Poor eye contact and fleeting smiles often give a liar away, experts say. Yet Bil Lepp, a man of steady eye contact and easy smiles, is not just a known liar, but a champion liar. A five-time winner, in fact, of the West Virginia Liars Contest, a featured storyteller of the National Storytelling Festival, and a regular on the storytelling circuit.
"My stories aren't true, but they're honest," Lepp says. For a preacher, even one known as "the lying pastor," that's important.
Lepp, who was a minister from 1997 to 2001 at United Methodist churches in Meadow Bridge and Dunbar, West Virginia, has always been a storyteller. He entered his first West Virginia Liars Contest in 1990 at the age of twenty, inspired by the success of his older brother, Paul, who has since died. "We competed against each other four or five years," he says. "I only beat him once, though."
By his own account, his appreciation for narrative was the reason he got into preaching in the first place. "One of my principal motivators for going into the ministry was that I was tired of bad sermons," he says.
Studying with Duke Divinity School professors James "Mickey" Efird Ph.D. '62 and Richard Lisher, Lepp came to appreciate the Bible's narrative power. "I realized I had a text I had to work with, and if I changed the story too much, it lost its value as a Christian document," Lepp says.
After Duke, with his own congregation, Lepp had little time to craft full-blown stories, so he settled for spicing up his sermons. Some didn't think his humor belonged in a Methodist church, but most enjoyed it, even the kind of tangy remark Lepp makes in defense of tall tales at the pulpit: "Several of the disciples were fisherman, so, obviously, Jesus liked liars."
Although he still serves as a guest preacher at churches of many denominations across the country, Lepp has been a full-time storyteller since 2003. It's his style to exaggerate unabashedly in the familiar vein of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. He meanders through details that seem like distractions. But everything matters, and he weaves every unlikely happenstance and every hyperbolic particular—a train driven by Chuck Yeager moving at Mach 1; his three-foot long, one-foot wide, six-inch high dog; a seventy-four function Swiss-army-type knife that includes a grappling hook and hot-glue gun—into his finale.
Lepp is one of about 100 people in the country who work as "full-time tellers" and travel the festival circuit, about 200 gatherings nationwide mostly in the spring and fall. During the slower seasons, he does corporate speaking, keynote addresses, dinner performances, and concerts; works as an educator in schools and workshops; records his work to award-winning, G-rated CDs; and writes. His first novel, Halfdollar, based on a made-up childhood shared with his real-life best friend and fellow Duke Divinity graduate, Scott "Skeeter" Williams M.Div. '98, A.M. '03, is to be published in 2009.
Lying boys come from lying families, it seems. Lepp, who grew up in South Charleston, West Virginia, relishes the oral tradition of his native Appalachian country. His grandfather, he says, "was just a master."
"The facts always changed. And we knew it was always up to the listener to decide what was true. That as the storyteller, you should use whatever you could get away with for entertainment value."