Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Power of Story

I wrote the below piece for LICC’s EG 35 (June 2013), available online here. The theme of the issue revolved around the significance of story and stories. Not long after the article was submitted, I read Scott McClellan, Tell Me a Story: Finding God (and Ourselves) Through Narrative (Chicago: Moody, 2013), which would definitely have been added to the booklist

I was six years old when it happened, but I can remember it to this day. Already an avid reader, I was sitting up in bed one night leaning over a book when I should have been asleep. There had been a power cut (this being the early 1970s, after all) and my only light was a candle, also on my lap. So engrossed was I in the story that I didn’t give a thought about the proximity of a naked flame to cotton pyjamas – until, that is, the inevitable happened. My father seemed to bound up the stairs four at time in response to my screams, burst into the bedroom, ripped the burning top from my body in one movement of a hand, and trod it out on the floor. I’ve never lost my love for stories, but this might explain why I’ve always been cautious around candles.

Telling our stories

‘Tell me a story.’ ‘Once upon a time.’ A four-word request and a four-word opening. Both phrases capture something of the universal impulse for stories. Indeed, one of the characteristics that marks human beings out as distinctive is that we are story-making and story-telling animals. Often, when we get into a conversation with someone, what we hear is their story – of their day or week, or even something of their personal history. Every day of our lives we do things or things happen to us, or other people’s lives intersect with ours, and – often without even thinking about it – we link these ‘events’ and ‘characters’ together in a sequence which makes sense of them, which gives meaning to them, and which – if we were asked to do so – we could relay to others.

No matter the culture or era, stories are ever-present. An essential part of the fabric of relationships, they hold groups of people together – through inside jokes, shared experiences, and lifelong memories. So it is that humans have always passed on stories around the campfire or over the table – stories of origins, of adventures, of heroes, of love, of redemption, of happier times and darker days. Stories embody and transmit the values of the families and communities to which we belong. We explain and entertain ourselves through stories.

And we all know a good story when we hear one – not because it ticks particular boxes on a narratologist’s list, but because it connects with us and communicates in a way that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. Stories are ‘sticky’. In their apparent simplicity and concreteness, in the way their unexpected turns take us from suspense to anticipation to relief, and in the way they provoke our imagination and engage our emotions, stories stay with us long after facts and figures have faded from our memories.

We all have and tell and are submerged in various interconnecting ‘stories’, all of which shape our lives in profound ways.

Embodying The Story

For Christians, of course, the most crucial story for determining our identity, for shaping the way we think and live, is the biblical story.

Prevalent among the Bible’s varied genres are many individual and interconnected narratives – Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Ruth, David, Daniel, Esther, Peter, Paul – which show us what God values – faith, obedience, love, loyalty, faithfulness, service, sacrifice. But the Bible also tells a grand sweeping story, from beginning to end. From the garden of Eden to the city of the New Jerusalem, the whole Bible can be seen as an epic narrative: a story which begins with God as Creator, which tells of Israel as the people who will bring God’s blessing to the nations, which the New Testament declares has come to its promised fulfilment in the redemption brought about through Christ, the one in whom God’s purposes for the cosmos will be consummated.

So, the significance of story shouldn’t come as a surprise to Christians, for whom there is an Author who stands behind our stories, imbuing them with his grace in a way that points back to him. Correctly understood, our stories don’t compete with God’s story, but gesture towards it. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton were convinced that all our stories of journeys and heroes, of sacrifice and redemption, speak of humanity’s quest for identity, purpose and hope.

There can be a tendency for us to begin with our stories, and then fit the biblical narrative into the world of our experience. As it is, however, the ‘world’ created by the biblical narrative takes priority over the world of our experience. Our own stories connect with and are sustained by the bigger story told in Scripture, of which we are a part. The desire to ‘tell our stories’ is thus valuable in all sorts of ways, but especially if our telling is calibrated by the biblical narrative of what God has done in Christ and is now doing by his Spirit through his people in the world. What should our stories look like in the light of that story? Our own stories carry significance insofar as they reflect and are aligned with that grand scheme of things.

Encountering other stories

Still, our story instinct has a darker side, as Jonathan Gottschall points out in The Storytelling Animal, for it makes us vulnerable to conspiracy theories, manipulative advertisements, and damaging national myths. That there are ‘helpful’ stories and not-so ‘helpful’ stories requires us to be careful listeners of other stories as well as competent tellers of our own.

As Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sandford point out, the stories people tell betray ‘hidden worldviews’ about what counts as significant. Worldviews don’t exist as disembodied systems but as stories which appeal to the gut as well as the intellect. As such, snippets of conversations in the coffee shop or Facebook status updates are often enough to betray the stories that are part of the cultural air we breathe, stories which embody worldviews that are unconsciously absorbed rather than consciously adopted.

For Christians, though, Scripture provides the control story for how we understand and engage with other stories on offer. Inevitably, we run the risk of accommodating the biblical story to surrounding cultural stories – whether of scientific materialism, secular humanism, new age mysticism, individualism, tribalism, or consumerism. Indeed, since we are embodied, economic, psychological, political, moral, social beings, there is likely to be some truth in those stories which we will want to affirm, even though none on their own will be sufficient. Our task, then, is to show that the Christian story not only offers more complete and satisfying answers to the questions and dilemmas of life but also contributes to greater human flourishing.

We do this not necessarily by a set of arguments (though they have their place) but by telling a different story about the origin of the universe and the nature and destiny of humanity; a different story about who is in charge of the world; a story which claims to take precedence over other stories, through which other stories are to be read, heard, and understood. The gospel account is not one more variation of the story that we can fix our problems if we are creative or courageous or clever enough. Instead, Scripture tells the story of the God who goes to great lengths to redeem through sacrifice those who don’t deserve it and then draws us into his story, a story which is going somewhere – providing identity, purpose, and hope in the process.

For our part, as those convinced the Bible has a better story to tell, we seek to live in its light and pass it on to those who will listen. One of the ways we can do this is by telling our own stories in ways that resonate with it, which reflect God’s redemptive work in our own lives and in a way that points others to his grace. While arguments don’t always succeed in challenging someone’s framework of values and ideas, a personal story can establish some common ground or open up fresh ways of seeing things, or provide an opportunity to take the conversation in a different direction.

Within the context of the Christian community too, stories of God at work in our lives encourage others, and allow all of us to see our lives on a bigger tapestry. Our individual stories will take different forms – from the dramatic to the domestic, from the marvellous to the mundane – but, if we look closely enough, we will see God at work in our daily lives and relationships, through the highs and lows, for us and for the world.

For further reading

Antony Billington, Margaret Killingray, and Helen Parry, Whole Life, Whole Bible: 50 Readings on Living in the Light of Scripture (Abingdon: BRF, 2012).

Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (London: Continuum, 2004).

Gene C. Fant Jr., God as Author: A Biblical Approach to Narrative (Nashville: B&H, 2010).

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

Daniel de Roulet, Finding Your Plot in a Plotless World: A Little Direction (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007).

Annette Simmons, The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling (New York: Basic Books, 2006).

Robert E. Webber, Who Gets to Narrate the World? Contending for the Christian Story in An Age of Rivals (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008).

Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sandford, Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).


eddie said...

Are you aware of the Bible storying course at Redcliffe this autumn? It would be great if you could give it a plug.

Antony said...

Thanks Eddie – Yes, I’d seen that was taking place. Looks like it’s going to be a great course, and very reasonably priced too.