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Jun 09, 2014 | Luke Blount

Storytelling Engages Oral Tradition From Fiction and Gospel


[Diolog Magazine] Kathy Culmer didn’t realize it until later, but she has been learning the art of storytelling since she was a child. Culmer remembers her mother weaving exciting tales in the African-American folk-telling tradition.


“It wasn’t a children’s activity,” Culmer said. “It was an adult activity and sometimes children would be allowed to come and sit in. My mother would tell these stories and captivate the folk around her. She could make them laugh and make them feel with the way she told the stories.”


Later in life, Culmer discovered her own knack for storytelling. She has been a professional storyteller for almost 25 years. In the early 1990s, Culmer performed with a storytelling troop at schools and libraries, and then later she continued as a single performer. Today, she leads workshops and performances in a variety of settings. 


With each story she tells, Culmer tries to attain something she calls “truthful telling,” which is the act of making a story sound believable or as if its meaning is true, even if the story is fictional. 


“When I’m telling, I’m concentrating on getting that story out of me so that it speaks to you,” Culmer explained. “I’m not necessarily telling you what that story ought to mean to you, but I want it to come from as truthful a place as I can from within me, having made some connection to the story, myself.”


Much in the way an artist paints a landscape or a singer performs a song, Culmer invites her audience into a deep, personal, emotional setting that brings her stories to life. 


“At the heart of all of art is story,” she said. “What would be worse than hearing random notes of music? Random notes are called noise. And random words are called gibberish. By telling the story, you have to internalize it in some way, and just to read it means nothing unless it somehow becomes a part of you.”


That’s why Culmer takes great joy in scriptural telling, rather than reading scripture, when she has an opportunity. 


Telling entails a dramatic and demonstrative reading of the scripture. “In the Episcopal Church, where there is so much scripture read, Episcopalians are often not touched by it,” Culmer said. “They’ve heard the same scripture over and over again. But when I read scripture as a storyteller, they tell me that they like the ‘interpretation’ I gave, even though it was a verbatim [version].” 


Culmer believes that the key to unlocking the power of scripture is to internalize it as something meaningful and then embrace it as a story that can have different meanings that are true for different individuals. 


“Storytelling is an invitation for people who are looking for an experience of God, not theology,” she said. “Folk are looking for authenticity. Too often the rhetoric of the Church is about the interpretation of something that may or may not be authentic. In storytelling, if I simply tell you a story, it allows you to make meaning for yourself instead of filtering it through dogma.”


In her workshops, Culmer often asks people to close their eyes and imagine God. Usually when the participants describe what they see, they describe an experience. “Often times the meaning that we make of God is within the context of an experience that we have,” Culmer said. “We come to faith by the stories that we hear. Then we grow forward in our faith through our own experiences with God.”


This profound belief led Culmer to help create the Sharing Faith Dinners in the Diocese of Texas, a program that gathers Episcopalians in family homes to share faith stories over dinner. 


“The Bible allows us to see God acting in the lives of people. When we share our stories, we are able to see God active and present in the lives of one another. I think that is empowering. The more we know about one another’s stories, the better we are likely to treat one another. We begin to feel what pain you feel, and we begin to feel what joy you feel.”


To learn more about Kathy Culmer, visit her website,