The Magic (and Ministry) of a Good Story

On a tame Saturday afternoon, tired from the week and still bogged down by my “to-do” list, I got caught on the couch with a good novel: The Secret Lives of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, a contemporary Southern story of racial tension, family pain, and empowered/empowering women.

As a writer, I was certainly absorbed by the story of a young white girl fleeing her downright mean daddy and finding the solace of family with four black women. But Kidd’s care with language did as much for my tuckered soul as any three-point sermon—maybe more.

Well-crafted stories have long been a balm for the human spirit. Children through the ages have gone to bed with a fairy tale in their hands—and heads. Young people have sailed the world in books and imagined a thousand different dreams through hardback adventures. Adults have always taken time to rest from the burdens of real life to hear or read a good story. As Elie Wiesel said,“God made man because he loves stories.”

Well-crafted stories have long been a balm for the human spirit.

We can’t survive a day without the gift of story. Whether it’s a compelling novel, a child’s account of her day at school, a memory of someone lost, or a parable of God’s intervention, stories reinforce for us lessons we learned long ago and inspire us to take another step forward. They help us gauge reality and yank us back from our self-important lives. They offer us pain and then compassion, joy and then encouragement. In today’s Christian circles we even have a name for them: testimonies.

Christians, of course, have always been people of story, joined together by a remarkable historic event that possesses all the elements of epic adventure, romance, and the ultimate battle between good and evil—all wrapped up into one life-changing story. In fact, Frederick Buechner calls the gospel story a tragedy, a comedy, and a fairy tale, because it includes the despairing news of sin, the outrageous truth of God’s love, and the supernatural ability to create a happy ending from both.

So if story is the obvious center around which we share our corporate life as God’s people, if it is the springboard from which we launch our evangelistic efforts and the anchor that grounds our faith, why then, I wonder, do we (in Christendom) invest so little in the art of storytelling?

Storytelling—along with its counterpart, listening—is an organic and crucial part of being human. But it is also a skill that is not only worth developing but worth offering in service as well. Just as every counselor needs advanced listening skills to be effective, so, too, Christians need the skills—and art—to share a good story.

Christians need the skills—and art—to share a good story.

Sadly, though, a stroll down the aisles of Christian bookstores today for the most part reveals books that are either exclusive (Christianese for the Christian ghetto), dogmatic (I have all the answers, so listen to me) or really bad fiction (“But on this warm summer night the roaming, cotton-candied masses were out to enjoy, enjoy, enjoy”).

How lonely and incomplete many of our lives would be without C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, or Walter Wangerin’s urban tales. How many of us would be living in cities without John Perkins’ autobiography or Robert Lupton’s kingdom stories? Stories like these define us. How, then, can we affirm the next generation of storytellers, those—like Lewis and O’Connor—who will care as much about their medium as they do their message?

Maybe in the long run, I’m just trying to convince the hardworking kingdom builders who read this that Saturday couch-times with good novels can be as productive, energizing, and stimulating as a good sermon or a good deed, and certainly as important in communicating the hope of Jesus Christ to broken souls. As the story goes, when Tolkien was accused of writing escapism in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, he replied,“Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?”

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