As for all sections, view the introductory video. Then listen to the content lecture audio while attending to the main text file on this page. Arrange to have the audio file and the text page open together so you can work your way through both in an integrated fashion.
Religious story telling
The psychological and religious functions of story: The telling of stories, especially in oral form, dates back into human prehistory. For early humans, stories were their vehicles for handing on cultural meanings, history and values, for explaining cultural practices and for providing personal guides to life. Humans had become genetically dependent on a non-genetic cultural inheritance not just for survival but for meaningful lives – and stories were a central component to this ever-evolving inheritance. And they still are today – even though the extent, diversity and forms of stories are more varied and ubiquitous through modern communications technologies. The role of religious story telling needs to be contextualised within its broader human base. Stories are always intended to be entertaining and engaging; but the hallmark of religious stories is their embedded meanings about the values, purpose and direction to life – they are never just about entertainment.
Biblical story telling: In story telling in the Hebrew Bible, the religious stories committed to text were primarily about Yahweh's covenant with the people of Israel. The fidelity of God to the chosen people was the model proposed for the fidelity that the Jewish people hoped to demonstrate in their own lives. Scripture scholarship would not regard the biblical stories as strict history in the contemporary sense of scientifically recorded history. While aetiological interpretations, explaining and reinforcing their mythic origins in a relationship with God, were projected through these stories, they nevertheless had a historical basis in the religious community that gave rise to the texts. The biblical stories are thus about the great religious heroes of the tradition; they are about God's work amongst the chosen people (including creation and covenant); they are repositories of the community's religious faith and wisdom about life; they showed how prophets, who were like the “conscience of Israel” (Vawter, 1961), challenged the community to be more faithful. The biblical stories reflect theology; they are an invitation to faith; they provide moral exemplars; and collectively they contribute to the religious community's sense of cultural identity – and in turn, this can flow into the personal religious identity of individuals.
In the New Testament, the story telling tradition of the Hebrew Bible was continued. Here the focus is mainly on stories about Jesus, written from what the scholar Marcus Borg called a post-Easter perspective. While historically based, they are primarily documents of faith in the risen Jesus. As will be considered in more detail later, the parables are a story form that is distinctive of Jesus – stories that challenged hearers to think again about conventional views that may not always reflect God's perspective.\
Religious stories and children's spiritual development: While a natural love for stories is genetic to all humans, appealing to people across their life cycle, children appear to have a particular affinity for them, not only as entertainment but also as fundamental mechanisms for learning about life and learning about themselves. Children's literature is fertile with moral biographies where children can imaginatively identify and evaluate the moral stance of characters in the stories. Story telling, along with play, are two fundamental ways for entertaining children and for promoting learning. And they are therefore key vehicles in their religious education.
To hold together coherently, all stories have built in ‘world views' or sets of values that are often implied and not always overt. Inevitably, all stories are thus value embedded. And religious stories are also theology embedded. Hence stories, whether religious or not, are about beliefs and values. Learning to discern the values, beliefs, biases, and morality in stories is a fundamental part of education – and as noted later, this is a valuable part of acquiring literacy generally and religious literacy in particular.
Contemporary multi-modality of stories: The film scholar Gerbner drew attention to the radical contemporary change to what had been the traditional patterns of story telling for millennia: “We have moved away from the historic experience of humankind. Children used to grow up in a home where parents told most of the stories. Today television tells most of the stories to most of the people most of the time.” (Gerbner, 1992).
Australian social researchers have also pointed out the educational need to address the problem:
While it is beyond the scope here to address this issue, it is explored in detail in the section “The shaping influence of film and television on young people's spiritual and moral development: An educational exploration” (Crawford & Rossiter, 2006, pp. 332-367).
Earlier, reference was made to the situation of many children from relatively non-religious families who will hear something about God ‘for the very first time' in their primary school religious education (Rossiter, 2012A). For them, it is particularly relevant for their teachers to introduce and highlight idea of the scriptures as the faith-stories of a continuing, historical religious community – a community of memory. For children as for adults, the main element in biblical story telling should be the religious meaning that the community attaches to the story. In other words, biblical story telling pedagogy would be misleading and incomplete if it were to concentrate on the descriptive details of the story as if they were historical, while neglecting to emphasise the theological meaning; this would also lay the foundations for a continuing literal/fundamentalist interpretation, that may be difficult to ‘educate away' at a later stage. Religious story-telling by definition should point towards the development of a symbolic/theological understanding of the scriptures.
Even for young children, teachers should be able to explain how the religious stories in scripture were not written in the same as the way as contemporary history is recorded in a strict documentary-like fashion. It is the intended community meaning of the scripture that is its main purpose; to focus too much on details as if they were historical, but which cannot be verified historically will sabotage this meaning. This is not to deny the historicity of scripture, especially in the New Testament; but it acknowledges that the New Testament authors were unfamiliar with the sort of scientific, historical, ‘facticity' that has dominated historical memory and texts since the 20 th century. The complex topic – the historicity of scripture – needs more detailed attention for adolescents and adults. To interpret the scriptures only from a contemporary historical perspective is therefore unlikely to recover accurately their intended theological meanings
A ‘lingering' literal interpretation of scripture may be a potential problem with the Godly play pedagogy.
Religion teachers involved in biblical story telling would do well to recall and follow the example of the Jewish Passover ritual where the presider continually reminds the group ‘why we are re-telling this story now'.
Teaching the creation stories in Genesis: Addressing the potential clash between scientific and religious interpretations: Dating back to the 1970s, research on children's understanding of science and religion has identified the problems associated with a literal (fundamentalist) interpretation of the Genesis stories in particular, and Biblical stories in general (Goldman, 1964; Hare Duke & Whitton, 1977; Martin & Pluck, 1977; Francis et al., 1990).
The fundamental mode of communication in the Bible is in symbolic/theological meanings -- more important than its historicity. So, when the Genesis stories are introduced to children, they should not be taught something that has to be ‘untaught' later. The literal details of the stories should not be emphasised whereas the theological / symbolic meanings should.
Children can be helped to understand something of the nature of the Biblical literature itself and about its literary genres – the Hebrew Bible is about the covenant between the people of Israel and their God. They need to know when it was written and what were the authors' purposes. The Bible is not a science book about the origins of the world. If there are apparent clashes between scientific and religious accounts of creation and human life, then it is likely to be either faulty religion or faulty science (Crawford & Rossiter, 2006, pp. 73-76). Through the use of creation stories from other traditions, children can learn something of the creation story genre.
Teaching the parables: Highlighting their subversive nature: The article by Dowling (2010) explained the parabolic, subversive nature of the parables of Jesus in the New Testament. These Gospel stories are much more than moral fables. Parables challenge people to think beyond their comfortable, conventional frames of reference; and they prompt questioning of their often limited view of the world; they also imply that God's generosity and care go well beyond people's usual expectations. This articulation of the original teaching purpose of the parables is relevant to early childhood and primary school religious educators because it presents ‘benchmarks' about the Christian meanings and pedagogical significance of parables. It shows what an informed Christian adult should know about the challenges intended in the parables; and this requires knowledge of their intended subversive meanings for the original audience in the sociocultural context of new Testament times. The issue then is how much of this perspective can be communicated with primary school children.
Those who are the first ‘tellers' of these stories to children should make sure that they do not engender meanings that would make it difficult for the children to move towards the more challenging interpretation later. While children may be encouraged to develop their own personal understanding of and response to the stories (E.g. the care of Jesus illustrated in the parable of the good shepherd), if they do not have some understanding of the original context and intent of the parables, then they will be mis-informed; their understanding of parables will be deficient. Hence, teachers need to think about how they might help children move gradually towards the intended meaning of the parables, even if some of the complexity in their subversive elements might be beyond them at an early age.
Primary religion teachers could attend to the following questions in their pedagogy for parables.
· What did Jesus appear to have in mind when he told this parable to people?
It would not be beyond the maturity of many primary school pupils to see that the parable of the good shepherd is about challenging people's view of God – his care for every individual goes way beyond what might usually be expected.
There is a need to understand the subversive nature of the parables that run contrary to peoples usual expectations in the storyline. Also important is the scholars' view that the parables are the distinctive mode of teaching of the historical Jesus.
The Bible as a literary work intended to confirm and advance the faith of believers and not an historical science book about the origins of the universe
To educate young people in the Scriptures, they need to be helped to learn how to interpret the Bible and not just read it at a surface level as if the surface meaning was historically true.
This will mean overcoming the literal/or historicised and often fundamentalist views of the Scriptures, beginning with a literal viewing of the Genesis stories.
See below to show the type of literal historicised understanding of the origins of the people of Israel as portrayed in the film the Bible. Also see this reflected in the supposed timeline for life. Later it will be shown that the timeline that students need to look at is more strict historical timeline of the origins of the Israelite people the times of the composition and consolidation of the Scriptures took place at particular points within that timeline.
A literalist and fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible as strict history - the fundamentalist big picture history
Part of the problem of interpretation of Scripture is to ensure that this sort of thinking about a historical timeline is avoided. It needs to be replaced by a real historical timeline locating when the different biblical documents were written both the Hebrew Scriptures and the new Testament. Note also consideration about the four different Gospels with different portraits of Jesus. Some comments were made about the particular slants or emphases in Mark's Gospel, Luke's, Matthew's and John's.
Just as a tangent to this study of the interpretation of Scripture, attention is drawn to hear to the problems resulting from a literal and fundamentalist interpretation that show up in the theory of creationism. This is an attempt to discredit the current neo-Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection by proposing a theory of separate creation during history of all the different species through a miraculous intervention by God. The article from the newspaper highlights some of the problems with creationism. For those who wish, this problem could be followed up through Internet searches especially in you Tube videos about creationism.
Click here for jpg picture files of a Sunday Herald article in 2014 on Ham and Creationism in the USA in 5 parts to allow reading of all the columns.
There is no doubt that the Christian church was founded on the memory and tradition of Jesus. But it was not a matter of Jesus ordaining the Apostles as priests and cardinals during the Last Supper and appointing Peter as the Pope – and the church rolled on from there.
The development was much more complicated. There were complex intermediate stages before the Christian church emerged as such. It began with a proliferation of Jesus-movement groups after his death, linked in some way to Judaism. Some survived some declined. One of the groups in Rome was part of a prominent break with Judaism and it eventually attained a dominance within the early Christian church.
Hence the idea of Jesus as "the founder of Christianity" needs to be explained carefully – it was evident that the historical Jesus did not set out to found a church as such. Jesus can only be understood against the backdrop of his participation in Judaism. He was Jewish and must have thought like many of the Jews of his time. Some perspective on the Hebrew Scriptures is therefore crucial if the backdrop to Jesus' thought and work is to be understood.
This first schema starts with a system for interpreting the Hebrew Bible which can then be applied to the new Testament. It makes use of terms such as: – Literary Israel, historical Israel, Literal/fundamentalist Israel, Theological Israel
Literary Israel: What the Biblical texts say. How the Jewish story is embedded in an accumulation or amalgam of stories within the Hebrew Scriptures. What the Biblical authors intended their initial readers to understand about Israel which was distinctive and unique in its covenant relationship with the one living God. Through a mixture of stories, aetiological myth (building up a mystical 'pre-history' of the group), elements of history, prayers, poetry, exhortations and religious law (giving a number of different literary genres) the Hebrew Bible expressed the self understandings of the people of Israel – the origins, their religious relationship with God their present life and the future.
Historical Israel: Interpretations and conclusions about the origins and history of the Hebrew people based solely on what can be verified from archaeology and literary sources and history outside of the Bible itself. It also takes into account critical literary criticism of the texts themselves.
Literal/fundamentalist faith view of Israel: A reading of the Biblical texts as if they were strict scientific and historical accounts of the origins and experiences of the Hebrew people. This 'historicises' the texts -- that is it tries to turn all of the stories in the Bible into strict histories -- in terms of how contemporary people would understand scientific and historical evidence of facts. And this appears to be quite contrary to the original intentions and approach of the Biblical authors.
Theological/symbolic faith view of Israel, informed by historical critical studies of both literary Israel and historical Israel. This view reads the Hebrew Bible as a creative and poetic book of faith and not strictly as a historical or scientific text. It takes into account literary Israel and historical Israel in coming to its conclusions.
Note about The Jesus story: The Jesus story is embedded in four officially accepted church documents – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- as well as in a number of other gospel like writings from the time known as the apocrypha. These included the Gnostic gospels.
The Jewish story in the Hebrew Bible: The simple view of a "presumed history" implied in the Hebrew Bible is often the source of belief that the following are more or less historical facts: The story of Abraham, Moses and the exodus. The occupation of Palestine by the 12 tribes of Israel and ruled over by David, Solomon and the separate lines of Kings in the north and the south. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians led to an exile in Babylon. The restoration of the Jewish people then occurred, followed by the rebuilding of their temple. Then followed the struggles with Greeks and Romans – merging into Christian times.
Taking into account history as evident in sources outside the Bible, as well as historical literary criticism of the Hebrew Scriptures themselves, indicates that a lot of this presumed history in the Bible text is not in fact history in the strict scientific sense. It must be noted that archaeology is limited in what details it can give of these early times. It cannot always prove nor disprove all the presumed historical events narrated in the Bible.
The Genesis stories and much about what is written in the Abrahamic and Moses stories are in the form of aetiological myths. This is the use of oral and other literary sources in a creative way to give a sense of origins of the covenant relationship of the Hebrews with the one true God. Increasingly, scripture scholars are focusing on these ‘theological intentions' to the meaning and significance of the story of the covenant relationship, not expecting that there ought to be precise historical documentation of historical events in the Bible.
Historical Israel: This construct is an attempted historical reconstruction of the history of the Israelites taking into account historical documents and archaeology from outside the Bible. For example, there is no substantial evidence of the grandiose kingdoms of David and Solomon or of a magnificent temple. The closer to the first century, the events have more substantial archaeological and historical evidence -- for example the captivity, the restoration the Maccabees. The Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. The Babylonian invasion of Judah in the sixth century BCE. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. After the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians, there was some form of restoration of Israelites to their homeland, even though archaeology suggests that not all of them were removed by the Babylonians. The cult of Yahweh had apparently emerged by this time and a temple was constructed in 515 BCE by the Persians in Jerusalem. It appears that these were the times in which the Hebrew Scriptures as we know them started to take shape. It seemed to be the official scribes related to the temple who were the principal authors. Some scholars consider that the final shape of the Scriptures was given during the period of the Hasmoneans or Maccabees.
The official teaching of the Catholic Church is that the Bible should be read as a theological document in the light of literary historical criticism. This argues against the literal/fundamentalist Israel as an inaccurate and unrealistic interpretation. What religious education should set out to do when educating young people in the Scriptures is to educate them in a way that will facilitate their being able to take a theological / symbolic faith interpretation.
One of the crucial thing is to keep in mind with getting children and adolescents to study the Hebrew Scriptures would be to help them understand that the origins of the history of the Hebrew people really are in the period 600 – 400 BCE. This is when the writings took substantial shape and the aetiological myths about origins were consolidated. This is very different from a view that the Bible is an historical account going back to what happened in the first seven days of creation.
This same set of four categories for interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures can be used for interpreting the Jesus of the Gospels.
The literary Jesus: What the Gospels in their four different portraits of Jesus say about him. The intended meanings that the authors of the gospel tried to communicate to the early Christians to confirm and challenge their faith in Jesus the Christ.
The Historical Jesus: An interpretation of what historical critical studies of the Gospels and related literatures, as well as of first century Middle Eastern cultures, to come up with theories about what the historical Jesus might have been like as he lived out his life in Judea and Galilee. The analysis sees the Gospels as based on history but also as documents that were not primarily written as strict historical accounts.
The literal fundamentalist Jesus: an interpretation of Jesus based on a literal or historicised account of Jesus by not going beyond the surface meaning of the gospel texts.
The theological view of Jesus the Christ: In the light of historical critical studies of the new Testament, to interpret how the early Christians believed that in a mysterious way Jesus had risen from the dead and was manifesting himself in ways that change the lives of his followers, as if he lived on within them in a mystical way. This reads the new Testament as primarily theological documents of faith where historical details were often changed and adapted to express the theological purposes of the gospel authors.
Some other systems of gospel interpretation that reflect some of the above elements
The Jesus of history and the Christ of faith
Contrasting the Jesus of history (as he would have appeared to observers during his lifetime) and the Christ of faith (how early Christians understood Jesus to be the son of God, their personal saviour and living on within them in a mystical way).
The pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus
This is another way of expressing the contrast above -- the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. it is noted that the Gospels are all written with a focus on the post-Easter Jesus – the risen Christ. Hence this adds lots of complexities to the text because what the gospel authors are primarily concerned with is telling a story of Jesus that will connect with the lives of early Christians and confirm and enhance their personal faith. In writing about the post-Easter Jesus, the gospel authors were not primarily concerned with exact historical details and they often used these creatively for their own distinctive theological purposes.
This suggests five different levels in examining the texts.
One: The surface meaning of the text itself. The literal account of the story being told
Two: The intended meanings of the author of the document. Often this was about confirming and enhancing the faith of the believing community. It may have used presumed history in a very creative way that is completely inconsistent with the way we think of scientific history as documented carefully today.
Three: The particular meaning as interpreted by individuals – often devotional. The personal meaning taken from the Bible was an important contribution of the Reformation, and in particular by Martin Luther. He said that individual Christians could communicate with God directly through the Bible – they did not have to go through the intermediaries of priests and church officials.
Four: The institutionalisation of particular personal views. Sometimes the meanings of individuals become consolidated as representing the views of groups such that they will then say "the Bible says this". Technically this never happens – it is always somebody's interpretation of the Bible "says this". There is a need to be careful of this sort of language particularly if the view is not tied to the individuals who generated the meaning initially. This type of language is often used to try to make the Bible appear to justify particular ideologies like racism, the inequality of women, and homophobia. To say the Bible says this or that is a gross simplification of its complexity.
Five: A particular interpretation of texts proposed by church or religious authorities. Often this may be in prayer and in liturgy.
One could suggest that if individual personal interpretations are going to be most helpful, then they would need to take into account what can be learned about the original intentions of the Scripture authors. Otherwise there is the possibility that personal meanings can be distorted if they are not congruent with those of the original authors.
Note however that once a text is written, it then has a life of its own. The meaning it has for particular generations and for particular cultures is often conditions by their sociocultural situation. Hence you have a what may often be a significant departure from the intended meanings of the authors.
A classical example of this independent life of the text can be seen in the film made by Joseph Goebbels 1940 – 1942, titled the Titanic. It was his effort to produce something that would rival the Hollywood Blockbuster movies. He portrayed the authorities in the White Star line as symbols of corruption, cowardice and un-trustworthiness that he was wanting to attribute to Churchill and the leaders of Great Britain. The only "good and trustworthy" character in the film was the first officer who was a German. However, by the time the film was completed late in 1942, the tide of the war had changed. The Allies had landed new armies in North Africa. Rommel was defeated. Stalingrad had fallen and the red Army was on the offensive while most German cities were being devastated by Allied air raids.
It was quite likely then that a German audience viewing the Nazi Titanic film in late 1942 or early 1943 might well see the corrupt characters in the film as symbolic of the Nazi hierarchy – Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich, Speer etc. Goebbels realised this was a problem and he never allowed his Titanic film to be screened in Germany – even though it was shown in some of the occupied territories like Czechoslovakia.
If you want to have a quick look at the documentary film about the Nazi Titanic film, or even a quick look at the original 1942 film with English subtitles click below.
So the meaning and the significance of the text/film changed according to the sociocultural situation. It is also interesting to note that the film Casablanca which was intentionally produced as a propaganda film for the West was released to the cinemas on the morning of the American operation Torch invasion of North Africa (8 November 1942). However, over the years the literary impact of the film in its own right has been such that it is not thought of today as primarily a propaganda film.
Click either photo for the streaming video of the documentary
Dr. Goebbels' Titanic (1943) This version also has the original movie trailer at the beginning. The trailer is not translated to English, but the movie itself is captioned/translated into English
Part of studying the new Testament in a critical way by students requires their knowledge. They need to understand that the four gospels were written many years after Jesus death/Resurrection. While the estimates of scholars will vary, it appears that the gospel of Mark was the first of the four main gospel is to appear perhaps around 40 – 50 BCE. The gospel of Matthew followed. And then the gospel of Luke. The gospel of John was apparently written towards the very end of the first century BCE.
The other important thing to communicate to students in the interpretation of Scripture is to understand that there were many writings about Jesus in new Testament times. Quite a number of them were called Gospels. But it was the authorities of the early Christian church, after evaluating all of the literature, that decided that these were the four that would be accepted as official and as carrying the revelation of God as verified by the church. It is interesting to note that there was a lot of debate for some time before the gospel of John was accepted into the Canon because it seemed to have some affinities with gnostic writings. this highlights the view that the Scriptures are part of the church. Without the church, they probably would not have been chosen, and verified in the church's view as God's revelation.
Ryan, M. (2008). Learning links to the Gospels: Teacher resources for the religion classroom . Brisbane: Lumino Press.
Ryan, M. (2011). Learning links to parables and miracle is: teacher resources for the religion classroom . Brisbane: Lumino Press.
Ryan, M. (2011). Learning links to Paul: teacher resources for the religion classroom . Brisbane: Lumino Press.
Ryan, M. (2012). Jesus and the gospels . Brisbane: Lumino Press.
Ryan, M. (2013). Mark: Reading the first gospel . Brisbane: Lumino Press.
Ryan, M. (2013). Reading the Bible: An introduction for students . Brisbane: Lumino Press.
Ryan, M. (2015). Presenting the new Testament: A manual of teaching activities, commentary and black line masters . Brisbane: Lumino Press