Old Farmer Brown in the back pew has drifted off as soundly as Eutychus toward the end of a sermon, when suddenly comes the first whiff from the pulpit that a story is abrewin'-an anecdote, a shard of autobiography, or even a joke (crass cousin and truncated form of story). The farmer is roused awake.
To say that people like stories is like saying Jacques Cousteau liked a day at the beach. We imagine we enjoy stories as we enjoy a Snickers bar now and then, but there is something profound afoot. Who ever considers what atavistic forces draw us into a story's grip? What soul-imprinting makes us mesmerized by the trajectory of beginnings-middles-ends, and deeply satisfied by the structure of chaos proceeding to resolution?
The rookie writer learns that story is a good wedge into essay, the warm-up act for a more serious agenda. He thinks of story as a gimmick, a device, a prelude to his logical exposition of a subject, which is presumably the grownup part.
But what about our movies, novels, and the serialized escapades of co-workers' lives that we relish around the water cooler? Are we not awash in story all the time?
The politician is a storyteller, no slouch to Garrison Keillor. He doesn't talk to his constituents about war or taxes in the abstract. He tells a story (perhaps a tall tale) of how it all began, of how we got ourselves into this predicament-because of the opposition party. He casts a vision, the glorious sequel of how life will turn out if only we elect him.
My marriage is done now. And if you asked, I have a story, which I rehearse regularly, of how my marriage went and what it was all about. It has antagonists and protagonists, and I have honed it, over time, to a perfect internal consistency. It feels truer with many repeatings.
Story is how we learn theology. The way to appreciate how the Bible is written is to imagine how it is not written. Not a systematics textbook, not a manual for how to get saved. It is stories: trouble in Paradise discovered (Genesis), peace in Paradise restored (Revelation).
You can look at Jesus' penchant for storytelling two different ways. You can say He was unfortunately born into a culture of storytellers and so He did the best He could with primitive tools. Or you can say God knew what He was doing when He picked ancient Palestine for the setting of His great salvation, so that generations hence of cultural snobs, who thought they had outgrown stories "in this day and age," would be forced, in spite of themselves, to suckle on the marrow of parables, extracting wave after wave of riches.
My friend the Christian counselor said everybody has a story, a sort of personal saga. It is sometimes a fictional story. It is always a selective story. The counselee is the star. Satan told Eve she had the wrong story, and he magnanimously supplied a different one-with her in the center. The goal of good counseling is to help the counselee fit his story into the Bible's story. I myself have taken to praying the "Lord's Prayer" daily to realign my story-which had gotten out of focus over the previous few hours.
There is nothing more tragic than to walk around all your life in the wrong story-thinking yourself a knight-errant and mistaking windmills for giants, skinny stable horses for noble Rosinante, and unexceptional peasant girls for Dulcinea.
C.S. Lewis writes, "I can imagine no man who will look with more horror on the End than a conscientious revolutionary who has, in a sense sincerely, been justifying cruelties and injustices inflicted upon millions of his contemporaries by the benefits which he hopes to confer on future generations: generations who, as one terrible moment now reveals to him, were never going to exist. . . . The future Utopia had never been anything but a fantasy."
Reminding yourself of the real story is good for what ails you. If you've gotten too high and mighty, it reminds you that you are "dust." If you're feeling like dust, it reminds you of your glorious destiny.
"Awake, O sleeper" (Ephesians 5:14), and get with the real story.