A thousand and one stories

In parts of Papua New Guinea, we are told there is a curious salutation: “yumi stori nau!” You and me, story, now. Of course, this isn’t an invitation for the other to regale him with a retelling of The Illiad, but it does tap into the human love of narratives and the power of stories to connect us. It sounds like a pretty neat way to say “hello”!

Storytelling is as old as time. Even before writing, there were tales of the hunt, tales of the victory, tales of winning the fairest maiden’s hand.. Telling stories was a way to remember your heritage, pass on traditions, and reinforce virtue. 

Reading through the ancient texts of the Old Testament reveals that God told Israel to pass stories to their children. Moses instructed the people to tell their sons the about the exodus from Egypt, as they celebrated Passover. The prophet Joel admonished his hearers that they should not fail to tell the story of God’s wrath upon the land, the punishment for their idolatry.

It is easy to associate oral lore with primitive and ancient cultures, you know, the time before humans invented Netflix and cell phones. It’s easy to imagine in our distracted modern West that we have moved on. That must have been a quaint period in human history, when they had time to sit around yarning, but we’ve put away childish things. We have textbooks. We have The Science. We have Google. 

Yet if you’ve followed Rev Fisk on YouTube for a while, you’ll be aware as he points out – we have not stopped storytelling in our culture. It may seem we have delegated it to TV, Hollywood and influencers, but the spirit of the age is always busy, spinning stories in the white noise to confuse and deceive. Stories are everywhere – marketing and business, entertainment and the arts, politics and health. Why? Because stories are powerful. 

It’s nice to think all our thoughts are our own, that we are impervious to the narratives that float around us, but stories have a knack of wiggling their way in. Author Katie Schuermann appeared on Issues Etc last week, discussing importance of discerning what narratives we are imbibing. She finds that many students she speaks with often relay scenes from movies or memes as if they were their own memories, which is kind of wild to contemplate. She encourages listeners to collect stories that are good, true and beautiful.

But understanding the affect narratives can have on us helps explain what’s going on. Writing at the Los Angeles Times, neuroscientist Emily Falk says strong narratives such as “political speeches and compelling health messages” can “bring listeners’ brains into sync with one another”. Research shows that stories can “reduce defensiveness”. Falk writes that when someone becomes “emotionally engaged” with a story, they are less likely to “critically evaluate facts and are more open to changing their beliefs”.

As an example, we thought of “That Hideous Strength” by Melvin Tinker (not to be confused with C S Lewis’s work from which Tinker takes inspiration!) in which he devotes a full chapter (summarised here by the Wee Flea blog) to documenting how gay activists used the power of stories to slowly move the culture to a more accepting posture. 

So what will you fill your head with? Are you aware of the stories that you’re listening to? Rev Fisk’s challenge to reduce the amount of “inputs” in your life is a good one. The false and destructive narratives are bound to come but we need to be formed by the good, true and beautiful ones. Tell yourself true stories. Tell each other true stories. Stories of creation, stories of redemption, stories of Zion. 

We have the “OG” story, the original and the best, recorded for us in the Scriptures, a story which defies imagination but nevertheless is true. The righteous son of God would give his life for sinners? Yet, he is risen, you are paid for, you are immortal now, he won’t be long anyway…  “Therefore comfort one another with these words.” You and me, story, now.. 

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