Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Importance of Story

I don't know quite when it happened, but somehow in the past few years I have become more keenly aware of the importance of story in my life, in the life of my communities, and in general, as a means of carrying and communicating Truth. 

The modern world, that is the world influenced by the enlightenment, pushed story to the fringes of society.  Stories became unimportant and were considered merely entertainment at best, or as utterly frivolous at worst.  What mattered during the reign of the enlightenment were facts.  Facts became truth, and the pursuit of facts was all that mattered (See my previous post Truth, Fact, Story, Myth). 

Nevertheless, story has made a roaring comeback, at least in my life, and in the lives of many others.  Some have said that we are entering a new age in human history, the post-modern age.  I do not know quite enough at this time to comment on that, but I have always had a couple of problems with the term.  The first is the need to label the current age at all.  The urge to label things was an enlightenment concept in the first place.  Second, post-modern is a purely negative term, denoting only that we are NOT in the modern world.  The term offers nothing positive. 

Yet, even though I am ambivalent about the term, I think some things are changing.  The one change that I have noticed the most is that story is once again creeping back into society and not remaining at its margins.  Stories are becoming a preferred means of telling the truth. 

So, how has this happened in my life?  Several separate streams seem to have come together to form a raging river of story in my life.  The first was my personal study of the New Testament, specifically my study of the gospels.  In my first NT class at Seminary, Dr. C. Clifton Black had us merely read through the Gospel of Mark and then we would discuss it in class as a story.  In my comparative study of the gospels, I found that the differences and apparent inconsistencies between the gospels were motivated by story.  The evangelists were all telling the same story, but they were emphasizing different aspects of that story, each one masterfully highlighting a different part of the life of Jesus.

A second major stream has been the influence that certain stories, both in book and video form have had on my life in the last couple of years.  I have found both movies and novels highly formative in my life.  From books like the Chronicles of Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, The Harry Potter series, and Steven Pressfield novels, to movies like Shawshank Redemption, Usual Suspects, Lord of the Rings, the Matrix Trilogy, V for Vendetta, and Lady in the Water, to Television programs like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Alias, 24, and others, I have found that profound truths are carried by these stories much more powerfully than any other medium. 

Jesus understood this concept that stories are wonderful vehicles for truth.  A great deal of Jesus' teaching came in the form of stories (parables).  Jesus' stories are often some of the most memorable and most touching parts of the gospels.

A third stream was my teaching of the two introductory religion courses at Baylor.  In the Fall most students take a course in Bible, and in Spring a course in church history.  We are encouraged to teach the Christian scriptures as a story, a biblical drama in six acts: Creation, Corruption, Covenant, Christ, Church, Consummation.  Yet, the story of the Bible is only part of the Christian story.  Christians live in the time of the church, and that is where second semester Church history comes in and I also teach that as a story, as a continuation of the story that was begun in the Bible.  I have found that the Bible and Church history is much more amenable to being viewed as a story than as a mere collection of facts.  My students are always pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible and in church history.  A story can handle contradictions, facts cannot.  A story can handle good and evil, ups and downs, and perhaps most importantly, paradox.  I have found that life is full of paradox, and only in the context of story can I make sense of paradox.

Finally, a fourth stream came together for me and that was meeting my wife.  Very early on we realized each others' love of story, and we started to make our own story together.  And, as one of our mutual friends once said, "life is a fairytale."


  1. Wonderful post! I'd even go so far as to say that the enlightenment made a grave mistake when story got shuffled off to the sidelines. We (humanity) love stories and need stories in our lives because we were created in the image of a God who is a Master Storyteller. He has chosen to relate to us that way, has designed us to experience Truth that way, and intends for us to interact with each other that way- through the power and magic of story. There is a reason we can lose ourselves, even transcend ourselves, in a good story. There is a reason Jesus taught through parables. There is a reason the Bible is more an epic story and less a modern history or a collection of random facts. By the way, I love being part of this story with you.

  2. In Spanish there is a saying, el que no oye consejos no llega a viejo, translation those who don't listen to advice/story will not grow to be elderly. Story is the foundation of many cultures and religions because it allows people to not only hear the truth but interpret it into their own lives by providing explanation to fact. Story nurtures growth. Perhaps it is the lack of story during the enlightenment that has brought us to the disarray of today and the only way to find our way back is through the revival of story. Although facts yield plenty of useful information it is not until they are gathered into a story that people remember what they truly mean and can begin to use the information for change/growth. If the Bible was a mere compilation of facts rather than stories not only would it be as memorable as a 7th grade Chemistry Book, useful when your reading it forgettable when your not, but it would lose its significance to many peoples lives. In my opinion, the choices of tomorrow will be better than those of yesterday because the successes and mistakes of the enlightenment age will be told, passed on, and remembered through story.