The Power of Stories

I grew up in the Deep South where storytelling was ubiquitous and valued. There were well-known stories almost everyone knew as well as stories unique to individuals and families. As a child I heard both kinds of stories, but the ones I treasure today are the stories about members of my family, some of whom were still living but many of whom were dead. Stories help hold families together.

As a pastor I would often use stories in my sermons. Sometimes the sermon would be a story with no commentary. Other times I would relate a story to a Scripture passage or a relevant topic. Among my more popular sermons were those entitled “Let’s Go to the Movies” in which I would relate part of a movie (or sometimes the whole movie) to a text from the Bible or a quality of Christian discipleship such as compassion, inclusion, courage, or integrity. I also used stories from my childhood and from my experiences as a teacher and pastor over the years.

From the dawn of humankind when families and clans of hunter-gatherers huddled around cozy and safe campfires, stories have been an integral part of our human experience. Stories make us feel we belong and are not alone. They connect us with something deeper and wider than our own experiences and identities. Some stories help ground us in an identity and destiny which both comfort and challenge us to live in vibrant and meaningful ways.

Stories make us feel we belong and are not alone. They connect us with something deeper and wider than our own experiences and identities.

Stories engage us. Good storytellers are able to pull their hearers into the tales they spin so that those hearers become participants in the story and not just listeners and observers. Jesus was an exceptional storyteller. His favorite way of teaching and unveiling his message of the Kingdom of God was through the use of parables. Jesus did not invent this form of communication. Other rabbis used parables, but Jesus was unique in the subject matter and the style of his parables. All of his parables were about the Kingdom of God and every single one of them contained a surprise which usually was a reversal of the values, perspectives, and assumptions of his culture. I often imagine Jesus telling a parable and then turning to leave the crowd surrounding him. As he gets about twenty-five yards away from his hearers, the light comes on in their minds and hearts and they understand the surprise and reversal his story contains. This realization required them to ask their own questions and drew them even more deeply into the story and the possibilities of transformation contained within the parable.

Over the millennia, some stories have served another purpose.

Over the millennia, some stories have served another purpose. They help us move beyond the legalistic, exclusive, and parochial traditions and assumptions which stifle abundant life and limit our ability to grow in grace, love, compassion, and solidarity with our fellow humans. Let me give you three examples:

If you have read the sermon in this blog on the Book of Ruth, you will find a splendid example of this subversive power of storytelling. We are lulled into the enjoyment of a pleasant story of how two women (a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law who are both widows) survive a famine, deep poverty, and the patriarchal oppression so prevalent in their day. We admire the dedication these two women have for one another. Ruth’s promise to her mother-in-law is so moving, it is often used at weddings to express the commitment a couple have for one another.

The Jewish listeners to this story, touched by this commitment and intrigued as to how these women “beat the system,” would have developed a deep compassion for Ruth and Naomi. But after the story had been told, no doubt someone would remember that according to the Mosaic Law, Ruth should never have been allowed to become a part of Israel. Ruth was a Moabite, and the Law clearly states that no Moabite can become a part of the covenant people of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:3). But the author of the story said that Ruth’s first husband was an Israelite as was her second husband named Boaz. And at the very end of the story, we discover that her great-grandson was David (you know, the great King of Israel who founded a dynasty that ruled for almost four centuries). That Law in Deuteronomy also states that David himself (being the fourth generation descended from a Moabite) was forbidden to become a part of Israel, much less its king.

So, what do you do if you are an Israelite listening to the story of Ruth? You have already been drawn into the story. You have compassion and admiration for her. And David is one of the greatest heroes of your faith. And yet the Law says neither Ruth nor David should even be a part of the people of Israel.

Some insightful and compassionate soul wrote a story about a Moabite name Ruth and through her superb storytelling challenged the exclusive and harsh policies of Ezra and Nehemiah.

The Book of Ruth was probably written after the Exile. Many Jews believed the Exile had occurred as a punishment for the people of Israel who had become idolaters worshipping the foreign gods of nations around them (including Moab). The post-Exilic leaders Ezra and Nehemiah wanted to ensure that such a punishment would never happen again. So, they tried to make the Jewish people super-obedient to the Law. In that attempt, they forbade the marriage of Jewish men to foreign women. Ezra and Nehemiah wanted a pure nation/race. And so, we are told that many Jewish men who were already married to such women had to expel both wives and children from Israel. The Law required it. But some insightful and compassionate soul wrote a story about a Moabite name Ruth and through her superb storytelling challenged the exclusive and harsh policies of Ezra and Nehemiah.

It’s difficult to argue with the Law when it is so cut, dry, and unforgiving in its nature. But there is one way to challenge such Law, and that way is to tell a story which humanizes its characters. Before long the hearers of the story begin to question the intent of the Law because they have had their eyes opened and their hearts made tender. Eventually, stories trump Law because stories are for the most part humanizing and have the unique ability to draw hearers into the struggles and suffering of others. Stories can be liberating in ways that the Law can never be.

A story told in the form of a movie series transformed many people in our country in ways that all the Civil Rights legislation could not.

In 1977, the television mini-series Roots sensitized a whole nation. Because of the story with its characters whom we admired and for whom felt such compassion (Kunta Kinte, Matilda, Fiddler, Kizzie, Chicken George), many U. S. citizens for the first time in their lives were exposed to the heart-wrenching evils and demonic dimensions of slavery. A story told in the form of a movie series transformed many people in our country in ways that all the Civil Rights legislation could not. We cared because we became connected to people we had never met but who were dramatized in a powerful story fleshed out by gifted actors. Stories have transforming power.

When I was in college, I took a course which spent some time considering all aspects of the Holocaust. I remember that during one of my visits home during my college years, I was talking with my mother in the kitchen. Mother was a loving, compassionate, and strong woman. However, she was a victim of theological malpractice. She firmly believed that those who did not believe in Jesus would go to hell when they died. And she maintained that there were no exceptions. At the ripe old age of twenty-one years, I argued with her with all the indignation a college student could muster. “What about all those who have never even heard of Jesus?” I asked. “They go to hell,” she replied. “What about all those Jews who died in the Holocaust after suffering terrible abuse, torture, hunger, and God know what else?” I asked. “I’m sorry for their suffering, but the Bible says they will go to hell unless they believe in Jesus. The Jewish children who died before the age of accountability will go to heaven, but the Jewish young people and adults will go to hell if they don’t believe in Jesus,” she answered. “So, if you’re Jewish and you don’t believe in Jesus, you go to hell?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, “unless you are a Jewish child who died before the age of accountability.” I then said, “So Nathan Persky is burning in hell right now!” . . . . My mother could not say that. She could not believe that Nathan Persky, who had died several months before this conversation, was burning in hell even though he was a Jew who did not believe in Jesus.

My mother could not say that Nathan Persky was in hell—she could not say it because she knew his story. […] Nathan Persky’s story trumped my mother’s rigid theology.

Mr. Persky was a beloved part of the small town where I grew up. Everyone, adults and children, adored him. He was a highly educated man who had lost all he ever had, including much of his family, in the Nazi persecution of Jews. He had to start over in another country and opened a clothing store on Main Street in Aiken, S. C. His store carried the uniforms used by Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Eagle Scouts. Every boy who ever belonged to any of those groups knew and admired the kind and gentle Nathan Persky. My mother knew him and was aware of all the stories of his generosity, sharing, compassion, and kindness, especially to those in need. He was one of the few people in that town who had no prejudice toward the African-Americans. Everyone loved him and grieved when he died. My mother could not say that Nathan Persky was in hell—she could not say it because she knew his story. Not only did she know his story—so did all the other mothers of scouts as well as grown men who have been scouts and those who were scouts at the time of his death–they all knew his story and how over the years he had become such a loving part of their own stories.

Nathan Persky’s story trumped my mother’s rigid theology. The Bible might say—the preacher might say—the church might say—the tradition might say—the Law might say. . . but that day in the kitchen of my childhood home my mother could not say, “Nathan Persky is in hell.” Why? Because she knew him and his story.

Stories are powerful. They can be healing, redemptive, and transforming. We should already know that, because the Greatest Story ever told is about Jesus and God’s unconditional and indiscriminate love–and how such love stubbornly, persistently, and relentlessly strives to weave all of our stories into the joy and healing of that one Great Story until, at long last, God is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).


Photo Source: Kasey Johnson, Flickr

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