I’ve always been a storyteller. My poor mother! I used to recount every life event in technicolor for her, even movies. She didn’t have to see the movies herself; her son had already reenacted them in their entirety. I think I told stories to know that I wasn’t alone. I wanted to see if the story made others feel the way that it made me feel. I wanted to see if it moved them and transformed them, too.
Turns out, we’re all story-reading and storytelling creatures by design. That’s our factory setting. We have no other way of interpreting existence. No wonder the Bible is roughly 45% story, 30% poetry, and 25% discourse on the story and poetry. God knows how he wired us. Indeed, The Gospel itself is a story. Our word “Gospel” comes from the Old English word “God-spell.” Spell originally meant “story.” So they called a good story a “gód spell.” When the early Christian missionaries arrived in England, they called the Greek word evangelion the “gód spell” which later became the gospel, or the good story. You might even say The Gospel is the powerful enchantment. It is God’s enchantment of the world. God is weaving a spell, a story, of which Christians are a part. I learned this from Matthew Dickerson’s delightful book, From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy. You should read it, especially since he’s speaking at Hutchmoot: Homebound this year (hint, hint!).
But here’s my point: God wired us for story. We reflect on our existence in narrative form. We tell stories while living a story within the larger story God is telling. The Gospel is the meta-narrative that makes sense of all our individual stories. It began at creation and continues even now while we’re together. Tonight, when you lose your temper with your spouse, the Gospel story includes that moment. Tomorrow, when you wake up worrying about your job or your friend or what you’ll serve for dinner, the Gospel story includes that moment.
A 2014 Harvard Business Review article, “Why Your Brain Loves Storytelling,” describes how brain chemistry responds to stories like it responds to laughter or chocolate. Stories trigger the release of oxytocin, dopamine, cortisol, and endorphins that predispose us for open receptivity. That’s one reason why stories are such a powerful means of persuasion. They can move us emotionally, transform us spiritually, and propel us to action in ways that simple truth claims fail to do.
According to Michael Ward, that’s why C. S. Lewis stopped debating. It was a tactical move. Lewis came to realize the power of story to shape us and change us. He recognized that no amount of debates or propositions could surpass story’s ability to engage people at a heart level. Take, for example, this statement from Psalm 14: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” We can understand that claim with our mind, but we come to know this truth through our “chests” (a term C. S. Lewis used to describe the affections) when we read of Elijah’s epic showdown with Jezebel’s prophets on Mt. Carmel (I Kings 18) or David’s showdown with Goliath (I Samuel 17) or Christ’s parable in Matthew 21. Those are powerful, narrative expressions of the truth that God is on his throne and he does as he pleases (Psalm 115:3) regardless of what fools may say.
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe unpacks this truth claim so vividly that children grown to adulthood still remember how much they longed for Aslan to return so that Lucy would be proven correct and so the witch’s curse might get unwound. Looking intellectually at the statement, “The fool says, ‘There is no God,'” is like looking at truth through a simple piece of glass. You can see it clearly enough, but when we look at the truth through a story, we see it through a prism that refracts the truth into something more colorful and more meaningful. Without stories, the truth tends to remain in the brain without truly affecting us. Stories help truth travel those essential eighteen inches from our head to our heart where real change begins.
Maybe that’s one reason why Jesus is a storyteller. Maybe that’s why he continues the prophetic work of storytelling as a way of unveiling the kingdom of God for people wrapped around the axle of political partisanship and social upheaval. Jesus knows that the heart is the core engine of our being and that stories are the way to move them emotionally, transform them spiritually, and propel them into kingdom work.
Stories help truth travel those essential eighteen inches from our head to our heart where real change begins.Ben Palpant
Stories have a remarkable ability to powerfully and permanently speak into our lives. In some respects, God uses stories to move mountains. If ever there was a mountain, it was king David. The anointed one. The slayer of lions. The boy hero. The warrior poet. He became so popular and so strong that he could look out over his kingdom, see a beautiful woman, and say, “I’ll take that one.” What’s going to move a mountain like David? Does Nathan come in swinging the law like a world renowned debater? No. David already knows God’s law. He even delights in God’s law. Ignorance of God’s law wasn’t the problem. Clearly, intellectual assent to God’s law wasn’t the issue, either. David’s desires were the problem. In this particular case, God’s law had not made the necessary journey from his head to his heart. Only a story could sneak between David’s natural defenses and reach his heart.
Did you know that the amygdala is triggered whenever something we really care about is attacked? It is the self-protection mechanism, triggering emotion and adrenaline. If a person’s identity is threatened, the brain goes into self-protection mode. Have you noticed this happen in your own life? Someone comes to you with a political agenda you don’t like, you feel your heartbeat increase, your words don’t come out right, you start getting frustrated. This happens in marriage, too. All your spouse is doing is pointing out one little flaw in your character, but you blow it out of proportion!
Nathan took the amygdala out of play when he said, “Once upon a time…” He got David to lean in. When he had David’s whole mind, heart, and body involved in the story, he brought down the hammer, saying, “You are the man!”
If you want to cultivate people, to make them actually change, imitate Nathan. Stop sermonizing. Preaching and sermonizing, by the way, are not the same thing. Sermonizing is sparring. Sermonizing is what we do on Facebook: always qualified by, “I don’t usually do this, but…” Preaching, however, is teaching. Preaching is shepherding. Good preaching reminds us of the story, unpacks the story, expounds on the story, and applies the story so that we are profoundly changed.
And what kind of change we get will depend very much on the kind of stories we tell—and whether our stories are stirring proof texts that God does, indeed, exist.
Ben Palpant is a memoirist, poet, novelist, and non-fiction writer. He is the author of several books, including A Small Cup of Light, Sojourner Songs, and The Stranger. He writers under the inspiration of five star-lit children and one dog named Chesterton. He and his wife live in the Pacific Northwest.