When Story isn’t enough

There are words and phrases that get well-worn in the Christian world; especially in this fast-paced, blogger-eat-blogger day we find ourselves in. I’ve been thinking lately about the word “story” and its place in this world. It has been cropping up all over the place, from a new series of life planning tools and conferences led by Donald Miller to the blog of Fuller NT professor (and friend) Daniel Kirk to A Deeper Story, a website run by some wonderful writers meant to tell tales at the intersection of Christ and culture. These are all, I want to be clear, really good places devoted to understanding and knowing a really good God. Stories let us see God outside of the confines of our narrow minds and narrow traditions. But the story movement is strong, and it is worth wondering what it means for our cultural moment of Christianity.

Beit Midrash | Jewish Theological Seminary

This emphasis on story isn’t totally particular to this cultural moment–The Jewish tradition, for example, is rich in stories (the Midrash uses stories to fill in the gaps left by the Tanakh). But there is a narrative that has developed in the last handful of years within certain circles of Christianity that has begun to prize “story” above any other form of communication or truth-telling.  In some places, “story” has become the ultimate currency.

The danger here is twofold. One, once a person’s story becomes their way of maneuvering around their faith, they will be easily manipulated and can easily manipulate others. Again, I want to be clear here–it isn’t that people who value stories are pulling some evil puppet strings behind the scenes. It’s that stories are inherently manipulative. That isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself. It is good that I should be moved when I read a wonderful book or blog post or hear from a friend. This is part of why I read and why I write–to be moved, to be changed, to be different at the end than I was at the beginning.

But if stories are all I ever take in, I will have a difficult time finding somewhere to land. Because a person’s story is, well, personal, I may be able to find myself in some of it–but I will never be able to stake my life on someone else’s story. The great gift of the gospel is that it is not only a story I can find myself in, it is a truth I can stake my life on.

Second, a story is one small subset of the truth and beauty of our faith. It is incredibly important, hear me on that. Our lives matter, our stories matter, and our ways of navigating the world matter. But the truth of the gospel, though it interacts with our stories, is not contingent upon them. Stories are not the only way of understanding each other, nor are they the only way of understanding the person of Jesus or the goodness of God. They are one form of entrée into the faith, but they can quickly be clouded by their own inherent subjectivity.

Stories are not just colored by personal experience, they are personal experience. If we approach our faith only through our stories, we will be forever held back by our own biases. When Saul went to Ananias after his conversion, “something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored” (Acts 9:18). If we live proclaiming the importance of story above truth, we will live with something like scales on our eyes and our sight obscured.

Dallas Willard used to say that pastors should never use stories in their sermons so that they could avoid manipulating congregants into an emotional experience of an unexamined faith. His friends joked that they were going to create the Dallas Willard Study Bible–a Bible with all stories completely excised, with only Leviticus and a few Proverbs left. God made us to tell stories, to hear them, to respond to them. He made us to live them. But more than that, he made us for him–a truth that takes longer to understand and goes beyond what any story could tell.




2 Responses to “When Story isn’t enough”

  1. hespenshied July 12, 2013 at 11:30 am #

    I tend to think of the Gospel as something that all redemptive narrative either points to or gives a glimpse of.

    Tim Keller says that a person doesn’t truly come to Christ unless a felt need for a Savior is exposed. Redemptive narrative (an echo of the Gospel if you will) can, I believe, stir the pre-regenerate heart.

    I agree though that story has the power to manipulate, and to even direct one to find felt needs met in something other than the Gospel.

    I suppose then that I would draw a distinction between the broader category “Story” and it’s healthy subset “redemptive narrative.”

  2. Sarah July 12, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    I’m 30 years old, an ex-pastor’s wife, and I feel really damaged by life inside of a denomination that really did put too much emphasis on stories. Telling your story was how the people ‘got to know you, got to know your faith’. The long-term consequence of that is that you end up feeling boxed in by ‘your story’. You can get caught up in a co-dependent cycle with God because of everything he has brought you out of; you can only grow to a point…people can only know you to a point…you can only know yourself to a point when you live that way long term.

    What I struggle with now is an extreme difficulty in overcoming that kind of limiting and circular thinking about myself. I have only recently identified that after years and years within that unhealthy community. I am handicapped and blocked by it. Looking for some hope. Thank you for your article.

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