How Stories Do Their Work on Us

By

Reading with my children has reminded me of a truth that years of adulthood had almost caused me to forget: that “story” is truer than “precept.” We adults tend to think that we arrive at the truth of a story by reducing it to two or three abstractions that the narrative embodies. The parable of the Prodigal Son is “about” grace and forgiveness. The Lord of the Rings is “about” courage and friendship. We listen with half an ear as the preacher reads the scripture lesson, because his sermon is going to boil it down to three basic truths anyway.

But our children know it’s the story that does the work on us, not the disembodied precept. If you don’t believe it, open up a book of Aesop’s Fables; skip the fables, and just read the morals at the end of the fables. You might just as well tell punch lines instead of telling jokes. The moral may summarize the story and bring it to a point, but the moral isn’t the point.

It’s not that abstract concepts or ideas are unimportant. Mercy, forgiveness, repentance, abundance—all the things that form the basis of Christian truth—are abstract concepts. But being mere mortals, we can’t really understand any of those things if they aren’t grounded in what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. You can talk about grace until you’re blue in the face, but you aren’t going to come up with a definition that improves on the parable of the Prodigal Son: a father, arms outstretched, welcoming a rebellious and wicked son back into his home. And the word “friendship” doesn’t mean much unless you’ve seen a friend in action—Sam Gamgee, for instance, nearly drowning himself rather than let Frodo journey to Mordor alone.

The Habit of Understanding
The moral benefit of a story goes far beyond the “moral of the story.” Almost by definition, an avid reader is in the habit of understanding what it’s like to be somebody else. Whatever the moral of the story, reading sharpens the skills of empathy, which is not only a moral virtue, but a huge advantage in any pursuit. Habit Five of Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” boils it down: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Readers, you might say, are habitual understanders. A story allows a reader to join in the inner lives of its characters. Readers aren’t mere spectators or audience members. A well-written book allows them to experience what it’s like to be another person. And isn’t that the very basis of empathy and kindness? Isn’t it a key component of love?
Our natural tendency is to close in on ourselves, to be so concerned with our own interests, our own preoccupations that we find it hard to understand another person’s perspective. More than that, we find it very hard to understand our own selves.

Consider the case of David and Bathsheba. Because I tell stories for a living, one of my heroes is the prophet Nathan. He’s the one who had the unfortunate job of confronting David about his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah.

One has to be careful when exposing a king who has already demonstrated a willingness to murder in order to keep his guilt hidden. So Nathan made up a story. He told about a rich man with many flocks and herds and a poor man who had only one little lamb that he loved like a family member. When the rich man needed a lamb to feed a visitor, he took the poor man’s pet lamb rather than slaughter one of his own.

David was enraged. He vowed that the rich man would die for this injustice. That’s when Nathan brought the truth down like a thunderstroke: “You are the man.”

It was one of the great moments in the history of fiction. Cut to the heart, David repented of his sin. And Nathan the prophet lived to tell more stories.

Nathan’s story did what all great fiction does: it took David out of himself, and it gave him an emotional attachment to what it is good and right. Nathan didn’t tell the king anything he didn’t know already. David knew it was wrong to kill a man and take his wife. But he had built for himself a little world of self-justification and self-protection and self-indulgence that made it possible for him to ignore the moral facts of the matter. Nathan’s story took him out of that world and let him see what it looked like from the outside.

Loving the Right
As the prophet Nathan knew, it’s not enough to know what’s right. People have to desire what’s right before they’ll do it consistently. Stories have a unique ability to shape a person’s sympathies—to change what they desire.

I love the Narnia books. I think what I love most about them is the fact that they give us a chance to renew the way we feel about things we’ve known all our lives. If you’ve been paying attention in Sunday School, you already know all the theology in the Narnia books. They don’t give you new facts to chew on. They help align your feelings and desires with regard to the facts you already know.

Instead of giving you a lecture on the importance of staying warm, Lewis builds a fire and says, “Here—feel this. Doesn’t that feel good?” You can hardly help but love Aslan for the things he says and does. You can hardly help but desire what’s good and right and true.

A virtuous life is a life of adventure—of facing challenges, standing firm, rescuing the powerless, righting wrongs. A good adventure story dramatizes that adventure and makes it seem like the sort of life that nobody would want to miss out on. It doesn’t just tell the reader what’s right; it helps the reader to want what’s right.

Real life doesn’t always feel like a great adventure. Sometimes doing the right thing is rather dull. Great adventure stories remind us that in the end, the choices we make every day are the stuff of greatness. The world is changed by people who choose to tell the truth, to show kindness, to be courageous.

Our natural tendency is to burrow into our own little lives and so lose perspective on what really matters and what’s really true. Our good deeds start to seem irrelevant, and our bad deeds start to seem like they’re no big deal. We all need to step outside ourselves now and then—perhaps to try out another, better self, or perhaps, as David did, to see our own situation from another viewpoint.

Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


24 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Jonathan,

    I read a post like this and my wheels start spinning like crazy. Thanks.

    I’ve been working on a study of the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry for a sermon series and a writing project, and I’m having my mind blown by the unfolding story. I think one of the most powerful elements to any story, especially Jesus’ story, is to not only get the events, but to discover what makes up the people involved in them. And as I look at Jesus’ behavior from Palm Sunday through that Tuesday, I see a strength and fearlessness in Him that has caused me more than once to stop writing, sit back, stare at the ceiling and marvel at the tenacity of my Lord.

    On Monday he drove out the money changers– which is stunning enough when you realize this was the day after the Triumphal Entry. But do you know what He did after He turned over the money changers tables and made a mess of the place? He stayed right where He was and taught for the rest of the day, healing the lame and blind. Whenever I might do something brash in order to make a point, I make my point and then make my exit. Jesus puts His recently cleansed temple to immediate use and presides over it as priest for the day. Uh… Yikes!

    Or how about this. The next day, He goes back for more, and the temple officials are ready for Him this time, or so they think. They come to Him in force and demand to know who gave Him the authority to act that way. He replied by saying “I’ll answer your question if you answer mine. John’s baptism, was that from God or man?” It was a brilliantly piercing question for reason’s I won’t go into here, but when they decide it is politically unanswerable, they say “We don’t know.” Jesus flatly tells them, “Then I’m not going to tell you by what authority I’m doing these things.”

    Then do you know what He does? Same thing He did the day before– He stays right there in the temple and teaches. In that teaching we get Jesus’ famous summary of the Law– to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. That summary is a precept. But and the context in which Jesus spoke those words gives it vibrancy and life. But taking it even another level deeper, the Man speaking is someone who is proving to be anything but safe or a meek dispenser of parables, precepts and proverbs.

    I used to think of Jesus as my buddy. But in the past decade I’ve really sought to avoid that kind of language– not because I don’t think Jesus counts Himself my friend and vice versa. I do believe that. Its just that the more I get to know Him from the story of Scripture, the more I’m finding that He’s a friend who picks fights with the self-righteous, raises the dead, casts out demons and forgives dying theives while He Himself suffocates. Friend, yes. Buddy? Well…

    One of the ways the Gospel story works in us is that it shows us Jesus who is like us in so many ways, but at the same time so utterly unlike anyone who has ever lived. And we are left to marvel, like the centurion at Golgotha, “Surely this is the Son of God.”

  2. Dan White

    That was really well written and well put. After reading, I googled Jonathan Rogers; I’m going to purchase the Wilderking trillogy a.s.a.p.
    Storytelling seems to come naturally to some people, but I have to work at it. As a preacher, I know I’m most effective when I take the time to tell a story, ripe with detail, plot movement, vivid imagery, a narrative tone…. Its so much easier to say, “There was this guy who did this thing. You should do it too.” But that doesn’t win people’s affection and create desire; it simply reminds people of things they already know, stories they have already heard. A reminder is good sometimes, but growth comes through adventure–whether experienced personally or empathetically.

  3. Tony Heringer

    Jonathan/Russ,

    Thanks for the good words guys.

    Russ your ‘buddy’ comment resonates with me. I think I seriously considered this thought at a Perimeter Men’s Retreat back in 1999. John Eldredge was the speaker and he was able to illustrate the fierce love of Christ through stories: film, literature, personal experience, etc.

    Its not that we don’t need summary points—this is the second time in two days I’ve been reminded of Covey’s 7 Habits book (a seminal work for my vocation and life in general). However, life doesn’t play out as propositional truth or systematic theology (i.e. if “a”, then “b”). You need those things to help you gain perspective, but as Jesus said “wisdom is proved right by her actions.”

    In terms of story, I learned more about “The Habit of Understanding” from “To Kill A Mocking Bird” than Covey’s 7 Habits teaching. However, Harper Lee’s story (and later the movie) set the table for the teaching that Covey presented in the book.

    In fact, that is what we have with Scripture. God gives Israel propositional truth in the Law (even that is a story and not a list) and then we see many stories related to how Israel responds to the Law. Then God inserts Himself into history (or as has been said “His story”) to interact with the Law Himself. He doesn’t eliminate it, but instead fulfills and personifies it – the Truth that sets us free. And we truly will live happily ever after.

    The End

  4. becky

    I am in the middle of reading The Book of Sorrows by Walter Wangerin (sequel to Book of the Dun Cow), and this book is a perfect illustration of the power of a well told story to plant precepts deep into our hearts. In Wangerin’s skilled hands, a “cocky” rooster is showing me what love really means, and the nature of God’s unconditional love for me. I could read theological arguments about God’s love all day long, but they wouldn’t get past my brain and into my soul like one short chapter of this book does.

    It occurs to me, also, that Jesus knew and used the power of stories to reach people where they live. His parables gave precepts hands and feet. Showed how they worked in real life, and therefore made them accessable to the people who listened to them.

  5. William Marshall

    Good thoughts, thanks Jonathan for the entry. As a person who preaches regularly, your words caught my attention. I really just wanted to ask you a question: as a storyteller/writer, how would you advise preachers to use stories in their preaching? Obviously communicating precepts is vital to faithful preaching, at least for my understaning of faithful preaching. Yet, the Word of God is full of great stories and the best teacher/preacher of all used stories frequently. Illustrations are one thing, but surely we are talking about more than some story we found on the internet. I want to communicate Biblical precepts well in my preaching and I think that involves at least some storytelling. So, any thoughts? Thanks for your time and sorry if I went in a direction you did not want to go. Feel free to read my first sentence and move on!!

    wm

  6. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    William, those are great questions. They remind me how easy it is to be glib when talking about things I know little about–preaching, for instance. It’s easy for me to say (or imply) “avoid abstraction,” when I’m not the one who has to stand up and communicate the deepest truths of the gospel in 25 minutes or less. So it is with fear and trembling that I “advise preachers” about how to preach. Having offered that caveat, however, here are a few thoughts.

    1) I really do think a lot of sermons let us congregants off the hook by turning a story into lessons or applications rather than requiring us to enter into the story and experience it. Just when you’re ready to lose yourself in the story, the preacher starts in telling you what it “means” and you don’t have to wrestle around and get dirty after all. I’m suggesting that there is a kind of preaching by very well-meaning preachers that causes us to take Scripture less seriously rather than more seriously.
    2) One of the most important things stories do is to force us to live with uncertainty, cognitive dissonance, etc. And that’s at odds with what I usually expect from a preacher. I expect a preacher to explain things, make them clearer, not muddier. When you really think about Jesus’ parables, for instance, they’re shocking. A man hires laborers throughout the day and pays the same wage to the guys who came first thing in the morning and the guys who only worked that last hour. Are you kidding me?? There’s a major dissonance between my sense of fairness and what Jesus is giving me in this story (or the story of the Prodigal Son, or the story about the guy who sold out to buy the field with the buried treasure). Jesus doesn’t explain away that dissonance. He makes people sit in it. And if you sit in it long enough, you end up asking yourself, ‘What is it about my heart that makes the story about the day laborers so offensive to me?’ We know most of the Bible stories so well that they aren’t very shocking or offensive. You asked for some preaching advice, so here’s some: try telling the stories of the Bible in such a way that they’re as shocking and offensive to your listeners as they were to the first people who heard them. Tell the story of the Good Samaritan and make the hero a chain-smoking Arab taxi driver. And ask your listeners why the thought bothers them. (I’m similarly bothered by the fact that Tim Tebow of the Florida Gators is such a great guy–“Can anything good come out of Gainesville?”…talk about cognitive dissonance!). By the way, there’s a series of short films called Modern Parables (www.modernparables.com) that does a great job of retell the parables in modern settings. The Good Samaritan is a Middle Eastern taxi driver; the widow and judge are an old black woman and a corrupt judge in a small Southern town; the man who finds the treasure in the field is a small-time real estate agent who accidentally discovers oil on a blighted piece of property he’s trying to sell.
    3) I’m stating the obvious here, but forgive me: What about those passages like the Pauline epistles that are mostly straight-up exhortation and no narrative? I always love knowing the narrative behind those exhortations–the story of Paul wring the joyful letter to the Philippians from a Roman jail cell, the story of Titus the slave-owner and Onesimus the runaway slave that is the backdrop of Titus.
    4) This is a very rough paraphrase of John Piper–so rough that it may count as a mis-quotation, but I think I remember a sermon in which Piper said something like, “Nobody’s heart has ever been changed by a life application.” It’s stories that change the way we feel about things, and stories have a peculiar ability to expose what’s in our hearts. Life applications are great, but there’s a limit to how much good they can do if the soil of our hearts isn’t prepared…and story is a great way to till that ground.

    One last thing: if you want people to build a ship, don’t give them a ship-building manual. Give them a longing for the sea. They’ll figure out how to build that ship.

  7. William Marshall

    Jonathan,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to respond. I want to think more about your comments and suggestions, but here’s my initial thoughts. I agree that we need to help our people understand the shocking nature of many of the stories and parables. Likewise, knowing the history, or stories, behind the New Testament letters is so helpful in appreciating and applying what is written (as you mentioned with Philippians). Of course the tension comes as one struggles to let the stories stand and yet the call to explain the text (which to me is very much a central part of the preaching task). Since you mentioned Piper, you have to say that he spends the majority of his time explaining the passages (and drawing points from the story). I don’t mean to sound like I am disagreeing with you or dismissing your ideas. I really do want to incorporate story-telling into my preaching and I am just trying to think through how to do that while remaining faithful to the text and the task of preaching.

    Thanks again for your thoughts. Lots more to think about…

    wm

  8. JWitmer

    Jonathan,

    I’m really glad a link to this article appeared on the RR homepage. Thank you for sharing it. It’s a great article, and I find this part especially insightful:

    It’s not enough to know what’s right. People have to desire what’s right before they’ll do it consistently. Stories have a unique ability to shape a person’s sympathies—to change what they desire.

    Because if we want to relate to each other in the freedom of grace, isn’t this a central issue: How, apart from loading each other down with laws, do we prevent licence and encourage holiness?

    I also love this from your comment: “If you want people to build a ship, don’t give them a ship-building manual. Give them a longing for the sea. They’ll figure out how to build that ship.”

    I agree that storytelling, along with all redeemed art, is crucial to our efforts to live as freed from sin, slaves to Christ.

  9. Jenny

    Thank you. I have been searching for how to connect my teaching with my young sons’ hearts, not just their heads. I think you may have given me the key. Now I just need to learn how to be a good story teller!

  10. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Can’t believe I missed this when it first appeared here – so rich, so good, and so needed right now. Thanks so much for taking the time to share this with us, I’m grateful 🙂

  11. The Power of Stories and the Habit of Understanding – Justin Taylor

    […] Jonathan Rogers: The moral benefit of a story goes far beyond the “moral of the story.” Almost by definition, an avid reader is in the habit of understanding what it’s like to be somebody else. Whatever the moral of the story, reading sharpens the skills of empathy, which is not only a moral virtue, but a huge advantage in any pursuit. Habit Five of Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” boils it down: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Readers, you might say, are habitual understanders. A story allows a reader to join in the inner lives of its characters. Readers aren’t mere spectators or audience members. A well-written book allows them to experience what it’s like to be another person. And isn’t that the very basis of empathy and kindness? Isn’t it a key component of love? […]

  12. Bryan Thompson

    Dear Jonathan,

    I would be very interested in including your article on “How Stories Do Their Work On Us” as it appears here:
    http://www.rabbitroom.com/2008/10/how-stories-do-their-work-on-us/
    … in my first edition of story4all (digital) magazine.

    story4all has been around as a weekly podcast since May 2006 and seeks to encourage the Body of Christ to employ storytelling and other forms of oral communication to reach and make disciples of the lost.

    Could I please have your permission to use the article in its entirety with accompanying graphic in the magazine? I would be glad to include any links, contribution or source remarks you would send me. A high resolution (for thumbnail to accompany the article) photograph of yourself would also be appreciated.

    As I need to send the magazine off for production this Thursday afternoon, if it is to make the January deadline, I would appreciate hearing from you as promptly as possible.

    With thanks in anticipation of your response!
    Bryan Thompson
    story4all editor

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *