Integrating Symbol, Story, and Ritual (by Tom Steffen)

Integrating Symbol, Story, and Ritual (by Tom Steffen) June 27, 2018

I’ve asked Tom Steffen to introduce some big ideas you’ll find within his new book, Worldview-based Storying: The Integration of Symbol, Story, and Ritual. This second post introduces part 2 of the book.

Tom is a longtime a leader in the orality movement. Having taught for years at Biola, he is the author of many articles and books, including Reconnecting God’s Story to Ministry and The Facilitator Era.

My first post concluded by highlighting a weakness within the contemporary Orality Movement that requires some repair: We must understand the worldview of the host audience in order to improve the clarity of our communication.

An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)
Ptolemaic geocentric worldview (Public Doman)

Why is this necessary? Because “Just telling Bible stories does not guarantee Bible meaning” (Steffen, 2011, 137). When the Sawi make Judas the superhero in Don Richardson’s Peace Child, “Houston we have a problem.” Wise Bible storytellers who do their cultural homework most likely would have anticipated the Sawi’s misunderstanding of Jesus or searched for Palawano’s myths to discover communication bridges and barriers.

But how? Worldview is so comprehensive, so complex! This post examines the second half of my forthcoming book, which makes the case for worldview-based storying (see book outline below). This requires a usable research tool that is simple to use, yet not simplistic.

The Trilogy: Symbol, Story, and Ritual

I have a theory that can help us discover a host culture’s worldview. By “cultural worldview,” I mean one’s filtered perceptions/assumptions of the world through which (s)he interprets all of life (culture). This privileged perspective emerges from a symbol/story/ritual-grid through which people learn, establish systematized priorities to constantly evaluate themselves and others, and “lean into life.” The theory posits that key aspects of worldview can be identified where the trilogy of symbol, story, and ritual intersect (Steffen 1996, 2005).

And I’m in good company. This trilogy is found under different terminology in N. T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God. Wright says worldview is composed of four integrated elements: story, symbol, praxis (which leads to ritual), questions.Cover of "Understanding Folk Religion: A ...

The trilogy of symbol, story, and ritual can be found in Understanding Folk Religion by Paul Hiebert, Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tiénou. The authors go further than Wright, developing a single chapter on each part. Part 2 of the book unveils a tool to investigate worldview in any cross-cultural context, illustrated by the Ifugao (of the Philippines) marriage process that takes a couple of years to complete.

Next, I’ll briefly review the process to discover the worldview of a different culture using the trilogy of symbol, story, ritual (see Figure 1 below).

Discovering a Culture’s Worldview

One assumption behind this research tool is that culture is integrated (notice the broken lines in Figure 1). While I separate symbol, story, and ritual for discussion purposes in chapters 5-7, in life they are thoroughly integrated, influencing the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of one’s worldview. Chapter 8 shows the integrative nature of the trilogy by analyzing  Ifugao marriage.

Steffen (Figure 1)                      Figure 1: Worldview: A Storehouse of Symbols, Stories, and Rituals

Not all symbols, stories, or rituals are of equal importance in a culture. To distinguish higher levels of value, I differentiate between anchor and master symbols, stories, and rituals (see Figure 1).

I define an anchor as that entity that crisscrosses multiple cultural domains (economic, political, religious, social structure, etc.) as it brings emotive, imaginative, and factual focus within a given culture. Becoming an anchor symbol, story, or ritual can take time, and requires much repetition to rise above all the common ones within a culture.

A master refers to a synthesis of multiple anchor symbols, stories, or rituals. Compared to an anchor, it’s on steroids, showing up in multiple cultural institutions, often with an extended history. It reviews, reflects, and reinforces one’s worldview.

Deconstructing Worldviews

If one’s worldview is constructed through the integration of symbol and story rehearsed through ritual on the anchor and master levels, it will be deconstructed the same way so that it can be reconstructed. Rival symbols, stories, and rituals, in an integrative way, must replace ones that formerly gave allegiance to false gods.

Transforming one’s worldview is the replacement of formerly held symbols, stories, and rituals with rival ones. This re-symboling, re-storying, and re-ritualing results in much more than changed observable behavior; it results in the deep-level alteration of the heart; it results in a new worldview script, new symbols, all of which are rehearsed through new rituals.

Why take the time and effort for such research? Because communication in our own culture is fraught with land mines. Multiply that a thousand times when communicating cross-culturally.

When we don’t do our cultural homework in relation to Bible storying, split-level Christianity, syncretism (like among the Palawanos), legalism, and a host of other “-isms” can easily result. This is not to deny or minimize the work of the Holy Spirit. It is to recognize our stewardship role as cross-cultural co-communicators of the greatest story ever told. The integrative roles of symbol, story, and ritual will do much more than transfix one’s observers; it will transform them, their families, their communities, and their nations for Christ.

Here’s the outline of the book:


Part One: Tracking the Orality Movement

1      Pioneers of the Past

2     Rural Roots

3     City Connections

4     Movement Morphings

Part Two: Making the Case for Worldview-based Storying

5     Making the Case for Symbol

6     Making the Case for Story

7     Making the Case for Ritual

8     Making the Case for Worldview-based Storying

9     Envisioning the Future




Hiebert et al., Understanding Folk Religion, 1999.

Steffen, Reconnecting God’s Story to Ministry, 2005, 111, 168.

_______. The Facilitator Era, 2011, 137.

Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 1992, 124.





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