Nice chapter/article in the book Preach the Word, edited by Greg Haslam. The Chapter (28) is “Preaching from Narrative” by Chris Wright. The chapter is fairly short but has good info in it… especially on the nature of narrative. Under How Do Stories Actually Work?, Wright puts some good notes. I will just give the main points here, with my own thoughts after.
- Stories express cultural world-views. To me, this is a strong point. Often worldview is described in terms of categories and propositions (I did that, in fact, in my book on cultural anthrology). But we really think in terms of stories, and the world-view that that guides our beliefs, and from that our behaviors and interpretation of experiences, is more about stories than facts. As such, to hit someone “deep” one is better off using a resonant, or at least relevant, story.
- Stories are used to preserve people’s identities. Each of us exists in relationships that go beyond simply I and You. Relationships also include We and They. To a large extent how “We” is defined is in terms of what stories are shared. That is part of the reason that a new person joining a close group feels alienated, at least for awhile. The new person doesn’t share the stories of the others. It is only after the person shares enough new stories with this group, that he or she feels truly part of the We identity.
- Stories teach moral values and transmit group memories across the generations. Stories are often better at expressing moral truths than propositions. While a statement such as “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is pretty straightforward, it is actually in that straightforwardness that we get lost. What does it really mean to bear false witness? The answer generally comes in a story. The concreteness helps. Does, for example, bearing false witness include telling jokes, or expressing a story that fictional? No, but that is more obvious in a story. For example, story where an individual falsely accuses a person of wrong-doing or falsely alibis a wrong-doer makes it clear that this sin is not simply saying something that is fictional… it is tied to motive and malice. Also because they define groups, they help provide continuity in a group even as the group changes over time.
- Stories engage our imagination. I have talked enough about this elsewhere, particularly in Theo-Storying. A good story draws us in, and we essentially experience something that, technically, did not happen to us.
- Stories are dependent on having a well-constructed plot. You might think this is obvious, but it is not. Many a story (such as in a movie) has a weak plot, due to the apparent belief that having good special effects, sex or violence, humor (whether witty, ribald, or physical), or a twist ending can substitute. Economically, sometimes they are right. But a story with a poor plot tends to lose steam quick. It does not engage the imagination. It fails to have impact.
- Stories need good characters. Characters need to have a stamp of reality to them. Even robots or aliens in science fiction stories need to have an authenticity to them. A failure often in the church has been to develop stories too much after the model of morality plays… with wooden saints and equally 2-dimensional sinners. This is strange considering how the Bible tends to present humans as 3-dimensional, both wondrously made and flawed.
- Some stories have gaps in them. I would argue that ALL stories have gaps in them. For non-fiction stories this is true since a plot essentially picks bits and pieces of what happened and seeks to combine them with causal relationships into a consistent plot. People don’t have stories… they have life, that can be rearranged into an infinite number of stories. For fiction stories, there are gaps because we only see and here what is “on stage.” Before the opening of the curtain, we don’t know much. After the closing of the curtain, we don’t know much. And off stage is a mystery. But that is a good thing. It gets us to think and imagine. In fact, filling in too many of the gaps may be detrimental to the story. For example, in many classic jokes, the story has three parts. Two parts to set the pattern, and a third to have a surprising break in the pattern. Two is enough to set the pattern… one does not have to list 50 parts supporting the pattern (even if such a high number may have an element of accuracy to it).
- Good stories invite the reader to be the judge. It is often tempting for the storyteller to tie up all of the loose ends. But it is often better to allow the reader to judge for himself or herself. In fact, many stories in the Bible appear to be arranged for rabbinical purposes. That is, they are meant to be read an interacted with in a group setting for religious and moral education. The story of Jonah, for example has lots of questions unanswered, and many opportunities for hearers to question and come to their own conclusions. This is not a bad thing. Sometimes in church we are too quick to tell people how to read a story and what to think of it. This can be a mistake. For example, in Galatians 2, Paul tells the story of how he chastised Peter and Barnabas for eating with Jews when members of the church of Jerusalem were present. In church, this story is often relayed as if we must accept the story as Paul being right and the others being wrong. However, if readers take the time to bring themselves into the story, many might discover that Paul’s behavior was not above reproach here. Perhaps some will not see the story as primarily Paul versus Peter, but the problems of not discussing things properly.
I would like to add a quote from a different section of the chapter:
Avoid being too dogmatic. We need to remember that a story can have many levels of meaning and new meanings will often suggest themselves as we take time to ponder and reflect upon them. Furthermore, other people will often see meanings that would never have occurred to us, and people from other cultures will often see a story in a totally different light, which can lead to a fascinating exchange of ideas. I think God gives us stories and says, ‘Well there you are. What do you make of that?’ Sincere there is such a tremendous richness in the stories of the Bible we should avoid giving the impression that there is one solitary monochrome meaning and, once you have explained that, you can go on to the next one.
Stories, like metaphors, have a wide range of meanings, although not infinite. When we say Jesus is the Good Shepherd, this metaphor has a rich diverseness to it that cannot be narrowed to a single meaning. If it could be narrowed to a single meaning, the metaphor would be unnecessary. The same is true with stories… as a rich collection of symbols and metaphors.
Of course, this provides a hermeneutical challenge. Centuries ago, scholars saw the Bible as have several layers of meaning, such as literal, spiritual, and allegorical. Present thinking is to see the Bible as having only one meaning… the literal. So when one reads a passage of Scripture, one must seek that one single meaning. While recognizing the dangers of allegorical interpretation (among others), stories, like metaphors, resist a single interpretation. Even focusing on “author intention” may not be enough. When I tell a story, I often have more than one message or interpretation… even for fictional stories. For non-fiction, my selection of the events I use and connect may limit the range of possible interpretations, but non-fiction has a special “muddiness” to it that even more so draws us into the story with important different perspectives. For example, why did Judas betray Jesus? Was he seeking to “force Jesus hand?” Was he disenchanted with the lack of direction of the “revolution?” Was he possessed by the devil? Was he simply greedy? The fact that the Bible doesn’t clearly tell us why may (as Walter Wangerin pointed out) in fact point out to us some acts are just inexcusable and unjustifiable.
Or maybe not.