Forming Faith Blog

The Power of Stories

What are the power of stories in our lives? (An image of wooden blocks with letters spelling the word story.)
My Need for Stories

When I was growing up, there was nothing I liked more than to curl up with a good book. When I was captivated by a story, I would basically ignore everything else (just ask my mom). Even if I was away from a book, I would make up a story myself, often inserting myself as a character in whatever book I was currently enamored with.

Let me be honest. As a full-fledged adult, nothing has really changed, other than I am responsible for my own bedtime (a big mistake when I have a book). I told bedtime stories to my kids when they were young and still read a “family” book aloud. My original career goal was to become a children’s novelist (which I still haven’t given up on). In fact, my work now still involves stories. Our Living the Word: Teaching God’s Story, and the Narrative Lectionary off which it is based, has at its core the belief that there is a central, important, story running through Scripture (more on that next week).

What Is a Story?

If you’ve read my blog before, you might have noticed that I like to define my terms. Those who study and teach such things have a list of things that constitute a story (e.g. characters, setting, plot, conflict, and theme). When we are talking more generically about stories (or narratives) in our lives, the first three elements are supreme. A story is when someone (character) somewhere (setting) does and experiences stuff (plot). Outside of an artistic medium like writing, there isn’t always a central conflict or easily identified theme, but more on that later.

Stories and Our Brains

While my desperate need for stories might be acute, the desire for stories is universal. The need to receive and tell stories is built into our brains. We remember stories better than facts. The same parts of the brain are used whether we are experiencing something in real life or hearing/reading a story about it. Stories are how we think and how we organize our thoughts.

Stories vs. Our Stories

At this point, I’m going to transition from talking about stories in general (including those we enjoy in books, television, movies, etc.) to our particular stories. While I may be a big fan of superhero stories, I don’t actually believe that they reflect the world as it actually is. “My” story, instead, is the story I accept to be true of my life and the world. Who are the important characters in the world? (E.g. is God one of them?) What events are important and what do they mean? What are the overarching themes (meanings) in life? Are there central conflicts in my life and the world? This acceptance can be a conscious act of claiming a story, or it can be a passive and subconscious acceptance of a story given to us by others.

How We Understand the World

Culture (or cultures) are learned and passed down through stories. The larger stories that connect us are sometimes called master narratives (allowing us to generalize and state things like “The ancient Greeks thought…” or “Christians believe…”).* This master narrative generally explains who we are, what the world is like, and what is our place in the world. It is this larger story (or stories) that shape how we see and experience the world. The stories we accept are a huge part of our worldview, our lens. It is through this that we see meaning, or lack thereof, in the events we observe or experience. Our identity, values, and purpose are in part formed by the story (or stories) we accept as our own.

Connection and Division

Stories can connect us to other people. Not only do people bond over the love of a book or series (like the Harry Potter or Star Wars fandoms), but we can more easily bond with those who are a part of the same master narrative (culture, belief system, etc.). Conversely, division and conflict easily arise when people interact with those who are a part of different narratives. Think of what can happen when people of different religions or cultures clash.

The Need for Stories

For various reasons, many people have rejected or never been exposed to the master narratives that previously defined whole peoples and their cultures. Since portions of historical and cultural narratives can be life-draining and oppressive to some (especially minorities and outsiders), this can be a necessary and healthy step. However healthy or unhealthy it is to reject a master narrative, this still leaves a vacuum in our lives. And, nature abhors a vacuum. Even without a conscious decision, we will naturally fill that story-vacuum with another story or collection of stories.

Faith and Story

Within our religious lives, the word “faith” can have several different meanings (discussed more in-depth in a previous post). Primarily, the faith we espouse is a trusting relationship with God through Jesus Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit. Key to this relationship is the acceptance of a particular belief system (story, narrative) which answers the questions of who we are and what is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. The answers to these questions together form your (personal) master narrative. And, a relationship with God (from a human perspective) is founded in the faith narrative we claim.

Faith-forming Stories

Returning to the topic of faith formation that this blog is based on, we can see that our goal in the church is to share a particular story, the story of God revealed most fully in Jesus Christ. It is, therefore, our job as faith formation leaders not so much to teach facts but to tell the engaging stories that together form the overarching story of God. We then can teach participants how to see their lives in God’s story and to tell their own stories. Because a well-told story can change your life.

God’s blessings on your holy work!

Gregory Rawn, Publisher

*Any generalizations are false when we try to make them a rule or expectation for every member of the group under discussion. As we know too well, not every Christian believes the same things, no matter how small of a group you are talking about. This means (in my usage, at least) that there are actually many different versions of a particular master narrative. Sometimes it is most accurate or helpful to look closely at these different versions and sometimes it is acceptable to discuss the more general “master” narrative as a single story.

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