In my final two years of high school, I failed English. This is an unusual thing to hear coming from a qualified English teacher and professional writer.
How did I go from loathing English in high school to loving literature and creative writing as an adult? Simply put: the Bible.
After my conversion from atheism, I became intensely focused on understanding what this God-thing was all about. The calculated risk of committing to Christianity meant that I next wanted to understand it beyond my initial skirmishes of lost arguments.
That led me to an academic study of the Bible.
The Bible is an immense and sprawling narrative and the stories it contains hold pride of place in the way God chooses to reveal God’s way to us. In both the Old and New Testaments, “story” is the primary means of communication.
Thankfully, everyone understands a good story. They are accessible. You don’t need an academic degree to understand them. Disney has built a massive commercial empire around them. All of us are enthralled by the magnetic pull of a good story.
But there is another reason for the appropriateness of story as a major means of bringing us God's Word. Story doesn't just tell us something and leave it there; story invites our participation.
A good storyteller gathers us in. We feel the emotions, get caught up in the drama, identify with the characters, see aspects of life we hadn’t noticed before and realise there is more to life than we had yet explored. If the storyteller is good, our minds open up.
Of course, not all stories are good. Some lack honesty. Propaganda attempts to enlist us in a cause or bully us into stereotyping responses.
By contrast, the Bible's stories are starkly honest. They respect our freedom. They don't manipulate us, don't force us. They show us a spacious world in which God creates and saves and blesses.
It does this first through our imaginations and then through our faith. Imagination and faith are close cousins here – they offer us a place in the story, invite us into this large narrative that takes place under the broad skies of God's purposes in contrast to the inconsequential gossip of the week. They invite us in as participants in something larger than our self-defined needs, in something truer than our culture-stunted ambitions. We enter these stories and recognise ourselves as participants, whether willing or unwilling, in the life of God.
This needs saying because we live in an age when story has been pushed from its front-line prominence to a bench on the sidelines. We prefer information over story. We typically gather impersonal (pretentiously called "scientific" or “theological") information, whether doctrinal or philosophical or historical, in order to take things into our own hands and take charge of how we will live our lives. And we commonly consult outside experts to interpret the information for us.
But we don't live our lives by information. We live them in relationships in the context of a community of people – each person an intricate bundle of experience and motive and desire -- and of a personal God, who cannot be reduced to formula or definition, who has designs on us for justice and salvation. Information-gathering and consultation of experts leave out nearly everything that is uniquely us: our personal histories and relationships, our sins and guilt, our moral character, our attitude and response to God.
Telling a story is the primary verbal way of accounting for life the way we live it in actual day-by-day reality. There are no (or few) abstractions in a story – story is immediate, concrete, relational and personal. And so when we lose touch with our lives, our souls, our God-imaged lives, story is the best way of getting us back in touch again. Which is why God's Word is given, for the most part, in the form of story. And it is a vast, over-reaching, all-encompassing story.
The Jesus-way is to tell a story and invite us in, "Live like this – this is what it looks like to be human in this God-made and God-loved world; this is what is involved in becoming and maturing as a human being."
We don't have to fit into prefabricated moral and mental or religious boxes before we are admitted into the company of God. We are taken seriously just as we are and given place in His story -- for it is, after all, God's story. None of us is the leading character in the story of our lives. God is the larger context and plot in which all our stories find themselves.
A Little Help from Our Friends
There are a number of books and films depicting the lives of saints who grappled with the reality of God in their lives. We can look to them for inspiration and encouragement as we make our own way through life:
- Butler's Lives of the Saints: Concise Edition, Revised and Updated 1991. Editor Michael Walsh. Harper San Francisco; Revised edition (1991)
- Saintly Companions: A Cross-Reference of Sainted Relationships by Fr. Vincent O’Malley. (1995)
- Warriors of God: The Great Religious Orders and Their Founders by Walter Nigg (1959)
- The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints by Jacobus de Voragine (Author), William Granger Ryan (Translator), Eamon Duffy (Introduction) (2012)
- Saint Philip Neri: I Prefer Heaven (2010) – This Italian movie (available with English subtitles) features the 16th-century saint known for his great faith and wonderful sense of humour.
- Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999) – This film tells the story of a Belgain priest and missionary who served people suffering from leprosy in the Kingdom of Hawaii in the 19th century.
- Romero (1989) – The late Raul Julia stars as the Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, an advocate for the poor who spoke out against the injustices and crimes committed in the Salvadoran civil war.
- Therese (1986) – This French film captures the faith of Therese Martin, the "Little Flower”, who entered a Carmelite monastery at the age of 15, where she lived a simple life of prayer and intimacy with God.
- Joan of Arc (1948) – Starring Ingrid Bergman, this film tells the story of the young French heroine who heard the call of God to the King of France wage war against England and Burgundy.
This article is part of Faith Journey, a newsletter from the National Centre for Evangelisation.