October 22, 2020

The Power of Stories

Mountain View

Stories are better than doctrine, at least in the way we have come to state doctrines. Over the course of my ministry, I have constantly fallen into the trap of thinking that being able to state a doctrine means that one has mastered its meaning. It’s great to be able to rattle off what we believe, to explain it, advance it, defend it. To be sure. To have it nailed down.

I don’t really think the more propositional teachings of the Bible are like that. They function more like a snapshot of a majestic mountain range. Doctrine to some extent accurately represents the truth, but stand there before that awesome vista and hold your little picture up against the backdrop and you can see the difference.

However, we tend not to do it that way. We have our doctrinal statements and we think we’ve actually climbed the mountain. We go to school and read a few texts and take tests and graduate and get ordained and think we’re qualified to run the museum at the foot of the mountain, where we teach others everything there is to know about the range. Or, as a lay member in a church, we read a few books, go to Sunday School, listen to sermons, and participate in Bible studies and suddenly we’re confident in our ability to be a mountain guide for others. Sometimes I wonder if any of us could even find the head of the first path.

But this post is not about doctrines, it is about stories and why I like them better.

Alan E. Lewis says it well:

Mountain ViewUp to a point, the stories in both our Testaments prove effective because they are so readily understood. Utilizing characters and situations which are familiar, quotidian, and mundane, and events whose sequence can clearly be followed, they communicate with a simplicity and directness which is inevitably sacrificed when the truth they contain is subsequently refined into concepts and propositions — as must, nonetheless, be done, as we shall see below. Yet does not the power of the parables, indeed derivatively of all the biblical narratives, also rest in the fact that they do not understand too much? Stories are extended analogies; and by their very nature and form as stories they openly announce that they are only analogies, merely approximations and pointers to the truth. The directness with which narrative approaches us is matched, therefore, by the indirectness with which it approaches God. In consequence, stories both acknowledge that God is beyond all description and comprehension, and yet demonstrate vividly that God can be known and understood.

Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday

There it is: by their very nature stories admit their limitations, thus making us aware of our limitations and keeping us hungering for more. By them we can know, but by them we also learn that there is much we do not and cannot know.

We can never master the truth, only be more and more mastered by it. As Jacobs says, stories declare “with ‘indirect directness’ the truth of God, announcing the gospel which theology must then elaborate, while indicating the mystery which theology must not then violate.”

That is why stories have priority in the Bible. That is why stories should have priority in the faith formation of our lives and churches.

Keep the snapshot. Put it in an album and pull it out and look at it now and then as a reminder of the general beauty and majesty of the mountain. But don’t ever stop telling the stories, which transport you to the mountain and leave you breathless in the climb.


  1. I was recently a participate in what one might call a ‘facebook debate’, sparked off by something someone had quoted, about endless damnation, that I really didn’t like. For better or for worse, I held back in my comments, avoiding giving any kind of doctrinal statement, biblical argument or debunking or whatever. Most of the participants did not do so – what they said was loving and reasonable, but afterwards, it frustrated me that they had seemingly encapsulated a doctrine in a few lines of text, whereas I hadn’t, and perhaps couldn’t.

    I often found that, as is universally the case, knowledge and rhetoric are powerful tools in churches. I also find that, for me, the power that knowledge and rhetoric brings is something to be desired – people look up to you, respect your opinions, listen to what you have to say. Unfortunately, the truth that doctrines point towards often becomes mostly about power, and my desire to have that power.

    Keeping quiet, listening, eschewing the opportunity to make an argument or put forward a doctrinal statement – these are all disciplines I need to continue to keep.

  2. I like the snapshot analogy. My seminary training was geared toward mining doctrine, the truths of Scripture, from the Bible. I learned a lot, and find great value in all the tools I was given. It’s sad, however, to think that our goal seemed to be getting the perfect picture rather than enjoying the view.

  3. MattPurdum says

    Story is the one tool apologists most badly need in their toolbox.
    These stories speak to the spirit, mind, and heart — IF you don’t keep explaining Greek participles and ruining the story that way!

  4. Great article. I have found that “story” blogs typically have a much larger reading audience than our blog posts that primarily focus on teaching.

  5. I’ve enjoyed Jeff Barker’s take on worship in The Story-Telling Church.

  6. David Cornwell says

    Thanks Chaplain Mike, well said. Propositional theology ends up just explaining one side of something we think we know about God. Then we end up having disputes that last for centuries. But we all relate to stories.

  7. Chaplain Mike,
    It would be foolish to argue with the centrality and primacy of story in the Biblical witness; in fact, to put it in terms that are a little at odds with the thrust of your post, it would be illogical. But it seems to me that, with regard to the New Testament, all the narrative has trajectory designed to arrive at a certain goal, or perhaps goals, certain affirmations: one of those affirmations, for instance, is “Jesus is Lord.” The whole purpose of the NT, its narrative as well as non-narrative features, is to arrive at affirmations like “Jesus is Lord.” The stories proclaim. Once we have arrived at such affirmations, we have moved into a non-narrative language that others may deny in a way they can’t deny story. If you, or I, affirm along with the New Testament that “Jesus is Lord,” someone else can say, “No, he isn’t.” Now we are at the fringes of what, when logic is applied, seems to me to result in doctrine. There is no way we can avoid making affirmations like the one “Jesus is Lord” without making our faith meaningless and in fact making the stories that lead to the affirmations pointless. Without the affirmations, the stories as expressions of faith dissolve.

    • I don’t disagree, Robert. Still, “the Gospel” has been forever defined by four books of stories: The Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

      And which is richer, hearing Ephesians 2:8-9 or hearing the story of the laborers in the vineyard?

      • Chaplain Mike,
        I’m not sure what you mean by richer. If what you mean is an aesthetic quality, I don’t think the writers of the New Testament cared at all about creating an aesthetically rich experience for readers, or hearers. And I’m not sure that “the Gospel” is solely defined by the gospel accounts. The New Testament has a synergy between the four gospels and the epistles that together proclaim the Good News in narrative and non-narrative forms. And often, I find the Epistle texts, including the one you cited and others, to be just as deep and resonant and nurturing as the stories in the synoptics and John (let’s not forget Acts!). Romans 8:38-39 is as rich and evocative as any of the narratives, and the New Testament would not carry the meaning it does without it. In addition, the narratives depend on affirmations that include doctrinal content to make them meaningful. When in John Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I Am,” the text offers a dense theological affirmation that certainly includes both the narrative that went before and doctrinal assertions about Jesus’ identity that are essential to the narrative purpose. Yes, the theological unpacking of the text, along with many other such texts, will always have a provisional element, because language, whether that of propositional assertion or narrative unfolding, buckles under the truth it’s trying to convey when dealing with the person and work of Jesus. But not attempting to unpack it would be a faithless response. The narratives and non-narrative threads of the New Testament point us toward affirmations throughout the New Testament that demand to be theologically explored and articulated. “Before Abraham was, I Am”: what a thrilling affirmation, it always takes my breath away. Talk about compelling! And yes, I’m aware that many textual critics claim that the historic Jesus did not speak these words; rather, it’s claimed, the gospel composer(s) retrojected these words on the historical Jesus from within the believing community after the Resurrection. It hardly matters; the point is that the early church experienced and knew him as “I Am,’ and they were witnessing in the New Testament documents, using narrative and non-narrative means, to the truth of that affirmation, including its doctrinal aspect.

        • Again Robert, I don’t disagree with you. It’s not either/or but both/and. However, I am arguing that we give priority to story. There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is the fact that the Bible itself is shaped that way. Israel’s Scriptures are built upon Torah, the stories of the ancestors and the covenants God made with them. The Church’s Scriptures are founded on the Gospel according to its different authors, which is the story of Jesus and the new covenant he brought.

          But all of that aside, I was making a practical point in this small post.

          Stories help our faith formation more because they keep us more humble, more aware that there are possibilities and mysteries beyond what we can ever state in propositions.

          That is not to say that propositions are impossible or invalid. It is simply to say that a focus on doctrines often leads to a kind of definitional pride. They appeal to our desire for neat formulas and pat answers.

          Let me make it personal. A focus on doctrines too often leads me to open my mouth in an attempt to end a debate by uttering a final word. Stories make me shut my mouth and think, listen, imagine, and wonder.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I have a personal testimony to the power of stories. Story seems to have vaccinated me against porn.

    You see, I’m a natural-talent speedreader; since I learned to read around age 4 I’ve been speedreading my way through more each year than most people read in their lifetimes. And around age 10 or so I got turned on to mythology, sci-fi, and high fantasy. Including the classics of the genres.

    My first exposure to serious porn was in college, in the form of porn novels that were getting passed around the dorms — the one title I remember was something like “Neighborhood BDSM Party”. Well, I read it. My reaction?


    Because I knew Story, I was looking for Story. And “Neighborhood BDSM Party” had NO story in it. Lots of meat, lots of motion, lots of “accessories” (50 Shades of Grey style), but no Story. When you’ve taken the Ring to Mount Doom with Frodo & Sam or sailed to Treasure Island with Jim Hawkins or sang the Ballad of Lost C’Mell, you have some pretty high expectations of Story.

    • Well put!

    • As another early and voracious reader, I can relate…not to porn, per se, but the soft-core stuff that populates most of the “romance” genre of books [almost said novels, but that is too generous a term]. No story, no plot, just cookie-cutter patterns with names, locations, and time periods changed.

      Guess that is why, for reasons personal and theological, I would much rather read the Gospels than anybody’s letters to anybody else, especially the endless Pauline stuff that so many fundamentalists seem to prefer over Christ’s OWN words!!! Not surprised that the Co-Creator of the universe might be a pretty good story teller…what is human history except our stories?

      • David Cornwell says

        ” the endless Pauline stuff that so many fundamentalists seem to prefer over Christ’s OWN words!!! ”

        And which turns them into lawyers with arguing forever over this or that fine point, rather than those who tell the Story!

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Lawyers whose words are weapons and whose battlefield is semantics and definitions. But the goal is the same — to WIN. To crush the Other beneath your boot. “I’m Right! You’re Wrong! See! See! See! HAW! HAW! HAW!”

          And “this or that fine print”? As in depending on what the meaning of “is” is?

          And as entropy sets in, the arguing becomes more and more abstract, layer after layer after layer, until the original foundation is forgotten and all that remains is Pure Ideology. Recently I picked up an underground comics version of the Malleus Malefacarium, the infamous witch-hunters’ handbook of the REAL Burning Times. And noticed how much of the theological background had been built layer by layer over the centuires of the Middle Ages — elaborate heirarchies and choirs of Angels and Demons in fine-print detail, each generation’s speculation taken as theological fact by the next and used as “Fact” for another layer of speculation, generation after generation after generation, adding details after details with each layer. Until a couple mentions of angels, Heaven, or Hell in the original source documents became a full library of Theological/Angelological/Demonological/Witch-ological FACTS in intricate microscopic detail.

      • Amen to that, Pattie, and thank you for saying so. Paul gives me a headache; I can read Luke over and over again and it’s always a roller coaster ride…