Story in Life, Ministry, and Academics

by Tom Steffen


It began on this side of the pond with weekly Friday morning grad-student breakfasts at the Carriage Coffee Shop with Sherwood and Judy Lingenfelter. It began on that side of the pond with the Antipolo-Amdugtug Ifugao of the Philippines and Australian Trevor McIlwain. I will now attempt to build a land bridge between the two ponds.

Fresh back from the Philippines on home assignment for the third time I began attending the Friday-morning breakfasts with the Lingenfelters as I worked towards my doctorate. Never one to miss new insights, Sherwood Lingenfelter began to quiz me and make some recommendations after I had introduced to the breakfast group an abbreviated version of McIlwain’s Chronological Bible Teaching (CBT) birthed in the Philippines.

That Friday morning conversation helped land this missionary-practitioner a TAship with Harold Dollar in the church planting class. I soon took over the course giving ample time to McIlwain’s CBT model. I eventually became a fulltime Cook faculty member that would lead to a course developed in 1995 that is presently entitled, Narrative in Scripture and Ministry. Cook’s MA concentration in orality went public in 2011, a first in Christian universities. Some backstory is necessary.


Deeply trained in theology and anthropology, or so we thought, our family went to live among the Antipolo-Amduntug Ifugao in central Luzon of the Philippines with the goal of birthing new communities of faith in strategic locations that were capable of reproducing themselves among their own people, and beyond, within eight years. Our SIL partners, Dick and Lou Hohulin, would translate the entire Bible, develop literacy materials, and provide basic medical assistance. Living 7.7 years there challenged so much of our education and training. Who was teaching who? Here are a few of those challenges, as well as others learned along the journey beyond residency among the Ifugao.

Gospel as Story

As I began to work systematically through the New Tribes Mission evangelism model—Word, God, Satan, Humanity, Sin, Judgment, Gospel—I soon discovered that the Ifugao were totally unimpressed with such a presentation. How could they not appreciate such propositional, linear logic, I wondered? It was back to the drawing board.

The next time in Manila I purchased some children Bible booklets, covered the English captions with Keley-i ones, and began again when we returned to Ifugao. I had instant evangelists of both genders and all generations from different geographical areas. Presenting the gospel as a series of Old and New Testament stories rather than a sequence of propositions made the message come alive for the Ifugao.

Somehow I had missed that “The gospel was originally a storytelling tradition” (Boomershine, 1991: 16); that “The early Christians were story-tellers” (Wright, 1992: 372). I had missed the fact that the gospel was a good tale to be told, not just taught propositionally. But there was something else I had overlooked.

On another trip to Manila to publish the first Ifugao evangelism lessons I roomed with Trevor McIlwain in our guest home who had just returned from home assignment in Australia. After reviewing the English back-translation of the Ifugao evangelism model he declared unceremoniously that there was a much better way of doing it than this.

Not a little disconcerted I immediately inquired of its superior (Steffen, 1997; 2014). After much coercing and cajoling McIlwain finally told me about what would later become known as Chronological Bible Teaching (CBT) and finally Firm Foundations.

McIlwain designed the seven-stage story model that began in Genesis and concluded in Revelation to correct a flawed evangelism approach that had produced wholesale syncretism among the Palawanos, a tribal group residing on the island of Palawan. CBT provided a solid Old Testament foundation for gospel, and tied evangelism and follow-up into seamless discipleship. It provided the structure that I lacked for a comprehensive presentation of Scripture. McIlwain was correct. It was a better model.

 David Claydon correctly points out that “The gospel is being proclaimed now to more people than at any other time in history, yet many of those are not really hearing it” (2005: 3). That is because most proclaiming the gospel communicate it through propositions and plans rather than stories. That has certain challenges for 60-70 percent of the world as Scot McKnight opines:

When the plan gets separated from the story, the plan almost always becomes abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical, and most importantly, de-storified and unbiblical. We separate ourselves from Jesus and turn the Christian faith into a System of salvation. (McKnight, 2011: 62)


The people not hearing the gospel, it should be noted, are not just those living across the pond in tribal settings or even in urban centers, but those living on this side of the pond as well (Steffen, 2013). And this would include many post-moderns. It slowly dawned on me, story evangelism (experiential apologetics) should supplant propositional evangelism (evidential apologetics) for most of the world if Christ’s spokespersons are to gain receptive hearers.

Leighton Ford captures it well, “Conversion is a collision of narratives” (1994:14). Our worldviews are developed through symbol-based stories; they are deconstructed and reconstructed through rival symbol-based stories (Steffen, 1998). We live in a storied world where rival stories and symbols challenge accepted stories and symbols for supremacy on a daily basis, even if we are unaware, of which I was.

The Metanarrative of Scripture

Another related theme the Ifugao taught me was to think and teach from whole to part rather than from part to whole (which I seldom reached), as the Western education system biases. While they loved the Bible stories, they wanted a clothesline so that they had somewhere to hang them. And they wanted the clothesline presented first. Paul Koehler would identify the Ifugao’s need as “clothesline chronology” (Koehler, 2010: 108).

Michael Goheen provides a cogent reason for avoiding a fragmented presentation of the Bible, something common to the West, and transferred to the East: “If the story of the Bible is fragmented into bits (historical-critical, devotional, homiletic, systematic-theological, moral) it can easily be domesticated by the reigning story of culture” (Goheen, 2006: 9). A Talbot student adds another reason:

Could this compartmentalization be the reason why I have struggled to maintain a vibrant relationship with God throughout my time in seminary? Could this be related to the fact that I have forgotten the stories of my powerful God and reduced him to a subject I study in seminary?

The metanarrative (clothesline) focuses of various themes even as it marches across the landscape from Alpha to Omega as it relates God’s autobiography. For Eric Sauer the big picture focuses on the theology of world history:

The phrase ‘History of Salvation’…contemplates and interprets the whole history of mankind in its relation to God and from the watchtower of faith. ‘The march of the gospel through the world is the proper theme of world history.’ This is the one meaning of all history. Therefore the history of salvation in its full range is a ‘Theology of World History.’ (Sauer, 1955: 94-95)

I also learned that the metanarrative of Scripture, not just the New Testament story (Gal 3:8; Isa 40:9; 52:7; 61:1), should provide the framework for the gospel story. Both Testaments help guard the gospel against detrimental abbreviations and “cultural and doctrinal biases” (Fleming, 2005:301), even as the gospel story drives the entire metanarrative from creation to consummation.

Fortunately, there has been a recent proliferation of metanarrative materials that takes us beyond The Jesus Film (1979) and the narrower slice of Jesus’ life, The Passion of Christ (2004). For example, Talbot Seminary’s Ken Berding creatively composed “Sing Through the Bible” that covers all the books of the Bible in 30 minutes using various tunes. Dallas Theological Seminary’s Vic Anderson’s “God’s Plan for the Ages” offers people in the pews the metanarrative to provide an overview of Scripture seldom proclaimed over the pulpit or heard in the Sunday School classroom or home Bible studies. Dorothy Miller’s “God’s Story” (DVD) covers the same through colored drawings in 80 minutes.

The New Testament was never intended to introduce Jesus Christ to the world. Too much of the gospel story has been left on the cutting floor (Isa 40:9; Mk 1:14; Acts 13:32,33; 14:15; Ro 1:1-4; Ga 3:8; 1 Co 15:3,4). McKnight would summarize it this way, “Any real gospeling has to lay out the story of Scripture if it wants to put back the ‘good’ into the good news” (McKnight, 2011: 85).

Gabriel Fackre astutely challenges a Western evangelical shortcoming—abbreviating the gospel, “Yes, the Jesus stories are the heart of the matter, but not without their context, the ‘overarching’ canonical Story from creation to consummation of which it is the Centre” (Fackre, 1997: 166). McIlwain (2005) would concur.

All of the above, I eventually realized, helps fight the fragmented communication, and hence fragmented understanding, of Scripture that is so prevalent in the West today, and disseminated so unassumingly abroad through short- and long-termers, pastors within Christian churches, and faculty within educational institutions. I thank the Ifugao for impressing on me the importance and need to include the metanarrative of Scripture for whole-to-part preferenced processors.

The Sacred Storybook

The Ifugao had me thinking and asking theological and pedagogical questions I had never before considered, much less asked. This would lead to a number of aha-moments and personal paradigm shifts.

Narrative is the Predominant Genre of Scripture

One of those questions surrounded the literary composition of Scripture. Recognizing that multiple genres exist within Scripture, but if boiled down to just three—narrative, poetry, propostional—what percentage of the Bible would each constitute?

At first, I shot too high, giving 75 percent to narrative. That left 15 percent for poetry and 10 percent for the Epistle-type literature (Steffen, 2005: 36). I have since revised my numbers to 55-65 percent narrative, 25-35 percent poetry, and 10 percent for propositional (Steffen, 2010).

While it is very difficult to know the precise percentage of each of the three genres due to definitions and the integration of genres within Scripture (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah), I can categorically say that narrative is the predominant genre of Scripture comprising at least 55 percent of Scripture. I agree with Eugene Peterson when he says, “The Holy Spirit’s literary genre of choice is story” (Peterson, 1998: 3). All genres find their roots, and hence their meaning, in narrative.

View Scripture as A Sacred Storybook

If narrative is the predominate genre of Scripture, that raises other significant questions. One is, how does one view Scripture? Some see it as a Sacred Self-help Book. Others see it as a Sacred Devotional Book. Still others see it as a Sacred Moral Manual or a Sacred Encyclopedia. During my teen years I saw it as a Sacred Law Book. After years of formal Bible study it became a Sacred Textbook. Then I met the Ifugao.

Presently, I view the Bible as a Sacred Storybook (I like Sacred Drama too). The Bible is the story about the King-Father’s honor and his family; it is the story about broken and restored relationships (human, spiritual, material) through a chosen Mediator.

The Sacred Storybook has a beginning, a middle, and a glorious ending through which he honorably restores a series of broken relationships culminating in a new creation, all through a plan initiated by him in eternity past. Five hundred plus individual stories morph into one big story, a metanarrative that cries out for the King-Father’s rightful honor and our allegiance and worldview transformation to bless others. Each individual Bible story integrates the imagination, emotion, and facts, making it a riveting read or a dramatic drama.

Orality Plays A Major Role in Scripture Authority

In The Lost World of Scripture (2013), Wheaton’s John Walton and D. Brent Sandy take on the thorny issue of inerrancy by researching the process of how Scripture came to us. The co-authors convincingly argue that meaning rather than wording is God’s primary intent in revelation.

Walton and Sandy conclude that Canon construction came to us not just through redacted texts, but through oral transmissions as well. While the latter is not new, the depth of research in the area of literary production in the Near East in the past several decades has provided significant new insights. But because most Westerners lack these insights, Walton and Sandy argue that their literary backgrounds have minimized the contribution of oral tradition in Canon construction, and have consequently placed an overemphasis on words rather than meaning.

Cultures in the Old and New Testaments were hearing dominant (in contrast to eye dominant). Jesus focused on spoken words rather than written words as most of the population was illiterate. Fluid oral texts, which may help explain some so-called inconsistencies, along with redacted texts, helped construct parts of the Old Testament, the Gospels, and Acts. Paul and others wrote for the ear (“oral-derived text”); people listened. God’s sacred writings were geared towards an oral-preferenced world.

Evangelicals must learn to enter the oral world to be able to better appreciate the great emphasis oral tradition has played in completing the Canon. Superimposing a text-dominant perspective to the Sacred Storybook will shortchange us, and those who learn from us. Inerrancy goes beyond exact texts, and therefore may be an inadequate term. Authority, according to the co-authors, lies in the more fluid oral tradition (meaning) rather than textuality.1

Systematic Theology Dominates in A Story-Symbol World

Other related questions that I asked myself were, if narrative is the dominant genre of the Sacred Storybook, why then does systematic theology reign supreme in the seminaries as the queen of the sciences? Why do evangelical seminaries give only a slight tip-of-the-hat, if any, to narrative theology while offering numerous courses in systematics?2

N.T. Wright may provide some insight for the scarcity of narrative theology being taught to Bible students in an interview with Tim Stafford:

The great story—and after all the Bible is fundamentally a story—we’ve got to pay attention to that, rather than abstracting dogmatic points from it. The dogmas matter, they are true, but you have to join them up the right way…What happened with the Enlightenment is the denarrativization of the Bible. And then within postmodernity, people tried to pay attention to the narrative without paying attention to the fact that it’s a true story…The overarching story of who Jesus was, the story of God and Israel and the coming of Jesus, has to have a historical purchase on reality. (Stafford, 2007: 38)

            Wright’s quote took me back to Bernard Ramm’s influence on past and present hermeneutics, particularly through his The Christian View of Science and Scripture. Two quotes, with tacit influence from the Enlightenment, point to the emphasis given to systematics and aristolean deduction. Ramm posits that, “Training in logic and science forms excellent background for exegesis” (Ramm, 1954: 153). This leads naturally to his second posit, “Systematic teaching of Scripture is the Scriptures final intention” (1954: 155).

While modernity influenced Ramm, post-modernity influences many of today’s interpreters. Some proponents of narrative theology, which Fackre succinctly defines as “discourse about God in the setting of story” (Fackre, 1983: 343), gave up on “realistic narrative,” preferring multiple communal interpretations in its stead. It is time to rescue a version of narrative theology that respects history. That will help liberate the Sacred Storybook from at least some Western cultural biases.

If the predominate genre of the Sacred Storybook is narrative, evangelicals must give narrative theology its due. It is time to restory, renarrate, redrama theology so that abstract concepts can be placed within concrete events. Why? Because “narrative speaks in the idiom of the earth” (Fackre, 1983: 345). Because “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it” (Arendt). Because “dull dogma” will give way to demanding drama. Because “We not only learn truth but see it enacted in living relationship” (Osborne, 2006: 208). Because “Theology must be at least biography” (McClendon, 1974: 37) in that convictions must be lived out in life. Because “Spirituality is not less than cognitive, it is more than cognitive” (Mathews, 2003: 95). Because “The trues of stories are made, not by logical persuasion, but by experiential engagement. Stories do not convince by argument; they surprise by identification” (Shaw, 1999: 61). Because “Paul’s writings are less a collection of doctrinal studies than a series of theological conversations between the apostle and his diverse audiences within their life circumstances” (Fleming 2005:105). Because the Bible did not come to humanity in a book of concepts and categories. Because clarity without characters is the fast track to empty coldness. Because not to do so is to make systematic theology the West’s ethnotheology, thereby limiting God to a rational being.3 Logos is an event!                                                                                 

Even so, one genre is not superior over another; they are just different, providing necessary unique perspectives. Propositions require a narrative foundation to provide context, imagination, and emotions. Narratives require propositions for focus. While there seems to be an initial sequence—story to systematics, there should not be superiority. For example, to help grasp the meaning of the proposition “Jesus is Lord,” it helps to know the referent stories about Jesus turning water into wine, walking on water, healing the sick, raising the dead, calming the storm, exercising demons, defeating sin, death, and Satan (the antagonist).

This roll out pattern is not unlike what is found in early Genesis—God spoke and then he brought order (categorization) to chaos. For example, he created light, separated it from darkness, and gave names to both. Adam brought order to the animal kingdom by naming the created animals. It is not an either-or, but rather a both-and. All genres come with strengths and weaknesses, and therefor can enhance each other.

My lettered-literary background, while providing some great insights, skills, and a means of logic that I would never want to surrender, robbed me of others. The Ifugao taught me about the literary aspect of hermeneutics long before “literary” was added to the grammatical-historical hermeneutic of my Dallas days. The Ifugao would agree with Kevin Vanhoozer when he claims that, “the dramatic is the didactic” (Vanhoozer, 2006: 148).

Narrative Logic

The Ifugao taught me that there was another form of logic, one that they considered superior to my propositional logic. That logic went something like this. The theme developed as a spiral with periodical stops to add depth and color. Additions were anything but linear; rather they were added just-in-time to advance the thought. While all were present, emotions and imagination seemed to trump reason.

In The Culture of Education (1997), Jerome Bruner identified two types of logic that exist in every culture, the logical scientific and narrative. In Making Stories (2003) a more mature Bruner posited that we must not lose sight that when one takes advantage of both forms of logic, understanding enhances. Interestingly, the separation and/or superiority of right brain over left brain thinking, or left brain over right brain thinking, did not always exist. Walter Fisher cogently reminds us that,

Before the advent of philosophy in ancient Greece, all modes of human communication were regarded as mythos/logos, form/content, and feeling/reason. No instance of human communication was privileged over another as having a special capacity to convey knowledge, truth, or reality.

(Fisher, 1987: 192)

Entering the narrative world through the use of story is one thing. Including narrative logic in that entry is quite another, but a necessary step to gain a deeper appreciation and respect for the scope of the Author’s logic, nor to mention those who prefer narrative logic.

Secondary Orality

While in Hong Kong last year, a distinguished Asian seminary professor approached me. He was having great difficulty communicating with the younger students and not sure what to do about it. He certainly was not the only one of the 59 gathered for the 2013 International Orality Network’s (ION) consultation at the Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary to discuss secondary orality in relation to theological education.

Following Walter Ong, I define primary orality as those who prefer to communicate through verbal and visual means. Secondary orality, on the other hand, refers to those who are literate but still prefer to communicate through verbal, visual, and digital means. Ong refers to this preference as residual orality (Ong, 1982: 41).

Teachers in established theological institutions at every level have recognized that their students are having greater difficulty following their teaching, much less reproducing it through tests and papers. Their oral-preferenced students, who Jonah Sachs (2012) identifies as “digitorals,” prefer images over words, texting over talking, watching over reading, screens over paper, interacting over writing, dialoguing over listening to lectures, creative productions over writing dull papers, group activities over individual effort. How can teachers pass on thick theology to such learners? Will not thin theology result?

Knowing something was amiss, but not having the vocabulary or categories to identify or articulate it, much less fix it, an uneasiness has swept over the more observant faculty. Could this consultation add to the discussion begun a year earlier at the Wheaton consultation (2012) out of which came Beyond Literate Western Models: Contextualizing Theological Education in Oral Contexts (Chiang and Lovejoy, eds., 2013)? This “how-to” volume, along with the forthcoming Hong Kong volume, offers practical solutions (often through case studies) for school administers and teachers involved in theological education. ION currently offers assistance to seminaries and universities to assist faculty challenged by oral-preferenced students.

Theological Education

Referencing the fragmenting of knowledge within the seminary curriculum, David Wells’ summary remains as true today as when it was written over two decades ago.

Subjects and fields develop their own literatures, working assumptions, vocabularies, technical terms, criteria for what is true and false, and canons of what literature and what views should be common knowledge among those working in the subjects. The result of this is a profound increase in knowledge but often an equally profound loss in understanding what it all means, how the knowledge in one field should inform that in another. This is the bane of every seminarian's existence. The dissociated fields—biblical studies, theology, church history, homiletics, ethics, pastoral psychology, missiology—become a rain of hard pellets relentless bombarding those who are on the pilgrimage to graduation. Students are left more or less defenseless as they run this gauntlet, supplied with little help in their efforts to determine how to relate the fields one to another. In the end, the only warrant for their having to endure the onslaughts is that somehow and someday it will all come together in a church. (Wells, 1993: 244-245; see Farely, 1983)

The “What if?” Theological Education

What if one could redesign theological education from scratch? How could this impact 21st century faculty? Students? People in the pews? Facilities? Seating arrangements? Textbooks? Curricula? Technology? Tests? Assignments? Theses? Dissertations? Following are a few questions to jumpstart the dialogue.

What if teachers viewed Scripture as a Sacred Storybook or Sacred Drama rather than a Sacred Textbook? What if the first course a student takes highlights the mountaintops as it sweeps across Genesis to Revelation, tying it all together in a unified story? What if a capstone stone required a review of the same?

What if theological education was driven by stories rather than abstract concepts? What if it was driven by concrete characters rather than philosophical ideas? What if propositions were personified? What if it promoted discovery learning through problem solving rather than listening to the lecture to pass an exam? What if it was driven from whole-to-part rather than part-to-(sometimes) whole? What if all Bible classes showed how they relate to the metanarrative of Scripture?

What if the teacher told his or her story before overviewing the course syllabus? What if seating was semicircular making conversing convenient? What if mystery was given equal status with mastery? What if andragogy drove teaching in the classroom? What if case studies and simulation exercises became more dominate in the classroom?

What if all faculty were provided a course on primary and secondary orality? All students? What if the class sat in a circle? What if technology was used in the classroom to provide immediate depth to discussion and encourage interaction? What if students initiated it? What if meaning took precedence over words? What if courses were taught in spiral fashion so that repetition provides review as new and deeper materials are added? What if a digital schematic accompanied it for the faculty? For the students? What if geographical maps were used or created to teach books of the Bible? What if biographies were considered textbooks? What if biographies were required of Bible and other characters? What if faculty devised a grading matrix that equally rewarded orality and digital technology?

What if the imagination, emotions, and volition were given equal weight with the cognitive? What if narrative logic was given equal status with propositional logic? What if theories were taught as stories and through stories? What if theories required demonstrated practice and servanthood? What if the grading matrix included storytelling abilities before groups?4 Abilities to use metaphors and images to create a theater of the mind?

What if hermeneutics gave the same amount of time to narrative theology as it does to biblical theology and systematic theology? What if experiential apologetics were given the same weight as evidential apologetics? What if the creeds were taught through storied events? What if Greek was taught through song?5 What if the Epistles were taught through story? Reviewed through song? What if students were required to develop the theme of a book of the Bible by analyzing the cast of spiritual and human characters mentioned within it? What if homiletics replaced three-point sermons with Bible stories and symbols?6 What if evangelism was based on Bible stories rather than propositions and plans? What if spiritual formation practices were based on Bible and post-Bible character studies? Hidden curriculum (unintended learning) of symbols and rituals? What if theological education was driven by missio Dei?

What if syllabuses were written in story with bullet points? What if PowerPoint was big on images but brief on words? What if some required assignments could be fulfilled through the production of videos or dance or pieces of art or composing songs, proverbs, poems or Prezi presentations? What if book reviews were written as stories? What if dissertation research was based as strongly on story collection (qualitative research) as it is on gathering statistics (quantitative research)? What if assigned papers were required to be written in stories? What if textbooks were written in story? What if theses and dissertations were written in story format?

What if exams were given to groups with all receiving the same grade earned? What if the number of oral exams were equal to the number of written exams? What if honor-shame values received the same attention as guilt-innocence in the classroom dialogue? In grading? In the Sacred Storybook?

What if graduation depended on accurately telling a minimum of 35 Bible stories, and the doctrines they teach? Depended on telling five books of the Bible from memory?6 Depended on one’s ability to tell 15 Bible proverbs and 10 Psalms? Depended on one’s ability to identify Bible characters that followed (or failed to follow) the Ten Commandments? That define the Covenants? The Great Commandment? The Beatitudes? The Great Commission? Depended on knowing the stories of the key players who made the genealogies in the Gospels? Depended on one’s ability to identify the Bible characters that convey the major doctrines of the Bible? Convey ethical and unethical behavior? Convey exemplary and cautionary models of leadership and followership? Depended on relating spiritual power issues with the gospel (1 Thess. 1:5)?

What if graduation depended on one’s ability to tweet the metanarrative of the Sacred Storybook? Tweet the gospel? Tweet the theme of each of the 66 books of the Bible? Depended on one’s ability to dramatize the metanarrative from Genesis to Revelation in 30 minutes? Depended on one’s ability to tell the stories of the 11 characters and two symbols mentioned in Acts 7? The 19 characters who made the honor role of faith and the 10 symbols mentioned in Hebrews 11? Of the approximately 550 stories in the Sacred Storybook, what is the minimal number that should comprise a Biola graduate’s “Story Collection” (Steffen, 2005:101)?

Would such revisions in theological education help produce thick or thin theology for a 21st century audience? Would memorable theology that translates into practice result? Would lifelong learners result? Let the dialogue begin because it will do no good to stay where we presently find most faculty and students involved in theological education.

Character Theology

One of the questions I have considered over the years is, what follows the four phases of Chronological Bible Teaching?8 Once one understands the gospel (Phase 1), and has captured the overview of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation (Phases 1-4), now what? This has led me to propose another type of theology to add to (not replace) biblical theology, natural theology, narrative theology, and systematic theology. I would add character theology (Steffen, 2010: 155-156; 2011: 146-149).

The answers to the following questions could help develop character theology: Who are the anchor characters within the Sacred Storybook that God uses to tell his story so as to invite us into his story? Which Old Testament names get repeated numerous times in the New Testament? For example, Abraham is mentioned over 70 times, Moses some 80 times, David around 60 times, leading one to believe that these are anchor characters that add to the metanarrative, and therefore must become household names.

What are the anchor stories in which these anchor characters participate? How do they make God the hero in the stories? What doctrines do their biographies teach? What do their biographies teach about exemplary Christian conduct? Cautionary conduct? Leadership? Followership? Economics? Religion? Politics? Persecution? Proclamation? Of the 2900 plus characters included in the Sacred Storybook, what is the minimal number that should become part of a Biola graduate’s “Character Collection” (Steffen, 2005:101)? What is the minimal number of Christian heroes (theological and missional) post Scripture that should be included in a Biola graduate’s Christian Heroes Collection?

In Telling God’s Stories With Power, Paul Koehler provides some direction for which anchor characters to include:

Consider the fact that one can think through most of the stories of the Old Testament by following the lives of no more than a dozen individuals and their families: Adam, Noah, Abraham-Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samuel-Saul, David, Solomon, Elijah-Elisha, and Daniel. These 12 cover most of the historical eras of the historical eras of the Old Testament. The Gospels chronicle the life of only one Man (with many supporting characters), and Acts can be told by simply following the experiences of Peter and Paul. If someone were to learn the stories that pertain to these fifteen people, they would have a mastery of a large portion of the Bible. (Koehler, 2010: 104)

This list of characters, of course, would have to be expanded to cover all aspects of the Christian faith and life in that Christianity is a total way of life. Paul provides more clues in relation to characters (good guys and bad guys) from Exodus and Numbers, when he notes that, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (1 Co 10:11, NIV; see also James 5:10-11, 17-18). Propositions must become personal (individually or collectively) and practiced. This is best accomplished when introduced through a cast of captivating characters.

One intriguing and instructive way to cast captivating characters would be to identify the contrasting characters (individuals or groups) portrayed within the Sacred Storybook. 9 These could include: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Hagar and Sarah, Abraham and Lot, Ishmael and Isaac, Moses and Aaron, Joshua and Caleb, Rahab and the Spies, Samson and Delilah, Eli and Samuel, Jonathan and David, David and Bathsheba, Naomi and Ruth, Ester and Haman, Joseph and Mary, Elizabeth and Zacharias, Martha and Mary, Jesus and the Pharisees, Matthias and Barsabbas, Philip and Nathanael, Ananias and Sapphira, Aeneas and Dorcas, Paul and Silas, Lois and Eunice, Priscilla and Aquila, Philemon and Onesimus, and so forth. Contrasting the actions (or inactions) of binary pairs of Bible characters will help highlight and define doctrines, point out the tensions when attempting to practice various values, provide principles for followership and leadership, and so forth.

But character theology is much more than reflecting on what the lives of Bible characters have to teach Christ inquirers and followers in at least two ways. First, it places the Bible characters in their rightful place within the roll out of the metanarrative. For those already having been exposed to the metanarrative, this is not a difficult advancement. Doing so begins to add depth to the chronological clothesline as new information continues to be added. And it fights fragmentation so common in the West as it integrates the “successive installments” (Kaiser 1978:10,11) of individual stories into a unified whole.

Second, it makes sure that the main message given by the characters in the stories makes God the “chief Character.” I appreciate Charles Koller’s recognition of this principle when he says,

…the Bible was not given to reveal the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but to reveal the hand of God in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; not as a revelation of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, but as a revelation of the Savior of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. (Koller, 2007: 32)

Good character theology places the spotlight on the chief Character rather than other spiritual or human actors. This helps make it possible for people to discover the awe of God, and respond appropriately.

Character theology will prove powerful because people identify with the thinking and actions of others. C.S. Lewis tell us why and when, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You, too? I thought none but myself…’" LeLand Ryken would add, “The power of story as a literary form is its uncanny ability to involve us in what is happening….an invitation to share an experience, as vividly and concretely as possible, with the characters in the story” (Ryken, 1984: 34-35). Observing other characters in action provides opportunity for deep personal reflection because they serve as a mirror into one’s life.

If one wishes to see the face of God, gaze into lives of Bible characters. Why? Because “Every story in the Bible whispers his name” (Lloyd-Jones, 2007:17). That quote sums up the power of character theology to transform lives and communities.

Narrative Textbooks

Digitorals have a difficult time reading textbooks, particularly theological textbooks. Too long. Too content dense. Too abstract. Too divorced from life. Too boring. Too few pictures.

So what’s the solution? Require less reading? Watch DVDs? Listen to audio books? Digitorals would love all those solutions. All possibilities for sure but there has to be a better way. And there is.

After developing the narrative course and teaching it several times I decided it was time to practice what I preached. It was time to write a textbook in story format. So I began a book about Shorty and Maygo Term’s missions adventures in a fictitious fish world. I drew up a storyline and then tried to wrap it in story. What a challenging adventure as I was never trained to think in story! Too ambiguous. Too messy. Too elementary.

The small book of 144 pages seemed to take forever to write. But the further I got into it, the more comfortable I became. I was beginning to think in story. Sometimes I would abandon the storyline altogether and just let the conversations evolve. This sometimes resulted in dead ends; other times it brought brilliant contours to the storyline. I had Dennis Cozad draw some pictures (symbols) to highlight key points of each chapter. Business as Usual in the Missions Enterprise? (1999) eventually resulted. This student’s comment in a book review, written in story, is representative,

‘It was very clever. I thought it was a stroke of genius to talk about missions in the form of a narrative. With all the emphasis on orality, it’s like practicing what you preach! But creating that book must have been extremely difficult to do. I think it would take an awful lot of time to structure your thoughts in the form of narrative – creating the story line and adding all the dialogue.’ …… replied.

‘I agree. I loved reading it and learning the information from reading the story. I think I learned a lot more that way,’ …… concurred.


In 2011, I wrote The Facilitator Era: Beyond Pioneer Church Multiplication, again in story format. This textbook was a lot more fun to write. Thinking in story was not as difficult as it was the first time around, even if still not second nature.

It is time for faculty to consider writing their next textbook in story format. They will learn some of what the digitorals already know about the power of story and symbols. They (who write about Bible themes) will also learn what Bill Bright perceived when he co-wrote his last book entitled Blessed Child with Ted Dekker, “I have come to the conclusion that a good novel on biblical themes can reach many more people than most theological works” (Zoba, 2001: 56). 


Story and symbol observed through the eye gate and ear gate will be the dominate way by which people will learn, find Christ, and mature spiritually in the 21st century. The “jump between backpack and briefcase” (Elmore, 2010, p. 32) is not a transient trend.

To participate in this new (for some) revolution some wholesale paradigm shifts will be required in the church, seminary, and university. Some sacred cows will have to be slaughtered. Faculty who learn how to keep the lofty earthy and mysterious through creative multisensory, multi-intelligent models that challenge character, commitment, competence, and culture will fair well in the 21st century, as will their students and their disciples at home and abroad.  The land bridge between the two ponds will then be complete. The Lingenfelters and crew will now hold hands with the Ifugao and McIlwain.

1.   A great foundational book to begin one’s journey into orality is Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy.

  1. I taught half of the Evangelism and Follow-up course for Talbot each semester for over a decade. Class size was normally around 30. I would ask each class, how many of you have taken a class in systematic theology? Biblical theology? Historical theology? Narrative theology? All had taken multiple courses in systematics. Less had taken biblical theology. Still less had taken historical theology. No one had taken a class in narrative theology. Some remembered it touched on in other classes.
  2. I remember returning from the Philippines as a grad student and attending a Talbot chapel. While I do not remember the faculty member who spoke, I have never forgot some of his spoken words, “God is a rational, logical, propositional Being.” I thought to myself, he certainly does not know the God of the Ifugao. They would not recognize his God.
  3. Warren Buffett told Columbia business students that he would give $100,000 for 10 percent of their future earnings if they had good communication skills. Following Buffett’s lead, John Fallon at Walhalla High School started Presentation Skills I and II: “In this era of email, texting and voice mail, true face-to-face communication is becoming a lost art. While many people are comfortable with private, individual conversations, most people are uncomfortable speaking to groups, large or small.” See: (Accessed January 24, 2014).
  4. See Kenneth Berdings’ Sing and Learn New Testament Greek: The Easiest Way to learn Greek Grammar @
    6.See Effective First-Person Biblical Preaching by Kent Edwards.
  5. See: (Accessed January 15, 2014).
  6. While the Chronological Bible Teaching model has seven phases, only the first four (Genesis through Revelation) have been addressed.
  7. I am indebted to Dottie Connor Bingham for this idea. Long ago she created a children’s game with puzzle-like-pictures of binary pairs of Bible characters. Players were to match the picture pairs. The Ifugao loved the game and soon wore it out. She is presently revising the game.


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Public Lecture Given at Regent College, Vancouver, B.C. Thursday, 2 November.

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Steffen T (2005) Reconnecting God’s Story to Ministry: Crosscultural Storytelling at Home and Abroad. Waynesboro, GA: Authentic Media/InterVarsity Press.

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Steffen T (2013)          Chronological practices and possibilities in the urban world. Global Missiology  4(10).
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Dr. Steffen served 20 years with New Tribes Mission, 15 of those in the Philippines. He is Professor Emeritus of Intercultural Studies in the School of Intercultural Studies at Biola University in La Mirada, California.




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