Q&A: Bob Hartman

Bob Hartman is a performance storyteller who has spent many years writing and telling stories. Bob combines key words, actions and characters to create memorable retellings of Bible stories . We spoke to Bob about storytelling and children’s work

CW: You’ve been called a ‘master storyteller’. To what do you attribute your success?

BH: Practice, really. And working out, bit by bit, what makes an effective storytelling experience. It’s about trying new approaches and not giving up, even when an idea or approach doesn’t work.

CW: Where do your best ideas come from?

BH: Sometimes a good idea comes from just working away at it; writing when you don’t feel like it. But there have been those occasions when – boom! – the idea was just there, fully formed.

CW: How do you envisage your latest book, Off the wall Bible tales, being used?

BH: Off the wall is a simple, fun set of retellings aimed at key stage one children. The stories are short and punchy enough that they could be used in school assemblies, Sunday school or Messy Church. And they are just the right length for parents to read to their children before bedtime.

You can’t tell a story that you don’t love

I was once told by a children’s worker that when she babysat, she could read a ‘fun’ story to the children, as long as she read them a Bible story first. I’d like to think that the Bible story can also be the fun story. I’m keen to write books which resource Christian parents in that way.

CW: You write in the introduction that the Bible can be ‘mined for humour’. Can you give us an example? 

BH: In Off the wall, I retell the story of the children waiting to see Jesus: the ones who are turned away by the disciples. I put myself into that queue, with those kids, to imagine what they might have been up to. I ended up with some rock throwing, stick jabbing, sibling punching, sand eating and toad catching. I mean, that’s what would have happened, isn’t it?

CW: What story would you tell if I invited you to come to my church tomorrow?

BH: I would probably do the creation story. There is so much in there about who we are and about who God is; and how we were intended to relate to one another, to him and the world he made. I’ve taken to calling it ‘The story of us’. It’s all about those relationships. In the next chapter you have the story of ‘me’, which is the other thing. But, ‘The story of us’ is what it’s really about. He made me but he also made us.

CW: How would you tell it?

BH: Generally I get volunteers – someone to play Adam, someone to play Eve, someone to play plants, animals, the sun, moon and stars… We start in the middle of the story and it’s very interactive. Everyone is squawking and flapping and swishing. There is some sense of the joy of creation. I did it years ago at a worship conference as a prelude to worship. There was a wonderful sense of celebration, just from the telling of the story.

CW: When you think about a story, what’s your objective? Do you aim to help the children understand what it means? Do you want to help them remember the story? To explore the story?

BH: I think it’s probably all of those things but it starts with enjoying the story. I always tell people that you can’t tell a story you don’t love. You’ve got to learn to love the story and then invite children to a place where they come to love it as well. Sometimes you have an aim but you can’t control that. People will take from the story what they will take.

CW: Has your thinking on stories changed? Are there things you do differently now?

BH: I think I’m more willing to let the story speak for itself. I probably used to tell a story and make a point a lot more. I figured out that didn’t always work. Sometimes you were imposing something on it and I’ve moved away more from that.

CW: Is there any story in the Bible that you wouldn’t tell children?

BH: It all depends on their age. When we put the Storyteller Bible together we focused on stories that demonstrated God’s love. We shied away from some of the more violent stories, because of the age group and the inability in that context to explain the nuances of such stories.

CW: One response I heard to that question was: ‘Noah’s ark – it’s not a kid’s story. God’s nasty and he kills everyone.’ What do you think about that?

BH: If you ask any Christian children’s publisher what they’d like, they will always ask for Noah’s ark. On one level I understand that. They like the animals, the fact that God saves Noah and his family. I point out that this is a story where God drowns everyone and people say: ‘Oh! Well when you put it that way…’ It is a really heavy duty story. I think it’s only become the default story for children because of all the animals.

Storytelling isn’t going away any time soon

CW: So would you rather tell the whole story and risk the negatives coming out than race through the story to avoid the negatives?

BH: In the Storyteller Bible it’s done in quite a traditional way. I think that’s one area that’s changed in my storytelling. The problem is that an editor might come back and question telling the whole story. Any time you come up with a story where God says, ‘Do this!’ and it’s something violent, there’s a struggle.

CW: Then there are stories like Joshua and Jericho…

BH: Yes and David and Goliath… obviously the Philistines are attacking the Israelites, but still! He gets his head chopped off in the end! You have to ask: why are we telling this story? In some respects it’s because they’re about the heritage that’s been passed on to us… and they speak of God’s provision and God’s protection and the things we read David saying in the Psalms.

CW: Do you think we’re a bit Old Testament-centric in our storytelling to children?

BH: I think we used to be. We’re getting more Gospel-centric. I think that’s important. What we’re not doing so well is the book of Acts and the life of the early church. That’s a project that I’m working on at the moment with Conrad Gempf . He’s a Pauline expert and we’re drawing out passages from the epistles and gluing them together with stories from Acts and Paul’s life. We’re trying to unpack one with the other, but to make it child and family-friendly.

CW: On to Revelation next?

BH: We shall see!

CW: How much interaction do you have with Godly Play?

BH: Very little. I’ve seen people do it, but I’ve never done it myself. It’s almost the complete opposite of what I do. Consequently I always want to be in there, but you’re meant to withdraw and let the children look at it. I think if I did it, there’d be a constant, ‘Let me at it!

CW: Do you think your niche of storytelling is timeless?

BH: I think it’s timeless and not just because it’s what I do. I’ve been involved in quite a lot of technical, CGI and internet-based things too, such as the Bible app for kids and Guardians of Ancora. They are great resources, but the idea of a group of people sitting together and passing a story on is the way we communicate. I don’t think it’s going away any time soon, unless we just stop communicating and spend our whole lives with our faces buried in our screens.

CW: I think we’re rediscovering story… There are far fewer Sunday schools where each week is a different concept. We’re back into Sunday schools where each week is a story and in some places there’s even space to explore that story. There are always going to be stories aren’t there?

BH: Yes, there’s no way around it because they’re essentially revelation!

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