Someday, I hope to write something, not because I am a good writer or because I have something to say, but because quotes about the power of stories make me break out in fits of writing. Before you read the following quotes, maybe you ought to get a pen and some paper, just in case. Here are seven great quotes about the power of stories:
- “Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution — more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.” — Lisa Cron
- “The shortest distance between a human being and the truth is a story.” — Anthony de Mello
- “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” — Jonathan Gottschall
- “Scratch the surface in a typical boardroom; and we’re all just cavemen with briefcases, hungry for a wise person to tell us stories.” — Alan Kay
- “People do not buy goods and services. They buy relationships, stories and magic.” — Seth Godin
- “God made man because He loves stories.” — Elie Wiesel
- “Man is . . . essentially a story-telling animal. That means I can only answer the question ‘what am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question of ‘what story or stories do I find myself a part of?” ― Alasdair MacIntyre
Brad Kallenberg in his insightful book, Live to Tell; Evangelism for a Postmodern Age (Brazos Publishing, 2002), wants us to think about the story of conversion. Now, we usually think of conversion either from God’s perspective (God gives us new life) or from a behavioral perspective (we turn from sin and to God). But Kallenberg wants us to look at conversion through a postmodern lens. As such, it entails three shifts. First, there is a shift in how one understands their own self. Second, there is a shift in how we speak about things; there is the acquisition of a new conceptual language. And then third, there is a dramatic paradigm shift where we start to see everything through the lens of our faith and the Bible (or as Kallenberg says, “The Scriptures are our collective lens by which everything else is brought into focus.”). Now, if we had time, we could look at all three, but let’s focus only on the first shift: how does conversion bring about a change of social-identity? To answer that question fully, Kallenberg feels compelled to tell us a story (it’s actually Alasdair MacIntyre’s story, and he gives credit to MacIntyre, but I’m going to pretend that it is Kallenberg’s story so that there is less confusion.
Here’s Kallenberg’s (MacIntyre’s) story:
“Suppose I am waiting for a bus and a man comes up to me and says, ‘The name of the common wild duck is “Histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus.” There is no problem as to the meaning of the sentence he uttered; the problem is, how to answer the question, what was he doing uttering it?’”
Now, once you got over feeling that you were being pranked somehow, you would probably try to figure out what this stranger was doing by telling you the Latin name for a wild duck. There are several good options. For instance, you might surmise that the man was crazy. That seems likely. But it is also likely that this stranger had mistaken you for a man he met yesterday who had asked him if he knew the Latin name for a wild duck. And while he didn’t know the name yesterday, he went home so that he could know it today. That is possible. It is also possible that this stranger had just come from his therapist’s office where he was urged to break free of his debilitating shyness by venturing forth and talking to complete strangers. If that was the case, good for him for announcing the Latin name of the wild duck. And it is also possible that he was a spy and he was hoping you would respond to the secret password with the correct response (“Either he is dead or my watch has stopped”). Any of those options are possible, but my money is on option 1: the guy is crazy.
Kallenberg (MacIntyre) concludes: “In each case, the act of utterance becomes intelligible by finding its place in a narrative.”
Okay, before moving on, we need to go back and reread MacIntyre’s quote from my introduction. MacIntyre said:
“Man is . . . essentially a story-telling animal. That means I can only answer the question ‘what am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question of ‘what story or stories do I find myself a part of?”
Okay, one more thing before moving on; I need to say, “I love this sort of thing.”
Back to the point. Kallenberg is saying that before we can understand anything, we need the whole story. A person may act, but it is only when we understand the whole context of that act (the person’s past, present and future hopes) that we can truly grasp what that act means. As a rule, we might say: “We cannot grasp the meaning of the part without understanding something of the whole.” And so, when we ask, “Who am I?” we need to understand where we’ve been, where we are and where we are going. But in conversion, our lives are radically changed; and the future is broken off from the past. And if that is a possibility for us, how then can we ever answer the question, “Who am I?” properly?
In his spiritual memoir, The Confessions, Augustine shares his life story and how, at age 33 (?), he converted to Christianity. In his early years, Augustine had tried to find meaning in his life through philosophy, wild living and pleasure, but none of these gave him the solace for which he was looking.
He remained a restless soul. But then, Augustine became friends with a Christian preacher named Ambrose. Under Ambrose’s teaching, Augustine grew more and more aware of his sin. Sometime in 386, Augustine was visiting a courtyard in Milan. Augustine was overcome with his sin and could not shake the existential dread that had come over him. And then, Augustine heard the voice of a child singing a song, singing over and over: “Pick it up and read it. Pick it up and read it.” Augustine thought the song must be related to some game, but he knew of no game that included singing that song. Suddenly, the thought hit him that this song might be a command from God to pick up a Bible and read it. In haste, he found a Bible, opened it and read the first passage he saw, Romans 13:13-14, a passage that spoke directly to Augustine’s sin. The passage reads: “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” At that moment, Augustine was converted. He wrote:
“I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.” (Confessions, Book 8)
And with that, Augustine the restless soul became Augustine the man of faith. How? Because Augustine allowed the gospel story to shape the story of his life (a better definition of conversion we might never find). But the gospel story not only shaped Augustine’s future life, but it also shaped his past and present life. Moreover, it shaped Augustine’s understanding of who he was. It shaped his very own self-identity. By entering into the story of Jesus, Augustine found himself. Kallenberg writes: “Augustine underwent a conversion: he was graced with a new story and thus a new self that came to him by means of the gospel which simultaneously revealed to him who he was and whose he was.”
For us to call a story true and to embrace it as giving meaning to our life, it must serve not only as a reliable guide for today, but it must also interpret (and give meaning to) our past and navigate our future. “What Augustine discovered was the gospel’s power to knit together the disjointed phases of his life in such a way that he could perceive them as episodes in a story of a relentless search for God” (Kallenberg). In one step of faith, everything now made sense to Augustine. He had a past that had brought him to this point. He had a present that was rich in meaning, forgiveness and joy. And he had a future filled with purpose and hope. As Augustine stepped into the story of Jesus, he found that for which his heart had always been looking; and he wrote: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
But it was not just the story of Jesus that brought Augustine to this point. It was also how the story was told. It wasn’t pure philosophy or moral advice. It didn’t try to skirt around the hard questions, nor did it deny things we all know in our hearts to be true. Augustine embraced a gospel story that was true to his heart, that was honest about our failings and brokenness and was real to our everyday lives (not just a theory). And for the first time, Augustine realized that he didn’t need a good philosophy. He needed a story of redemption and grace, a story that involved him deeply. Kallenberg:
“Augustine learned that the verdict ‘This story is true’ is a self-involving judgment.” How powerful is that? Rachel Held Evans gives us an up-to-date version of this. She writes:
“I’m a Christian because Christianity names and addresses sin. It acknowledges the reality that the evil we observe in the world is also present within ourselves. It tells the truth about the human condition–that we’re not okay.”
It’s not just the story. It’s the real-to-our-life-experiences of the story. It’s how we tell the story. It’s the authentic nature of our testimony and our struggles and doubts, our victories in grace and our standing firm in humility.
And how does all of this relate to sharing our faith, to evangelism? Three ways. First, never underestimate the power of stories. Annette Simmons wrote: “If you wish to influence an individual or a group to embrace a particular value in their daily lives, tell them a compelling story.”
And this from Dr. Howard Gardner: “Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.”
Second, we need to connect the person we are talking to with the story of Jesus. Far too often, when sharing our faith, we are fearful of getting too biblical, fearful of talking about “way back when” instead of the needs of the moment, but don’t be fooled. We need to share the story of Jesus and allow that truth to grip their lives just as it did Augustine’s. And don’t be afraid. The gospel story has a power all of its own. What was it that Kierkegaard said? “You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you.”
Third, we need to ask far more probing questions in our evangelistic encounters, than giving right answers. We need to ask people questions of self-identity, of their views of the world, of their views of the human heart and of their hope for humanity. And as we let people share their story, we can better see how to connect the story of Jesus to their story. And never fear, people will listen to our stories of Jesus if we make them relevant, concise, meaningful and compelling. After all, Philip Pullman said: “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
And there you have it! Go ye into all your world and unleash the power of story.