In Defense of Story
Before literature, there was storytelling; and before storytelling, there was simply story.
Story when it was raw and still in the ground. Story before it could be named, existing deep in our being. Story when it was the human experience itself. And then, someone grabbed it by its leaves and pulled, until finally it snapped at the roots and we held its form in our hands.
At its birth, storytelling was a living body of exclusively verbal narrative, known only through what I like to imagine as the grandest ever game of Telephone. Story became an heirloom, by which people in possession of it could navigate life—without all the trial and error. Story was, quite literally, live-saving.
But while humans have a survival instinct, we also have a bent for creativity. This allowed stories to be vibrant as a perfectly crafted supper plate—a winning combination of delight and sustenance.
Today people take in story mostly for the experience. I’ll be the first to admit that I end plenty of my days on the couch with my husband and Netflix. I’ve also been known to get caught in the political seastorm that is election year (still gasping, but ashore and heading inland). We are creatures of fast facts and rapid results, and the more knowledge we gain, the more productive we feel.
But at some point that gets exhausting, and we need to find our footing.
I wonder whether all of our Tweeting and Instagramming is actually robbing us of a true experience with story—the kind of story that is refreshing to our souls and useful for living. Story offers us something digestible that won’t overwhelm. Though (like so much of our culture today) story now is an echo of what it once was, it is still everywhere, in the raw, happening all around us. And it’s ripe for harvest. So how can we reclaim it for what it truly is? Here are a few ideas:
Ask a relative, old school style.
You don’t need to dive into the Epic of Gilgamesh in order to get reacquainted with your roots. If you are fortunate enough to still have a living grandparent, ask them about their young life. Otherwise, ask someone else’s grandparent. Do it soon because you may not get another chance.
If necessary, look past ideas that seem rooted in antiquity or bias. Tune out the punditry, and absorb the truths of the stories as they emerge. You will feel yourself getting closer to the cool, loamy grounding of your origins.
Favor storyline, not snapshot.
A Google search will give you quick and, many times, fractured answers. Similarly, we are quick to compare our lives with that of our Facebook friends, using very limited information like Beautiful photo + Clever caption = What am I doing wrong. Recognizing that there is a bigger story allows us to understand far greater depth of a person than their feed would otherwise demonstrate.
Jesus offers us prime examples of this throughout the Gospels. People would ask him questions like, “Can you make me rich and famous someday?” and “How can I get to Heaven by doing the least amount of work possible?” He would often respond with a parable that both answered the question and exposed how much the asker had to learn.
So often the perfect answer is woven into the storyline. If Jesus had simply said, “Take this road to this intersection, then turn right,” there would be no context for the route. We would have nothing to do but follow direction. And Jesus wasn’t about that. He appealed to our humanity by always appealing to both the mind and the heart. And He did this with story.
Notice the divine details.
Every story has embedded within it concrete details that color and enhance the human experience. Sometimes they can even offer reprieve or beauty amidst a difficult situation. But they are notoriously tricky to spot, especially when one isn't looking for them.
When my husband was a teenager, a friend invited him to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. But to his surprise, the scenario involved a slew of people he had never met before. They drank excessively and decided everyone should climb to the top of a billboard—patriotic novelties in hand—overlooking downtown Saint Paul. My husband found himself feeling apprehensive at best, several dozens of feet in the air. He remembers the group hurling illegal fireworks at passing cars, yelling profanity after profanity. The divine detail here was the billboard itself. It was one of those “Can you hear me now?” ads for Verizon Wireless—a comical addition to an otherwise average story of tomfoolery.
I think divine details are carefully placed by God, who knows the past, present, and future, and Who speaks to us artfully, not harshly. The next time you are in the middle of an experience, take some time to notice your surroundings. You might be amazed at what God is saying to you.
Reside in spaces of awe.
There’s a magic that happens when a person is attuned to story that can actually transform the mind to be less susceptible to modern distractions. Think of it as your cultural immunity.
Madeleine L’Engle said, “Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.” The panoramic view that story lends us has immeasurable potential for wisdom, so when you notice a great story happening in your own life, pause. Rest there a while, and let it take root.