Last week, I discussed how present-day American culture thrives on arguments and debates, especially in online forms of communication. This often affects our discussion of religious and spiritual topics in a negative way; our discussions turn into self-righteous monologues that all too easily ignore the point of view of the other person. (Even the word “debate” has lost some of its meaning: when election season rolls around again, will our candidates actually debate, or will they alternate giving monologues? Wait and see.)
At the same time, when we look at the state of Christian faith in our nation, we see a movement in decline. Young people are turning away from the faith of their parents in large numbers. Adults who were raised in the church have fallen into worldliness and spiritual apathy. Christianity feels outdated to many people, and I believe that is partially due to Christians participating in the present culture of one-sided arguments, degradation of opposing viewpoints, and self-righteousness. (Many, many comments on the blog posts mentioned last week fall into this category.)
What are we to do? How do we respond to a declining interest in Christian faith combined with an unwillingness to accept propositional Christian truths at face value? I believe we must reclaim one of our most powerful tools: the art of storytelling.
It is no accident that young people (and adults, for that matter) spend large amounts of time and money watching movies – indeed, series of movies. Many popular movies in the past several years are disconnected from reality in one way or another: Avatar, Harry Potter, Twilight, Star Wars, and so forth. Why are these so popular despite being unrealistic? Their special effects are captivating, true; however, I believe another reason for the success of these films is that they tell their stories well.
There is great power in a well-told story. It can transport both the speaker and the listener to another time and place, and it can encapsulate truth more powerfully than simply stating truth openly. Stories are also powerful tools for bringing about change in society. People don’t want to be told to change how they live, but a story told well can illustrate why a change might be beneficial. This is why classic bedtime stories such as Aesop’s Fables have withstood the tests of time: children need to learn how to behave, and these stories show them how!
Our world needs to know Jesus Christ. Many people are in need of a saving relationship with him. But the direct, argumentative, propositional route is not the best approach for today’s society. Instead, we need to tell our personal stories: how we came to know the Lord, how he has provided for us, how our ancestors lived the faith. And we need to tell our collective stories: how God provided for our church, how God spoke through the prophets of old, how God became human in the person of Jesus Christ.
There is great power in the telling of a story. Who has been a storyteller in your life? To whom have you told your stories recently? What stories do you need to study again in order to be able to communicate them to others? Here’s a hint: open your Bible!
Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.” (Matthew 13:34-35 NIV)
Even Jesus used the vehicle of the story to communicate deep truths to his disciples. We too should become better students of his stories – and better storytellers ourselves – so that we can share the truth with a lost and dying generation, especially one with a low tolerance for dialogue but a high interest in hearing a good story.