Shadow Stories: Beyond the Veneer of Niceness in Sacred Storytelling

(Note- Originally written for Youthworker Journal, May 2004, by Sean Buvala.)

a single candle in a carved glass casting shadows out at night take by the storytellerIt was 12:30 in the morning. I thought I’d finally gotten them all bedded down for the night. You know how they can be, very wound up with being in a new place and all. Their energy was building on each other and when one started to chatter, the rest joined in. No matter how many times I told them to be quiet, they wouldn’t. I thought retreats were for quiet. Ha!

Finally, Stephen yelled to me from across the cabin, “Sean, tell us a story and we’ll shut up.”

The other adult cabin leader looked at me as if to say, “Do something!”

“What do you want to hear?” I responded. I was actually thinking: “Is this going to work? Nine fifteen-year-old guys in a cabin and me telling them bedtime stories? I don’t think so.”

“The thing about the King and the other guy’s wife. It’s my favorite,” said another boy, Zach, one of my guys who was having a really hard time with a relationship that was boiling between him and his girlfriend.

“Your favorite, Zach? I never knew you listened that close,” I replied. For Zach, the whole camp had appeared to be an endless bore, with his girlfriend and team sports beckoning him back home.

“Yeah, I do,” he said, more contemplatively than I expected. I guess I was wrong.
For the next eleven minutes, with the moonlight streaming in the windows, I told the story of David and Bathsheba, stripped of its pretentiousness and told for the mythic and earthy tale it is. However, rather than killing their energy and stopping them talking, it merely changed the energy in the room. They became calmer, more focused—and the conversation flowed about the use and abuse of sexuality, sin, and forgiveness. The loss of sleep was more than offset by the opportunity to delve deeply into issues these guys wouldn’t deal with in a normal church class.

“Sean,” said Zach, “I need to talk to you in the morning…”

You’re a What?
I’ve found that usually when I explain to someone that I’m a storyteller, the first image people have is that of a gentle teller sharing tales with children. Although that certainly is a form of telling and valid in its own right, my telling is focused on teenagers and adults in ministry and corporate settings. “Telling stories to teenagers? How could you do that?” they ask as Disney-fied images of fairytales play about in their heads.
It doesn’t get much clearer for them when I say I primarily re-tell scripture stories. It seems that most people I speak with have never thought about storytelling as a tool for change.

I get to explain that I tell mostly the shadow stories of Scripture. Shadow stories are those stories that are found behind the gentle and tame front end of the scriptural stories as told so often in our churches. Although we can cast the story of the Prodigal Son in the light of forgiveness and homecoming, there’s also the story in the shadows of the father’s fear, the younger son’s debauchery, and the older son’s arrogance. The story of King David and his son Absalom never really sees the light of day at all, just dwelling in the shadows as a wildly unhappy father-and-son relationship.

In these shadows I’ve discovered many young people find themselves. St. Paul describes this shadow as seeing “in a mirror, dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). It’s been my duty as a performing arts minister, storyteller, and preacher to acknowledge the shadows exist. My basic assumption is this: being unafraid to use the shadow side of Scripture stories—the death and resurrection contained in each one—creates opportunities for listeners to confront their own shadows and be unafraid to bring them before the Lord. After all, if the great people of the Scriptures had dark sides, yet triumphed with God’s power, why can’t we? There’s a deep power in telling stories without the veneer of niceness.

Scriptural Shadows
Let’s play for a bit with the story of Jesus and the crowd who wanted to stone the woman for her adultery. Jesus has an opportunity to speak at length to the crowd, telling them of God’s love, proclaiming the word and wonder of God. But he doesn’t. He draws in the sand. What’s he doing? One of my favorite explanations is that Jesus begins to list the sins of the crowd. With his list completed, he points to the shadow side of their lives and says, “If you are without sin, then throw the first stone.”

Our young people are sometimes victims of the shadow, and by scraping off the veneer from the perfect people in the Scriptures, we let our kids recognize that all of our shadows can be overcome. There’s a certain fear in Western cultures of dealing with shadows. We may have a tendency to ignore the shadow stories in our lives. There seems to be some discomfort in talking about tough times and events.

Professional storyteller Eric Cyrs, who specializes in telling African stories in the Southern California area, states that “the more Western perspective on topics, such as death and violence, can be very negative, but for (some) other cultures it’s not….death and life are part of the same continuation.” Christians should feel that way even more.

Like Paul’s mirror, shadow stories can reflect for us things God wants us to know, but we have to dig through the more uncomfortable shadow themes. The story of David and Bathsheba is a good example. It’s the story I told my wound-up, 15-year-old boys.

Adolescents today are bombarded with sexual images, images of adultery and criminal activity. Are teens ready for the shadow version of the David and Bathsheba story? For most of the teens I’ve worked with, the answer was “yes.” When it comes time to present and process the story, I’ve always had a choice. I could tell the story in code. I could say that the two were in a relationship. I could say she was “with child.” I could say that David had Uriah “eliminated.” But when I do, teens will respond in Christian-ese code for “no thanks.” They’ll nod and say that maybe God has something to “teach me” in this story and thank you for sharing it. And when they leave, they’ll know once more that the Scriptures have nothing to do with their lives today. They’ll go home and flick on the tube, and many of the things I’ve hinted at are presented in full color by the 24-7 MTV / reality show / pay per view culture.

Or I could tell the story in its true shadow version. The story is about sex, lust, abuse, infidelity, and deceit. When I tell it for what it is, in its true shadow, with all the questions (Did God kill Bathsheba’s baby for justice?) I get teens who can draw comparisons to what they see and hear everyday. And finally, I get to tell the resolution of the tale—from all of this pain, let’s be honest with the shadows—King David tried to get away with a horrendous crime. He didn’t simply walk away from this. There must have been some long, deep, sobbing nights for David and Bathsheba. How many of our young people and the families we minister to can relate to this deep sorrow, this pain caused by poor choices? “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light” (Matthew 10:27). How many times have I truly spoken it to them?

The Valley of the Shadow…
Of course, I’m aware that sometimes there’s a risk with shadow stories. What if the person listening doesn’t get the message I think they should get? I’ve come to believe the power of the Holy Spirit can and does lead the listener to the “right” conclusion, even as that person is free to reject the message itself. I’ve had to pay deep attention to the fact that the primary method of teaching that Jesus chose was telling stories. At one point, the disciples had to seek Jesus out and essentially ask him what some of his stories meant. Although he had many ways of teaching available to him, even with this confusion, he chose the telling of story most often to carry his message.

Looking at it another way, Cathy Mosley, a professional storyteller in Illinois, cautions that the teller shouldn’t try to force a moral or agenda onto their shadow stories. “Let’s face it; the power of story can be a dangerous tool. As we know, a good teller or speaker will let a story do its own work, [to] simmer in the listener’s memory and imagination, nudging thought and problem-solving into action. [Forcing interpretation] also exhibits a lack of trust in people’s ability to grasp meaning and problem solve.”

I’ve found that when I make the commitment to tell a scriptural shadow story, I must tell it all, even the parts that confuse me. Frankly, I’m not sure what to do with the death of the first child of David and Bathsheba. It confuses and angers me, and I’m not sure I completely understand this vengeful God. However, following my own rule, I must tell the whole story: God brings forth King Solomon out of the union of David and Bathsheba. I let my listeners, and myself, wrestle with that conclusion, that even in the shadow, God can create true life, light, and future.

Our Own Shadow Stories
Another option in telling shadow stories is to use stories from our own lives. These personal shadow stories are the times in our lives when we struggled with our choices and decisions. In some cases, we first made poor choices or had less than Christian initial responses. Although this can be effective, there are several guidelines I try to remember.
It’s important for me to limit how often I talk about myself. My focus needs to stay on God, and my responsibility lies in encouraging the listeners to pay attention to the greater truth, not just my experience. I use personal shadow stories infrequently, and I only have one or two that I’ve chosen to tell.

I’ve also learned to be sure that I’ve done my emotional and therapeutic homework before I tell any personal shadow tale. My job as a teller is to never “dump” on an audience. I’ve had to be sure that my stories won’t bind me emotionally as I tell them. For example, I tell a story entitled “Drunk Mr. Daniels,” where I had a run-in (nearly literally) with a drunken man in a fast-food parking lot. Although I was angry at the time of the story and didn’t react in a way that would earn me a Sunday school ribbon, I’ve since worked out this experience with not only a counselor but a sounding board of several other people who could tell me when and if my story should be added to my repertoire. Through this process of prayer, counseling, and good challenging friends, I’ve learned which personal shadow stories I can tell and which aren’t for public consumption.
As the words of Jesus the master storyteller are still being misunderstood and misrepresented today, the teller of personal shadow stories must carefully decide if, when, and with whom they’ll share their shadow stories. Greg Sweeney, a youth ministry veteran of 19 years who serves as the Youth Ministry Coordinator at Christ the King and St. Joseph Catholic parishes in South Bend, Indiana says it this way. “As authentic as we want to be with teens, we must measure what we say in front of them. It’s like the telephone game that we’ve all used as an icebreaker. Somewhere the message is going to break down, and the only thing left that resembles the original story is maybe a few of the words or a couple of the names. I think there are times in our ministry that the words we use can come back and bite us. No matter how well-intentioned, no matter how well thought out, no matter how pertinent, somebody is going to misunderstand what we have to say.”

With personal shadow stories, I’ve learned to be very selective in who hears the full story. Using my “Mr.Daniels” story as an example, I do not tell it to every group that I work with. I specifically crafted the story for talks with adolescent boys. It’s a story of controlling my anger and not giving in to what I really wanted to do that particular night. Most of the males I’ve worked with easily relate to my struggle between my base anger and my need to do the correct thing as a Christian—even if I didn’t in the end do everything I should have. This is a shadow story that begs the question, “Do good Christian men get angry?” Does every group get the full story? No; they do not and should not. Not every story I know gets told to every group.

Shadow-Storytelling 101
Here’s a few other things I’ve gleaned over the last twenty years of telling shadow stories.

<>Other than the Scriptures, I don’t tell other people’s shadow stories.
Storytellers refer to material like the Bible as a “world source.” As Christians, we know that thousands of years have passed, and these stories have stood the test of time as the Word of God. The “ownership” of the Scriptures is universal and therefore open for anyone to use, correctly or incorrectly. However, outside of the accepted stories of Scripture, telling of someone else’s shadow story rarely works. “I had a friend once who encountered a drunken man in a parking lot and rather than do the right thing as a Christian…” When I tell someone else’s shadow experience, I am forcing my own conclusions on another’s person’s untested life story. In the worldwide storytelling community, this idea of ownership is an issue of integrity and is the subject of fierce debate. I tell stories and I tell often in many places, but I tell the truth and only tell what I know.

<>If I have to explain everything, then it is not yet time for me to tell the shadow story.
When I am concerned that my personal or scriptural shadow story needs explanation for a group to understand it, then the time to tell it to that group has not yet come. I have found that often with the shadow tales, group members will be prompted by the Spirit to draw powerful lessons for themselves from shadow stories well told. When I’m not ready to believe that about an individual story, then I need to hold off on telling it while I learn more, pray more, practice more, and hone the telling.

<>I still practice my telling, even stories I’ve told for decades.
It’s a little known fact that the second unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit is bad theater in church. This includes drama and storytelling. Telling shadow stories demands that I control what I will say and when I will say it. Rambling, unrehearsed tellings are not only poorly presented but can also lead to saying more than is needed or wise. When considering adding storytelling to youth ministry, it’s wise to break out the video camera or voice recorder and practice, practice, practice. I like to watch what I do, all the while asking myself: Will this story move people towards the Truth or am I just telling for my own personal therapy? And I must be deeply, richly honest. Maybe the time has not come for me to tell this particular story or maybe, yes, I’m finally ready. Although relying on the promptings of the Spirit to be a fine communicator offers incredible power, that’s no excuse for not practicing.

<>I have to earn the trust of the group and build up to telling shadow stories.
I must start simply with groups when I first begin to work with them as a teller. I build trust with the group by telling well the basic stories. I play with the Scriptures, adapting pieces like James Weldon Johnson’s “Creation” story. We use participatory telling, where my group members become part of the story. As my confidence builds and the trust of the group increases, I can begin to introduce the shadow stories.

A few well-placed stories where the moral isn’t clear, the conclusion a little vague, and the options are still open can be rich grounds in which the Holy Spirit can work. I move slowly with a group, because frankly, one of the first reactions when I move too fast, is “you can’t talk about that in church”—even when the story is scriptural. You’ll find that you can create more openness to shadow stories if you treat the group gently at first. Patience is important in telling shadow tales.

Shadow stories can serve as cathartic and healing moments for our young people. When using shadow stories, I must practice deep reflection, discretion in my choice of audience, and a clear understanding that God may work through the story in any way God pleases.

Zach didn’t say much more to me as we went through the next day, although he had asked to speak to me.

Later that evening, the entire camp went through a process of sacramental reconciliation and forgiveness. The David and Bathsheba story played a central part of those rites, so my boys who heard the story the night before got to hear it again.

At the end of the service, Zach finally caught up with me and said, perhaps more emotionally than he intended, “Man, if God can forgive King David for all that, then maybe there’s hope for me, too….” The conversation lasted the remainder of the evening.

K. Sean Buvala is a storyteller and author in Arizona. Hear one of his podcasts at

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