20080602

Stories

Why is it that we like stories?

Indeed, it is so obvious that humans like stories that asking the question of whether or not we like them in the first place would be moronic. But why does humanity like stories? No matter what culture you go to, no matter how civilized or uncivilized they are, no matter what language they speak, you will find stories and storytellers. It is amazing that while an exchange of literature cross-culturally may yield some differences, literature world-wide is remarkably similar. There is no doubt: humans have an enormous propensity for stories.

When I look at literature, I see two main types of story-arcs that almost all of the best-loved stories follow. As a matter of fact, these two types of stories seem to split their appeal between the sexes. Yes, I’m being somewhat stereotypical here, but bear with me. Look at it this way: what kind of story is it that boys generally like? If you think about it, you’ll notice that guys like stories of straight up good verses evil, with the hero fighting on courageously even when things look darkest. But at the moment what all hope seems finally lost, the hero overcomes and saves the day. Think about it, am I wrong or do I perhaps have a point?

And what about the girls, what sorts of stories do they like? They typically like stories where the protagonist (be it man or woman) is in love with a significant other, but there is some sort of trial or obstacle that separates them. Through courage and bravery, the protagonist overcomes and the two lovers are finally united in that happy, gushy, romantic moment. Once again, am I wrong or do I perhaps have a point?

Yes, I am generalizing somewhat, but if you look at the stories that appeal most to you, the ones that you like best, I think you’ll find that they contain one of these two plot arcs. As a matter of fact, the best stories weave the two together and have a wide range of appeal across the sexes, and even across cultures. Yes, the specifics might be different and there are variations, but generally speaking the stories that humanity in general likes follow these archetypes. Stories like this simply have an appeal to us.

Anthropologists who study foreign cultures for a living have noticed this fact, and indeed the stories, proverbs, legends, and mythology of different cultures very often proclaim the same overarching messages. Similar story-arcs, characters, and themes enumerate the one-ness of humanity in this regard. It is even true that our Bible shares similarities with these universal story-types. As a matter of fact, that is what leads many anthropologists to conclude that the Bible is just another cultural legend, peppered with mythology and larger-than-life events. But we as Christians don’t (at least shouldn’t) believe this to be the case. We are still faced with a valid question, however: how can this be? How can our Bible be so similar to these other stories of an obviously un-inspired nature? Is there some sort of accident here? Are the anthropologists simply wrong?

I think not.

I agree one-hundred percent with the anthropologists; elements of the Bible are remarkably similar to many stories found in many cultures. One would be a fool to not notice that the Bible even contains stories that follow one of the two plots I described above. Guy story? Check out David & Goliath and Gideon, just to name a couple. Girl story? Try Ruth and the story of Jacob & Rachel. The only difference I have with the anthropologists is this: I think they have it backwards. It’s not that the Bible imitates other stories; it’s that other stories imitate the Bible. I would even go so far as to say that our propensity for stories is God-ordained.

As Christians, we don’t really believe in coincidences; I don’t believe that it is random chance that we are drawn to stories the way we are. God created us, and while we are fallen, God originally called us good. I firmly believe that the human desire for stories was instilled in us by our Heavenly Father. Why? To guide us right back to Him. What better way could be used to draw us to Him than this: to instill in us a great affection for stories, and then provide us the greatest story ever told? Before you accuse me of being off my rocker, think about it. Consider the two story arcs we keep talking about.

Guys, do you think it is a coincidence that Christian life is over and over again compared to that of a soldier? Do you think it is a coincidence that a scene is described in Revelation that shows humanity at its darkest hour, when suddenly the sky opens and a white rider comes storming out of the clouds at the head of the heavenly host? I don’t know about you, but as a guy that strikes a chord deep inside and makes my heart want to sing.

Girls, do you think it is a coincidence that we as the church are called the Bride of Christ, and that there are a plethora of parables that use the symbol of a bride and groom? Do you think that it is a coincidence that after Satan is finally done away with once and for all in Revelation, we find an account of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, where the tear will be wiped from every eye and there will be no more pain or death or suffering, where we’ll be with our true love forever? I’m not a girl, but that sounds like the most romantic thing anyone could dream up.

Coincidence? I don’t think so. That looks to me as if the ultimate story has been woven, one that appeals to all of humanity across any and all racial or ethnic boundaries, one that grabs equally both the hearts of men and of women. And that’s not even the best part. What is the one thing everyone wants when they read a story? To be a character therein themselves. That is what God offers us through his Son Jesus Christ, a chance to play a part in the greatest story that ever can or will be told.

Let’s be honest. As Christians we tend to get bogged down in what appears to be the tediousness of our faith; we often focus in on ourselves and an extremely narrow portion of the whole story. Is God interested in the things that challenge us on the day to day, in our own individual stories? Most assuredly so! But those things pale in comparison to the one cosmic and epic story we have been called to participate in. It’s an interesting paradox; in a way it’s all about us and in a way it has nothing to do with us. We’re engaged in a struggle that surpasses any of us individually but affects us all corporately, the battle for human souls.

So what’s the point of this whole soliloquy? I challenge you to evaluate yourself, as I am challenged to evaluate myself. Are we so focused on our own needs and our own lives that we’ve lost sight of the big picture? Has our focus drifted from the Great Commission objectives that our commander-in-chief has given us to our own meager designs? Maybe you need to ask an even more fundamental question: are you even sure you’ve accepted your blood-signed invitation to join the story?

But most importantly, I hope you are encouraged. I hope that focusing back on the prize gives you renewed courage to “fight the good fight.” I hope you are strengthened with a renewed understanding that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” There is a peace and strength that comes from the realization that it’s not all about us individually. And finally…

I hope you have a new-found appreciation for stories.

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