Bible Storytelling Camp!

I spent most of last week at the 2012 Festival Gathering of the Network of Biblical Storytellers (NBS). Part professional conference, part storytelling fest, this four-day event was held at a Christian conference center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. (Although I was disappointed that there were no actual campfires involved, it was probably all for the best given that there had also been a number of black bear sightings on the property recently — meep!)

This was a new thing for me. Last year, I went to a two-hour bible storytelling workshop, and an epic telling of the Gospel of Mark, both by Tracy Radosevic, who teaches at my school; and I was fascinated. When I found out that the theme story for this year’s gathering was one of my favorites, I determined to go as part of my summer vacation.

Newbies are very welcome at the festival, and in fact there’s a special workshop track for beginners, “NBS 101”, in which you learn how to learn and tell a story the NBS way: learning by heart rather than intellectually memorizing, and aiming for 70% word accuracy and 95% content accuracy.

Everyone was terrifically friendly – in fact, this may have been the most welcoming conference I’ve ever attended, of any type. Oldtimers were happy to see newbies — we got little yellow smilies on our nametags, so we were easy to identify! — and all the first-timers were generally eager to compare notes about what had brought us there and what we thought so far and what we might do with all this when we got home. I had lots of good conversations over lunch and dinner: too many to describe, but let me give a special shoutout to the Women of the Well, an ecumenical group of women storytellers from Rochester, NY (home of my alma mater) who focus on women’s stories, and to Sandy Mattucci, artist and storyteller.

Phyllis Tickle was the keynote speaker, and she gave an excellent series of three lectures on Emergence Christianity. (Hm, “lectures” makes them sound very dry, and they were hardly that! She’s a very engaging and entertaining speaker. But I took pages of notes – she conveyed a lot of information!) I’ve been hearing about the Emergence movement for several years now, and I admit to having a slight antipathy towards the idea, what little I’d heard about it: for one thing, it seems they mostly want to throw out the institutional church and rebuild it from scratch, and seeing as I’m an ecclesiologist, it hardly is surprising that I’d be suspicious of that! But she very helpfully began by clearly stating she intended to describe it, not sing its praises: we didn’t have to like it, but we should know what it was. I’ll try to do a separate post just on her talks, if I get time, but the takeaway message is that, every 500 years, Western Civilization seems to have a rummage sale in which everything’s up for grabs, and we’re in the middle of one now. It’s not just the church, but it’s the church, too: last time it was the Reformation, which produced not only Protestantism but also capitalism, the middle class, the rise of the nation-state, and the Enlightenment.

The featured storyteller was Rabbi Rachmiel Tobesman, who told ancient and medieval Jewish tales in two storytelling sessions. (And opened our worship services by blowing a shofar.)

On Thursday night, there was what’s called an Epic Telling, in which large swaths of scripture are divided up among a whole raft of storytellers, each of which tells just a portion of the story. This year the stories told were the stories of Susannah and the Elders, and Bel and the Dragon, from the deuterocanonical portion of the book of Daniel (aka “the Apocrypha”); the book of Jonah; and St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This was followed by a “talkback” session with Dr. Marti J. Steussy, who did her thesis on the story of Susannah. I was delighted to chat with her afterwards because she is also the author of two science fiction novels I’m very fond of! Friday afternoon included a “mini-epic telling” of special Luke (the passages that are only in Luke’s gospel and not included in the other synoptics) by storytellers presently going through the NBS Academy program. And, still more storytelling during afternoon sessions called Olios, which included all kinds of stories.

In addition to the plenary sessions, and the workshops that we’d signed up for at registration, there were additional opportunities to sign up for lunch with the keynote speaker, or with a scholar who had prepared some material on a specific topic; or for a discussion on whatever topic someone felt like organizing a discussion on.

Oh, and there was worship! under the direction of, eek, someone whose name I can’t find in my notes but who blogs at the excellently-named The Altar Ego. He’s posted the worship resources he used there. I admit I didn’t get to the morning worship sessions on Thursday and Friday (I am not a morning person), but the opening and closing services were lovely. I especially liked the “Catena – Babbling Towers” on Wednesday, and the “everybody dance and sing” opening procession on Saturday, with its waving banner. I also appreciated the presence of what was, functionally, a large baptismal font with river stones in its water. The opening worship included a thanksgiving for our baptism, and being Catholic, I kept going past it on my way in or out of the room so I could bless myself with the water.

(Side note: This was my first experience with worship that involved a big screen in the front of the room with song lyrics and video. I have to say, I’m not a fan: it does get your nose out of the book, and it obviously uses less paper than printed worship aids. But, 1) I’m short. It’s really, really, really hard to see the entire screen unless I’m really lucky in where I’m sitting. I leaned and twisted and craned my neck and still couldn’t see everything. 2) Personally, I have increasingly less tolerance for video and visual effects as time goes by – most of them make me seasick, and it’s worse on a bigger screen.)

I rehearsed with the choir on Wednesday and Friday, and sang with them on Saturday, which was great fun both musically and socially. The choir director (whose name I also don’t seem to have anywhere) had selected two pieces that were easy to learn but didn’t sound simple. And she brilliantly had us modify the text of Saturday’s piece from “Filled with the Glory” to “Filled with the Story of the Lord”! What fun for a storytelling conference.

And yes, I did learn my story — two of them, in fact: the story of Pentecost from Acts, and the story of Jesus walking on the water from Matthew. I practiced telling them on my own, and to a few people at the conference. (One at a time.) It was great fun, and I definitely feel like I’m a storyteller now!

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