What language is spoken more widely than English, Spanish, Chinese, or any other human language combined?
If you’ll forgive the trick question you might pause and consider the way that few other things are as common to our humanity as our love of narrative, of story, of finding a way to combine disconnected facts into a cohesive whole. Think about it: this summer millions of Americans will plunk down their hard-earned change to gather in a darkened theater to soak in the latest summer blockbuster. And while high-budget special effects may dazzle us, while emotive performances might move us, what keeps us coming back—and what keeps us talking about—to the Marvel Universe or Disney’s latest fare is story.
But why? We might highlight three reasons.
STORY MAKES SENSE OF LIFE
First, as we’ve already noted, story represents a universal human language. Science fiction novelist Ursula K. LeGuin famously observed that “there have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” Today’s world is no exception. Just ask Robert McKee. McKee knows something about this—his famous work Story is basically the textbook for Hollywood screenwriters. He says:
“The world now consumes films, novels, theatre and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s prime source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the pattern of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience. In the words of playwright Jean Anoulli, ‘Fiction gives life its form.’” (Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Style, Structure and the Principles of Screenwriting, p. 12)
Could it be that you and I were created in the image of a Master Storyteller?
STORIES CONVEY A MORAL MESSAGE
Second, stories convey an explicitly moral message. And, McKee would note, that’s actually why contemporary movies have been particularly challenging to produce. It used to be that film audiences agreed upon a universal moral compass. Good and evil were easy to identify. Now, not so much.
“Values, the positive/negative changes of life, are the soul of our art. The writer shapes story around a perception of what’s worth living for, what’s worth dying for, what’s foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth – the essential values. In decades past, writer and society more or less agreed on these questions, but more and more ours has become an age of moral and ethical cynicism, relativism, and subjectivism – a great confusion of values. As the family disintegrates and sexual antagonisms rise, who, for example, feels he understands the nature of love? And how, if you do have a conviction, do you express it to an ever-more skeptical audience?” (McKee, Story, p. 17)
Again, this isn’t coming from an alarmist religious-type; this is coming from the influential behind-the-scenes folks in Hollywood. A “culture” is basically a group of people who share the same story—who agree on what is right and wrong, what is good, beautiful, and true. But Western culture has moved away from a common answer to these questions. “There is not one big cosmic meaning for all;” writes Anaias Nin. “There is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” But that hardly seems satisfying. No; what we need is a story that points us toward beauty and truth.
STORIES UNIQUELY SENSITIZE US TO THAT MESSAGE
This naturally leads us to why stories have so much value—and power. Consider the life of King David. Roughly 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus, David was on the throne. But at one point in his life he stayed home while his armies waged war. What happens? He sleeps with the girl next door, gets her pregnant, then covers his tracks by having her husband “accidentally” killed on the battlefield. He’d become numb to his own treachery. But the prophet Nathan snaps him out of this fog of self-deception with a story:
And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds, 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” (2 Samuel 12:1-4)
Had Nathan confronted David directly, it’s uncertain whether David would have listened. Perhaps he’d have covered his tracks with another excuse. But stories are never a frontal assault. No; stories are what one writer compared to a “Trojan horse.” They lull us into accepting the world they present us, then, when we least suspect, the trap is sprung, and we are confronted with their underlying message. That’s what happened to David:
Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, 6 and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” (2 Samuel 12:5-6)
It’s only then that David utters the painful words: “You are that man!”
THE STORYTELLING JESUS
During his years on earth, Jesus told many stories—what we now call “parables.” Like the story told by Nathan, these stories are also something of a “Trojan horse.” Unlike a direct challenge or teaching, they draw us into the world of the story, only to confront us with some truth about God and his kingdom.
The subject of these stories is indeed important, because otherwise we might get caught up in thinking that Jesus’ primary concern was some moral message. Morality is important, of course, and we certainly find moral lessons embedded in his parables. But the larger point was about God and his kingdom—that is, the rule and reign of God in the world. When we begin to recognize the many ways that we might understand this kingdom, we—like David—are sensitized to a greater reality outside the darkened walls of self.
Jesus’ stories may not be the next summer blockbuster, but this summer we invite you to travel with us to first-century Galilee, to sit at the feet of Jesus, the Master Storyteller, and hear his voice as he offers us these small portraits—these snapshots, if you will—of what His Father’s Kingdom is like.