Christian Storytelling, Part I: The Right Stories

By

There’s a scene near the beginning of the great film, Walk the Line, where a very young Johnny Cash is talking with his older brother Jack, who plans to become a preacher when he grows up. Johnny is lamenting that he doesn’t know the Scripture stories very well, but his brother points out that he knows their mother’s hymnal by heart. Johnny’s brother goes on:

Look, J.R., if I’m going to be a preacher one day, I gotta know the Bible front to back. I mean, you can’t help nobody if you can’t tell them the right story.

Indeed. I recall very well a weekend, years ago, that I was able to spend with 70+ college students at a local IVCF’s annual chapter retreat. I was invited to be the speaker. It turned out that a young Muslim man, at student at the college, had been invited by one of his friends from IVCF, and by the middle of the second day, he wanted to talk to me about his search for God. After a bit of discussion, he laid it out for me. “I need some kind of proof,” he said.

Proof? Oh, well I can give that; I’ve got “evidence that demands a verdict”! But as I began to talk about the reliability of the New Testament documents, I watched his eyes begin to glaze over. This young man was hurting badly. If he received Jesus, he’d be an outcast from his family. He needed to know Jesus was the real deal. He most certainly did not need an intellectual, systematic defense of the Christian faith. We chatted for a few more moments, I can’t even remember what about, and then we parted.

I prayed. I had no idea what to say to this young, conflicted man. Finally, Sunday morning, as we were packing our cars to leave, I found him one last time. I said: “Listen, I understand that you are searching for God. I wanted to share something with you quickly before we leave. It’s something my dad said at his baptism. My dad spent a long time searching all sorts of religions, looking for God. At his baptism, he said this: ‘I spent a lot of time looking for God. But when it came right down to it, I didn’t find God; He found me.’”

His eyes widened. “That means a lot. Thank you for that.” He was genuine and appreciative. It was just a story, but it was exactly what he needed to hear at the time. I told him about a God who does not simply wait to be found, but actively seeks.

As much as I disagree with Brian McLaren on many things, he is spot on when it comes to this matter:

If you ask me about the gospel, I’ll tell you, as well as I can, the story of Jesus, the story leading up to Jesus, the story of what Jesus said and did, the story of what happened as a result, of what has been happening more recently, today even.[“The Method, the Message, and the Ongoing Story”, in The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives ed. By Leonard Sweet (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2003) 214]

This is what makes Walk the Line such a great movie. It tells a brutally honest story of a terribly weak man whose only redemption was to be found in Christ. There was no doubt about it: Johnny Cash was a sinner, no hiding it. We are sinners as well, but we hide it better. And too often we hide behind our clever theology.

If we’ve got our doctrine of sin and salvation down, but we can’t genuinely connect those truths to our own very real, very complicated stories, we might just be using theology as a hiding place. So I’m going to explore “Christian Storytelling” over a series of coming posts. We’ll be looking at how we understand the story of God and humanity, and how our personal stories are part of the greater story.


24 Comments

  1. Jazz

    My mom is making me do speakers tournament and I really don’t want to do it. Do you guys know of Christian tournament with singing?

  2. Alex Hagerman

    Can’t wait to read this stories are door ways and I need to be better at opening those doors.

  3. Chris

    I am reading a GREAT book on this very topic… It is called “The King Jesus Gospel” by Scot McKnight. You should check it out.

    Chris

  4. George

    Couldn’t agree with you more about the tension between doctrine and practical truth. Being right about the Book of Revelation won’t help you get over yourself and serve your neighbor; in fact, being adamant about stuff like that just might keep you from seeing how God is calling you to live by faith.

    How can you live by faith if you have all the answers?

  5. Randy Heffner

    Travis – I wish you well on the series. Thought I’d toss in a few questions you might (already be planning to) touch on:

    Q: What makes a story a “Christian story”?

    Q: What’s the difference between “Christian storytelling” and “storytelling by Christians”?

    Q: When is it appropriate, or not, for a storytellers who are Christians to use explicit “God language” in their stories?

    Q: Did Jesus tell “Christian stories”?

    Q: What gives a story power?

    Q: What affect(s) should stories told by Christians have on those who hear them?

    Q: Should storytelling to Christians differ from storytelling in general? If so, how?

    Speaking of Walk the Line and storytelling in film, there’s been some debate over at Filmwell about the storytelling in the recent film Courageous.

  6. dawngreen

    Travis,
    I have spent a great deal of time lately thinking about this topic. I am especially looking forward to reading your series as I learn to be able to tell “my” story. I’m finding that it is the story of the real Jesus in my life, not my theology that binds me to the ones He loves.I always enjoy reading your work and pray your family is well.

  7. Peter B

    Dawn: that has been the subject of my story for the past couple of decades now. Thank you for articulating it like that.

    Travis: thank you. I eagerly await the next chapter.

  8. Travis Prinzi

    @travis

    All, sorry it’s taken so long for me to get to this conversation. I’m glad to see enthusiasm about the series, as I’m intending these posts to be seeds for a larger book on the subject. So I’m definitely looking forward to the conversations subsequent to each post.

    Randy, fantastic list of questions. I will look to answer each one of them over the course of this series, because I think they’re all relevant.

  9. Tony Heringer

    This dovetails nicely with my latest volume in the Eugene Peterson series. In “Tell It Slant” the first part of the book is about the stories Jesus told in Luke as H travels through Samaria.

    It has challenged me to think about this very topic and how I can weave ordinary stories into conversations as a way to point to The Story. Looking forward to seeing where you take us this journey.

    Lead on my man!

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 *