Engaging God through Character-Centric Questions

Guest Post by Tom Steffen and Ray Neu

Why didn’t Jesus play the role of the Bible Answer Man during his brief three-year tenure of public ministry? He certainly knew all the answers! No one had a stronger pedigree that qualified him to lay out what life is all about than Jesus. Yet rather than advance the answers (telling), he frequently reverted to parabolic stories and/or questions (asking), many of which were rhetorical.

Behind each parable or teaching of Jesus lurked at least one seminal question. Sometimes he made the question obvious, “Haven’t you read . . . Don’t you remember what the story of our creation tells us about marriage? Matt 19:4 VOICE (emphasis original). Sometimes he jumped right into a story leaving the discovery of the seminal question(s) up to the listener(s). Voiced or unvoiced questions preceded all of Jesus’ teachings.

Jesus was not only the quintessential storyteller, often forgotten and at least of equal importance, he was also the quintessential questioner. Jesus serves as both message and model.

How did God choose to reveal himself to his highest creation? Beyond creation, the Eternal One sovereignly chose to reveal himself to the nations most naturally and precisely through his interactions with people and their interaction with each other. Through a perpetual parade of personalities, the Eternal One is revealed through the breadcrumbs these chosen characters drop along the paths of their life journeys.

Each chosen character offers the Author a brush and fresh canvas on which to paint one or more of his attributes for the whole world to see. Why should the devil have all the good characters?

As the media eras continue to change (oral to print to oral-digital-virtual-AI), too many representing the Millennials, Gen Z, and Gen Alpha find little if any relevance in the Christianity offered by those stuck in modernity’s sticky abstract, fragmented systematic theology. Can we move beyond abstractness to something more concrete? More relatable? More genuine?

In Character Theology: Engaging God through His Cast of Characters, we demonstrate through the story of Jonah and other Bible stories how God sovereignly chose His cast of characters to reveal himself to generations around the globe. What is Character Theology? Simply stated, Character Theology is engaging God through “reading” biblical characters in the context of story.

Reading characters is universal; everyone does it. Some, like my Ifugao friends in the Philippines, however, are much better than others in doing so.

“Character” refers to those who participate in and/or advance a story. This goes beyond human individuals (Ruth) and groups (Pharisees) to include spirits (Lucifer), places (Nazareth), objects (coin), animals (donkey), insects (worm), and so forth. God knew Bible characters can easily enter our lives through familiar pedagogical pathways and leave their footprints forever imprinted on our hearts. Bible characters challenge, and sometimes even help transform our present practices and postures to those that honor God.

But how is character theology best accomplished? Through questions. However, as we are well aware, there are questions and then there are questions.

In too many Bible study series the questions tend to focus on content rather than characters. For example, what were the three lost items (Luke 15)? Content-centric questions tend to have little long-term impact and soon wither on the vine and are blown away.

Character-centric questions, however, do just the opposite; they tend to have long-lasting emotional-cognitive impact. For example, how did the father react to his younger son’s request? Do our questions take us beyond content? Do they aid participants in “reading” characters?

Possible character-centric questions follow that could be used in a Bible story series. Note the emphasis on characters in the question. Note also these questions are not intended to be followed sequentially or verbatim, but rather serve as possible character-centric examples. Nor are the questions counter-concepts; rather they garner abstract content through concrete means—characters. The questions will follow the Storying Process chart below with the goal of honoring God before the nations through personal-communal transformation.

Character-Centric Categories for the Storying Process

Loyalty ?s: Reviewing the past story

—Anyone able to tell the last story to someone?

—How did they respond?

—What questions did they ask?

—Anyone try to do what _____ did/said in the story?

—How did they respond?

—What questions did they ask?

Focus ?s: Setting the story scene

—What do we know about who wrote this story/book?

—What do we know about the people the author wrote to?

—What was happening to the recipients when the author wrote this?

—What is/are the question(s) behind the story that the author wishes us to answer?

Story ?s

—What emotion(s) did _____ experience when ______ said/did ______?

—Who made wise choices?

—Who was shamed in the story?

—How does the space/place influence ______’s conversation/conduct?

—What stories/symbols/rituals influenced ______’s conversation/conduct?

—What might have happened if ______ had chosen to ______?

—What did ______ not do/say?

—What would have happened if someone in our community had said/done what ______ said/did?

—Who is the human hero of the story?

—Who is the Ultimate hero of the story?

Connector ?s: Grasping the Bible’s unified story

—Who in the story reminds you of people/events mentioned in other Bible stories?

—Anything in the story that connects the noted space/place to other Bible characters?

—How do these participants advance God’s mission globally?

Heresy-buster ?s: Interjected as needed

—Who in/outside the story supports your conclusion?

Enacter ?s: Living the life

—What is the question(s) the author wishes us to answer?

—Who in the story elicited some emotion in you?

—How did ______ resolve his/her emotional conflict?

—If I/we were there, how would I/we responded?

—Whose example in the story should I/family/community of faith imitate/avoid so God is glorified?

—Who in the story challenges us to advance God’s mission (words-works) to our neighbor? the world?

—How does God’s character differ/emulate ______’s words/actions?

—What symbol/proverb/saying depicts key characters in the story?

—Who would like to sing/draw/paint/dramatize this story?

Character Theology, driven by character-centric questions, relates, sticks, and transforms all generations globally. Why? Because people engage God most naturally and precisely through his interaction with biblical characters and their interaction with each other! Characters communicate the Creator’s characteristics. The roadmap to the recovery and expansion of Christianity in the twenty-first century will be through Bible characters unveiled through character-centric questions.

Note from Bob:  Click HERE to order your Character Theology: Engaging God through His Cast of Characters book today!


Tom Steffen & Ray Neu


Tom Steffen is professor emeritus of intercultural studies at the Cook School of Intercultural Studies, Biola University. Related publications are The Return of Oral Hermeneutics (2020) and Worldview-based Storying (2018). Email: tom.steffen@biola.edu

Ray Neu, called The Story Doctor, is the director of orality coaching at Spoken Worldwide which takes him around the world, assisting many organizations in creating Oral Theological platforms. Email: ray.neu@spoken.org


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