Stories were the primary vehicle for education and entertainment before electronics. Today in situations where electronics are not readily accessible or appropriate, we still revert to telling stories as a way of connecting on an intimate level; even more so than the other communications are able to attain even when they are available; e.g. the back seat of cars on long trips, prisons, campsites, battlefields, children’s libraries, fishing and hunting cabins, bedsides, classrooms, mother’s laps, power blackouts, and mission fields. Who does not continue to thrill a little when hearing or reading a classic opening phrase from their youth like: “Once upon a time”, “In a land far, far away”, and “It was a dark and sultry night”; or a “fuzzy-feeling” ending line like: “And they lived happily ever after” or “That’s how it remains to this very day.”
I’ve noted that stories and storytelling generally appear to be on the edge of revival. I can’t say with certainty that presently more stories are being written and read, but I have definitely noticed that, as a genre, stories are receiving more attention as many people in publishing are stressing their value.
The following quote from Donald Miller’s How to Tell a Story is a typical example of my observation: “Story is no longer a tool only for artists. The rest of the world is beginning to understand that entire cultures are being shaped by the storytellers; and business leaders, pastors and parents are starting to wonder how they can incorporate more stories into their communication methodology. And they will all be benefited for doing so.”
The Bible contains over five hundred true stories, as well as a handful of fictional illustrations. Overall, by percentages, it’s reported to be a mix of seventy-five percent stories, fifteen percent poetry, and only ten percent unadorned teaching principles. It’s not so much the story of God, as is so frequently stated; it’s much more the story of man. In the preface to his book The Gates of the Forest, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel tells a story that ends with the statement: “God made man because He loves stories.”
There’s a movement of increasing application, especially among missionaries, to teach and preach the Bible evangelistically in the form of stories. This is variously called Bible telling and chronological Bible storying. Sharing stories is what Jesus did regularly and preeminently; some were parables, some were wholly fiction while others were wholly non-fiction. He did so knowing they would change hearts as well as educate. At their best, the Scribes and Pharisees only educated because they didn’t wrap their dry precepts in real-to-life story coverings; they failed mightily where Jesus succeeded beyond comparison.
Gary Alan Taylor of Red Letter Christians defines stories as the “currency of human contact.” He reasons that: “We tell stories about ourselves that reveal a great deal of what we as a people believe and value. If you want to understand a culture’s values, listen to her stories. As examples, these are prevailing American narratives: the Godly Puritans at Plymouth Rock, Captain John Smith at Jamestown, George Washington on the Delaware and brave white settlers heading west into the sunset to claim the land God set aside for them.”
Near the end the movie version – also its turning point – of the essentially non-fiction story Saving Mr. Banks, Walt Disney finally gains the confidence of the reluctant author of Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers (aka Helen Goff), by convincing her that she can trust him to visually portray her written human portraits with the respect she intended. He does so with the following words, which are a fitting summary of the film’s theme and, perhaps, the entire body of Disney’s creative work: “That’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope, again and again and again.” Such is my intended approach when crafting stories from the themes, events, and individuals under my care.
Occupying an antiquated position in the digital age, the employment of straight-up oral storytelling remains fairly rare today; but when offered in the right setting, it is still highly appreciated. In the not-too-distant past, it was the most prevalent method of values education and of communicating history, traditions, and beliefs.
In a collection of essays and lectures titled, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, short-story virtuoso Flannery O’Connor accurately stated storytelling’s diminishing circumstances: “There is a certain embarrassment about being a storyteller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics; but in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells.”
In her book The Story Keeper, Lisa Wingate writes: “Our stories are powerful. They teach, they speak, they inspire. They bring about change. But they are also fragile. Their threads are so easily broken by time, by lack of interest, by failure to understand the value that comes of knowing where we have been and who we have been. In this speed-of-light culture, our histories are fading more quickly than ever. Yet when we lose our stories, we lose ourselves.”
It’s been said that telling about what happened to millions of people is not a story, it’s a statistic. But when that same information is reduced down to what happened to one person or to a small group, it then becomes a story with all the attendant benefits. For example, a mention of six million Jews killed in the Holocaust lacks the human dimension and personal connection to be a story; but make it about one individual, like Eva Kor or Irena Sendler, and now we have a story.
Wilfred M. McClay, author of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story writes: “We are, at our core, remembering and story-making creatures, and stories are one of the chief ways we find meaning in the flow of events. What we call ‘history’ and ‘literature’ are merely the refinement and intensification of that basic human impulse, that need (to tell and hear stories).”
History is more than just factual times, movements, and locations. Most of my generation had history introduced to us as His Story – alluding to its overarching scale and infinite purpose.
Isaac Bashevis Singer writes: “When a day passes it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told or books weren’t written, man would live like a beast, only for the day. The whole world, all human life is one long story.”
In The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity, Mattthew Kelly shares: “The beautiful thing about stories is that they speak to each person in a different way. Ten people could read a story and get ten different messages. All ten messages were in the story, but each person heard what he or she needed to hear.
In closing, a final beautiful thing about stories is that (according to the results of experiments by Dr. Paul Zak of Claremont University’s Center for Neuro-economic Studies) when stories are shared our brain chemistry changes and our brains unite because the hormone oxytocin is released. Its release helps us to understand and accept our differences – it may not result in agreement, but it is an expanded openness for the ideas of another. I particularly appreciate the title of his 2015 article in Cerebrum: “Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React.” His conclusions may appear to contradict Matthew Kelly’s, but they do not. We retain all the individuality brought into the interaction, but there is less prejudice toward the uniquenesses of the parties.