Why Stories?

In light of our new sermon series, called “Jesus Stories,” we thought it might be helpful to give a brief defense of—or maybe, reason for—stories. They’re more important than they might seem at first glance.

When you hear “story,” what comes to mind? Probably a lot of different things, the least of which is fiction versus non-fiction. That’s because stories touch on almost every aspect of human life, whether the story is true or not. They tend to reach into the depths of human emotion—to touch the very basic level of what it means to be a person—to cause reflection on things that may otherwise never be engaged. How and why do they do this?

The reason is they are the primary language of human experience.[1] In other words, experience is expressed primarily through storytelling. “Telling and listening to a story has the same structure as our experience . . . . Experience has a narrative quality. The episodes of our lives take place one after another just like a story. One of the ways we know each other is by telling our stories. We live in stories.”[2] As opposed to straight factual knowledge, stories use language that communicates experiential knowledge.

Therefore, not only do stories define human experience because they are knowledge based, but they “provide the deepest categorical framework in which human life is to be understood. There is no more fundamental way in which human beings interpret their lives than through a story.”[3] This means the concept of “story” is not one way by which humans view reality, but the way. We interpret knowledge through story.[4]

I hear some objections. You may say, “What about factual statements like what you see in a dictionary or encyclopedia? Don’t they communicate knowledge without the story?” Think about this: even when you hear a factual statement, like “roses are red,” what immediately comes to mind? An image of a rose you gave or received; the smell of roses that grew in your grandmother’s garden; or, some other thought of a personal experience that connects you to the knowledge that roses are red. You have just entered that factual knowledge into the story of your own life in order to comprehend it. We default to story.

Because story plays such a definitive part in human communication, knowledge, and comprehension, some even argue that it’s through story human hearts, minds, and attitudes are changed.[5] Guess what—Jesus agrees! When Jesus told parables, what was he doing? Confronting people with deep moral truth intended to change their heart and perspective on life.

The literary language of story, “appeals chiefly to our senses and imagination (the image-making capacity within us).”[6] This is what makes them so effectively life-changing. We are pushed to ask things that require a response, like, “Where do I see myself in this story? What would I do in this situation? And, do I believe what is being communicated?”

So, why stories? Zoom out to the level of human history, and even to the whole counsel of Scripture. It’s not hard to see why stories are so effective. God has designed us to be characters in his story—no wonder we comprehend life this way. A character is only relevant in his or her particular context. Take Batman out of context and you have a crazy guy dressing up like a bat. Put him in the context of his story, and you have a symbol of justice, incorruptibility, and truth. Story is what gives a character purpose.

The same is true for us. Sure, we each have our own personal perspective in the story, but the story is much larger than ourselves. We’re characters in God’s true story of the whole world, which he has been directing since the moment of creation. It is this story—with the major theme of redemption—which gives our personal stories meaning and purpose.

We are defined by God’s story (because we’re a part of it), and also by our response to it. His story of redemption pushes us to change our perspective from self-focused to God-focused. His story pushes us to see that the main character is Jesus, and to respond by recognizing him as the main character of our own life. Is this the story that defines yours? How have you responded?

– Carter, Community Group Leader

[1] Thomas E. Boomershine, Story Journey: An Invitation to the Gospel as Storytelling (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 18.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 126.

[4] For more on this subject, see Robin Parry, Old Testament Story and Christian Ethics: The Rape of Dinah as a Case Study (Waynesboro: Paternoster, 2004), 3–47. Parry analyzes Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy in detail, and begins to apply it to understanding Old Testament stories ethically. The moral life of an audience, in this case, describes how an audience makes decisions toward acceptable (right) behavior, versus unacceptable (wrong) behavior. Of course, Parry disagrees with Ricoeur’s moral point of reference, which Ricoeur says is “self.” But, Parry does agree with his concept that stories change people.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Leland Ryken, Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000), 19.

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