Stories and Dialogue


Found a section of my old book Theo-storying that had stuff that I had forgotten about. I think I will have to update my book on Interreligious Dialogue (IRD) to include this. If I have time.

Another thing that affects the impact of a story is the respondent’s (or hearer’s) attitude about stories. Let’s return to the idea of responding to movies. Robert Johnson in “Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Engaging Culture)”3 speaks of different film responses.

  • Avoidance. Films are all bad. Best to stay away.

  • Caution. Films are often bad. Be careful to avoid any sort of heresy, or bad language or behavior.

  • Dialogue. Films speak for themselves. Critique and interact with the film on their own terms, not our own.

  • Appropriation. Films may have something important to tell us. Let’s be ready to listen and learn.

  • Divine Encounter. Films may provide us an epiphany or divine experience.

According to Johnson, these five attitudes describe five philosophies of critiquing movies. He notes that they fit into a spectrum where avoidance and caution are in the region of ethical critique. By that is meant that the critic looks at the movie regarding how moral is the behavior, visualizations, and scripting. If there is too much bad stuff in the movie, the movie is judged bad. Otherwise, it may be okay. Appropriation and Divine Encounter are on the other end, is where the critique is more aesthetic. Bad behavior and language may not be the main focus, but rather whether the film inspires and enlightens.

This, I believe, is a useful way of looking at films, at least from the standpoint of film critique. However, for individuals hearing stories, there needs to be some changes. We can keep the same spectrum. However, since this is a response attitude, rather than a philosophy for critique, there will be some differences.

Avoid    Caution    Dialogue    Appropriate     Encounter

|                   |                   |                   |                   |

<—————————————————————————>

Less Educative                                        More Educative

Less Doubt                More Doubt                Less Doubt

Further to the right on the spectrum the greater the tendency to accept the story as having educative value. The further to the left, the less presumption of educative value is given. The whole spectrum can be seen as sharing the attitude of the story having entertainment value. After all, a story without entertainment value probably is unnecessary… just replace it with facts and declarative sentences (or say nothing). Combining these makes the definitions change a bit.

  • Avoidance. Stories entertain, but should not be trusted to inform. Listen but don’t learn.

  • Caution. Stories entertain, but are not a good way to inform or educate. Perhaps they may have value as case studies or illustrations for difficult concepts.

  • Dialogue. Stories entertain, but they also provide an alternate perspective and experience. Interact with them and see what they have to say.

  • Appropriation. Stories entertain, but they also are an educational tool. We need to learn from stories.

  • Divine Encounter. Stories entertain, but they also inspire and transform. We need to hear God’s voice (or perhaps “divine wisdom”) coming through the story.

But Which Response Is Best?

If one is telling a story with the purpose of informing and inspiring the hearer, which response attitude is best? The immediate thought may be that Divine Encounter is best. And in one sense that may be true. It is nice when the respondent already starts from the presumption that what you have may be, not merely true but, the TRUTH. But I might suggest that Dialogue is a better starting point. Why?

Dialogue, the center of the scale is most likely the highest position of doubt and critical faculty. As one moves towards Avoidance, there is a lessening of doubt and critical faculty as one is more sure that the storyteller does not have something of value. Likewise, as one moves towards Divine Encounter, one is lessening doubt about the storyteller/story and lessening the critical faculty. Strong faith often comes from critical wrestling with doubt. It may not be desirable for the respondent to start from a lesser amount of critical faculty and doubt.

Take the example of the story of the Good Samaritan. An avoidance attitude is likely to lead the respondent to think that the Good Samaritan is a nice and pleasant story… but has no personal relevance or application. Divine Encounter attitude may lead to an uncritical acceptance of the story. That may sound good, but the uncritical acceptance may lead to a trite understanding (“It is nice to be nice to people”). Or, perhaps, the hearer will have an understanding of a deeper meaning, but not take time to see how to integrate the message with the hearer’s life. On the other hand, Dialogue means that one is open to hear the story, interact with the story, and “wrestle” with it. Elwood P. Dowd may have “wrestled with reality” for 35 years, but we can and should wrestle with stories. We grow through the process.

One should not minimize the concept of meditation or rumination. It is a cognitive and affective wrestling with the story. Two of the greatest defenders of the faith of the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, only came to faith through a long process of this sort of wrestling with truth.7 In the case of the Good Samaritan, what does it mean to truly love one’s neighbor as oneself, when one’s neighbor can be one who hates you? In the case of the the priest and Levite, is Jesus saying that religious piety should be set aside to help someone you don’t even know or like? (If you have read the Gospel Blimp by Joseph Bayly,8 one of the main characters begins going to church less often to invest time with a non-Christian friend on Sundays, to the chagrin of his Christian friends. Not completely a parallel story, but it does have elements of commonality.) If loving one’s neighbor includes friends, family, fellow believers, and enemies, is there any way in which one’s actions should differentiate these relationships? Are you TRULY loving your neighbor as yourself while you are reading this paragraph about loving one’s neighbors? The more you meditate, the more questions you are likely to have. Questions show that we are still learning, or at least open to learning.

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