The Power of Story


Several years ago a friend went through a painful divorce (not that there is any other kind).  The reason the marriage ended happened to be one that Jesus cites as valid grounds for divorce. 

A businessman who often ate in restaurants alone when traveling, he was suddenly very self-conscious every time he went into a restaurant by himself.  He noticed all the other people eating as couples for groups, and felt more alone than he ever had before.  He stopped going to movies.  It was no fun going alone and most his social circle were married leaving him feeling like the proverbial fifth wheel.  He told me he had never felt such a sense of failure in his life even though he was the “innocent party” and that going into a restaurant or theatre alone was a frequent reminder of his failure.

In the course of time he met someone and remarried.  While he was happy, his children resented the partners each of their parents had married and his relationship with his kids was strained at best.  “The reason they call it a ‘blended family’,” he told me, “is that it really is not.”

Shortly after hearing him describe the pain of divorce and its aftermath someone commented in the Bible Study group I led, “People are finding divorce too easy.”  I thought about my friend and felt like replying, “I think you are finding judgment too easy!”  I had the sudden brainstorm that the best person to counsel a couple contemplating divorce would be someone who had gone through it themselves.  My friend’s story had so much more power than my advice ever could.

How does a Christian community best communicate moral values and ideas in a postchristendom, postmodern city?  Even if our nation were built on Judeo-Christian values (a thesis I think would be difficult to prove historically) those are no longer the values that bind Canadians together.  Prefacing our moral arguments, “The Bible says…,” has little impact on people who do not believe the Bible.  Surveys of people who do not believe indicate that quite a few consider the church to be judgmental and hypocritical, a view point that only deepens when we make moral pronouncements built on the premise that culture should abide by our uniquely Christian standards.  This perception can only make our moral arguments less effective.

Yet we are called to be salt and light.  But how?  Perhaps we could copy a page from Jesus’ book.

Have you ever watched an old movie or a new episode of “Mad Men” and noticed how prolific cigarettes and alcohol are?  Those of us who lived through the 50’s recall that not everyone lit up, had four martinis for lunch and then drove back to the office.  But we also recall that while such vices were frowned upon in the church, in wider society the use of tobacco and the irresponsible use of alcohol were far more tolerated if not accepted.  It feels bizarre to watch a movie from the 1940’s and see a drunk driver weaving down the road presented as comedy rather than a moral outrage.

How did the church address those issues so effectively as to actually change how most people think and feel about them?  I’m not sure it did.  The change came through government educational campaigns and a very effective organization called Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The effectiveness of these campaigns was not in statistics or propositions (the logical organization of ideas).  Charting the percentage of smokers who contract lung cancer may have made some people think.  But the real power of the campaigns came through the image of a grieving wife on a television screen describing in 30 or 60 seconds the joy of meeting and marrying the love of her life followed by the pain of losing him to cancer long before his normal time.  And, by the way, he smoked two packs a day.

Rather than lecturing the public on the immorality of getting behind the wheel of a car while drunk, MADD simply let a young woman tell the story of how just hours before her wedding she was suddenly robbed of her husband-to-be by a drunk driver. So please, don’t drink and drive.  Drunk driving is not comic; it is hurtful.

To frame this observation another way, while the viewpoints underlying these campaigns were very clear the campaigns did not focus on being against smoking or drunk driving so much as they focused on caring for the people who are affected by those activities.  The motive for changing behaviour is not identifying the behaviour as wrong, or in religious terms, sinful, but that the behaviour is uncaring with tragic consequences for others.  The personal story is incredibly powerful in changing people’s minds.

“Two men went into the temple to pray.  One was a sinner, the other a Pharisee…”  “A man was traveling to Jericho when he was attacked by thieves.  As he lay wounded in the ditch a pastor came by…”  I can’t find a single talk Jesus gave that made three expository points from Scripture and ended with a poem.  But he told a lot of stories.  He saved religious argument for religious people.  (When he did begin a sentence with “The Bible says…” it was almost always followed by an explanation of how they were misunderstanding it.)  But he told a lot of stories.  And the people heard him gladly because “he spoke as one with authority.” 

Meanwhile his disciples were concerned that people might miss the point and wondered out loud if it would be better to speak more directly or propositionally.  He acknowledged that some listeners would not get it.  They would choose not to get it.  A story leaves people with choice.  Moral action is always ultimately a choice for each of us which is why we resent it so much when someone tries to force their ethic upon everyone else.

To use an extreme example, we might consider how effective the Westboro Baptist Church has been in actually changing people’s minds with their “God hates fags” placards.  If the object is to get attention, they’ve succeeded.  If the object is to transform culture to their point of view, they are failing miserably.  Sadly, people who have been wounded by the church are generally telling stories more frequently and compellingly than we are.

Part of the process of learning to tell good stories is understanding what sins actually are.  Most of us define sin in terms of disobedience of God’s laws revealing a more basic rebellion against God.  This is true enough.  But it begs the question: why has God declared some behaviours to be sins?  Were these arbitrary choices God made (“Just to see who is obedient I’ll make a law against murder and another in favour of honesty, but I could do it just as easily the other way around.”) or were they tied to an actual reason (“I will list the things I know people will do that will be most harmful to themselves and others and warn against these behaviours through a set of commands.”)?

The good stories always explore the deeper reason of the command: “This is an impact of murder on the family of the victim…”; “This is a way honesty can restore harmony and justice to a community…” 

If there are no stories to tell to illustrate our stance, or even worse, many stories could be told about how our understanding of a moral issue has actually generated more hurt than it has prevented, perhaps that is a clear indication that we need to revisit our stance to explore the possibility that we have misunderstood God’s will on the issue.

If we really want to have impact upon our culture we need fewer declarations and more stories.  The moral agenda of our culture, for good or for bad, will be carried by the best story tellers.