Bryan Lilly

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Story-telling & Spiritual Formation

March 1, 2015

Stories are incredibly powerful tools within in the human experience. They’ve been used for centuries as vehicles for shaping personal, familial, and even cultural and national identities. They are used to entertain and to teach.

Stories are powerful--even mediocre stories can grab that part of us that reasons and can make us think. But, the greatest stories go further. Stories that are captivating dive below the surface of reason and go for that part of us that perceives. The best stories capture our imaginations and draw us into the very universe that contains such stories and make us a part of the story itself.

Human beings are more than just thinkers, more than just embodied world-views. Human beings are lovers whose will and thought are driven primally by affection. And it is primarily because we as human beings are lovers and perceivers that stories hold transformative power. Good stories and good storytellers bring us into their worlds and affect our affections, change our perceptions, and can even alter our thinking.

No wonder, then, that God has chosen story and narrative as his predominate mode of self-revelation. Storytelling, stories, and narrative are all central to the Christian faith, and therefore, central to all spiritual formation. Consider this: God has revealed himself to us through a story, and its by recognizing our place within that story that we are formed into being more like Christ.

Stories Are Not Always Fiction

Some of you may bristle at hearing Scripture or the Gospel called a story. That’s understandable as many of us equate stories with fiction. What comes to mind when you hear the word story? Some—most?—probably think of fictional works such as novels. Many people have had their lives affected by a great novel or series of novels. They can point back to a work, or even a chapter, paragraph, or sentence, that changed the way they saw the world or even changed how they lived. Stories are that powerful.

Others of you, however, may feel that such an effect sounds absurd. Maybe you hate reading for whatever reason or reasons you may have for doing so. Yet, change the subject from books to movies and you find yourself comfortably agreeing with what was said above. Stories come in many mediums, and visual storytelling is still storytelling.

Our familiarity with such forms of storytelling, whether books or movies or whatever else you can think of, sometimes hides a very important fact from us: a story is not always fictitious. But, a story is simply a narrative of events, agnostic to whether those events actually happened or not. Biographies, for example, are stories of true events. News broadcasts, all cynicism aside, feature news stories. And, whether one word or many, we answer the question, How are you?, with a story.

Much of the Old and New Testaments were passed down and given to us as stories.

Stories are Formative

Stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, are formative. When something is formative it gives shape or form to something else. It molds its object.

Formative storytelling is nothing new. Civilizations and cultures have used storytelling to pass on their origins, values, customs, and beliefs throughout all human history. Owen Flanagan, a researcher and Duke professor on philosophy and consciousness, has said, Evidence strongly suggests that humans in all cultures come to cast their own identity in some sort of narrative form. We are inveterate storytellers.1 The earliest form of these cultural narratives were oral—spoken, memorized, and passed down from generation to generation. With the invention of written language, however, oral tradition largely gave way to written tradition as a way of capturing a culture’s formative stories.

This is still true today, and not just with national or people-group specific cultures. Even corporations and businesses have come to recognize the formative power of stories. Corporate storytelling is a relatively new form of communication within the business world, where facts such as the corporation’s origin and history, their product, and their perceived need they see in the world and believe that they fix are all communicated as a narrative that shares their vision for existing. This corporate story is then used as a tool for formation, uniting their employees behind a common vision and purpose, and convincing the general population as to why they should invest in their product. Corporate storytelling cultivates a sense of belonging and need within others. It transforms what people value.

When stories come together—stories of origin, beliefs, and history—they form a metanarrative. Metanarratives are the big stories that encapsulates and orders all the smaller stories into a cohesive story. Metanarratives situates its parts into a whole; they show how the smaller stories fit together to make sense of the world.

The Bible — A Story of Stories

God has revealed himself to us in a story—the Scriptures that make up the Bible. The Bible is a metanarrative of how God displays his glory in the world, rescues sinners out of their rebellion, and brings them back to their rightful place as part of God’s family. It is the metanarrative of God’s reign and rule, his kingdom. And like all kingdoms, God’s kingdom has a culture whose identity, foundation, customs, and beliefs are delivered to successive generations through its stories.

The Bible contains many smaller, interconnected stories which come to us like acts in a play or chapters in a novel. We have the story of Creation and the Fall, Cain and Able, Noah and the flood which results in a re-creation; We have the story of Israel from its founding in Abraham to its exodus from slavery in Egypt, from Israel’s civic beginnings to its fall and eventual exile. We also have the story of Jesus, Israel’s long–awaited Messiah who came to redeem Israel and all of creation. We have the story of the New Testament church in the book of Acts and the letters of Paul, James, John and others. Finally, we have the Revelation received by John, which tells the story of the church and Christ’s victory over history, Satan, sin, and death.

The Gospel is the Hinge of God’s Story

The gospel stands as the hinge of God’s story. The entirety of the Old Testament points to and prepares us for the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. The New Testament takes us beyond that moment in history and shares how the gospel exploded into history and marches on until God brings history to a close destroying Satan, sin, and death forever. All of history is shaped by this gospel.

We, too, are shaped by the gospel. The gospel is not something we accept or deny and then move on from. This is why Paul continually reminds the readers of his letters of the gospel. As Tim Keller has said, The Gospel…is not the ABCs of the Christian Life, but the A to Z of the Christian Life.2 It is the gospel which informs the cultural ethics and customs of God’s kingdom and teaches us what we should believe and do. The gospel is the formative story of humanity.

This gospel changes us. By this, I don’t mean that we are changed by some impersonal force called the gospel, but we are changed through the ministry of the Holy Spirit who continually works in our lives to bring the gospel and its effects to bear with our lives and in our own stories. The Holy Spirit awakens in us a knowledge of sin, a desire to repent, and a kinesthetic power to step away from our sin and journey back to God. The Spirit does this through a story. He does it through the story. And he does it in the midst of our stories such that we come to see that each of our stories are actually part of the metanarrative of God’s reign and rule through history.

Each of us are part of God’s story and we each have our parts to play. As Eugene Peterson has pointed out through the title of one of his books, Christ plays in ten thousand places.3 He does so through each of us as our stories, our lives, play out the story of God.

Footnotes

  • [1.] Flanagan, Owen. Consciousness Reconsidered.
  • [2.] E.g, Keller, Timothy. The Prodigal God.
  • [3.] Peterson, Eugene. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.