Truth and Story
“Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house…”
Several years ago we had the opportunity of taking a family holiday in the Netherlands over Christmas. This took us out of the frenetic rush that so often marks the pre-Christmas season at home, and we deliberately left some of our present-buying until the last minute so that we could plunder the Dutch shops. One of the joys that this gave us was that many of the purchases we made were gift-wrapped at the point of sale. As soon as the sales staff knew that the item in question was a gift, they would wrap it free of charge. This reduced the risk of children poking about in carrier bags on the way home to see what we’d bought, but it also added enormously to the experience. There is something wonderfully atmospheric about struggling to the car with bundles of wrapped and ribboned boxes.
This contrasted starkly with the view expressed by one of my teenage children on Christmas Eve. In the chaos of dealing with the last few unwrapped items, I was told that ‘the whole wrapping thing’ was an unnecessary distraction, and that the gifts were just as worthwhile in their naked state. Surely it is the item given, not its dress sense, that matters. Well, no, it isn’t. The wrapping adds nothing to the monetary value of the present, and will all be thrown away within seconds: but the difference between a wrapped and an unwrapped gift is substantial. The defining moment of giving is the expression on the recipient’s face when they tear the paper away to discover the treasure within. Wrapping multiplies the value of the gift.
This is a useful picture of the relationship between ‘story’ and ‘truth’. Stories do not change the nature of the truths they carry, but they multiply their value. Think of children at a party playing pass-the-parcel. As each layer is removed, the anticipation grows. Will this be the last? When the prize is revealed, there are smiles of satisfaction. The journey makes the destination come alive. Similarly, story is gift-wrapping for truth.
One of the significant changes taking place at every level of our culture in recent years is a re-discovery of the power of story. Storytelling is the common thread running through the many media of our age. Computer games are weak on text but strong on story; advertising increasingly sees its task as selling the product by telling the story; TV, film and video — the defining media of the post-modern era — are built on story above all else; music videos confirm that song-writing is a story-telling art; journalists “tell the story” where they used to “print the facts”. In a silent revolution, narrative is replacing print as the unifying element of our culture.
From selling cars and coffee to reporting on disasters and drought, professional communicators are making the same discovery. You can pass on ‘facts’ with a simple list but to impart truth, you need stories. Stories are the literary equivalent of incarnation — they wrap truth in flesh and set it to live amongst us.
A capitalist was walking one afternoon on the beach at Naples, and was shocked to find a fisherman sitting idly by his boat smoking his pipe.
“Why aren’t you out fishing?” the capitalist asked.
“Why should I be?” said the fisherman.
“Well, if you fished all day instead of just the morning” the capitalist explained, “you would catch more. More fish would mean more profit. You could trade this old boat for something better, buy new nets for even more fish and even more profit. Very soon you could afford to employ a crew to do the work for you.”
“And what would I do then?”
“Then” said the capitalist triumphantly, “you could afford to take it easy. You would have time to yourself; you could enjoy the fruits of your labours.”
“And what”, asked the patient old fisherman, “do you think I’m doing now?”
The truth of story is arrived at in a particular and intriguing way. Listening to or reading stories is not primarily an intellectual process — it is an engagement of the imagination. Stories invite us into the world they create, asking us to discover the truths set out like sculptures across their landscapes. A propositional presentation of truth leaves little to the imagination, but a story has the opposite effect. Stories are a game of hide and seek. Just when you think you’ve got the point, the truth runs up behind you, wraps it hands around your eyes and shouts ‘Guess Who!” Then it kicks you in the backside for good measure, and runs and hides again. Where facts are functional, stories are playful.
The good news, for the Christian faith community, is that much of the Bible was story before it was anything else — and that the founder of our faith was one of history’s best story-tellers. Christian scripture is rich with living, colourful, multi-layered stories to fund our culture’s imagination. The ultimate expression of Christian truth, Lesslie Newbigin asserts, is the telling of a story. “The reality with which we have to deal”, he writes, “is the story that begins before the creation of the world, ends beyond the end of the world, and leads through the narrow road that is marked by the names of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Amos, Paul, and, name above every name, Jesus.”
Does your church present its community with a series of disconnected and disembodied ‘truths’, offered as cold facts from another realm? Or does everything about you call them in and say ‘let me tell you a story…’?