Story Arcs and Ministry

Nice little article in the Atlantic Magazine,  “The Six Main Arcs in Storytelling, as Identified by an A.I.” by Adrienne Lafrance. (Click Here). It looks at some interesting research as far as how stories flow in terms of emotional arcs. That particular research can be seen HERE. There are many ways to categorize stories, but one can look at six main ones from an emotional standpoint.

Story Arcs

This is not the total limit of possibilities. For example, there can be Quadro-directional or more. In fact, many novels can look like a rollercoaster. Still many of them trend towards one of these types— or a long story with many sub-arcs.

Additionally, some stories can be seen as different depending on more specific details of the flow. For example, on www.honorshame.com, they talk about two common types of stories in the Bible: Guilt-Innocence Arc, and Shame-Honor Arc. Both of these stories are essentially variations of the “Man in a Hole” arc. In the case of Guilt-Innocence, the story restores the main character to the same condition as the start (same normal). In the case of Shame-Honor, the story brings the main character to a new, higher normal. Likewise, Kurt Vonnegut, in a youtube presentation referenced and attached to Lafrance’s article describes two types of stories: “Boy Meets Girl” and “Cinderella” stories. However, both would be described in the graph above as “Cinderella” Arcs. With “Boy Meets Girl” the main character starts out neutral and in the second movement dips below neutral. With “Cinderella” the main character starts low, and in the second movement probably does not dip below the starting condition.

Curiously, in the research referenced above, based on Project Gutenburg downloads, the three favorite arcs are:

Icarus

Oedipus

Man in a Hole

Man in a Hole is classic because it describes the classic plot. Normal, Problem, Resolution to the Problem, Normal. We love people who get into trouble and then get out of it.

Oedipus and Icarus are harder to understand because the end is “sad.” But people do like cautionary tales, as well as people who “get what’s coming to them.”

Rags to Riches and Riches to Rags are less popular, perhaps because they lack the classic tension of a normal plot. In one the problem exists before the beginning of the story. In the second, the problem comes into the middle of the story, but without a resolution. Or perhaps the issue is that they are just too simple. They don’t resonate with real life. Good things happen to good people may seem “right” but doesn’t feel that much in touch with reality… or even if viewed as normative, is not all that interesting. The same can be said about bad things happening to bad people. Real life ebbs and flows more. A athletic event is one in which the winner appears to be in doubt until the very end.

One reason that parables in the Bible appear to be successful is that they avoid the unidirectional story— the first become the last, and the last become the first. The one who is supposed to be the hero acts like the villain– while the one we expect to be the villain, becomes the hero.

Stories that are told for purposes of ministry should take this to heart. A lot of preachers like unidirectional stories (Victory stories… essentially Rags-to-Riches). Perhaps they think the listener cannot handle more complexity or nuances than this… but they would be wrong. The story should not be unidirectional— simple and expected. The story should resonate with the interests of the hearer. This resonance doesn’t necessarily mean giving the hearer what he or she expects. After all, one thing the hearer wants is to be surprised.

Preaching is a bit of a dying art… but its death is more of an act of murder than of natural causes. Preachers remove the narrative from sermons to be replaced by propositional statements, along with a few very predictable unidirectional illustrations to “drive the point home.”

I remember a sermon/lecture in which the speaker was speaking on raising up children to follow God. It was a propositional sermon with several bits of advice. The illustrations were all built on the same story line:  I did the right thing and my children became better than they were. My only real memory of the sermon was how uninteresting and uninspiring it was.

There is a better way.

Thinking of Fire and Obsolescence

Back in the 1800s were two small companies that made buggy whips… Smith Brothers and Jones Brothers. The vision statement of Smith Brothers was “We seek to make the best buggy whips in the world.” Jones Brothers had a vision statement “We provide navigational control solutions for the world.” The first vision statement makes a lot of sense, while the second one is rather strange… correct?

However, back in the 1890s the395656 horseless carriage (automobile) was perfected and that began the demise of the horse-drawn buggy. What happened? The Smith Brothers company kept growing, for awhile, gaining market share in the buggy whip market. The Jones Brothers market share of the buggy whip market kept shrinking. BUT… this was because Jones Brothers began developing steering and control devices for automobiles. So over time Smith’s Brothers became the dominant company in a dying market, while Jones’ Brothers moved into strong niches in automobile, boat, and eventually airline navigation and controls.         

          -Story by Clarke Graham (former VP of Engineering at Sperry Marine)

This is one of only two things I remember from my Orientation Training at Sperry Marine (now part of Northrop-Grumman). The other thing was a note I got from a fellow new hire. The note said,

What are the following?   “Hades”    “Gehenna”       “Tartarus”?

I am not sure why he decided to ask me that. I soon found that he was part of a heterodox group that has roots in Christianity. My response was:

“Abode of the dead”     “Place of Torment”       “Infernal Place”

But why are these the only two things I remember?

The first probably had two reasons for being memorable. First, stories are naturally more memorable than propositional statements. Second, the story had a more general applicability. While most of the orientation had to do with how to fit into the work environment of Sperry, this story was about more generally useful in life. It is about vision.

The second was that I was asked caught me for two reasons as well. First, it was an unusual question directed at me, as opposed to telling me something that I may or may not be interested in. Second, it happened to be a Biblical topic and so was one that I was interested in.

That was over 20 years ago. I suppose that tells me that if I am trying to catch someone’s interest,

  1.  Tell stories rather than share facts.
  2. Choose universal themes, rather than targeted topics.
  3. Ask questions that interest the other, rather than tell things that interest me.
  4. Say things that get the other to think a lot and hopefully talk a lot.

Seward Hiltner Quote on Stories and Principles

“In Christianity and Judaism, which have beliefs and principles but regard them as having emerged from history and events, expressing the faith may take either of two general forms: narrating and interpreting the events, or describing and clarifying the principles. Thus the dramatic as well as the expository form of expression is inherent in these two faiths. Probably the most effective communication is achieved with some combination of the two methods. Without reference to events, principles tend to lose their connection with actual situations. Yet mere storytelling without principles to relate the meaning of the old event to the new situation makes the expression nostalgic rather than salvatory.”

                -Seward Hiltner (Theological Dynamics, A

Theostorying: Reflecting on my Reflections

I wrote a little book called “Theo-storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture.” It wasn’t for formal publication. It was just an exercise in my own theological reflections. I put it up on this site (under “My Books”) and on Scribd. I reread it in the last couple of days and was pleasantly surprised that I still liked it. It has some misspellings and some awkward grammar at times. Some things I would change if I decided to revise it. Generally, I feel it stands up fairly well, however. The book is now available on Amazon… HERE.Cover 1

But it got me thinking. I used (sort of coined) the term “theostorying” but what does the term mean? In chapter 2 I play with the idea of definition, but never really come up with one. Further, the more I think about it, the more inadequate what I wrote in chapter 2 seems. So here are some thoughts at least for the moment.

Theostorying is “the act of creative reflection on God, and our associated relationships with Him and each other, crafted artistically into the medium of the story, so as to allow the listener to join in the reflection through experiencing the story, being challenged by the story, and inspiring further questions.”

Let’s work through the proposed definition.

1.  Creative reflection. Theostorying should neither be a rehashing of dogma, nor be heterodox. It should, however, push and challenge our understanding of truth. It should look at theology from a different perspective. It should provide a new voice to old questions, as well as new questions.

2. Crafted artistically. Storying (both the creation of stories and the telling of stories) is an art. Storying in this case would normally be as a short story or anecdote rather than as a novel or epic. It should draw interest and entice the listener in. But regardless of the form, creativity and imagination are required to create the story and transmit the story.

3. Medium of the story. The story is the medium but it is also inextricably intertwined with the message. If one ends with “the moral of the story is” or “the lesson we can learn from this is”, such a lesson would only be one prepackaged idea drawn from the story… not the sum purpose of the story. If the story could be adequately summed up in one sentence, the story does not adequately inspire  theological reflection.

4. Experiencing the story. We are given the opportunity to be drawn into the story. We tend to learn best through reflection on our own life experiences (and sometimes through the life experiences of others). A good story allows us to join into the story… often from the perspective of different characters. Doing so, we experience, reflect, and learn.

5. Challenged by the story. A good story doesn’t just tell us what we already know, or what we already believe, or what we already believe we know. It challenges us culturally, theologically, and personally. <An example of a personal challenge: The parable of the ewe lamb, challenged King David. The story did not challenge him culturally or theologically… he knew theologically and culturally what should be done and the story did not question that. Rather, it challenged him personally when he was told that he was experiencing the story from the wrong perspective. He was experiencing it as the kingly judge, when he should be experiencing it from the perspective of the rich neighbor.>

6. Inspire further questions. Good theostories don’t just give the full answer. They inspire questions. They might inspire questions because the story seems unfinished, or because the story doesn’t explain why things went in one direction versus another, or because it suggests conclusions that are personally uncomfortable.

What are some good questions associated with theostories?

A.  What next? In the Bible, we don’t know what happens to Jonah after chapter 4 of the book. We don’t know (for sure) what happens to Japheth’s daughter. What did the Prodigal Son’s elder brother do next. In missions we often do case studies where the situation is set up but the ending is intentionally unfinished. We are supposed to place ourselves within a specified role in the story and say what we would do next and why. It is highly educational and far superior to memorizing a bunch of rules.

B. What if? What if pharoah had let the people of Israel go without a fight? What if Judas had confessed and asked for forgiveness? What if Job did curse God? What if Zedekah had stood up to the power elite in Judah?

C.  Why? Why did Judas decide to betray Christ? Why did God place enticing fruit in the garden and then tell His inquisitive creations not to eat it? Why did God save us through a blood sacrifice? (Was God “handcuffed” into doing it that way, or did He choose that way as a lesson for us?)

D.  Who? Whose perspective do you connect to in the story. What if you placed yourself in a different perspective. What if you were not one of the Israelites invading Canaan, but a person living in Jericho desperately trying to protect his family? What if you were the Levite, in the story of the Good Samaritan, hurrying to your next appointment (perhaps afraid of being attacked, with no medical skills)… how would you respond seeing the dying (possible dead) man… honestly?

Making Good Stories that Teach.

I have talked a bit before about stories that have a mythic or parabolic function. I feel that it is more useful to define myths and parables in terms of their function within a specific culture rather than their structure. If a story is resonant with a specific culture and challenges beliefs or assumptions in that culture, it has a parabolic function. If it is resonant with a specific culture but supports or reinforces the culture’s beliefs or assumptions, it has a mythic function.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, it is entirely possible that a story may be relevant (valuable or important) in a culture rather than resonant (connecting with the imaginations of people in a culture in a uniquely powerful way). One can suggest, then, two other categories. If a story is challenging to a culture and is relevant, it might be described as revelatory in function. And if a story relevant but not really challenging to the culture, it could be said to have an illustrative function. These are how I would use the terms at least.

In the end, all of these stories can be used to teach… to instruct. But how does one make a story that can be used in a missional or ministerial environment that has value to teach. This is not always easy and many stories that one might think should be instructional are not.

In the 1800s (not just then of course) there were a considerable number of stories that were written to be instructional, particularly in the area of morals. In part this was because of Readers that were published for school children. The McGuffey Reader was well known, but there were others. I have a Sanders Union 6th Reader published in 1860s. It has many moral stories in it. They have value to a point, but it is not that surprising that many of the shorter stories that came out of the 1800s that are remembered today had a minimal amount of instructional value. Works by Lewis Carroll or Edgar Allan Poe for example (and perhaps one might include work by Rudyard Kipling) focused on action, horror, or adventure, but not so much on instruction.

Why is that? Is it because we live in a “depraved time” where we reject moral instruction? Perhaps, yet many works with a moral/ethical message are accepted and resonate. Charles Dickens’ works from the 1800s are appreciated today despite, or perhaps even because of, a strong social and moral message. People pay (in fact many have paid multiple times) to read or watch the origin story of Spiderman… a story with a strong ethical message.

Perhaps it is best said that if a moral story fails, it may not be that the moral is rejected… but that the story is rejected. So what can be done to help ensure that the story is a strong vehicle to support and enhance moral instruction? I am not a student of storytelling but here are some musings.

Story graph

  1. Consider starting from a familiar story structure and then twist it. For example, one story structure is the coming of age story, or hero’s journey. A child grows up and must leave the security of home and hearth to prove himself in the world. After considerable struggles and challenges, the child succeeds and returns to a hero’s welcome. Mulan is a twist where the child on the heroes journey is female. A similar story structure can take a different direction. The child leaves in rebellion and suffers the difficulties of the real world and returns sadder but wiser. The Prodigal Son is a classic form of this story while Pinocchio is the story form with a twist.
  2. Seek to draw the listener into the story. This can be done by making the characters, the plot, or the context the listener can connect with. The Spiderman origin story follows a structure like the structure of the Prodigal Son. It also has a main character (High School to College, young man, nerdy, and picked on) that is similar to the reader at the time it was published in comic book form.The story of Joseph, especially the part when his brothers came to Egypt to ask for help, really invites the listener to consider what he or she would (or should) do in response to betrayal. The story of Pandora also invites personal involvement. Of course, the storyteller must help the listener get into the story. If the storyteller says, “Pandora was given a beautiful box and told not to open it. Later that day she opened it and…,” the listener hasn’t been given the opportunity to enter the role.
  3. Utilize common roles and contexts. One can drift considerably away from reality as long as there are familiar aspects that one can relate it to. Let me give a silly example of this… an old joke that I (oddly) have always liked.

    A duck walked into a tavern and sat up at the bar. The bartender asked what the duck wanted. The duck said, “Got any grapes?”

    “No. sorry.” replied the bartender. The duck departed.

    The next day, the duck returned, sat at the bar and when asked said, “Got any grapes?”

    “No. This is a tavern. Why don’t you go to the market!” And the duck departed.

    This happened several days, and you can imagine the bartender getting more and more angry at this stupid duck. Finally, after a week of this happening, the frustrated bartender shouted,”You ask me for grapes again and I will nail your bill to the bar here!” The duck departed. Several days the duck stayed away but a week later the duck returned and sat up on the barstool. The bartender, quite annoyed, said suspiciously, “What do you want?”

    “Got any nails?” Taken aback, the bartender said, “Well, uh, no. I don’t have any nails.”

    Responded the duck, “Got any grapes?”

This odd story has several elements that make it unbelievable. A duck as a main character. A duck that talks. A duck that wants grapes. A duck that wants grapes at a bar. A bartender that doesn’t seem to be all that surprised to be talking to a serving a duck. Yet the scenario of someone going into a tavern and making a request, even a strange request, to a bartender is quite familiar. The response of the bartender (trying to be courteous and gradually drifting to anger and frustration) seems pretty familiar. The familiar elements provide the structure on which the unfamiliar (even ridiculous) elements can be attached to. In fact the juxtaposition of the normal and the absurd adds to the story.

  1. Provide shock in context. One way is to have Divine Truth be discovered in the mundane or even profane. In the story of Jonah, the prophet of God was shamed by the godly piety demonstrated by the pagan sailors, and the residents of a pagan city. The shocking contrast forces the hearer to recognize that, despite our tendency towards bigotry, God is a Universal God and loves all of His creation.Sometimes the setting itself forces one to face the importance of the message. Here in the Philippines, a very memorable advertisement was placed on TV. It appeared to be taking place in a slum or perhaps even a squatter’s community in Manila. There was a large middle-age Caucasion man walking through these streets (a strange sight. What does he want?) He calls over a young boy and takes his hand and starts walking with him (a shameful shameful thing. The Philippines is a center for sex trade, including for foreign pedophiles). Through narrow dark passages in the community they walk (why doesn’t anyone do anything to stop this. Doesn’t anyone care about this child?) Finally they come to a door and go in. It is a classroom full of young children. He is part of a program that teaches children from destitute families. The message… the need to care for these children and save them from a cycle of poverty and abuse… is made more clear by the initial misinterpretation of the plot.
  2. Hit the emotions strongly. Of course, one doesn’t want it to devolve into a morality play. But while facts provide information, emotions provide meaning. “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Anderson provides a powerful emotional punch without falling into the trap of gratuitous melodrama. The Parable of the Ewe Lamb (as told by the Prophet Nathan) uses emotion to draw the listener in, and then uses a switch at the end to act as an end-around on the defenses of the hearer.
  3. Humor helps. Of course, humor for its own sake doesn’t do much. But humor works at the emotional level and helps make the story memorable and interesting. Of course, humor here should be thought of in broad terms. Humor includes running jokes, shock, irony, hyperbole, understatement and more. Dante’s Inferno could easily have devolved into melodrama and morality play. However, Dante masterfully incorporated various elements of humor into the story.
  4. Clarify the message. Most stories have ambiguity. Is the Good Samaritan a story about identifying and loving one’s neighbor, or a warning not to walk on dangerous roads? The message needs to be made clear. Consider the story of the duck and the bar. There is no underlying message. But suppose there was… what would it be? Be like the duck and don’t give up? Don’t talk to ducks? Don’t look for grapes at at tavern?

I would welcome other guidance and hints for good stories that teach.

See Book:  Theostorying