Long before books and reading, people gathered to listen as someone narrated the adventures of heroes. These days, storytelling is enjoying a resurgence.
Rev. Bert Marshall, interim minister of Centre Congregational Church, will participate in the oral storytelling tradition at Centre Church on Sunday, March 13, 2016, at 3 p.m. when he tells from memory "The Gospel of Mark Alive." A reception will follow.
"I call this a storytelling performance," he said in a recent interview. "It's recitation and theatre. There is music and drumming and audience participation."
Marshall chose to memorize the Gospel of Mark because, he said with a laugh, "It's the shortest." Then, resuming a more serious tone, he continued, "But more than that, it retains the evidence of an oral tradition even though in the version in the New Testament, it was written down. The other three Gospels (Matthew, Luke, and John) show evidence of writing and copying, but no one knows for sure."
Years ago, when Marshall and his wife lived in Bernardston, Massachusetts, they attended a performance of the Gospel of Mark given by the actor Frank Runyeon. That gave Marshall the idea.
"In 2003, when I was pastor in Lee, Massachusetts, I took a three-month sabbatical," he said. "For three months, I lived in a little apartment in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Six days a week—I took Sundays off—in the mornings I worked at memorizing the story. In the afternoons I walked around the city rehearsing what I'd memorized. My walks got longer and longer. Then before I went to sleep. I reviewed my day's work because right before you go to sleep, the mind is very receptive to committing things to memory."
Some days, he said, he wasn't sure he would reach his goal, "but the further into the project I got, the more the story took hold of me. There was no way I was going to give it up."
Traditional oral tales, such as Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" contain formulaic memory aids, such as phrases that repeat ("grey-eyed Athena"). The challenge of memorizing Mark is the lack of similar memory prompts, Marshall said, so he had to develop his own, for example, using rhyming words ("prayer" and "there").
Performances are never rote, Marshall said.
"It's always the Gospel of Mark, but it's different every time I tell it," he said. "The telling is influenced by the vibe in the room, audience engagement, energy and spirit. I'm making eye contact with people, and I'm moving around the room, asking for a response. I may enunciate a word differently, which changes the emphasis and alters the meaning. If the story says, 'Jesus shouts,' I shout.
"Even after 12 years," he continued, "I still occasionally hear something in the story I never heard before. I always make time afterwards for a talk-back, and someone will ask a question I've never been asked before."
Marshall's road to ministry was a long and winding one. He grew up in Nebraska, "a small-town kid," he said. "We all worked in the hay fields all summer. It was the best-paying job." An avid student of the Bible ("Psalms first hooked me."), he said he felt called in his early teens, but he didn't know what to do about it. He dropped out of the University of Nebraska ("It was the Sixties.") and moved to New York City to join a rock-and-roll band.
"It was an established band," he said. "They wanted a bass player who could sing. I could sing, and I played a guitar. I figured I could play a bass."
After some searching that included time working on dairy farms and running an inn, he started driving tractor-trailers for Stow Mills Natural Foods, which was located in Brattleboro at that time.
"I did that for 10 years," he said. "All those trips in the truck gave me a lot of time to think and to read. I always had tomes with me: the Book of Job, theology books, biblical studies. And poets—the late William Stafford. He spoke the language of the Plains. Rumi. W. S. Merwin. Charles Wright. Scott Cairns."
After Marshall's wife graduated from Antioch New England and started teaching, he decided to finish his undergraduate requirements through the adult degree program at the Norwich University campus in Brattleboro, which allowed him to keep working. Then he was accepted at Yale Divinity School and received his M. Div. He was ordained in Nov. 1997.
"It was a tremendous gift to go back and study at a high level. Then to be called by a congregation was very special," Marshall said. "In the United Church of Christ, the call comes first, then the ordination."
Marshall said he hopes to make the Gospel of Mark come alive as it never before has.
"I hope people hear what they have never heard before," he said. "I hope they hear the 'good news.' I hope the story is provocative and unsettling. Jesus is not tame or predictable. He scolds the disciples repeatedly for not understanding his teachings."
As with any good storyteller, Marshall said, Mark doesn't reveal everything—he is very protective of his secrets, even putting obstacles in the way.
"You're left having to fill in the gaps with your own imagination," he said. "It's a very powerful and strange and enigmatic story, and it works really well told out loud."
Nancy A. Olson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.