Friday, October 21, 2016

The Power of Stories Part 1

The Power of Stories from a Christian Perspective
“God made Man because He loves stories.” – Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest (Gottschall)
The forest was dark.  Cautiously, gripping his sword a little tighter, he took a step forward, underbrush crunching beneath his foot.  He reached into his pack and pulled out the scroll.  He was just unfurling it when a flash of light suddenly blinded his eyes, and the clash and clamor of men and weapons sounded in his ears.  John jumped back, startled, as a large, burly man stepped into the clearing.

The man had a bushy black beard and an eye patch over his left eye.  In one hand, he held a lantern, and in the other, a large, double-edged sword.   The man sneered, and the light reflected off a gleaming gold tooth in the front of his mouth.

“Yer surrounded, young man,” he growled in a voice rougher than nails.  “Doncha even think about tryin’ to escape.”

Now quick: where were you just now?  Yes, you…the reader.  Were you noticing the chair you are sitting on, the computer screen or paper you are reading these words on?  Or for a brief moment, did you allow yourself to be transported to a dark forest where someone named John was being hindered from his mission?  

If you allowed your mind to take you to the location of the scene, to the point where you were seeing details that were not described by the author (the color of John’s hair or eyes, the size of his pack, the way the scroll looked and felt, the details of the surrounding forest) you just experienced the power of story.

It is universally acknowledged that humans love stories.  

Stories play a role in every culture in the world, in the development of children, and in the daily interactions in the mind of every single individual.  Jonathan Gottschal writes in his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, which examines from a scientific, secular perspective the power that stories hold over us, that: 

“We are, as a species, addicted to story.  Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” (xiv)

How are Christians supposed to view stories from the perspective of a Biblical worldview?  
Are stories a guilty pleasure that many people partake in, which should be shunned as an instrument of the flesh, or are they tools that God delights in that can be used for much good?

Clearly, the answers to these questions depend on the kinds of stories that a Christian is reading or telling.  The focus of this writing, however, is to examine the potential impact stories can have on believers and nonbelievers alike when used in the right way.  The purpose of this blog series is to first show that stories can be used to enrich and spur on faith in the life of a believer, second, to show that stories can be used as a tool to reach the lost and third, to examine why and how stories can be so impactful in these ways when used correctly.

The testimony of Scripture is the first thing a Christian should take into consideration whenever assertions such as the preceding are proposed.  

The example of the style in which the Bible itself was written, perhaps even more so than the actual teachings in it about this subject, may be the best argument for the effectiveness of story.

The Bible is a collection of many different types of literary styles.  
  • Didactic teaching (which is purely to relate in a straightforward, instructional way)
  • poetry
  • genealogies 
  • prophetic literature
  • songs
  • epistles
These are all ways the Bible speaks its message. But one of, (if not THE,) most prevalent ways the Bible teaches and uses literary genres is the Bible’s use of stories

If one were to separate the material in the Bible that is straightforward teaching, and the writings in the Bible that tell a story, even a quick comparison shows a revealing contrast.  Much of the Bible is dedicated to telling stories—whether of the creation of the world, the kingdom of Israel, select individuals, the life of Jesus, or the birth of the church—story is clearly a well-used medium to convey truth Biblically.  Why would God do this?  What purpose was there in dedicating so much of the Bible to telling stories, rather than just laying it out straight-forwardly and didactic for us?

Kathy Buchanan, a counselor and writer, who has most notably written various things for Focus on the Family, including scripts for the popular children’s radio drama, Adventures in Odyssey, put it this way when she was teaching at the Lamplighter Guild for Creative Disciplines: 

What is more impactful?  To say, ‘God is faithful’?  Or to tell the story of the children of Israel wandering in the desert, and how God continually provided for them and protected them over and over again, even though they complained and murmured against Him, to the point of almost utter frustration?”  

It is one thing to say something, and make a statement like, “God is love,” or “God is faithful.”  It is another thing to show, demonstrate, or illustrate that fact.  

As human beings, we connect more with stories, because they illustrate abstract concepts in a very real and concrete way that didactic teaching does not.  It is one thing to say that God loves us and wants to save us from our life of sin and destruction.  It is another to tell the story of Jesus dying on the cross, which illustrates the characteristic of God much more clearly than any simple statement ever could.

Clearly, the instructional style used in the Scripture is vital for our spiritual growth.  The poetry and other forms of literature are very beneficial for us to understand how God operates.  Oftentimes, however, even these forms of Scriptural writing impact us powerfully solely because we understand the stories of the people behind them, or because we are able to connect them with our own story.

  • Psalm 51 takes on an added meaning when we learn that it was written by King David after his horrible failure of sin in his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband.  
  • The teachings in 1 Corinthians are somehow easier to swallow when it is understood that these are not just unattainable principles laid out for certain high-minded intellectuals to live by, but were written for an actual real church, with real people, and real problems, facing some of the same kinds of situations that we face today.  
  • The father writing to his son in Proverbs 7 recognized that, while it was important to tell him the principles of keeping himself pure, it may be more effective to communicate that principle through the story of someone who did not follow the same advice.
  • Jesus’ own example of the way He taught is a testimony to the power of stories.  The Bible says that He never taught without a parable (King James Version Matthew 13:34).  
Countless people across the world connect to the principles taught in these fictional stories in a way that transcends the memory capacity that would be possible if it was presented as sole teaching.  Almost anyone recognizes the concepts behind the mentions of a ‘prodigal son’ or a ‘good Samaritan’ in reference to the stories Jesus told. 

Yet, Jesus also makes something clear when explaining to His disciples why He teaches in parables.   

Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.” (King James Version Matthew 13:13)  

Jesus’ parables acted as a screen for those seeking truth.  Not everyone understood His parables, because their hearts were blinded.  

Nevertheless, oftentimes even those who disagreed with Him understood what His points were as He related spiritual things to those things easily understood by the common people (Matthew 21:45).  

The power of stories comes when a person recognizes a connection between the truth in the story and how it correlates with their own lives, and has a willing heart that is ready to receive correction and to change.

Sometimes, though, a person can be so blinded by their own situation and the details of what is going on around them that they may need a change of perspective to see things as they really are.  By stepping away from the situation, and observing the same thing in another person, it is often clearer to see a truth about the situation than we could in our own lives, because our flesh, rationalizations, and pride muddle our viewpoint.  

It is like being lost in the woods, and trying to solve the problem by just looking at your surroundings.  If you are already lost, continuing to look at your own circumstances likely will not help you.  Getting perspective of the area from a different vantage point like a map is more likely to give you a good indication of where you are.  Stories can give us a “bird’s eye view” of life, by taking us out of our own situation to look at someone else’s situation, and by doing that, we often recognize ourselves in it.

Nathan the prophet used this technique in 2 Samuel 12.  King David was entrenched deep in his sin.  How could Nathan get through to him?  David was the king.  He had already clearly justified himself in his mind, and taken extreme measures to cover up what he had done.  A straightforward statement would likely not do much good.  Nathan had to first bring David outside of his own perspective so that the king could see things as they were without being muddled by his own thinking.  Nathan used a story with characters David could relate to before revealing David within the story.  David first had to look at it from the perspective of the story, and see the sin for what it really was before Nathan could make his declarative statement, “Thou art the man.”  (2 Samuel 12:7

Scripture is replete with many more examples of significant people using stories to impact a person or group, but in summary:
  • Storytelling is an incredibly effective way to communicate a message. 
  • The Bible itself is a testimony of God’s belief in the power of stories. He did not just give us didactic material to study, but gave us stories of men and women of God that we could relate to. 
  • A teaching has so much more impact when there is an example or story to illustrate it. 
  • When a story is attached, suddenly the point becomes relatable. 
  • Messages stick more firmly in people’s minds when they hear a story, than when they are simply told something. 
The secular world also recognizes the incredible power of stories psychologically, which we will discuss more fully in the next post.

Works Cited:
The Holy Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Marketing, LLC, 2011.  Print.  King James Version.

Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.

Speaking of stories, check out the My Choice Mini Adventures Facebook page to find some fun interactive stories where the readers make the decisions for the characters!

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