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Tracy Radosevic: The sounds of a living tradition

A Christian storyteller says learning to tell Bible stories is a spiritual discipline that allows space for the Holy Spirit to reveal the meaning of traditional narratives.

January 11, 2011

Editor's note: Tracy Radosevic will lead a seminar during  Drawn into Scripture: Arts and the Life of the Church , Duke Divinity School's 2011 Convocation & Pastors' School, Oct. 10-11.

Because Bible stories were initially communicated orally -- with breath, sound and movement -- the sounds of the story still matter today, said storyteller Tracy Radosevic. Asking questions such as “Who was the audience?” and “What was going on socially, politically and economically?” when the story was first told allows the current meaning of the story to express itself through the teller, she said.

Radosevic is currently the dean of the Academy for Biblical Storytelling. After earning a master’s degree in religious education at Duke Divinity School, Radosevic worked as director of Christian education at First United Methodist Church in Cherryville, N.C. She later earned a master’s degree in storytelling from East Tennessee State University.

Since 1991 she has toured as a biblical storyteller in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. She is an adjunct professor at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology in Baltimore and at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

Radosevic spoke with Faith & Leadership about what it means to be a biblical storyteller and why leaders should help others tell their own stories. The video clip shows Radosevic telling the story of Bartimaeus. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Q: What is biblical storytelling?

In the Network of Biblical Storytellers, we embrace many ways of telling the story. We have people in our group who use music; they might play a musical instrument and they might sing as a way of telling a story. We have one person who does ventriloquism. We have two gals who tell in tandem. We embrace all of those ways of telling a story.

No matter what form your final story takes, we encourage you to begin the internalization process by learning the story close to the way that it has been “traditioned” to us. That’s a word coined by a former executive director of the network, Dennis Dewey. What that means is that we encourage people to aim for at least 75 percent word accuracy but 95 percent content accuracy. It’s the gist of the story that’s the most important thing.

Internalizing the story that way is a long process. It’s not memorization; it’s a spiritual discipline of familiarizing yourself with the words but also doing the background exegetical research on what was happening when these stories were first told. Who was the audience? Why did that particular writer of that story choose to construct the story in this way? What was going on socially, politically and economically?

I use the term “embody the story.” There’s meditating on the story, praying the story and making personal connections with the story, so that you’re telling it from the core of your being. From your very essence. That’s why you can have five people telling the same story but it’s not going to be the same story, because it’s told through the filter of life experiences.

The best jazz musicians have to learn the song first. You can’t make a riff on it and do improvising on the song until you know what the song is. That’s a great metaphor for us. We learn the story as it has been traditioned to us first; then you can do all sorts of creative things with it.

Q: What is the role of storytelling in leadership, either in telling biblical stories or in knowing your own story?

I see storytelling on a spectrum. At one end is what I do for a living. It involves contracts and exchange of money, maybe posters and advertisements; people come, and I’m going to be up on a raised platform and there’s applause afterwards -- a formal kind of experience.

At the other end of the spectrum is what happens every time you share a piece of yourself with somebody. It could be around the breakfast table; it could be with the person sitting next to you on an airplane.

I was the coordinator for the annual Festival Gathering of the Network of Biblical Storytellers for a number of years. One year one of the comments on the evaluation form said, “What I noticed about this gathering was the fact that people became friends through telling and hearing stories. That’s the unique nature of story. Stories open up relationships.”

When I read that, it was like a light bulb went off. That’s why this is important, and that’s why I basically have devoted my life to this.

Any time that an exchange happens between two or more people where the relationship changes because you know something about them that you didn’t know before, that’s storytelling.

My favorite C.S. Lewis quote is, “True friendship happens the minute one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself …’” That’s exactly what happens when you share a piece of yourself. The other doesn’t seem so much the other anymore. We all have something to offer. One of the ways to recognize that in the other is by sharing stories.

Q: How did you become a storyteller?

There are some who would say I was born a storyteller. But a biblical storyteller -- I didn’t know there was such a thing. I was introduced to biblical storytelling through the Network of Biblical Storytellers. [They sponsored] a one-night event ... ; I went and was absolutely hooked. I became involved with the network almost immediately. They were my mentors.

I started getting calls from churches, conferences and Christian education events wanting me to come and teach them how to do it, or perform for them. This happened almost immediately after returning from that one-night retreat.

Very quickly, it became my vocation. I didn’t do anything about that other than telling stories within my job and taking advantage of these extracurricular gigs on the side, but the more I did that, the more I really did feel a sense of my calling.

I found out about a master’s in storytelling program at East Tennessee State University. So, after being in my job in Cherryville for just shy of six years, I got another master’s, this time in storytelling.

Q: How does the word “traditioned” fit into the bigger picture of how storytelling is mentored or handed down?

Back in ’04, six years ago, the Network of Biblical Storytellers started what we’re calling the Scholars’ Seminar, bringing together biblical scholars who are doing work in narrative with biblical storytellers who have been trained in the NBS fashion -- bringing these two groups together to see what work we might generate as a result.

One of the things that has come out of that is performance criticism, which is the understanding that stories in the Bible were originally communicated orally. It was only much later that they were written down. If you’re trying to understand the Bible, especially how these stories were originally understood and experienced, it’s anachronistic to only be studying them by yourself in silence. That’s not how the stories ever were meant to be experienced.

What we’re trying to do is recapture how these stories would have been experienced by hearing them. The sounds of the story matter. There are certain things that it’s almost impossible to pick up on when you’re only studying the stories in silence.

These stories were originally shared orally, with breath, sound and movement. One of the scholars who has been a part of the Scholars’ Seminar, Whit [Whitney] Shiner, has a book that he published a couple years ago, “Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark.” He has done immense research on how the stories would have originally been told.

It wouldn’t have been [to] an audience that was politely sitting there but [to one that was] actively responding to this performance. That’s one of the differences between storytelling and drama, especially how it is nowadays. With storytelling, the audience helps; it’s a process of co-creation. The house lights need to be up, for instance; you need to be able to make eye contact and see your audience so it’s a co-creation -- and we feel like that’s very much in holding with how it would have originally been.

Part of what we’re trying to do is to say, “Look, we have precedents for this.” The stories would have always been told around the campfires and at the village wells and certainly within communities. What we’re trying to do is say, “Let’s get back to how these stories were originally communicated. We feel like you’re going to have a deeper experience of them as a result.”

Q: How do you handle the language issue? If you go back to the original telling, it would have been in Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic.

Obviously, that is a challenge in that we can never 100 percent re-create what the original experience was. Even when we encourage people to learn the story with the formula of trying to reach about 75 percent word accuracy but 95 percent content accuracy, people say to me, “Why not 100 percent content accuracy?” That would be great, if we could actually do that. But the fact is, I don’t know that there is any section of the Bible that every single scholar agreed on. We’re probably being optimistic to think that we can reach 95 percent content accuracy.

We recognize the fact that we’re already removed. Part of the reason we’re not quite as stringent on word accuracy is the understanding that because the stories were organic and told by a real person to a real audience, there isn’t just one way to tell the story. We’re trying to remain true, which is why we feel it’s important to stick close to the words, but realizing that this is just one version of the words that would have been told.

That 75 percent allows 25 percent elbow room. That allows you, when you’re working on a story in a given translation, to check other translations. Sometimes there’s one word in this translation that breaks open the meaning of that part of the story.

Part of what makes this powerful is the sense that I’ve made a personal connection with the story. What that means, for me, is that we’re allowing the Holy Spirit to also be a player in this.

If you think about it as cooking, I present what I’ve just created, and each person who partakes of that is going to have a different experience of it. The allowance for the Holy Spirit to work in their lives is part of what makes this an immensely powerful experience.