By Mary E. Hess
“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or hate, to see or be seen. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then become a story-teller”
(Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby, 2014)
We are immersed in stories, and as people of faith we are continually moving between the stories our faith offers us, and the stories the world shares that may have little or no easy connection to our faith. One of the shining lights for me about how young people are moving through this time of pandemic has been the leadership and energy they have brought to helping us to hear their own stories, and in turn to listen to each other.
I work with digital storytelling, a process of creating in collaborative and participatory ways the stories we tell and the stories we share, using digital tech. This process uses the terms create, share, and believe.
God shares Godself through the Incarnation.
God breathes belief through us with the Holy Spirit.
Now, imagine these terms arranged in a circle, an endless and infinite interconnected process. What could it mean to understand Christian faith as a process of creation? Young people are showing us the way. Over and over I hear from pastoral leaders who have drawn on this creativity by having young people create short videos that become part of online worship spaces. These short videos offer reflection on texts, provide song leadership, and connect with what is going on in our daily lives.
It is ironic that one of the central biblical verses used to reinforce imposing Christian belief—Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”—begins by asking that the disciples themselves to “go and make disciples.”
The Greek word underlying that “making” is μαθητεύσατε or “to disciple”—which is basically, “go and make learners.” This is a “making,” if you will, a creation, that is always open to unfolding. A learner learns by risking their understanding, by seeking, and by searching. Far from underlining proselytism, this verse invites those who would follow Jesus out into the world to challenge and transform our understanding of our relationship with Christ.
Creation—creative activity—is always a seeking, a searching, and a yearning towards becoming. As such it is a powerful place through which to enter the process of Christian community. Actively seeking to create can free up imaginative capacity to live into deep relationality in God’s “community of truth”, can provide a way into, a trust in, and a theological framework for engaging in playful connections.
Digital storytelling at its best is workshop-based and participatory; it thrives in the midst of people gathering together to explore and experiment. The workshops which I facilitate always begin with story circles. Story circles are small groups of 3 to 5 people who sit in a circle and tell each other stories based on prompts they receive there:
- Tell about a moment when you felt the Spirit
- Tell about a moment when you knew grief
- Tell about a moment when someone invited you to forgive
These and so many more prompts invite stories to emerge. In a story circle these stories are most often fragments of larger stories, initial snapshots of particular moments which come to mind for people. The moments are personal, and the circle listeners form a supportive space to “hear into being” the story that is shared.
I use different exercises in these circles. I might ask listeners to take on specific roles—one listens for feelings in the story, one listens for actions, and one listens for values. Or I might ask members of a circle to propose titles for the story they have heard, to test them out with the storyteller. These—and many other such exercises—help listeners to focus on empathic listening, rather than competitive listening (where they are more concerned about what they will say next) or critical listening (a practice most of us have been formed in through schooling). (For more details, see Brookfield/Hess, Becoming a White Antiracist, 2020).
This is the beginning of the participatory process of digital storytelling, and it is at once deeply personal—the storyteller is sharing their own story—and yet also communal. By working on a story in multiple exercises the storyteller slows down and enters their story differently, often recognizing and choosing to emphasize different content as the process moves forward.
Next come the digital elements of digital storytelling. Here storytellers take the story they have been telling and record it in audio format. The digital tools to make these kinds of recordings are everywhere, given our access to smartphones and tablets. Once storytellers have their story in audio form, they can begin to play with adding context and layers of meaning by pairing it with images. At this point in the process there are so many technical possibilities that workshops tend to focus on the particular tools with which participants are already familiar (for example iMovie, Animoto, TikTok, Instagram, and so on). Here again our young people often know far more about how to do this, than do elders—and by inviting young people to teach us, we learn so much and build new relationships.
This part of the process invites reflection, because as people look for photos or other images to pair with their story they find themselves sorting through their experiences. Many people have gotten comfortable with digital photos, so workshop participants often have huge numbers of such photos that they can draw on. The process of going back and looking at photos invites additional memories and becomes another catalyst for reflection.
Opening Up Meaning
Many of us think of digital tools as being all about speed. Yet working on telling a story with digital images and audio actually slows people down, drawing them into a more reflective place in which they can spend hours working on just one short story.
Further, a key element in creating a digital story is opening up meaning, rather than narrowing it or closing it down. This can be a difficult element to understand at first, since many people who come to workshops are used to images simply illustrating a particular part of a story, rather than adding an additional layer of meaning and inviting participation in that meaning.
One reason why it is so important to begin digital storytelling with a participatory circle of story sharing is that it invites people to see how much of their story can be deepened through sharing it and hearing how it is received by playing with elements of it to open up the possibilities it contains.
At the same time, creating in this kind of process also begins the process of seeing other pieces of digital media as constructions—how was that done? How did they get the music to end precisely on beat? Where did those images come from? Who made that interpretation? And so on. It invites a critical perspective that is one of curiosity or even wonder, rather than of one of zero sum competition. (for more, see Renee Hobbs, Create to Learn, 2017).
Emerging Theology and Faith Formation
Telling one’s story to and with others becomes theology when we ask about God in the midst of our stories and doing so always deepens faith formation. This may not be the kind of faith formation with which religious educators are most familiar, though, because too much religious education is framed around specific content and enforces specific interpretations of that content.
Digital storytelling as faith formation invites a different kind of learning, a learning which is premised on the conviction that God is always creating and that we can participate in that creation by becoming open to God’s Spirit in our midst. In digital spaces people are learning to ask questions, and we can encourage them to take that practice into their engagement with their faith.
- What is my relationship to a community of faith?
- What kinds of questions and concerns can I explore there?
- What resources exist within that community and tradition for the sharing of my own experience?
If you want to learn more, Ryan Panzer has written with compelling grace about just this kind of questioning in the book Grace and Gigabytes.
How Can We Tell Stories in Community Now?
Story is at the heart of so many of our faith challenges. Not just the stories we tell about ourselves, or the stories we tell about religious institutions, but also the stories we tell that weave these stories together and that weave our stories with God’s stories.
How do we go from personal stories to God’s stories? Or vice versa?
And how do we tell these stories, embody them, live within them, in ways that invite us to be all the more passionately centered in God’s love, and thus drawn out of ourselves and into deep compassion with the world? Anderson & Foley have powerful answers to offer in Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals.
We must, as religious educators, listen carefully to the struggles, the heartaches, the joys and the sorrows, that we are all living through. No question is too big, no sorrow too small, to wonder with each other about where and how God is revealing Godself. These are the stories which form the fabric of our belief, and entering the circle dance of “creating, sharing, believing” through these stories can and will invite us ever more deeply into the mystery of God.
For more on these processes, visit my website: Storyingfaith.org
About the Author
Mary E. Hess is Professor of Educational Leadership at Luther Seminary and Chair of the Leadership Division, where she has taught since 2000. Hess has created and maintains a number of websites (indexed here: meh.religioused.org). Her most recent book, co-written with Stephen S. Brookfield, is Becoming a White Antiracist: A Practical Guide for Educators, Leaders and Activists, Stylus Publishers, 2021.
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