There’s something compelling about a good story, isn’t there? Who’d have thought that a good story could come out of a 50 second video about a goldfish? I’ve been thinking about story this week, and spent some time looking at short stories, and I mean really short stories. There are a number of 1 minute stories on Youtube like the goldfish one. But there are even shorter stories. Carrie clued me in to two sentence horror stories. Like this one:
I begin tucking Johnny into bed and he tells me, “Daddy check for monsters under my bed.” I look underneath for his amusement and see him, another Johnny, under the bed, staring back at me quivering and whispering, “Daddy there’s somebody on my bed.”
That’s pretty good for two sentences. But when I think of compelling and engaging short stories, one that I think of is from the Pixar movie Up. In the first ten minutes of the film the story is told of Carl and Ellie, who meet as kids and grow old together as husband and wife. The power of their story brings you from laughter to tears in mere breaths.
There are things that get communicated through story that can only be communicated through story. I think this is why the central book of our faith is primarily a book of stories. The Bible begins with a story of how God created the world, in Christianity our two holiest days are Christmas and Easter, the story of Jesus coming into the world and of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Stories abound in scripture.
Today for our NT passage, we are reading another story, and this is a story about a man who tells a story. We’re going to read from Acts 6:8-7:1 and it picks up with a dispute among Jews, between Jesus’ followers and mainstream Jewish authorities.
6:8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit* with which he spoke. 11Then they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’
12They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth* will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’ 15And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
7:1 Then the high priest asked him, ‘Are these things so?’
I ended the passage here because what happens next is Stephen begins to tell a long story of the Jewish people, starting with Abraham, the Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and his journey to Egypt, the Hebrew people’s slavery in Egypt, Moses, the Exodus, through Joshua and through David. It’s a long story, an entire chapter of the Bible, a long chapter, 60 verses.
And what happens when Stephen gets to the end of his story? The Jewish authorities are outraged with what Stephen has said, and they kill him. What’s going on here? Let me suggest that if Stephen wasn’t such a good storyteller, they may not have killed him. There was a power in Stephen’s story that moved the people who was telling it to to violence.
Stories are powerful. Story can communicate in ways that explaining cannot. I can tell you to give to help people in need, but if I tell you the story of someone who is struggling it’s going to register with you more. We’ve all experienced this, but it’s been studied as well. Let’s just say your listening to a me explain scientific facts about storytelling, or to a PowerPoint presentation about it, bullet points and all. There are parts of the brain that get activated at moments like that – parts that process language, where we decode words, but there’s not a lot else going on in the brain when someone is simply explaining facts to us.
But if we are listening to someone tell a story…the language processing part of our brain is active, and so are other areas depending on what’s happening in the story. If someone is describing a wonderful meal that they ate, then our sensory cortex is active. This is the part of the brain that is active when we eat. It activates when we eat or when we hear someone sharing a story about eating.
Similar things happen if someone tells us about a dog’s soft fur, or the warmth of the summer sun. Or if someone is telling the story about skydiving, the feeling of jumping out of the moving plane, suddenly falling at great speed towards the earth, then in our brain our motor cortex lights up. Story engages more of our brain than simply explaining or lecturing.
This is why story can be so powerful – when you tell a story to a group of people, you are syncing their brains in a real way. You mention the smell of fresh baked chocolate cookies, and you are engaging the sensory cortex of every person listening. Often when people are engaged in listening to the same story they will even begin syncing their breathing with the story teller and consequently with other listeners.
And when we hear a story, we instinctively want to make connections, when we hear someone tell us about a time they were really scared, we being scanning our mental files for stories about when we were scared, when we hear a story about a great trip someone took, it’s likely that we will share a story about one of our trips. We want to connect with one another, and we get that stories of our experiences do that on multiple levels.
Story reaches us in a way that connects on multiple levels. I can tell you that forgiveness is powerful. I can tell you that forgiveness can provide a release, it can lift a burden. But you aren’t going to hear that the same way you would hear it from Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel as they tell the story of how Mary forgave Oshea for the murder of her only son.
Story is powerful. As I said before, this engagement with the story may have been what gotten Stephen killed, because he wanted to connect his listeners to the story he was telling, and he did so, but the connection he wanted was powerful but angering. Stephen was brought before the Jewish authorities because the Jewish followers of Jesus were being accused of departing from traditional ways of JudaismSo what Stephen does is tell stories from Jewish tradition, he begins a grand overarching story that shows God at work through Abraham, Moses, David, and others, but he also talks about the people that opposed God’s work, kings, pharaohs, at times even the Israelites
He tells a story of good guys and bad guys, he gets these fellow Jews connected to the story he is telling, a story they are familiar with and then he ends his story this way:
‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’
He ends his story of good guys and bad guys, by saying, “We, the followers of Jesus, we are the good guys, we are the ones who have stayed true just like Abraham, just like Joseph. You are the bad guys, like the Pharaoh, like the kings who opposed the prophets, like our ancestors in the desert who rebelled against God.”
He makes a powerful connection. They get what he is trying to say, they get preceisely the connection he is making. And they react to it. Violently.
There is power in story, and there are things that can be best communicated through story. I think this is especially true for faith. Just think about God, or try to, that’s kind of the problem isn’t it? We believe God is real, but we also believe that God can’t be contained by our thoughts. God is so much bigger than our words. God is so much bigger than any description we can come up with. And so we tell stories about God and how God has acted and continues to act in the world.
Have you ever had to explain a joke? If you have then you know that you’ve lost all chance of it being funny, because the humor isn’t in the explanation. It’s in the telling. That’s what God is like. God and God’s plan isn’t reducible to three clear and concise bulleted statements. God can’t be summed up with one creed or confession. One of the many things I love about the Presbyterian Church is that we use a variety of creeds and confessions and Affirmations of Faith. And look at the richness of the Biblical witness. The Bible is a library of stories. History, romance, intrigue, war, visions, parables, poetry.
We need stories. Not only because stories are the best way for us to learn about God and God’s will for us, but because stories help us to experience God. I love reading a book that immerses me in its plot and characters, because there comes a point where I know the people in the book pretty well. I can imagine what it might be like to hang out with them for an evening. There comes a point where I have been a part of their story and so I know more about them than just what the story says.
Every time I read or watch a production of Romeo and Juliet a get a little weepy. I cry for them because by through their story, I know them and I can feel the despair and sadness they are feeling. That’s how it is with God. If we hear enough of God’s story, then we can know and experience God in a way that goes beyond a simple description. Through story we can connect and know God on an intimate level.
And when we tell God’s story, when we tell stories of love, of compassion, of justice then we can share God in a way that is powerful.
My hope for us this day is that we can become master storytellers. And hopefully, our audience will be a little more receptive than Stephen’s audience. But I hope that we can tell God’s story with the same kind of power, because there are some things that can only be communicated through story.