“The whole story is the meaning.” – Flannery O’Connor
In college I worked at my university’s recruitment office and was often paired with the same young woman for office hours, we will call her “Kendra.” There were days with more downtime than others so we’d often bring books to read. One day I’d brought a book with a distinctly Christian title and Kendra asked me to tell her more about my “churchy book”. I saw it as an opportunity and shared the faith that informed the book.
She listened thoughtfully and respectfully, then paused before telling me her own story: “You know I remember when I was in middle school and I was reading a Star Wars novel. There were this, I dunno, two or three pages in the novel that talked about how religions were all pretty much fake and an attempt to control people or help them feel better. After I read that, I was pretty sure that’s what I thought of religion.”
I appreciated her candor that day. Still do, even as I still pray for her. And can only pray that perhaps the gospel seeds planted that day or since would come to fruition in her life – a life shaped by story. What Kendra shared with me was that her view of religion originated and/or was cemented by a Star Wars novel whose author and title she couldn’t recall. But those “two or three pages” of story impacted her enough in junior high to create an opinion that she carried at least into early adulthood.
This is true of us as a people and we increasingly talk about it as Christians – that we are a story-shaped people. But what stories are shaping us? And what do they mean? Are we telling the right stories or settling for shadows?
I was taught that any story that stands the test of time must have 1) a noble theme, (2) noble language, (3) it must speak across the ages, and (4) it must speak to the individual and call them to consider their own life and living in light of the story’s meaning. I don’t know that this was the intent of Kendra’s Star Wars novel but that story affected her for a lifetime.
When considering the stories we will live by, the ones that inform our life and living, I can think of few that fit that bill better than the collection of books we have in holy Scripture, comprised of nearly 2/3 narrative storytelling. This says something about how God views storytelling and how He uses it to shape His people’s view of Himself and themselves.
I believe that sound doctrine begins with story because that is how the Bible is built. And we are built as story people. And that says something about the meaning of story and its implications on our doctrinal life and living.
We too often try to treat stories like a precept. Like a New Testament letter or list of commandments. But they won’t conform to that and still be true to their meaning.
Let stories be stories. Keep them epic when you tell them. Don’t dissect them like you’re parsing a Greek word or putting together (or taking apart, again) Ikea furniture. They don’t work that way. YOU don’t work that way in your heart. Heart change doesn’t happen because you get a didactic list of moral precepts. Heart change happens when you hear a story that changes everything. That makes it all make sense.
Let stories be as bold, brash, and audacious as they were meant to be. Let them be emotional. Get swept up in them.
That’s why I’m a fan of biblical theology: as we walk through Scripture together we see God reveal Himself, we see the repetition of what He wants us to know about Himself, about us before Him, and about how we are to worship Him.
This theology is already there; we didn’t have to invent it. And there is great opportunity to discover it all over again, or maybe for the first time. The Bible’s stories give us meaning. These greatest stories tell us what it means to be human as they tell us about other humans following God and sharing faith. The Bible’s stories tell us what it means to be most alive, worshipping God fully as we were made to do.