Listen To Article
Today’s guest post comes from my friend Adam Navis. Adam is the Director of Operations for Words of Hope and is also studying the intersection of faith and writing for the focus of his D.Min. studies at Western Theological Seminary.
Since time began, storytellers have held a key role in society. Not only did they keep an account of the history of a people, they created meaning out of events through their telling and retelling. In A Swiftly Tilting World of Madeline L’Engle, Eugene Peterson writes,
“Storytellers are our most honored users of language. In every civilization and culture, the story teller holds the center. Story is the purest and most democratic use of the language: young mothers murmuring lullabies to their infants, country singers spinning ballads, young people telling ghost stories around a campfire and preachers telling the “old, old story” from a grand pulpit, poets and novelists and playwrights published and unpublished.”
Yet, I fear that, for many Christians, stories are not important. I see more Christians exchanging their roles as storytellers (and therefore meaning-makers) for roles as apologist, political leader, social nanny, cultural critic, or institutional supporter. In doing so, American evangelicals are trading an experience for an explanation.
It feels like a lot of what I’m reading in the news, on blogs, and in books shows me a worlds were life is separated from those elements that are most essential to good storytelling: specific details, concrete images, emotional connection, and lived tension. We Christians spend less time dwelling in a beautiful or painful moment (as you do in a novel) and more time rushing to discover some meaning behind an event. We don’t want the complexity (or length) of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. We want a rule, a principle, a moral, or a lesson. (Hopefully in the form of “10 best principles.”)
When Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson all everyone wanted was answers, no one wanted to sit and listen and cry.
Yet, if we neglect stories, from a practical perspective alone, we give up a lot of power. Nothing illustrates the power of a story better than the biblical account of Nathan’s story to King David.
“What this story-within-a-story about David and Nathan reveals to us is the extraordinary extent to which a story has power. It is important to remember whenever we are tempted to think of stories as no more that pleasant diversion from the sterner aspects of life, things we read to children or indulge in ourselves only when we’ve gotten caught up on the high priority items….Such an attitude sells the story form short. It is never as innocent as it appears – as King David has special reason to discover. Not only on Nathan’s lips, but on many other lips and pages as well, stories have a surprising ability to sneak past our defenses and force us to look at things in a new way.”
But Christian storytelling is not just a practical matter. We aren’t just neglecting a useful tool. Storytelling is an essential part of what it means to be a Christian. This is most clearly illustrated by the question, “What was the meaning of the Incarnation?” because this question misses the point. There is no meaning to the incarnation – the incarnation is the meaning! We will understand this when we have a richer understanding of what a story is and what it can do. The grand-dame of thinkers on the subject of Christian storytelling is Flannery O’Connor, who wrote in Mystery and Manners,
“The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully.”
So maybe the best responses to events like Michael Brown’s death (or any of the thousands of things we can’t do anything about) is to dwell in the story. Listen. See. Witness. Try not to editorialize. If you have to say something, let it be, “Tell me more.” If you must do something, pull up a chair. We do this because if we wish to understand the Bible, we must bear witness to how the stories of so many diverse individuals – especially people we don’t immediately relate to – are woven together into the greater story of God’s action in the world.
 The Swiftly Tilting World of Madeleine L’Engle, ed. Luci Shaw (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1998), 59
 Robert McAfee Brown, Persuade Us to Rejoice: The Liberating Power of Fiction (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 25-26
 Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, selected & edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, [seventeenth printing] 1989), 122