A Brief History of Storytelling


Etching of Jesus sitting under tree and talking to crowd

Etching, ca. 1876

Storytelling existed long before the written word as the “oral tradition.” Those stories that survived are now considered as myth, legend, or folktales. In general they were accurate representation of people's perceptions of their time and identity. They were also the foundation of their culture and part of their belief system.

One such story, which exists at the heart of every civilization, is their creation story. The spiritual center in each of us exists as part of an act of creation by a creator, who is part of us. A creation story guides us to that center. The story most people are familiar with is the Adam and Eve story. Set aside all the theological, scientific, and metaphorical debates, which are only left-brain exercises. Set aside all the theses on original sin and sexuality that are intellectual distortions of our human dilemma. Now experience the story on its basic and most simple level. We are part of the universe. We are part of everything on our planet and responsible for it. We are made in God's image, not a god outside us, but the “Great I am” that is within us. We are not god, but we are one with the “Great I am.” (That is the name the creator calls him/her self, “I-AM-WHO-I-AM” Exodus 3:14) We were innocence. Then we ate the fruit of the tree which gave us “the knowledge of good and evil.” Thus, we lost touch with the “Great I am” inside us and set out on our pursuit of knowledge. Spiritually, how far has that gotten us?

The Adam and Eve story is simple. Our choice is between innocence and knowledge, not good and evil. If we choose innocence then good happens automatically. Lao Tzu wrote, “Forget knowledge, and you will remember all you need to know.” A return to innocence is a return to the “Great I am” that is inside you and has never left you. When you are connected in your “Great I am” center, you face the power of evil with the “I am” at your side. That is why Jesus said, “I'm telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you're not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in” (Matthew 18:2; The Message). Other creation stories reveal the same theme; knowledge is leading us away from the creator. This does not mean that knowledge is bad. It simply means that we have a choice in deciding who is going to fly the plane, our knowledge or the “Great I am.” How many times do we need to crash and burn before we figure out which is the right choice?

For thousands of years after the written word was in use, the oral tradition flourished. Most of our sacred literature is based on these stories, from the journey of Zarathustra in the Avesta, to the story of Abraham and Sara in the Torah, to the story of Abraham and Ishmael at Mecca in The Quran, to the stories of Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, to the stories of Buddha in the Kalama Sutta, down to the stories of Jesus and beyond. They all started in the oral tradition and were told, not read. When told they take on a totally different feeling. Try it and you will see that they actually enter us in a totally different way.

Jesus was never without a story. All his stories were secular and became part of the oral tradition of his time. He used storytelling to reach people on their level, to get them ready to use insight, and to discover the “kingdom of God” within themselves. Through Jesus' apostles and their followers the stories were passed down for hundreds of years. It is interesting that with every new geological find these stories keep popping up in the newly discovered written texts. However, due to the high level of illiteracy up through the middle ages the stories of the oral tradition continued to be passed down from one generation to the next. This is also due to the fact that all these stories are better told than read.

The Buddha also had a strong attachment to stories. After he had experienced “enlightenment,” he wanted to withdraw and simply enjoy the blissful peace that he found in his “Great I am” center. He felt that people were not ready to do what it takes to get there. His disciples persuaded him that he at least had to try. Lucky for us, he did. It is no accident that he decided to use stories to pass on many of his teachings. Each story is designed to guide us on the path and help lead us to “enlightenment,” sometimes called “nirvana” a place of no-thing, the place of God in us for God is no-thing. He/She is the “Light” at the center of our being.

Down through the ages, storytelling remained a key part of almost every culture. It remained an important part of family life, passing on the family experiences and defining who the members were as individuals. Small groups used storytelling to create a sense of community and a common bond. Then very slowly with the dawn of the age of reason, storytelling became a form of entertainment. Stories were written down and read, not told. It began to lose its popularity and could not compete with radio, film, TV, and now the internet. The once familiar request, “Mommy tell me a story” was replaced with, “Mommy read me a story.” Now the TV is the family Nanny of the masses.

Ironically, the power of story has not been lost. Despite the fact that many children's attention spans are diminished today, if you start to tell a story the children settle down and listen intently. They are connecting with the story and characters in a very deep way.

Once when I arrived to do a Living Bible Story® of “Bartholomew, and his last days with Jesus” the leader asked me to do a short children's story, after which they would be sent off to child care. I agreed and did a five minute story about Bartholomew's Yamaka. The children exited through a side door in the narthex. Shortly after Bartholomew began to tell his story, I saw little heads pop around the door jamb and line up like a Disney cartoon. Within a minute they came out and lined up in the narthex behind everyone else. They were caught up in the story and were experiencing every word, their little eyes and mouths wide open. Their teacher stood by dumbfounded. I could see in their eyes that they were connecting with Bartholomew in a very deep way, right to the core of their innocent little centers. They saw everything he saw. They felt everything he felt. They experienced the death and resurrection of Jesus through this apostle. At the end of the story, Bartholomew took off his prayer shawl and Yamaka and left them on a chair on the platform. I went down and sat with the others. There was a very long silence of at least five minutes. Then I felt a tug on my sleeve. I looked down. It was one of the little girls, about four years old. She whispered, “Mister, can I touch his Yamaka?” I wept. I hugged her and said, “Yes.” She slowly walked up to the platform. Reverently, she reached out her little hand and touched it. An inner peace and contentment came over her. Oh how easily children connect to their Spiritual center. As adults, we truly need to return to square one like these children.

Through children the power of story has been kept alive. After all, they are already living in what Eckhart Tolle calls “the now,” their innocent center of peace. Oh, that we could all easily return to our innocence so we could be one with our creator once again.

In recent years many came to the realization that storytelling was ready for a revival. Storytelling festivals are becoming common all over the world. In Sweden, storytellers are now organized and recently took to the streets in the major cities. You could find them on every corner or main shopping area telling their story to all those who would stop and listen. The irony is that a TV could be playing a favorite program in a shop window while a storyteller would be on the opposite side of the walking street and the crowd gathered to listen to the storyteller with their backs to the TV. Storytelling is in our DNA. It speaks to our inner being. Stories can be part of any gathering to stimulate and motivate the listener and not just entertain them. I have seen in such gatherings that many people discover they have an inner voice which is awakened and everyone begins to share their stories.