‘God is alive’: A biblical storyteller shares the secrets of his calling

John-Frank Epp is a founding member of the Canadian branch of the Network of Biblical Storytellers International, an ecumenical association that offers workshops on the art of telling Bible stories learned by heart. Photo: Shannon Frank-Epp
By on March 1, 2023

John Frank-Epp has seen the impact telling a good story can have on people.

A founding member of the Canadian branch of the Network of Biblical Storytellers (NBS), an ecumenical association, Frank-Epp has led numerous workshops that aim to teach the art of sharing Bible stories learned by heart.

Frank-Epp was raised Mennonite and has attended Anglican churches, but has more recently been attending services with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, an evangelical denomination. He worked as a machinist until 1985, when he left his job to earn a B.A. at Providence University College and Theological Seminary. After a five-year stint at inner-city missions in Toronto, Frank-Epp studied at Wycliffe College and graduated with a master’s in theological studies.

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When he discovered the NBS International, which brought together scholars, clergy and lay people with a shared love for telling Bible stories, Frank-Epp says he “finally found home.” Out of these international meetings came the idea to establish a Canadian chapter. The Anglican Church of Canada has hosted workshops and retreats offered by NBS Canada.

The Anglican Journal spoke with Frank-Epp on May 31, 2022 about biblical storytelling traditions and practices. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where does your interest in biblical storytelling come from?

I think my mother has embedded storytelling in me. It was in my early 20s when I really started listening to who my parents were, and when she started telling stories of growing up in Ukraine under Stalin. She tells her stories deep from the heart. I think that just imprinted in me a pattern that I had been looking for most of my life. It wasn’t until I encountered the biblical storytelling community that I really encountered that native language of oral storytelling again.

How does oral storytelling enhance the teaching of the Bible?

There’s a power that is released. I often say in my workshops that the Bible will not release its greatest secrets until it is learned by heart and spoken out loud in the company of God’s people. It’s compelling because it has power to speak to both Christians and non-Christians.

I was doing a telling of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and my co-worker came with her husband. After the telling of that letter, her husband, who has never been to church, said to me, “If that’s what’s in the Bible, I might be interested.” That’s a non-Christian speaking.

We had done a group telling of Genesis. One of the ladies who had been in church all her life said, “Now I know what’s in the Bible.” Her daughter, who’s not a Christian, said, “I wasn’t preached down to, so it wasn’t a sermon. It wasn’t drama. You were just speaking to me on the same level.” [Biblical storytelling] has a power to draw all people to itself.

I work as a cleaner for the city of Toronto in a number of shelters. I made it known that I was a storyteller and I told them some stories of St. Francis of Assisi. I told this to one of my co-workers, who is really quite rough around the edges. With fear and trembling, I told her the story of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. She had her head on the table, getting ready to go home. She was tired. By the end she was sitting up, leaning in. She said, “Nobody has ever told me a story before.’ She got up, put her knapsack on, turned back at me and she said, “That was one freaking good story.”

The next week I come back, she puts her feet up on the desk and she says, “Alright John, storytime.” I told her the story of the prodigal son, and she says, “So there is hope.” There was a time at work where every Friday on our breaks, [co-workers] would ask me for a story.

When you tell Bible stories, you’re not paraphrasing them, but reciting the biblical text word for word.

That is correct. I use several translations, but I stick with the authorized versions. They are essentially the script that we’ve inherited from our ancient church tradition, the way they come to us in the Bible. I don’t do first-person monologues. I do not add from or subtract to it. I stay faithful to the biblical text, and lo and behold, they tell like stories.

I’m in the Alliance Church now. The pastor asked me last Friday for the first time, “John, can you do the reading of Scripture?” Not “telling”—“reading.” This was [the story] out of Samuel where Saul falls on his sword. I just told the story, having prepared it, in a relaxed, straightforward way. The youth pastor came to me and said, “I grew up in this church. It’s 40 years now, and I’ve never heard anything like this.” This is what struck me: he said, “It’s like God’s alive.” That is the quintessential response to storytelling: God is alive.

“The Bible will not release its greatest secrets until it is learned by heart and spoken out loud,” says Frank-Epp, pictured here at a Mennonite camp in 2012. Photo: Doreen Martens

[The Bible] is an oral script, and it is so exquisitely crafted to be learned by heart and told out loud. These are the most exquisitely designed and crafted stories you will ever find in the world. They’re so profound and so simple. At the same time, in their profundity, they evoke a complex conversation within us and with the text, with God and with others.

There are probably very good reasons why statistics show that the least interesting part of any church service is the Scripture reading. I’ve asked many people, Christians and non-Christians, and they just roll their eyes and they say, “Yep, that’s true.” How can that be? There’s a good reason why the Bible is boring to most people: because they almost always think of it as print on paper. If the Bible is simply print on paper, of course it’s going to be boring. It’s like if all you ever get is a Bach symphony in a script form and you never hear the actual sound of it. Of course it’s going to be boring, unless you’re a musicologist.

Ancient epics like those of Homer were meant to be told out loud. What can you tell us about the oral storytelling culture from which the Bible emerged?

Homer was originally an oral artifact, and it was eventually written down, in the same way that the Bible was originally oral and later written down. The Bible comes out of a highly sophisticated written and oral culture. But the emphasis is on orality, with the written word as a support.

I was delighted to hear a woman recite the book of Romans. I mean, how apropos. Paul entrusted that letter to Phoebe and many scholars would say that the person that Paul entrusted the letter to was also expected to learn it by heart and orate it. All Scripture was designed to be an oral event, supported by the written scroll.

You’ve said elsewhere that there are patterns in biblical texts to help guide storytellers. What are some examples of these patterns?

These patterns were first pointed out to me by Professor Kenneth Bailey. He’s a popular evangelical who wrote a book called Poet and Peasant. In there he has a chapter on what are called ring compositions. Sometimes in academia they call it a “chiastic” structure.

All of his different subcategories can fit into a very simple pattern. There are parallels and centres. Almost all biblical stories fit into these powerful, tightly crafted parallels that move toward a centre. [In the gospel of Luke] for example, Jesus’s words—listen for the balance: “If you seek to save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.” Jesus was trained in how to communicate with these powerful, memorable balances.

It works at the micro level. It also works on the level of the story.Let me break down the story of the Annunciation for you. You know how it begins: the angel Gabriel was sent to a virgin. When you get to the very end of the story, the very last little phrase is, “And the angel Gabriel departed.” Notice how the end resonates with the beginning: departure, sending; sending, departure. Almost all biblical stories, the end resonates with the beginning.

Then you take one more step into the story of the Annunciation, and what do you hear? The storyteller tells us that Mary was engaged to a man by the name of Joseph. If you go near the end of the story, you hear Mary say to the angel, “I am the Lord’s bondservant.” On the one hand, here is a woman who is engaged to her husband; on the other side of the story, a woman’s loyalty to Yahweh.

What do you get at the very centre of the Annunciation story? The centre is the angel Gabriel giving the message to Mary: “You will conceive [and] give birth to a son. You will name him Jesus, and he will be great. He will be called the Son of the Most High God, and he will receive the throne of his father David, and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” That too [“of his kingdom there shall be no end”] is a perfect balance with “He shall be great.” Storytellers who are attuned to this pattern will find it and learn it by heart very quickly.

This was embedded in the text for a very practical reason—so that the storytellers, those who had to learn the gospels by heart and take them out through the hills of Judaea, could learn it by a simple, predictable, familiar pattern. That is another example of how these patterns, with training, can be seen in all biblical stories and help the biblical storyteller to learn it.

Bible readings are a central part of modern worship services. Do you see that as a continuation of the oral storytelling tradition?

There is a long history beginning with the early Christians, where Paul says to them, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” I think in this day and age, we need to become aware of the powerful witness of the public reading of Scripture in church history and deepen that commitment.

I suspect there are lots of reasons why the Scriptures register as the dullest moment in the service. If I allow my cynical side to come out, I would say it’s because the Bible is dangerous. It is because the Bible seeks to transform the heart and grip our loyalties that we want to create surface readings and never go deep. It’s just too dangerous.

How significant is the delivery of the person who’s doing the Bible reading?

I can tell you that it’s a long journey that one must take. You can’t just get up and inject emotion into a Bible text and expect people to lean in. People might be entertained. It might pique their interest. But just injecting emotion into a Bible reading is not what’s required. It requires sitting with the text for a long time, entering it more and more deeply, and having it change your own heart so that you’re speaking heart to heart. You’re not speaking off the top of your head. You’re speaking from the bottom of your heart, and that takes preparation.

To be an authentic biblical storyteller or reader, you have to wrestle with your ego. You have to learn to be intellectually and emotionally honest with yourself. It has taken me 10 years to strip off all the bells and whistles and the hyped emotion and learn to look at people full in the face, grounded in my heart, and tell the story as I have witnessed it. That’s the big difference. I consider myself a witness. I’m not a dramatist. When I learn a story, I witness the people, their actions, and I pay attention to how I’m reacting to this as a witness of these events. Then when I go to the congregation, I don’t try to theatricalize it or dramatize it. I speak to them as a witness—what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard, and how I feel about it.

In my early days when I was more dramatic, [people] might say to me, “How could you learn all that?” When I hear that, I know that I’ve failed, because it’s not a display of how I’ve memorized this. Now the best response is, “Wow, God’s alive.” They’re really beginning to see into my heart now, and it’s the heart of the storyteller. That’s the only thing that’s going to give glory to the living God, and bring the people of God and the presence of God together.

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  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister (aka Matt Gardner) is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He will continue to support corporate communications efforts during his time at the Journal.

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