The Power of Story

It’s no accident that Jesus taught in parables. Humans are creatures of story.

Our movie and entertainment industry is largely engaged in the telling of tales, modern computer games, far from their relatively simple Space Invader-type antecedents, are replete with stories and missions and characters and plot. Go back further and the rise of the modern novel developed storywriting into a high art; go back even further and every inn or tavern had its old greybeard who would regale the patrons with tall stories of the doings of their youth. Ancient mythology finds its parallel in modern superhero stories (what are Jason and the Argonauts but the Avengers of the mythic age?); whoever we are and whatever our culture is like, we surround ourselves with many-coloured weavings of story.

Terry Pratchett, late author of the celebrated Discworld comic fantasy series, expresses the story element of humanity with his narrativium: the Fourth Wall-busting magical element that makes sure the universe doesn’t wander off-plot. It’s narrativium that determines why million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten – if heroes don’t overcome overwhelming odds, what’s the point? – and explains why magic works at all: stories want to be told, every story has a definite shape as it unravels, and a narrativium-based universe is very good at editing out the bits that don’t fit.

I’d go so far as to suggest that storytelling is part of the most basic set of traits that make us human, which would make it part of the Divine image that we are told humans bear. God is a storytelling God: look at the Book He communicates to us through. Not a list of commands or propositional statements (though there is some of that), not a hymn in praise of the Divine greatness (though that’s in there too); at root the Bible is a collection of narrative stories. We believe they’re true, factual accounts (with certain exceptions such as parables, which are couched in such language as to suggest hypothetical examples rather than real-life incidents, and symbolic writing like the book of Revelation), but they are primarily narrative rather than poetry, scientific textbook, discursive writing like a Socratic dialogue, or lists of commandments.

This is important because the ubiquity of story has implications for how we present truth, how we teach, even how we think.

As Westerners, we’re very attached to our propositional, analytical way of presenting information. If you were to ask almost any teacher from a Western country to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven, their first instinct would likely be to create a list or chart, detailing everything we know about the Kingdom: what is it, where is it, who’s in it, who isn’t, how do you get into it, all that sort of thing.

While this is a very good method for passing on factual information, it has very little in common with the way Jesus is recorded as having done it. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

  • A tiny seed growing to become the largest of garden plants; a tree that the birds come and perch in…

  • A net that fishermen threw down into the water…

  • A sower going out to sow seed…

  • A man going on a journey, who called three of his servants together and entrusted them with certain sums of money, each according to his ability…

Since we believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, we ought to trust that He knew what He was doing selecting the teaching mode that He did. Maybe our way of teaching isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

I have to confess that I don’t personally read a lot of Christian books. If you like that sort of thing, there are some good ones out there, but most of the ones I’ve read haven’t stuck with me all that well. I’m blowed if I can even remember the main point of The Prayer of Jabez or Wild at Heart or The Purpose-Driven Life, but narrative stories like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Lord of the Rings or even something completely pagan like the Harry Potter books have stayed with me.

I’ve learned far more Biblical truth over the years from the Chronicles of Narnia than I ever have from any number of teaching books, and in a far more important way. The stories make it live, make the truth something you want to emulate and live and be a part of. There really is a great cosmic struggle of good and evil that will take every power you possess (and a few you don’t) to gain the victory in. The power of love and self-sacrifice really is stronger than all the powers of darkness arrayed in their hellish might. The small deeds of kindness and loyalty done by unlikely, out-of-their-depth heroes really can tip the scales; in the Divine economy, these widow’s mites weigh more than the great gifts of the high and mighty.

Our stories don’t need to be strict allegories in order to communicate truth, either. I’m right with CS Lewis in “cordially detesting” allegory, with its one-to-one correspondence of story and truth, so that the whole thing becomes one of those slot puzzles we give to babies to teach them pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination. The round block only ever goes into the round hole; character X only ever represents truth Y.

“Real” stories are more complex and subtle, alluding to truth rather than hitting you in the face with it. Gandalf’s near-death and return in The Lord of the Rings is suggestive of Christ’s death and resurrection, and Gandalf himself does become a sort of Christological character, but there is no absolute parallel. He’s Gandalf, not Jesus in disguise; you can’t take everything he says or does as What Jesus Would Do. But in his character as written there are truths which the Holy Spirit can recall to those hearts He has been preparing.

Allegory seems to be a persistent temptation for the Christian storyteller. It’s neat and tidy; by one imperious gesture on the part of the writer their story world incarnates the truths they want to focus on in visible form.

But it usually makes for a rather artificial or stilted manner of storytelling that seldom works as well on its own terms as a pure story.

While allegory can sometimes be profitable, it’s so rare to find a well-written one. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a classic of Christian literature, but it gets heavy and didactic at times, and all the labels are placed so visibly that there’s little to tell but the eventual proof of a character’s name. Where’s the story in that?

I have to confess to a sneaking suspicion that our love affair with allegory as Christian writers reflects a refusal to trust that the Holy Spirit of God knows His business.

If we are truly regenerate, if we have truly come to the saving trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified that produces real change in a person’s life, we will write regenerate stories. Writing from our heart as believers without necessarily worrying about symbolism will of necessity produce a story as spiritually distinct from that produced by an unbeliever as light is from darkness.

Not that all non-Christian storytelling is necessarily spiritual darkness, either. For those with eyes to see, you can find Scriptural parallels even in the Harry Potter books, and no-one is claiming that Joanne Rowling is a Christian author. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is downright sneaky, putting things in there that even the authors do not necessarily intend. Or as CS Lewis put it, “all good stories are reflections of the one Good Story”.

When we write about great themes like love, self-sacrifice, the struggle of good and evil, triumph against the odds, personal redemption and so on as Christians, of course our faith is going to find expression in what we write. Tolkien’s work is far more intrinsically Christian in this sense, even with its pagan cosmology and elves and gods and magic, than many books supposedly set in this real universe that is a direct creation of God.

Similarly, too, the Holy Spirit working in the heart of a reader might use a single sentence, comment, paragraph, even the very heart of a tale itself, in His drawing of that reader closer to the Lord whether as someone inside or outside the faith. I don’t pretend to believe that JK Rowling intended to present Harry Potter as a deliberately Christological character, but as a person of faith I can make connections whether she intended them or not. In the final book, for instance, Harry is killed by Voldemort, the chief adversary and evil character, and then comes back from the dead to destroy him forever. Sound familiar?

Harry isn’t Jesus any more than Gandalf is, but Joanne Rowling handed the church a great set of culturally-relevant parallels to draw upon when she wrote those books. And the series is a rollicking good tale on its own merits, too.

All this to say what we all already knew by instinct: that storytelling is a powerful thing.

But as to implications for the way we teach, I’m sometimes struck by how dissimilar a modern sermon is from one of Jesus’ parables.

Could you teach entirely in parable-type stories? It’s a fascinating idea. Jesus did it, but the Gospels record that His disciples frequently missed the point or had to come to Him privately for explanation. Not something many preachers of my acquaintance would have time for; the object is to do the explaining, not to tell an obscure tale which requires further explanation before it’s understood.

What’s the point, then? Why take the risk on your hearers misunderstanding?

Maybe some are going to misconstrue, no matter what you say. Maybe it’s a way of guarding your truths from being deliberately twisted by the ignorant and hostile.

Maybe, too, it’s a way to slip past people’s guardedness and plant seeds that will bear fruit in time. A good tale on its own merits can get a hearing where a bald statement of fact will be rejected. Phillip Pullman notwithstanding, there have been hardcore atheists who have loved CS Lewis’ Narnia even with its innate Christianness. We are, as I said earlier, creatures of story, we humans.

Even in politics, it’s easier to make a hardline statement of position if you never hear the story of someone on the other side whose life has been messed about by that self-same position. Listening to their story, you begin to enter into their world, see it from their perspective. Story energises our compassion; they’re no longer a statistic, but a person with goals and hopes and dreams and pain. Listening to their story, we become more fully human, more like the Divine image. We care, we start to love and show mercy. Because we know their story.

Good stories are incredibly powerful things.

[Repost] Not For Sale: Calvary and the Grace of God

[This is a repost of an earlier blog post.  It seemed appropriate to Good Friday]

There’s something appropriate about the betrayal of the Son of Man being a financial transaction. Selling the gift of God for thirty pieces of silver seems somehow an apt symbol for how thoroughly we miss the point sometimes.

We live in a capitalistic society. People earn money as recompense for labour, and spend money on food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, whatever. What we need and what we want. Trading websites like Ebay have huge traffic and make millions. Wall Street dominates our lives, even if we have no stocks. Advertisers spend billions buying our online data histories – what we like, where we go and what we do there – in the hopes of getting better at manipulating us into buying more stuff.

Everything – our stuff, our time, our preferences, our information – is for sale. The way of the world is buying and selling, and there’s something about the mentality of buying and selling that is opposed to God and works against grace.

It’s not that buying and selling is wrong. Proper capitalism is far better that communism. Getting a fair return for your labour is important; it’s a manifestation of justice.

But it’s not the way the Kingdom of God works. The ways of God are giving and receiving.

Emblematic of this difference is Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” Sin pays a wage, but God gives a gift. It’s a completely different kind of transaction.

It’s to be expected. Grace is part of God’s fundamental character, and our English word “grace” comes from the Latin “gratis”: free, not to be paid for, not for sale.

Our buying and selling mentality frustrates grace. We want to pay for the gift somehow. But a gift, by its very nature, is something that is not for sale.

Later, Simon the Sorcerer was to fall prey to the same mentality. His attempt to buy the ability to confer the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands was standard operating procedure for pagan magic. Spiritual influence was for sale, as it still is in many non-Western parts of the world, and once he had purchased the ability, he would naturally expect to treat it as a commodity – to sell it in his turn.

Peter’s response is as harsh as it is for a reason. “May your money perish with you because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:20).

Grace in turn frustrates avarice and the commercial impulse. Just because we don’t use physical coin does not make us immune to the idea that we can buy what God offers as a gift. We spend the currency of faith and purchase favour from the Almighty. We tithe and expect God’s blessing as if we have bought it. Even the surrender of our lives to Christ can become a sort of reciprocity, an attempt to buy what is freely given. God’s gifts will not be bought. They are free.

Today, we are so captured by the commercial spirit that if something is free, we think that either it is worthless or it’s some kind of bait or hook to get us to spend more money in other ways.

Not so the Son of Man.

He was the gift of God, because God loved the world so much. The eternal life given to us as a result of His death on the cross is likewise the free gift of God. We can’t buy it because it isn’t for sale. All we can do is receive a gift.

But how we hate to receive a gift of this magnitude!

“You shouldn’t have”, we say when someone gives us something unexpectedly. “This is too much”.

I’m not worth this.

What? Are we now arguing with the eternal and all-wise God over our value? Are we trying to claim that we see more clearly than He?

Besides, that frames the whole thing as a purchase rather than a gift.

From one perspective, it is, of course. We are not our own. We were bought at a price (I Cor 6:19-20). But from another, it’s a free gift that cannot be bought. And it isn’t about our perceived value or lack of it.

Magnanimity was one of the great attributes of ancient and Mediæval kings. The giving of gifts was a kingly prerogative: the greater the king, the more lavish the gift. The Bible makes reference to this when it says that “[Jesus] ascended on high… He led captives in his train and gave gifts to men” (Eph 4:8).

You didn’t tell a king that his gifts were “too much”, because that was tantamount to telling him that his kingship wasn’t great enough to warrant this kind of magnanimity. And no-one in their right mind would try to buy the royal gift, because that would be tantamount to making yourself equal to the king in question. Really rather dangerously insulting on either count.

God’s Kingship is absolute. He’s the Lord of the Universe. God of angel armies. Sovereign I AM. King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Are we now trying to tell Him that His Kingship is not great enough to support His gift? Is that what we truly believe?

God is All-Giving because He is All-Sovereign. It’s part of His kingly majesty to give gifts, and gifts that reflect His greatness.

It’s not for sale because we are not equals of God to purchase it. It’s ridiculously lavish because God is ridiculously great.

Grace. The free gift of the King.

Kum Ba Yah

Syria. Egypt. Afghanistan. Russia. The illegitimate so-called Islamic State. North Korea. European nationalism and neofascism. Resurgent American militarism. It’s a dangerous world out there, and full of violence and potential violence.

The song “Kum Ba Yah” has come down to us as the epitome of head-in-the-sand hippie flower power, a sort of desperate “give peace a chance” denial of reality while all around the bullets are flying. The modern equivalent of “‘Peace! Peace!’ when there is no peace”. A milquetoast refusal to confront evil combined with an unrealistic appraisal of the likelihood of everyone putting down their guns and just being nice to one another. Hello; this is the real world calling.

In our modern cynical age it’s fallen distinctly out of favour, but it actually started life as a Christian song.

“Kum ba yah”, as I was told in ye olden days when we occasionally sang it at school, is some kind of African dialect for “come by here”; the song is a prayer for God to show up and do something. Someone’s crying, Lord. We need You.

There’s injustice happening. People with needs unmet. Prayers apparently going unanswered. Danger, famine, nakedness, sword. We need You, God; You’re our only hope.

Someone’s singing, Lord. Things are good right now, but we still need You. But for Your grace it all falls apart.

Oh Lord, kum ba yah.

And really, it sounds hippie and unrealistic, but what’s actually wrong with people and nations being nice to one another for a change? Couldn’t we all do with a bit more niceness in the world?

People that don’t just try to get whatever they can for themselves. Institutions that don’t act like the problem you’ve gone to them about is a real pain in the arse? Nations that act based on justice, respecting their neighbours and trying for a win-win solution to international problems. People the same, with their interpersonal problems.

Niceness may be underrated as a rallying-cry, but we all appreciate it when we encounter it.

Kindness. Peace. Patience with our weaknesses and failures. Not bringing the hammer down for something we may not have been fully able to help. Love, in the broad sense, not necessarily sexual or romantic.

And now this is looking a little more like the fruit of the Spirit and less like a Sixties hippie commune. Maybe – no, probably – that’s why the hippie movement failed; trying to gain peace, love and understanding by human effort rather than the Spirit of God; but you can’t deny that the impulse is a good one. Give peace a chance. Put down the sword and the gun and the tendency towards violence and oppression. Let’s all just try to get along.

Oh Lord, kum ba yah. We can’t do it without Your help. What we’re longing for in our dealings is the evidence that You’ve been at work. We confess that we’ve been infected enough with the cynicism of the age that we don’t hold out much hope for peace and justice in international affairs, but we believe You are the King of kings. You overrule the nations. The movers and shakers aren’t actually in control of world events; You are. You’re the Prince of Peace; extend Your influence not just in our lives but among the nations.

Kum ba yah.

Palm Sunday has just come and gone; the annual celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the incongruous mount of a donkey. It was a fulfilment of Scriptural prophecy of the Messiah, but more than that: the donkey symbolically stood for humility and peace, counterpointing and opposing the martial pride of a stallion or chariot. Your King comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey. The world was pretty messed-up if you were a Jew back then, just as it seems to all of us now. Evil pagans oppressing God’s people. Where are the Godly leaders? Who can make our nation great again? It wasn’t for no reason that the people shouted out “Hosanna!”

But the King being lauded isn’t a proud warrior lord, a rebel who will overthrow the evil government oppressing us and return everything back to the way it was in the good old days; He’s a Prince of Peace, humble and gentle, who will give His life to save us from the evil within us and return us to how we were meant to be in the very beginning.

Hosanna. Save us. Kum ba yah. Come, Lord.

We need You. You’re our only hope.