Michael E. Williams is pastor of Blakemore United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. An active storyteller for over twenty-five years, he has been a featured teller at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, and has appeared on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." For the past eleven years he has served as general editor of The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible series (published by Abingdon Press).

How did you develop your love of stories?

My earliest memories are of hearing stories. When I was born, we lived at my mother's home place in Stewart County, Tennessee. In the extended family living there was a great-aunt, whose name was Minerva Cherry. She was the oldest person in the household, I was the youngest. My earliest memories are of sitting on a porch, in a porch swing, looking out across the hills and the pastures, and listening to her tell stories. Some were about her father, my great-grandfather. Some were about the early settling of that part of the country. And some took the form of ballads that had been brought from Ireland, with the family, I assume. So my earliest memories are of storytelling. I just thought that that was the way people talked.

It wasn't until I was in graduate school, in a class in children's literature at Northwestern, that I really recognized that I had this legacy. I had loved stories all along, but it was at that point that I became self-consciously a storyteller and began to say that this is what I do and, to some great extent, who I am.

How do stories shape us? Why do they matter?

Stories shape us in part because they are a reflection of how we experience life. We tend to experience or at least talk about our lives in a narrative form. If we meet somebody who we haven't seen for a long time, we tend to tell them stories about things that have happened, because that's how we let them get a glimpse into what's most important in our lives. But stories also tend to take life to a deeper level, because they are not just a reflection but are also artistically crafted reflections. Certain things are left out, certain things are left in, the sequence of events may be changed a bit in order to create an effect within the story.

I think a second thing is that stories touch us deeply because a told story is a relationship. It's not just a relationship between the teller and the hearers, but a relationship that extends to the characters in the story, and becomes a link between the inner world of imagination or spirit and the outer world of everyday life. And ultimately, with really good stories, there is a relationship with the holy, with God.

What biblical and midrashic stories do you return to again and again?

Well, there are several. The two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis, the creation with the seven days and the creation with the first two people, are stories that I continually go back to. Over the years I've realized that I go back to they because of the genius of the editor who set these two stories side-by-side. They are very different; they are from very different traditions. On the one hand, we affirm that everything is good because it's created by God; on the other hand, we come to view creation as being broken, in the betrayals and the hurts that we experience. And both stories are true at the same time. For me, it's living with that tension that brings out the creative imagination.

I love stories like Ruth and Jonah, and the parables of Jesus, some pretty typical ones -- the Prodigal, the so-called Good Samaritan. The stories about Jesus, specifically those that appear around the birth and the last week of Jesus' life and the resurrection appearances, are very powerful links to me. I couldn't choose just one. There are just too many.

Along with that, my interest in midrash, or the story-telling commentary on biblical story that has grown out of the Jewish tradition, means to some extent that I look for those stories that grow out of Bible stories as well. It seems that the way that the Bible comments on itself is a form of midrash. For example, some would suggest that the story of Ruth is a midrash on the passage in Deuteronomy that says that no Moabite can become a member of the community for ten generations [Deuteronomy 23:3-8]. And yet, here you have Ruth, only three generations away from King David. It's puts you in the tension, is David an Israelite? Well, if you go by Deuteronomy, he's not. And yet, who is going to say that David is not an Israelite?

The New Testament, specifically the gospels, pick up on that midrashic tradition. When Jesus ends the parable about the wicked tenants "the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone" [Matthew 21:42], that is a reference back to Psalm 118, and the story is a midrash on that psalm. I think it is that commentary that has kept the Jewish tradition and the Christian tradition refreshed on occasion. Those stories help us gain our balance again, when we get overbalanced one way or another.

Some parents are concerned that their children know recent stories in great detail, but know few Bible stories. What would you say to those parents?

I would say that modern stories can be springboards for the imagination back into the Bible. Many of us think of the Bible as a bunch of boring legal stuff, which it's not. You will not find a more engaging narrative than the narrative in Genesis, which takes you from creation to Noah, to the flood and the re-creation of the world, and then to Abraham and the calling of the people. It's an engaging narrative at every point. The same is true with any one of the gospels, when you begin to read them. I think that with Star Wars and Harry Potter and now Tolkien again, what they're teaching us, whether they're overtly Christian like Tolkien or not, is how to exercise our imaginations in such a way that it's not just entertainment. It's also a life-shaping experience. That's what we want to bring to Bible stories -- not just memorizing text, not just learning the rules, but encountering those stories in such a way that they are life-shaping stories.

I think that the training ground for many of us in this day and time will be in literature that is not biblical. We learn to use our imaginations in a certain way, and when we apply it to the Bible, the imagination that we have disciplined serves us as those Bible stories become life-shaping experiences. The stories of the Bible are, in my opinion, as engaging and interesting and exciting as anything that you will see in Tolkien or Star Wars or Harry Potter. But we don't often recognize that, and I think that sometimes recent kinds of fiction can help us enter into biblical stories in a new way. So I think they're very helpful.

Fantasy is frightening to some because it creates an alternate reality. And if you are free to choose a master narrative, you're free not to choose God's story.

The Harry Potter books, especially, are about the life of the imagination, it seems to me, and how people mistrust the imagination. Non-magical people, muggles, are basically people who have no imagination and mistrust those who do. The folks in the magical world are those who do exercise the imagination. And the honesty of that is that you can exercise the imagination in both creative and destructive ways. I think that this is an important lesson for people to learn.

Storytelling is not a value-free exercise. We all know that stories have been told in the past to demean women, people of other races, people from certain cultures. Stories are told to put down other people in very destructive fashion. And that seems to me inappropriate. On the other hand, stories can be told to build bridges between people and to affirm the gifts of people. I think Harry Potter actually helps us see how story can be used for both creative and destructive means. In that way it's a very helpful thing, in addition to teaching other kinds of values. Harry is not an overt teacher of values. The Harry Potter books are not a kind of window dressing for teaching something. They teach in a very natural way, which is the way that stories ought to teach.

How has the role of stories and the storyteller changed in modern times?

I did some reading on this when I was writing my dissertation. There was a real renaissance of storytelling around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. It happened with people who were working in settlement houses, like Jane Adam's Hull House; it happened with people who were working in some of the newly formed parks in big cities; it happened with librarians and teachers; and it also happened in religious education. There were numerous books published on why story is the best way to teach religious traditions and values in that period. Beginning in the 1930's, with the rise of neo-orthodoxy, that changed. You started getting warnings about stories, based on the understanding that what we're about is teaching theological truth, propositions, "do this, don't do that," "think this, don't think that." I don't want to blame it on that movement, but with the ascendancy of neo-orthodoxy in theology, storytelling takes a back seat and a very low place until the 1970's.

Interestingly enough, it's out of the Catholic tradition, first, that storytelling reentered the religious world, in religious education. Then it tended to catch on in the Protestant traditions. This was happening at the same time that there was a renaissance of storytelling in the culture, with the National Storytelling Festival being founded in the 1970's, with what was then called the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling.

There is a new danger that has arisen with the advent of the renewal of storytelling, the same danger that you run into in ministry. And that is the professionalization of ministry, where people sit back and say, "That's what we pay you to do, we pay you to do ministry, we come to sit through worship and be entertained," or whatever. Unfortunately, in storytelling you have a similar process, where with the advent of professional storytellers, a lot of people now sit back and say, "Well, if I can't tell stories like (and they'll name their favorite storyteller), I must not be a storyteller." Storytelling at its heart is a popular art, meaning an art of the people. It's an art that is primarily practiced by amateurs, by people who love the stories and love the people they are telling them to. For me, that is the only good reason to tell stories. So the danger is that many people who could be storytellers, even if it's only to their children or grandchildren, or the Sunday school class that they teach or the church they serve, or the library that they help with or the class that they help with, many of those people will not tell stories because they are not "professional."

What was the most difficult part in creating The Storyteller's Companion?

Aside from the difficulty of maintaining the workload for over a decade, one of the things, at the beginning, that people raised questions about was the inclusion of the midrashim, the stories from the rabbinic tradition. As far as I know, this was the first, and is probably still the only, reference source produced primarily for a Christian audience that includes midrashim. References are made in other commentaries, and maybe one or two will be included; but this is the only resource that I know of that systematically includes that kind of storytelling reflection on Bible stories. So midrash had to be interpreted at first, not to the readers (they loved it), but to the folks who were considering publishing it, because it was new to people. Once the publisher caught that vision, I have to say, there was just huge support and a real sense of making a unique contribution to the conversation about Bible stories after that.

In the New Testament series we don't call them midrashim because that is technically a Jewish term. We didn't want to take a term that was specifically Jewish and apply it to something else. So we chose to use the term "parallel stories," but they do a very similar thing. There's a huge amount of material around the Nativity, the apocryphal material about the parents of Mary and the background of Joseph. It didn't get into the canon, but it's that oral commentary that was passed around while these stories were being formed, and that impulse was still there. Christians tended to lose it -- well, it went underground when we decided that biblical interpretation and theology really were more akin to what Plato and Aristotle were doing. What I tell people is that we baptized Plato and Aristotle and decided that we can base our theology on a couple of pagan philosophers, but not on the tradition of Jesus. I think we hit a kind of watershed there. Storytelling went underground, it got applied to saints, it got applied to the folk tradition at that point, but was no longer a part of the mainstream tradition for a long time. But they've always been around, those midrashim, and still are.


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