The Power of a Good Story

The king leaned forward, angry. “He deserves to die.”

The prophet responded, fixing the king eye-to-eye: “And you are the man.”

Many readers will immediately recognize this element as the dramatic peak of Nathan’s confrontation of King David after the king murdered Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba. I start with it—a story of adultery, murder, confrontation, repentance, and a continuing outflow of generational sin—to illustrate the power of stories. The impact of this particular narrative is etched in the memory of all who have read it.

Now let me shift gears. As I write this I’m attending a two-day consultation of youth workers who use “orality” (or “storying”) in their ministries. In our hours together a number of anecdotes have been exchanged that make it clear: a good story is riveting. And, even more, a strong story can be transformative. Each of us is convinced that more transformation takes place in a story-rich ministry than by other training approaches.

This is nothing new, of course. Jesus was a master storyteller, full of pithy parables and ready references to Old Testament stories. And as measured by the spread of Christianity after his ascension his ministry was more effective than the efforts of any other pastor or teacher in history. That’s a pretty good example to follow.

In contrast to Jesus, however, most churches today tend to relegate Bible stories and storytelling to childhood education. For adults we prefer monologues and lectures that generate principles or lessons for an audience to learn and apply. The more systematic and structured the teaching, the better. We even have audiences conditioned to believe that the “meat” of good teaching involves esoterica and regular references to dogmatic theology.

To be blunt: Jesus just didn’t go there, nor did he choose his first tier leaders on the basis of their academic prowess or proven analytical skills. It’s clear, though, that his eleven disciples hung on every word as he offered his parables. Think, for instance, of the number of times we read, in effect, “So they asked him . . .”

What does a narrative “story” offer us? We can list any number of benefits—and here are just a few.

First there is the power of identification. In a story we find ourselves drawn to the protagonist and wary of any antagonists. No one comes away from reading the gospels, for instance, saying to himself, “If only I could be like that proud Pharisee or that hair-splitting Teacher of the Law!” And we never hear Jesus teaching lessons about three principles of integrity versus five errors of the hypocrite. Instead he lived out a story of deep integrity—setting up conflicts by healing on the Sabbath, for instance. Or in telling about a persistent widow who pestered a wicked judge into doing what was right.

There is also the power of memory. A good story will have enough Velcro for it to stick to our souls. That is, we tend to let our imaginations fill out the picture of what’s being told in the story so later on we only need to summon up our mental images that formed when we first heard a given story. And in every retelling we build more features to fill out the original scene. I can tell you, for instance, in pretty close detail what I think Daniel faced in the lion’s den—and no artist has ever matched my own visualization. So it’s easy to tell the story afterwards. Call this the “portability” of a story.

And, finally, there is the depth of a story. Every event in real life has multiple layers of invested motivations and meaning. We can probe the relationships, for instance, of Joseph’s brothers in the latter part of Genesis. Reuben was utterly unreliable yet rich with empty rhetoric. Simeon was an incendiary personality—ever ready to kill others, including Joseph—and Levi was a follower. Judah had his own faults but he eventually displayed a basic honesty no matter what the consequences might be. The story of Mary and Martha, too, invites serious reflections that can apply to us if we’re at all vulnerable to the telling of the story. Are we more like Mary or like Martha?

I realize, of course, that if I was really clever I would have made all my points by telling a compelling story! But I’ll leave that to someone more gifted and conclude with this: the trajectory of almost every Bible narrative leads us to a heart-based question. Do I trust God? Or do I trust myself more? Am I a David after getting rid of Uriah? Or am I aligned with God as Nathan was?

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2 Comments

  1. Colleen Glassley

    I tend to think more in list of points and contrasts in ideas, when I think about teaching a lesson; but see and feel the wisdom of God in teaching in story form, I love stories and someone talking to me. I wonder why I have this double standard? I guess I’m not one of the “gifted”; but certainly appreciate them. I’ll have to try to think more about using stories, as you are so right, there is a ease of hearing, understanding, and retaining when stories are used.

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