The Gospel and the Act of Storytelling
Recently, I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) with some of my students. I work for a campus ministry, and some of my students had expressed interest in playing this creative role-playing game. There is so much possible in the world of DnD that I cannot fully explain what the game entails.
Essentially, this game allows people to create characters in a fantasy realm to participate in various types of quests together. It is easily the most creative and engaging game I have ever encountered. Each Dungeon Master constructs or learns about a campaign storyline to lead their characters through, and each player carefully constructs their characters to embark on these quests.
As I have joined my students on these self-created quests, I have thought more about the act of storytelling. This topic has been prevalent in my thoughts as a student of literature who hopes to teach the great books of literary history. What is it about the art of storytelling that is worthwhile? What does the gospel have to do with the nature of narrative?
Not only have I cared for the art of storytelling in past years as a student of literature, but much of what I have been reading recently, especially in Scripture, has led me to contemplate the idea of narrative. Currently, I am spending time in the book of Deuteronomy, a book that records several speeches of Moses to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land (soon to be the land of Israel). A significant portion of this Old Testament book is dedicated to the retelling of the history of the Israelites. Why is it important for them to remember these stories of their past? Perhaps remembering these stories helps them see who God is and who they are.
To investigate this question further I turned to Hebrews 11 where the stories of Israel’s fathers and mothers are recounted—from Abel’s offering to the call of Abram, from Moses being found in the river to Rahab the prostitute helping the Israelite spies in Jericho. Why does the author of Hebrews care about all these individuals and their stories? Maybe they point Christians to the love of Christ—in receiving that love and spreading it.
Then, naturally, I had to consider that Jesus himself mainly communicated through the medium of narrative. He taught and cared for his followers by sharing parables with them. Why did Jesus share what he had to say in stories rather than in treatises? To this final question, we get a very direct answer from Scripture:
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case, the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
‘”You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”’
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not do it.”
I have spent a long time questioning this passage, not fully understanding what it means. However, I have come to see that this passage is mainly about a gesture of love on the part of Christ. This passage does not say that the message of Christ is given to some and not to others—“sucks for those who don’t get it.” Rather, this passage seems to say that Christ wants to spread his love to more and more people. It is because these others don’t see, hear, or understand that Jesus spoke in parables (vv.12-13). He wants to make is so that they can see, hear, and understand his love.
The love of God has already been given to the Jews, and Christ came to minister to the Jews first (Romans 1:16). Yet, Christ and his love are not content to remain with the Jews. This love naturally spreads farther and farther to all peoples. This is why stories are so important and why Christ spoke in parables: not only because stories can reach all types of people, but also because a story reaches all parts of the human being.
Narratives Inherently Reach All Types of Human Persons
Notice that in the passage above Matthew describes this conversation as taking place between the disciples and Christ. Jesus says that the secrets of his kingdom have been given to the disciples, but it has not been given to others—the ones who don’t see or hear.
We might be tempted to resign into thinking that those who do not understand will never understand the truths of the gospel. However, the fact that these others do not understand the secrets of His kingdom is the very reason why Christ spoke in stories—so that they might hear and grasp the truth and love of the gospel.
Therefore, Jesus himself ministers his love to all sorts of people through the act of narrative. These parables (and all of Scripture) communicate stories that both simplify the truths they contain and maintain the complexity of those truths. Those who would not normally understand the love of God can look to the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), for example, and know the love of Christ.
The Father doesn’t lose his love for the younger son, even though he has taken his money and left his father’s house. The Father doesn’t lose his love for the elder son, even though he has harbored resentment in his heart. Even if Christ’s love is made simple to the hearers of this story, this simplification does not reduce the complexity and beauty of his love. A story helps us see the complexity of God’s love in a simple form—to see that God’s love does not depend on our behavior, but on his mercy and grace. This love is for more than the Jews, it is meant to be spread to those who don’t yet see or understand.
Narratives Inherently Reach All Parts of the Human Person
Stories do not simply minister to all types of people; they also minister to all parts of the human being. As humans, we are not merely minds contained in a body. We are whole persons—soul, body, mind, and all. If the Bible or these parables were treatises, they would likely appeal only to our minds.
However, Jesus loves every part of each of us. He wants to redeem our mind, soul, body, and spirit. He wants to engage us on all levels, making us more like himself in all areas of life. He is redeeming our bodies and minds and spirits for when he comes in glory.
Stories can show us how short life is and encourage us to love our bodies the way God loves our bodies. It can engage our minds in questions of severe importance, like the problem of suffering for example. It can encourage us to move to Christ in our spirit, knowing that he is our only satisfaction and joy. Stories reach every facet of our being.
These are two main reasons why I think stories are generally so significant, as well as particularly for Christians. Stories bring together all sorts of people—people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. We all hear and tell stories, whether we are literate or not, whether we are Christian or not. We are intrigued by stories, even if only by some stories and not others.
God is bringing about his diverse and unified Kingdom through the telling and hearing of stories, both in His word and in the lives of His people. He also cares for each person entirely by loving their entire being, not merely truncated parts of their being. He wants us, not only our mental concentration. He wants us, not only our feelings. He wants us, not only our behavior. Stories tell us simply the love of Christ while keeping us humbly in awe of its complexity and splendor.
Let us love going to Scripture as we hear the stories of God’s faithfulness to his people. Let us love growing closer to others as we hear their stories. Let us love remembering how God has provided for and satisfied us as we recall our own narratives.