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.


An Approved Workman

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth”      II Timothy 2:15

The Apostle Paul’s challenge to Timothy rings down the centuries to all who have been in positions of teaching or leadership in the Body of Christ. Not just pastors and elders and deacons, but all those members of us who like to dig into the Word and bring its truths to light. Study to show yourself approved. Be a workman unashamed, who rightly divides the Word of truth.

It’s not the only time Paul talks about someone being “approved”, either. In among the greetings in Romans 16, we read (v10) “Greet Apelles, the approved in Christ”. Probably this Apelles was a preacher, then; someone Paul thought of as a teacher of sound doctrine who could correctly handle the Scriptures.

“Approved” begs the question of “approved by whom?” It seems fairly evident that it’s God who approves, but how do we know that God is doing that? It’s easy to claim the Divine imprimatur on your own teaching, but we know also that there are liars and hypocrites and wolves masquerading as sheep.

In the days when Paul was writing, many of the original Twelve were still around. There were people still living who had heard the Sermon on the Mount and who had been in the Upper Room at Pentecost and some of whom had been sent out by Jesus as part of the Twelve or the Seventy-Two. It was a largely oral culture, yes, but oral cultures have good memories for details and have systems in place for making sure the story stays straight. If you don’t believe me, try telling your young daughter the story of Cinderella with ruby slippers instead of glass ones and watch the outburst of indignation.

The Apostles as a whole could vouch for this or that doctrine or teaching being true or false to what Jesus actually did and taught. Most of the New Testament letters are them doing just that, in fact. Paul went up to Jerusalem and laid out his doctrine before the Apostles, we are told in Galatians 2. A large part of being an Apostle was the responsibility to the Church at large to keep the teachings true to Jesus’ words and actions.

So “approved” might carry the meaning of “approved by the Apostles as being true to what they themselves received”. We don’t have any of the original Twelve still among us, but we have the entire canon of Scripture assembled painstakingly by the early church as constituting the essential body of teaching of the Ecclesia. We have a huge corpus of additional writings showing what the church through history has thought about this canon. So in modern terms, “approved” might be more like “in line with the essential doctrines of historic Christianity.

If you reinterpret passages of Scripture in entirely novel ways, there’s a risk involved. The onus is on you to show that this new reading is true to what the text is actually saying and in keeping with the rest of Scripture.

It’s not that we can never decide that the church has been mistaken about what a passage says, even mistaken for centuries. Just like us, the ancients were humans, products of their culture and sometimes making assumptions that we do not. For example, for centuries it was assumed that women were inherently inferior to men, something that we’re finally managing to get past only in recent years. Re-reading some passages of Scripture without those particular cultural blinders on might lead us in new directions of interpretation that are more true to the text and to the Scripture in general.

Correctly handling the Word of truth so that we do not need to be ashamed is something that all of us who claim the name of Christ should aspire to. I hope I’m getting there, though I’m painfully aware that I have my own blind spots and interpretive tendencies. I believe that what I write in this blog is that sort of sound teaching.

But I’m not the One who gets to be the final Judge of that.

How To Sharpen A Machete

“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17)

My wife bought me a machete for my birthday recently. Occasionally I need one for my job, and it’s a good thing to have when you need it.

If you know anything about them, you know that they come unsharpened and the first thing you have to do is spend some time putting a cutting edge on the blade.

Consequently, I’ve been thinking about this verse in Proverbs. Ironically, this is my second post in less than a month from what I consider to be my least-understood book of the Bible.

We often understand this sharpening as an almost accidental thing, something that just happens as we rub up against one another’s rough edges. Rather like pebbles on a beach get smoothed and weathered by the pounding of the waves and by crashing into each other, our rough spots are smoothed by contact with someone else’s rough spots. The verse is, we are given to understand, about tolerating one another’s annoying habits and character weaknesses so that the Holy Spirit can work patience and self-control in us.

But sitting here sharpening this machete, I’m struck by the fact that this may not be what the verse is saying.

Pebbles get smoothed by crashing into one another on the beach. They don’t get sharpened. Indeed, a sharp piece of glass will get smoothed into a rounded transparent pebble, not sharpened still further.

What I’m saying is that there’s an intentionality about the act of sharpening. You have to run a metal file or whetstone over the blade time after time in the same smooth stroke in the same direction, otherwise you’ll damage the edge you’re forming. By varying the angle between the file and the blade, you can create either a broad cutting edge that cuts very finely but is easily blunted (the way I prefer it), or a narrower one which will not slice as easily but which will be more robust (more like the way my father-in-law has his machete).

This intentionality seems at odds with our usual application of this verse. Perhaps it’s more about the act of teaching and training than about rubbing off our rough character spots. There’s an intentionality about it; we are trying to put an edge on those we are training. We have to be careful to develop the appropriate edge, not just scrape on one another any old how. People can get damaged if we are careless in how we train them.

It’s true that we all have rough edges that need to be smoothed down, and that close contact with other people is a great way of revealing areas for character development. But my machete says that this may not be the whole story of this verse.

Sharpening a machete takes smooth strokes, and mostly a lot of repetition. In our Western culture of instant success we get impatient with anything that can’t give us results right now. We have weight loss programmes promising that you can “watch the pounds fall off in just days”, instant communications, fantastic (as in: almost certainly fantasy) wealth generation schemes promising instant rewards if you’ll come to this free seminar. But being taught isn’t like that. We spend most of our waking hours between the ages of 5 and 18 getting formally educated. That’s 12 years just to learn the information and basic skills we consider essential to our civilisation. If you want a specialist career, there’s usually more schooling after that. And this is after the first few years of our lives in which we learn to move, control our own bodies, walk and talk.

12+ years of formal education just to learn the information and skills we consider necessary. We shouldn’t be surprised at spiritual teaching and training needing to take a while.

If you go off to rid a tree of its dead wood with a half-sharpened machete, you will quickly become frustrated. Because you haven’t spent enough time putting an edge on your tool yet, it will not cut well and you will find the job much harder than you ought. Yet sometimes we encourage people to do just that with serving God. You don’t need an education; you can serve God just as you are in what He is calling you into. This is true, but if you know your calling is a long-term, lifetime thing, why make the task more difficult than it needs to be by failing to get properly honed? David spent years being pursued by Saul and living in caves between the time he was anointed by Samuel and the time he was crowned king. There are times for hearing the voice of God and obeying without delay: if Joseph had waited around after the angel said to flee to Egypt, Jesus might have been killed by Herod. But there are equally times when putting in the time to hone your blade is a proper investment of time. You are going to be spending a lot of energy using these skills. It behooves you to develop them by spending time around other people who can train you, not just going ahead with some blithe confidence that your blade will somehow self-sharpen as you begin to use it.

Sometimes we’re the blade being sharpened, and sometimes we’re the flat file. There’s a difference in these two roles, just like you can’t sharpen things with a machete or lop dead wood from a tree with a file. Maybe when we approach this verse we should be asking ourselves whether we have people in our lives that are a machete to our flat file, that we are being intentional about teaching and training. Maybe we ought to be asking whether we are the machete to someone else’s flat file: do we have someone in our lives who is intentionally teaching and training us in righteousness?

Iron sharpens iron, but it doesn’t do so by accident.