The Power and Pull of Stories
Posted by Stuart McAllister, on July 8, 2010
Human beings are hungry for stories, and ultimately—though they may not know it—for the one true story. Indeed, the deepest convictions of our heart are often formed by stories and reside there in the images and emotions of a story. People from every culture have stories: whether tales of familial history told around the kitchen table, stories of national drama repeated in cultural festivals, or the endless retellings of fables, tragedies, and epic longings in books and movies. Regardless of the vehicle, we as human beings seem to enjoy and thrive on stories. One story that captivated people this year was James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar. The film quickly became the top-grossing film of all time, with over $1 billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales, and the cultural influence of the film was felt immediately. Not too long after the release of Avatar, CNN.com posted a story on fans experiencing “depression and suicidal thoughts” after viewing the film. According to the article, “On the fan forum site ‘Avatar Forums,’ a topic thread entitled ‘Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible,’ has received more than 1,000 posts from people experiencing depression and fans trying to help them cope.” Philippe Bahgdassarian, the moderator of the online forum, offered this interesting insight into the phenomenon: “The movie was so beautiful and it showed something we don’t have here on Earth. I think people saw we could be living in a completely different world and that caused them to be depressed.”(1) While there has not been a run on “Avatar Depression Syndrome” diagnoses, there is a critical reminder for the Christian in this story. We need to remember that the deepest convictions of our heart are often formed by stories and reside there in the images and emotions of a story. One influential book suggests, Life is not a list of propositions; it is a series of dramatic scenes. As Eugene Peterson said, ‘We live in a narrative, we live in a story. Existence has a story shape to it. We have a beginning and an end, we have a plot, we have characters.’ Story is the language of the heart. Our souls speak not in the naked facts of mathematics or the abstract propositions of systematic theology; they speak the images and emotions of a story.(2) In a world of increasing pluralization, the Christian faces many new challenges. What is the best way to reach people with the gospel in such a multicultural context? I believe one way is by understanding and learning to explore the power and pull of stories in our lives. The history of apologetics provides various models that we can learn from as we seek to connect. One model, borne out by such authors as C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers, is the use of creative and imaginative storytelling. Indeed, in our postmodern world, narrative may connect in ways that propositional truth statements (which the postmodernist often rejects) sometimes cannot. “It is this primary importance of the story that originally drew me to the movies,” says screenwriter and Christian Brian Godawa. He continues, There’s just something about a good story that makes me sit up and listen: the captivation of narrative, the magnetism of drama, the curiosity of interesting characters and the meaning of it all. It’s no wonder Jesus used parables and stories to make his points and explain the unexplainable nature of God’s kingdom to his followers. A story enables us to understand a transcendent reality we may not otherwise have been able to grasp with mere rational abstraction. Drama brings to life the issues of life. (3) Consider, for example, the story that naturalism offers to explain our deep love and seeming need for narratives. According to the naturalist’s script, our hunger for the dramatic is merely a social construction to provide meaning as a palliative to an otherwise meaningless existence. Or perhaps we have a “story gene,” which scripts us to simply dramatize the natural and normal happenings of life. Yet, might the power and pull of stories be an intimation of something greater, more profound, something ultimate? This is, in fact, what the biblical narrative suggests; we are part of a grand story that began before we humans even came into existence: God rescued us from deadend alleys and dark dungeons. He’s set us up in the kingdom of the Son he loves so much, the Son who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating. We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body. He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.(4)
A Captivating Story
Curtis Chang attempted to share the gospel with his fellow students at Harvard. He soon found that the usual methods and approaches he had learned were met with a total lack of resonance or sympathy from his audience. How, he wondered, can we present the truth about Jesus to a postmodern world that views all such claims as merely arbitrary or irrelevant? He was encouraged to discover that the church has wrestled with similar questions for two thousand years, and he examines them in his book, Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine & Aquinas.(5) Chang’s book is an insightful quest for a better way. Drawing upon the biblical injunction to “take every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10: 5), Chang outlines a rhetorical strategy of sharing the gospel with three main components: first, entering the challenger’s story, second, retelling the story, and third, capturing that retold tale within the gospel story. He uses the works of Augustine and Aquinas to show how they employed this approach in their respective contexts, and by doing so, won a significant hearing for the gospel. (6) So what does this strategy look like? First, by entering the challenger’s story, we initially operate within the challenger’s worldview. Then, having entered this story, we may retell the story from the inside while offering a perspective that may not have been seen. That is, we reinterpret the story within the framework of the challenger’s own terms. This is precisely what Francis Schaeffer did: he encouraged individuals to see the logical conclusion, or tragic flaw, of their own storyline. Schaeffer writes about a meeting at Cambridge University where a young Hindu man suggested that all is one in the universe. Stepping inside the Hindu’s story for a moment, Schaeffer thus asked him, “Am I not correct in saying that on the basis of your system, cruelty and noncruelty are ultimately equal, that there is no intrinsic difference between them?” The man agreed. Then Schaeffer picked up a kettle of boiling water, lifted it up above the young man’s head, and said: “There is no difference between cruelty and noncruelty.” “Thereupon,” writes Schaeffer, “the Hindu walked out into the night.”(7) (Of course, he used the kettle merely as a dramatic prop and was not commending cruelty.) Finally, once we’ve entered the challenger’s story and retold it, the final stage is to capture the retold tale with the power of the gospel. The goal or aim is not to attempt to explain everything, but to show the power of the gospel to do more fully what the original storyline can do only partially. For an excellent example from Scripture, look at Paul’s discourse before the Aereopagus in Acts 17.
A Sanctified Imagination
How we need storytellers, writers, and dramatists to offer fresh approaches to connect with reality that are rooted in God’s story. Yet each of us who longs to be faithful to the gospel and effective in connecting with postmodern listeners needs what A.W. Tozer calls a “sanctified imagination.” In his essay “The Value of the Sanctified Imagination,” Tozer observes, The value of the cleansed imagination in the sphere of religion lies in its power to perceive in natural things shadows of things spiritual. It enables the reverent man to ‘See the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour.’ The weakness of the Pharisee in days of old was his lack of imagination or what amounted to the same thing, his refusal to let it enter the field of religion. He saw the text with its carefully guarded theological definition and he saw nothing beyond…. I long to see the imagination released from its prison and given to its proper place among the sons of the new creation. What I am trying to describe here is the sacred gift of seeing, the ability to peer beyond the veil and gaze with astonished wonder upon the beauties and mysteries of things holy and eternal. The stodgy pedestrian mind does no credit to Christianity. (8) Human beings are hungry for stories, and ultimately—though they may not know it—for the one true story. To reach them we must enter their story, learn how to retell that story, and then capture the retold tale within the gospel narrative. May God grant us his grace and wisdom as we aim to become grace-filled and creative storytellers.
Stuart McAllister is vice-president of training and special projects at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
(2) Brent Curtis and John Eldredge, The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God (Nashville:Thomas Nelson, 1997), 39.
(3) Brian Godawa, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (Downers Grove:InterVarsity Press, 2002),10.
(4) Colossians 1:13-20 in The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language,Eugene H. Peterson, ed. (ColoradoSprings: NavPress, 2002).
(5) For an expanded summary and review of Curtis Chang’s book, see the archived Just Thinking article “Metaphors WeLive By” online at http://www.rzim.org/justthinkingfv/tabid/602/articleid/6605/cbmoduleid/881/default.aspx.
(6) Curtis Chang, Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine & Aquinas (Downers Grove:InterVarsity Press, 2000), 26.
(7) Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There in The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy: The Three Essential Books in One Volume(Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 110.
(8) A. W. Tozer, Born After Midnight(Camp Hill, PA: ChristianPublications Inc., 1989), 93-95.