When he was in college, Benjamin McKelahan noticed that church culture was “completely alien” to his friends. During seminary he saw that his friends “could appreciate the depth, nuance and freedom of Lutheran theology … but not by walking into a Lutheran church.”
Pondering where they did find meaning and ritual, he realized: “All my friends are in theater. We told stories and brought them to life.”
An innovative motif began to emerge in his mind: “Let’s reimagine the Bible through the lens of our lives. Let’s retell it so it’s interesting, tangible and fun.”
Today, McKelahan is a 28-year-old pastor in Williamsburg, a young, artistic community in northern Brooklyn, N.Y. As a Metropolitan New York Synod mission developer (since December 2011), he weaves the Bible into art projects based on Christian stories, symbols and themes.
“In Greek, ‘parables’ means ‘to throw alongside,’” he said. “So we throw our own stories alongside Scripture to find how our life stories connect to God’s story.”
Bringing people into a church building isn’t the primary goal of the Parables ministry (see www.parablesnyc.org). Nor do they have to be artists, Gen Yers or Christians to join in. Still, there’s a definite word and sacrament connection.
St. Paul Lutheran, a Spanish-speaking congregation in Williamsburg, is home base for the ministry. McKelahan began there full-time in September.
At church McKelahan leads a “Parable of the Bell Tower” liturgy twice a month for writers, visual artists and others who take Bible stories and make them their own. In a 12-by-12-foot candlelit space, under a billowing ceiling adorned with stars and moons, everyone shares a current “place of desolation” (despair, fear, sadness or lifelessness) and a “place of consolation” (comfort, hope, energy and connection to life).
Next they study a Bible story and its context. In September guest curator Amy Kienzle, pastor of St. John and English Evangelical of the Messiah Lutheran churches in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, passed her iPad around to show Medieval and Renaissance renditions of the sacrifice of Isaac.
After reacting to the text and art, and sharing a meal of bread and wine, everyone re-envisioned the story with art supplies. Their tangible expressions resulted in a mini-clay sculpture, a drawing, poetry and a balloon ram. In the tandem spiritual practice of “Parablesong,” the group created a song based on the Bible text and personal stories they had shared.
Finally, instead of an offering plate, Parables uses a “Creative Energy Storage Jar” to collect ideas and what they call “financial energy” needed to turn the ideas into reality. Every month the group releases this energy for a service project, donation to charity or field trip.
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© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers