When the king had sinned — a grievous and horrifying sin — the prophet approached him not with a denunciation nor even with a reasoned argument. The prophet brought a story. It was a story of a poor man who had one pet lamb which lived in his house and was loved by his children, of his rich neighbor who was possessed of abundant flocks and herds, and of how the rich neighbor took the poor man’s one treasured lamb and killed and ate it.
The king’s wrath burned against the cruelty of the rich man; he would see justice done! Then there came the blow of the prophet’s words: “You are that man.”
What is it about stories? A lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” and, instead of giving the sort of logical answer we might have expected, something along the lines of “The one who lives near you,” or even “The one who shows mercy,” Jesus answered that “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers . . . .” A story.
The Pharisees grumbled about Jesus eating with sinners, and He answered them: “There was a man who had two sons . . . .” A story.
His disciples came to Him for advice on how to live, and He launched into extended similes, “The kingdom of heaven is like . . . .” Stories.
We’re creatures of stories. We live stories, in an atmosphere of stories — all the things that came before us, all the things that we hope will come to us, all the things we hope will follow us. We delight in the extended “What if?” of daydreams and imagined scenarios, and in stories which let us step inside other “What if’s” — more than we can imagine.
Because of our capacity to participate in stories — the science that I mentioned a few days ago which shows that our brains respond to stories the same ways they respond to the real things — stories can get at our guts in ways that reasoned arguments cannot. And because they can get at our guts, they are powerful influencers and also powerful tools for communicating things that might otherwise be hard to explain.
The power of stories has caused many people to react against them: if they are such efficient and powerful communicators and influencers, they are liable to misuse; they may be dangerous. (They are dangerous.) Censorship blossomed, and, faced with an ever-growing array of stories with influences that tended to evil, many warned against all stories, insisted that only sober books, books of an improving nature — careful non-fiction — be read.
But they kept their Bibles. And their Bibles contain stories. Not only stories of people who really lived and the things they really did — though those tend often to be of a sufficiently unsavory nature to get other books containing such tales banned — but also stories that are fictional.
We tend to thing of “fiction” as synonymous with “untrue,” but it is safer to define it as “imagined” or “not factual.” For have you not found — I know I have found — that fiction can be true in a place deeper than facts and events-that-happened? When it strikes that true place, it changes us: it can make our wrath burn, it can convict of sin, it can encourage in trials, it can illumine in confusion.
We must handle stories carefully, yes, but they are worth our care. In them, sometimes, we get glimpses of ourselves, and of things larger than ourselves, things more beautiful than the pieces of world that we can see: these are worth glimpsing.
©2013 by Stacy Nott