How Stories Save Us and Bring Us Home (Sept-Dec 2003)

By Matt Dabbs

By Darryl Tippens

For many years, the facts of my life looked random and isolated, at least to me, rather like the odd collection of cast-off items in a rummage sale. This fact lay beside that one, randomly, but the accidents of my life had no more in common than an old bicycle sitting beside a sewing machine. With the perspective of age, I now see that these odds and ends of my life connect and form a pattern, a kind of mosaic. Stand too close to a mosaic and you see only disparate pieces of colored glass. Stand back and a design emerges.

Here are a few “pieces” in my story which form a design in my life:

I grew up in a family rich in story-telling.
Aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, and neighbors loved to tell stories—stories of settling the West, of hardships during the Depression, of the War years. We had frequent large family gatherings in our house, and relatives would tell stories into the wee hours of the night. A few of the stories were tragic, many funny, and most were true, so I suppose. The best were told over and over, year after year. Only years later, after studying the nature of narrative in the university, did I begin to see how these stories had influenced me. I now see that all stories contain an inner point (though it is often concealed), that each of those stories conveyed the particular values of my family. The hidden messages were varied: Watch out! Be resourceful! Be diligent! Don’t be fooled! Think for yourself! Don’t play the fool, or you will pay in the end!

Not all the stories in my life came from my family. Many came from books. I was fortunate to grow up in a house where books were valued. Whether the Bobbsey Twins, Robinson Crusoe, the Hardy Boy mysteries, or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress —books opened an amazing imaginative world. My mother, in particular, taught me the value of books by her own example. Despite herding six children all day, cooking all our meals (we never ate out), cleaning, and washing—endlessly—she still devoted herself to reading, usually late into the night after the babies were in bed. She read books by the truckloads it seemed, and she still does to this day. If I live to be a hundred, even with books as my profession, I will never read as much as she has.

I grew up in a church that revered one particular Book that happens to be an anthology of stories.
In my youth, Bible stories were told and retold with relish in Sunday School, in sermons, and in Vacation Bible School. The people who told these stories clearly found them exciting, and their enthusiasm moved me. Even more important, those who told me these stories took them very seriously. They believed that these stories were not only true, but that they possessed some mysterious transforming power. They invited me to read these stories—closely, intelligently, passionately—for myself, because these stories could change my life. I believed them.

I entered a profession centrally concerned with the nature of story.
For thirty years I have, as a professor of English literature, earned my daily bread by reading stories, trying to fathom their depths and transmit this understanding to students at three different universities. I have immensely enjoyed a career of studying the world’s greatest stories and then passing them on to a whole generation of students. While my success in teaching them may have been mixed, my conviction has only deepened with time that all of us need a repertoire of stories under our belt, that the right stories can make us better writers, thinkers, citizens, parents, spouses, and disciples of our Lord.

The longer I live the more certain I am that we are hard-wired for stories, that if some mysterious fungus were to destroy every book in the world’s libraries, we would instantly start again rebuilding the corpus of our stories as best we could, for we cannot live without them. Jean-Paul Sartre is right: “a [person] is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were telling a story.”

I am a disciple of the Master Storyteller.
I honor and serve Jesus Christ, whom Madeleine L’Engle has called “the story-telling God.” The great preoccupation of my life is to understand one particular story, the one that Jesus lived. My ultimate goal is not to memorize or “master” that unique story, but to figure out how to live it. “Performing” the life of Jesus—that is the core Christian mission and the very meaning of Christian spirituality in a word. I vow each day to yield to the power of his Spirit within me so that the plot of  his life will be evident in my life. As I undertake this audacious project, I sense that I will only avoid miserable failure by yielding to the power of God and paying close attention to the clues that he has provided. One of the prime clues is simple and ready-at-hand, but often neglected: Pay attention to the stories in your life.

These four facts constitute a constellation of influences in my life: I grew up in a family and a culture rich in story-telling. I was taught in a church that reveres the Bible, the world’s greatest anthology of stories. My professional life drew my attention to the power of narrative, and I am a disciple of the story-telling deity, Jesus Christ. In brief, my life is itself a grand narrative, a story designed by God, which has made me aware of the power of narrative. My life is a pilgrimage, marked by surprising turns, periods of failure and disappointment, and the repeated returns to my roots and founding values. Of course, I do not know the ending yet. But I know this: my story, like my readers’ stories, is only comprehensible in the light of one particular story: the Jesus story. The Psalmist wrote: “In thy light we see light” (Psalm 36:9). And so it is. Only in his light can we find the illumination necessary to understand the dark mosaic of our own individual experiences.

Many Christian theologians, preachers, and writers have argued eloquently the central link between story-telling and faith. Madeleine L’Engle’s The Rock That Is Higher: Story as Truth reveals the power of stories, even fictional ones, to reveal truth. Daniel Taylor’s The Healing Power of Stories teaches us how stories define our character, give us meaning, and establish our life-shaping worldviews. Frederick Buechner, in autobiographical narratives like Telling Secrets, demonstrates concretely and eloquently that God can reshape any life, no matter how broken it is, into a divine pattern of love and hope. Similarly, Henri Nouwen in The Return of the Prodigal Son shows how one’s own story can be connected to, and can be transformed by, the Gospel. Stories, whether found in Scripture or in our own lives, can become mysterious windows through which we can spy into the Kingdom of God.

Some of these writers I have known personally (L’Engle, Nouwen, and Taylor, specifically). What has most impressed me is that these are not only remarkable writers—they are great performers of the Jesus story. Their own lives dramatize the mysterious power of God to enlighten and heal. They have shown me at the most personal level how the story of Jesus has imprinted their own lives, producing unique and wondrous results. They convince me that we all need stories in our lives for many reasons. Here are a few of the reasons I have discovered for myself:

First, we need stories to bring us joy.
This is no small matter. Life can weigh us down, terribly so, at times; and story provides the respite, the possibility of escape into another world. Stories contain a “ludic” function; that is, they delight and amuse us. Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims decided to while away the long hours of their journey to Canterbury; and we on our own pilgrim journeys need fables of refreshment. An old Jewish proverb states that God created humans because he wanted to hear stories. We, like our Father, feel a corresponding hunger for stories. There is no need to be embarrassed or apologetic about this human need for entertainment. Our hunger for stories comes from above. Observe a small child mesmerized by a bedtime story, and you will see the intrinsic, human need for story, which we never outgrow. Watch a small child spin out her own stories as she plays with her toys, and you will see the divine mandate for stories in plain sight.

Second, we need stories to subvert our idolatries.
Humans tend to put their trust in the wrong things. We slip into the false worship of money, sex, or power—and our hearts harden. Live with lust, greed, or power for a brief season, and it starts to feel normal. A really good story—such as Nathan’s parable delivered to King David, a movie like Citizen Kane , or a short story like Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”—can thoroughly upset and expose our self-justifications, our denials, or our obsessions. The great stories, such as the parables of Jesus, often contain surprising turns or insights which challenge our smug opinions.

I recall one of my female students who was living with her boyfriend, until she encountered Augustine’s  Confessions. At first, “Sally” was angry with Augustine’s narrow “Puritanism” and judgmentalism about extramarital sex. (Her deep anger towards Augustine was registered in her journal, which she lent to me to read.) But after a few weeks Augustine’s story worked on Sally’s heart. Before the semester was over, she ordered her boyfriend out of her house; and she made a fresh start. Augustine’s own intense struggle with sexual desire (“Lord, make me chaste—but not yet”) ultimately changed Sally’s understanding of herself, and it altered her ethics.

Then there was Roger, one of my more “non-traditional” students, who watched Brother Son and Sister Moon, the somewhat Hippie-like movie of the life of Francis of Assisi. After seeing the film, Roger and his roommate became unhappy with all the possessions that littered their apartment. They sold their expensive stereo system and other superfluous things and adopted a simple life. Even now, years later, Roger lives a Henry-David-Thoreau kind of life. Not all my students have responded so dramatically to stories, of course; but the point is that many readers, in the words of Robert Coles, do answer The Call of Story.

Third, we need stories to tell us who we are.
In a very real sense, we are the sum of all our stories. Let me offer you a challenge: Tell me the great stories that roll around in your head, and I will tell you who you are. I make this claim because I know that the stories you hear and you tell yourself profoundly shape your identity.

This is why God placed such extraordinary emphasis upon Israel’s remembering the great story of the Exodus. When God commanded the Jews to remember, the goal was not to earn a stellar grade on the Hebrew equivalent of an SAT exam. Rather, the goal was for every Israelite to know his or her own true identity, an identity firmly embedded in the spiritual history of Israel. The story of the Exodus, in effect, transmitted the spiritual DNA of every Jew, from one generation to the next, just as the story of Jesus does for every Christian. The great stories of the Bible hand down to every child of Abraham a distinct understanding of one’s origin, mission, and destiny. We are lost and identity-less without these stories.

But not all stories are spiritually or psychologically helpful. We must be especially careful which stories we ingest, for some are toxic, as Dan Taylor has explained so cogently in his chapter “Healing Broken Stories” from The Healing Power of Stories. Some of the stories of popular culture, for example, may convey the notion that we are merely consumers (and therefore that we are only as good as what we possess), or creatures of animal passions (existing only for bloodthirsty revenge or hedonistic pleasures), or helpless cogs in a vast, but doomed machine (unable to respond to grace and goodness, unable to resist the forces around us), or masters of our own destiny (therefore, arrogant self-created beings who do not need a Savior). If space allowed, we could cite many stories which contain plots that confuse or wound us. Movies today are replete with such toxic plots. Parents must especially be aware of the negative narratives to which their children are frequently exposed.

Fourth, we need stories to heal our sorrows.
Life hurts. Some of us experienced injuries in our earliest years that have healed slowly, or not at all. So, the call to remember the past is not good news in some cases. The son or daughter who endured an abusive parent, the young mother traumatized by a bad marriage—such people hardly feel good about their pasts. These victims are seeking to forget in order to survive. Interestingly, Scripture introduces a great paradox regarding memory. It teaches us both to remember and to forget: “Remember the former things of old. . . ,” the Lord says in Isaiah (46:9). Yet at the same time God invites us to forget: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating….” (Isaiah 65:17-18). How can we do it both ways, remember and forget?

The key is noting what to remember and what to forget. In the Book of Isaiah, God invites the long distance view. He maintains that our past disappointments and present distresses loom overly large because we don’t have the full picture. It is as though we walked into a movie, watched three minutes of it, then walked out. Not knowing the beginning or the ending, we misjudge the segment we did see. The solution is to accept God’s invitation to view the full narrative, not the small scene that happens to be our own. This was the great need of the Israelites in the Book of Isaiah. They have been called to re-vise (literally, to see again with fresh eyes) their own narrative—to see their bit parts as mere pieces of the whole.

Thus, their tragic chapter must be “forgotten,” not literally, but reinterpreted according to the grand design of the larger plot which God, the great Director, unfolds. God, through Scriptural narrative, allows them to see the beginning and the end—which radically reverses the darkness of the brief, sometimes tragic, middle episode. By “remembering” the past and the future ending, our individual and momentary scenes find their proper value and meaning.

Joseph discovered how this works in his long, soap-opera-like saga in the Book of Genesis. After his brothers’ rejection and abandonment, after years of slavery and imprisonment—finally—Joseph sees the ultimate meaning of his life. He can say to his hapless brothers in the story’s final episode: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50:20). It is doubtful that Joseph ever truly forgot his brothers’ original cruelty, but in one sense he did. In forgiving his brothers, in loving them, in recognizing the divine hand which brought good out of evil, Joseph was able to “rewrite” (or reinterpret or re-vise) the early tragic events of his life. What he had formerly remembered as evil, he now recalls as strangely, miraculously redemptive. God doesn’t cause evil, but he does transform evil chapters in our lives for his redemptive purposes.

God calls us to remember that our story began a long time ago, even before the foundations of the earth. God, the Master of narrative and the Master narrator, says: “for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done” (Isaiah 46:9-10). Long before any Hollywood director dreamed of it, the master Director of Creation decided to mix up the chronological scenes a bit. Even in the very first scene of the “movie” called human history he planted brief clips of the final chapter of the story (see Genesis 3:15). And for those of us Johnny-come-latelies in the twenty-first century, he connects our belated entrance into the plot with an event that happened, even before the first day of creation! “He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. . .” (Ephesians 1:4).

So, God decided to declare “the end” (the final scene) even in the beginning of the plot, and he recalls the first scene even in the final acts. God, who inhabits Eternity, has no problem with such a wonderfully complex plot. Thus, we can “remember” the past even if we were not there, and we can “remember” the future, even if we haven’t seen it yet. All this means we can “forget” the inordinate weight we sometimes place on our one big “scene” (our particular moment on earth). Such cosmic perception liberates us from the egocentric notion that our single moment on the stage of history is the whole story. It is not.

So, how can stories heal our hurts? Among other things, the stories of others can offer rich insight into our own. Often I have listened to the stories of others—accounts of courage or suffering or endurance—and these have put my own struggles in context and given me new hope for my own life. We often see meaning and purpose in our own misfortunes as we examine our lives through the prism of a well-told story. (This is why biography and autobiography are hugely popular.)

We find wisdom and consolation in others’ experiences, which constitute a bridge of understanding that makes everything lighter. “A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved,” the saying goes. Stories help us by offering a kind of friendship. An Oxford student in the movie Shadowlands tells C. S. Lewis that we read in order to find out that we are not alone. In the words of Wayne Booth, stories provide a deep companionship ( The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction ).

Stories carry proverbial wisdom for our lives. By listening to the stories of my rural elders in Western Oklahoma I learned that our misfortunes need not destroy us. This message, never stated but often implied, came to me through the stories I heard: of the great Washita flood of 1933, of the drought of the 1950’s, of the farming crisis of the 1980’s. I learned that hard times come and hard times go; we must be steady and courageous. Your stories might be different from mine, but they carry the same capacity to teach and heal.

Finally, we need stories to save us and get us home.
God wrote only one book, the Bible, and in his wisdom he saw to it that the primary literary form of the Bible would be story. While Scripture contains many literary genres (psalms, legal codes, letters, prophecy, and so forth), narrative predominates for a reason. The stories of Noah, Moses, Deborah, Daniel, Mary, and Jesus contain the power to enthrall us and bind our hearts to the heart of God. Jesus, in particular, demonstrates the singular power of story by teaching everything through this medium: “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables, and he did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Matt. 13:34, NIV, my emphasis). Jesus, the wisest teacher who ever walked the earth, relied on stories to change the world. He is the model and the inspiration for all who would communicate the gospel.

A few days ago, Ken Durham, the minister of my congregation in Malibu, California, began a new sermon series based on the story of the prodigal son. After the first sermon in the series, I told a Jewish friend (I’ll call him Daniel) how excited I was about the new series dedicated to the parable. Daniel, though an educated man, said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what you are talking about.” Dan had never heard the story of the prodigal son. He asked me to tell him the story. As I did so, I referred to Rembrandt’s famous painting of the lost son. Since Dan was sitting at his computer as we talked, he typed “Prodigal Son” and “Hermitage” (the St. Petersburg museum where the painting resides) into his computer’s search engine. The painting popped up on Dan’s computer screen.

As he viewed the painting, I told him the story of the prodigal. He asked questions about it. For example, when I reached the point of the son feeding pigs in the far country, he asked me, “Would the son have been kosher?” “Sure,” I replied. He listened in complete silence as I completed the story. I knew that Dan was moved by this story of divine grace. I tried to imagine, unsuccessfully, what it would be like to hear this great story of grace for the very first time. I do not know how Daniel will ultimately respond to Jesus’ parable, but I know this: Dan heard the gospel in Jesus’ parable, perhaps for the first time, he was touched by it, yet he was not defensive or offended. This is the power of story.

Dan’s initial response to Jesus’ parable brings me to one last claim for the power of story: The greatest stories are found within canonical Scripture. Jesus’ own life and the stories he told contain supernatural power to change humanity forever. Yet there is even more to say. As God’s story makes its way into the world, it has the uncanny power to transform human beings whose creative stories, in turn, transmit something of the reflected glory that comes from God. Stories of human invention, in other words, have the capacity to express some aspects of the divine story.

The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, Jesus tells us. As the leaven of divine grace touches a human storyteller’s work, it transforms it, just as yeast transforms a lump of dough. Over the centuries this leaven has mixed with thousands of narratives composed by brilliant writers like Dante, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, John Milton, G. M. Hopkins, Frederick Buechner, C. S. Lewis, Shusaku Endo, and Graham Greene. The list is endless. While none of these writers’ compositions is “canonical,” they contain a redemptive potency, all the same, for these writers bear the image of their Creator, and this imprint marks whatever they craft—whether poem, play, film script, or novel.

The Gospel is preeminently found in Scripture, of course; but it is not limited to Scripture. “He shines in all that’s fair.” Gospel truth shines throughout Creation and through the Creator’s creatures and the things they make. Every good story is a gift from God containing a seed of truth that can change a soul and lift it, even if only a bit, towards heaven. Of all the gifts God has given us, the gift to generate and receive stories is one of the most miraculous. James Carroll, in The Communion of Saints, expresses the point succinctly:

The very act of story-telling, of arranging memory and invention according to the structure of narrative, is by definition holy…. We tell stories because we can’t help it. We tell stories because we love to entertain and hope to edify. We tell stories because they fill the silence death imposes. We tell stories because they save us.

Through stories, we come to know ourselves, we come to know our Father, and we find our way home. What a matchless gift is story.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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