The Importance of Story

The Importance of Story

“Daddy, tell me a story.” Honestly, I think my kids use this as a way of avoiding bedtime but the fact remains: we are hardwired to want a good story.

Video game creator and writer James Wallis puts it this way:

Human beings like stories. Our brains have a natural affinity not only for enjoying narratives and learning from them but also for creating them. In the same way that your mind sees an abstract pattern and resolves it into a face, your imagination sees a pattern of events and resolves it into a story. [1]

Stories are what it means to be human. Our brains are bent to creating a narrative to explain and quantify what we encounter. Indeed, even after we fall asleep at the end of the day, our brains continue telling us stories as we slumber.

We live for a good story. Billions of dollars are spent every year by people who willingly leave their houses, sit in somebody else’s seat, spend $12 for a bag of popcorn, and sit in a darkened room full of strangers! We yearn to travel back to “a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” We suspend our disbelief and immerse ourselves in a world where toys talk or princesses control the weather. In the past six weeks our world has spent $2.7 billion dollars (and counting!) watching a three-hour film in which a group of superheroes from across the world (and galaxy) use their powers to take on a deluded, genocidal purple-ish alien with a bejeweled glove.

We are “storytelling animals.” [2] Stories help us make meaning of the world around us. Narratives share and shape what’s important to us. They help us define ourselves and those around us. A story—well told—can change a life. Can affect generations. Can change the world.

Mike grew up here in Houston. And he was as Catholic as Catholic could be. He went to Catholic school; he went to Mass every Sunday; he was an altar boy at church.

But in the wake of Vatican II he began to question what he had been taught. As he searched Scripture, he walked away with more and more questions. And during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years of college, Mike moved to be with his parents and walked away from his Catholic heritage.

For the next few years Mike was a seeker. He looked at other religions—Buddhism, Islam, Mormonism—but realized he believed in the God of the Bible. So he started looking into the various Christian denominations, sitting down and asking questions. Often he would find that they would turn to history and heritage rather than Scripture to explain what they believed. He discovered a radio program that came out of Nashville, and they would send him transcripts of what they were teaching (he was born partially deaf), and he would check the references and write down questions. And one day he walked into the Christian Student Center at the University of Memphis and met a man named Terry. Looking at Terry, Mike said simply, “Tell me why I should believe what you believe,” and Terry’s response was, “Well, why don’t we just look at the Bible together and you can discover what you believe.”

And my dad was baptized that evening.

That story tells the beginning of my family. I could have given you the facts and figures. We could recite ages, anniversaries, dates of graduations and job changes. We could articulate weights and heights, colors and sizes. I could pull out our genealogical history and explain the lives, legacies, and genetics that make up who we are.

Or I could tell you a story instead. One that shapes who I am and what I believe. Because that man married a godly woman, and I would listen to him sing off-key hymns while washing dishes. They took me to church, even when I didn’t want to go. And they helped me develop my own faith, one that I hope to help instill in my own children.

Aristotle posited that there were three main components of rhetoric: logos, ethos, and pathos. Logical arguments using facts and figures are important and convey information. The speaker’s titles and achievements lend an air of credibility and authority. But if you cannot tell a good story, you won’t keep your audience’s attention. Story is the key to persuasion.

Which is why one of Jesus’s primary modes of ministry was storytelling. We call them parables. Little short stories meant to connect with his audience and teach truth in meaningful ways. Weeds and nets and seeds and trees. Farmers out sowing and harvesters set to reaping. Lent talents and great debts. Pearls of great price. Lost coins, lost sheep, lost sons. Jesus told stories to teach about the kingdom of God.

Some would hear the stories and blow right by them. But others would hear, and that seed would begin to germinate; hearts would be touched and thoughts could be shifted. Entire lives can change from a great story!

Indeed, the people who encountered Jesus walked away with a great story. They had to talk about their experiences.

  • The man born blind healed with spit, mud, and a fieldtrip? His response after healing: “One thing I do know; I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25).

  • An outcast woman at a well? “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (John 4:29).

  • Andrew’s response after spending all day with Jesus? He ran out “to find his brother Simon and tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah.’ … And he brought him to Jesus” (John 1:41-42).

Those healed couldn’t wait to share their stories! Those who saw the dead raised couldn’t hold back their joy! They couldn’t keep quiet about what Jesus had done in their lives!

So, what’s your story? Everybody’s got one if you’ve encountered Jesus. Over my next few articles I want to share with us ways in which we can discover the story of God’s interaction in our lives. Because our God stories might just change the world.

[1 and 2] Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.

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