceity commented on their website, ‘We’ve been saying it for a while, but it’s great to have Pullman, a self-declared agnostic atheist, saying that we should all read the Bible as a formative experience. We couldn’t agree more.’ Nor could I!

You can listen to the BBC interview again here: http://bbc.in/SI1njo.

Church Newsletter Article 11.11.12

Erroneous Stories

Whilst I was at University I was introduced to Stephen Jay Gould, and paleontogist and biologist, who gained quite a name for himself writing popular science books in an attempt to inspire people to become more interested in biology. I recently stumbled across a quote from him, although I must confess to not knowing where he wrote it, or which particular stories he was referring to. It goes:

‘The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best — and therefore never scrutinize or question.’

As a scientist I know these are wise words. As a scientist, there is always the danger of assuming you know how things operate, and so read that understanding into your observations and interpretations of data, and so become blinded to the possibility that in fact in reality things work quite differently. It can take quite a leap of imagination to see the world differently to how it is widely believed to be. For centuries people believed that the Sun went around the Earth, it took the imagination and courage of Galileo to begin to persuade people that they’d got the story wrong. Similarly, since Newton, it was widely believed that these rules governed everything – until a wave of scientists in the 20th Century came along with the concept of Quantum Mechanics. Suddenly the story of the world became a whole lot stranger.

But Gould’s saying doesn’t just relate to science. It can also apply to how we relate to people. It is all too easy to believe we understand other cultures around us, that we know what they believe and what is important to them. Gould’s saying warns us against this and challenges us to make sure this isn’t simple prejudice or misunderstanding.

As a Christian, his words provoked me to think about how I approach the Bible too. The challenge for us is to keep the Bible fresh, to always approach it with an open mind, to never assume that we’ve understood it all. It is all too easy for us to believe we know how it’s story goes, and be blinded by our assumption with the consequence that we are prevented from actually hearing what it really says, or to hearing what God might be trying to say to us through it today because we remember what he said yesterday. The Pharisees thought they knew the story, and yet when the Story became flesh and walked amongst them, they didn’t recognise him as he wasn’t what they thought the Story said. Let us heed Gould’s words and the warning from the Pharisee’s example.