Why stories?

What language is spoken more widely than English, Spanish, Chinese, or any other human language combined?

Story.

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.

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“Behold the man!” (2 Samuel 12)

Sometimes the greatest agonies aren’t those we feel, but those we don’t.  When we encounter someone in deep mourning over some tragedy, we rightly weep with them.  But when we encounter someone whose hardened heart refuses to spill tears, we feel all the more pity.

Story has its own way of re-sensitizing numb hearts to the reality around us.  The deadened nerves of human conscience are enlivened with truth layered with symbol and meaning.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, tells the story of Prince Hamlet trying to avenge his father’s assassination.  King Claudius had taken the throne after murdering his predecessor—Hamlet’s father.  Now Hamlet seeks to evoke a confession from Claudius by staging a play depicting his father’s murder.  “The play’s the thing in which I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” Hamlet utters in preparation.

Sometimes it’s easier to recognize the sin in others than it is to see the sin in ourselves.  We need an external conscience, someone to jar us out of our moral slumber and expose us to the penetrating light of reality.  Thankfully, David had this in Nathan.  At this point, David had thought his crime with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah to have been resolved.  But Nathan comes to him with a story that snaps David’s mind to reality:

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.” 5 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.”

7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. 8 And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ 11 Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. 12 For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun.’” 13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14 Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die.” 15 Then Nathan went to his house.

In his 2000 work simply called Humanity, Jonathan Glover chronicles what might be called a “moral history” of the twentieth century.  Glover notes the ways that human selfishness and unmitigated evil resulted in some of the most virulent bloodbaths humanity has ever seen.  But Glover goes on to note two countervailing forces—what he calls “moral resources.”

First, there is sensitivity to others.  Glover uses the example of Afrikaner police during South Africa’s Apartheid.  These police would often chase down protesters—club in hand—in meting out cruel justice.  In one such incident, an officer is chasing a young woman when she loses her shoe.  Suddenly she switches from being a faceless protester—a target, to the cop—and becomes a human being.  Chivalry wins the day.  The officer puts down his club and hands the woman her shoe.  Something similar is happening with David.  He begins to recognize that his actions had devastating consequences for the people in his life.  Uriah had been wronged—and murdered.  Bathsheba had lost everything.  And what about you and me?  Reality hits us when we recognize the women we objectify as actual human beings.  The woman on your computer screen is more than a collection of anatomical parts.  She has a name.  She is someone’s daughter.  Perhaps a sister.  A friend.  She had dreams, as a little girl, of growing up and becoming a mommy.  She had a favorite stuffed animal.  She played with her dog.  Suddenly we can no longer see her as only someone to be used, but a person who deserves love.

Second, Glover noted a sensitivity to self.  We must ask the question: “Am I the sort of person who would do a thing like this?”  And the harsh reality is simple: if we do something, it’s because we’re exactly the sort of person who does things like that.  Nathan tells David: “You are that man!”  There’s  no escaping it.  Sin dehumanizes us.  We cease to function as agents and image-bearers of God and become creatures ruled by lust and greed.

Thankfully God provides a way out.  In almost the same breath, Nathan promises that God would “put away” David’s sin.  There would be forgiveness—though there would be consequences.

And the Lord afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick.16 David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. 17 And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. 18 On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they said, “Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us. How then can we say to him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.” 19 But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David understood that the child was dead. And David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” 20 Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate. 21 Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” 22 He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ 23 But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

Can you imagine the pain inflicted on David, who for seven consecutive days had to listen to his child’s cries knowing he was the one who caused him this pain?

But can you imagine the anguish of another Father, who had to watch His Son ascend the hill toward a place called Golgotha, a Son whose limbs were pulled from their sockets as He hung there bleeding?  Nathan looked at David and said: “You are that man!”  But the Roman governor Pilate presented Jesus to an unruly crowd and said “Behold the man!”  David was forgiven for his physical adultery.  Jesus was condemned for my spiritual adultery.   The marvelous good news of the gospel is that God’s grace triumphs over my sin.  Ultimately, God would use this incident to bring about the fulfillment of his promise to David to use Solomon in the furthering of His Kingdom:

24 Then David comforted his wife, Bathsheba, and went in to her and lay with her, and she bore a son, and he called his name Solomon. And the Lord loved him 25 and sent a message by Nathan the prophet. So he called his name Jedidiah, because of the Lord.

Still, we mustn’t gloss over the seriousness of sin and its consequences.  God’s grace offers forgiveness—but God also provides every resource we need to wage war against our own desires.  Is there a Nathan in your life?  Someone who challenges you?  Points out to you the consequences of your failings?

If you do not already pursue internet accountability, I urge you to do so.  Multiple programs exist that allow you to surf the web but will send reports of your activity to an accountability partner—a “Nathan” in your life.  If you have not already done so, I’d encourage you to check out www.covenanteyes.com for their program, or www.x3watch.com, both of which offer valuable resources in maintaining your purity in today’s digital world.