The Case for Story Telling

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Pastor Dan Miller's picture
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The Case for Story Telling

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Cynthia Pearl Maus packs a world of insight into a short space when she says: “You may have tangible wealth untold, caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you could never be; I know someone who told stories to me” (in David Larsen’s Telling the Old, Old Story, p. 13). For reasons I cannot fully explain, those lines detonated as an existential sunburst in my soul the first time I read them. Tears welled up in my eyes; in part, I suppose, because I read them as a father who tells stories to his children. I suspect my response was also owing to the fact that my heavenly Father tells stories to me, and his stories have enriched my life beyond measure.

“Richer than I you could never be; I know someone who told stories to me.” Maus certainly means to say that stories are told to children who are loved. And that is right. But I think she is saying something more. She recognizes the singular contribution story-telling can make to the development of moral character, psychological stability, intellectual depth and similar soul-shaping inheritances. Stories provide children with roots—teaching and grounding them in transcendent realities. Stories shape souls, who steer cultures and define eras.

By creative design we are programmed to thrive on stories. Elie Wiesel is quoted on the same page in Larsen’s book as saying: “God made man because He loves stories” (emphasis mine). That statement walks just as well on its head: God made stories, because he loves man. The God of the Bible is a story-telling God who graciously roots his people in the truth, motivates them to live righteously, and comforts their hearts by means of stories.

It is instructive to note how bullish the Bible is in its use of narratives and parables to communicate transcendent truth. God is equally bullish on propositional, dogmatic assertion, to be sure. But even the casual reader recognizes that God addresses a barrelful of ethical and metaphysical issues by the less than direct means of story-telling (consider, for instance, the mileage humanitarianism has gained from the parable of the Good Samaritan, or the theological implications the Apostle Paul draws from Gen. 25:21-23 in Rom. 9:6-18).

It is further instructive to realize that the Bible as a whole reads like a story. The opening line, “In the beginning…” anticipates a corresponding “in the end.” And the last chapters of the Bible do not disappoint, for here “the end folds back on the beginning,” as James Orr put it (The Problem of the Old Testament, p. 32).

Unlike the sacred books of other world religions, the Christian Scriptures are progressive in nature. Reality according to the Bible is not illusory, nor is history viewed as a repeating drama of fatalistically determined or chaotically random events with no particular purpose or goal in view. Nor is the Bible the collective musings of a single sage. Rather, the Bible forms a unified, coherent and progressive message told by many voices over many centuries, thus revealing that the story-line of history is authored by God. Through the ages, God sequentially reveals His will and progressively unsheathes His divine glory for all to see (cf. Ps. 102:18-27).

As a story-writing, story-telling being, God fittingly calls His people to emulate Him. As Moses rehearses God’s law with Israel, he instructs his hearers:

When your son asks you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your son, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand… that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes. To fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive as we are this day.” (ESV, Deut. 6:20-24)

God knew Hebrew children were going to ask questions about aspects of Mosaic Law. God’s counsel to Hebrew parents was not to respond with a measured: “Because God is God and that’s just the way it is. Our job is not to question the Creator but simply to obey Him.” Not that such counsel is always inappropriate, but the fundamental approach of the story-telling God is otherwise. In contrast to the “ours-is-not-to-question-why” approach, Scripture commends a different tack: “That is a very good question, my child. Come, sit down with me under this olive tree. I want to tell you a story… A long time ago, your ancestors were forced into slavery by a cruel Pharaoh in Egypt…”

Parents and teachers and all who desire to influence younger people for Christ need to take careful note here. God is instructing us as communicators to realize that it is, in part, by re-telling the acts of the Lord in history that the next generation is morally equipped to face the future and to persevere in the faith. Children certainly need to learn the explicit commands of God’s Word. But parents who ransack the Bible as if it were little more than an encyclopedia of proof-texts to provide divine law for every inch of their children’s spiritual journey are missing something vital. They need to learn to read and teach the Bible holistically—as a story of God’s fatherly relationship with His children. Such a conception of Scripture is necessary to demonstrate that divine laws are not arbitrary, but rooted in divine love.

Blessed were those Hebrew children whose parents told them stories. And rich is that church and that family that roots its experience in the larger, redemptive story of sovereign grace—their story rooted in His-story—for that story, unlike any other, transforms hearts for all eternity.


Dan Miller has served as the Senior Pastor of Eden Baptist Church since 1989. He graduated from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College in 1984 and his graduate degrees include the MA in history from Minnesota State University, MDiv and ThM from Central Baptist Theological Seminary and DMin from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Dan is married to Beth and the Lord has blessed them with four children: Ethan, Levi, Reed and Whitney.

Susan R's picture
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Stories teach

Stories also teach empathy, something children often lack, and is also a characteristic that is difficult to impart, since we protect our kids from sorrow, danger, abuse, etc… With stories, they can mentally/emotionally ‘enter’ dire situations safely and learn basic coping skills and compassion for others. Stories in Scripture are filled with heartache, sin and its consequences, and sacrificial love. So much more effective to reach the heart than a list of do’s and don’ts.

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