12.20.2005

Story

I've always loved creating characters. When I was a kid, I filled notebooks with drawings and descriptions of fictional people. However, I am at a total loss when it comes to plot.

I am not a storyteller. Never have been. The novella I wrote in the fourth grade was short on story, and my feeble attempts at fiction when I took creative writing workshops at Kent State were equally bereft of denouement. I wrote a whole series about a girl named Kara which was ultimately just page after page of characterization: Kara lining her eyes with kohl, Kara buying a green hanky at the D & K, Kara eating Lucky Charms with her mother. I tried to cover up the lack of story by impersonating an indie film that's too hip for plot.

Being a dullard at graceful narrative is a significant weakness in for a preacher. Fred Craddock likens the sermon to the short story in form and effect. If the text at hand doesn't have a strong narrative arc to rely on, I'm in trouble. I can describe and explain from here to the hills, but adjectives and definitions don't make firm imprints on the hearts of listeners. People need story. When I took a colloquium on poverty last spring, we spent the last class decompressing from an extraordinarily despair-inducing semester. So many of our conversations had ended in helpless frustration, for despite our comprehensive transdisciplinary study, the problem of poverty remained impenetrable. I made a comment about the handful of readings that simply told stories about the plight of the poor, stories that gave the damning statistics names and faces. I said we needed those stories, that narrative drew us out of our safe academia and directly into the experience of the kids of East St. Louis. The response was almost eerie. The roomful of people that had spent the semester rancorously debating public policy and ethics all suddenly agreed: yes, story is important. People need story.

For all my awkwardness when it comes to story, I see clearly the connection between story and religious belief. Christianity is essentially a story; it is the story of a God who loves the sum and parts of Creation, and all the wild things this God is willing to do (like taking on a name and a face) to draw the world into a lasting embrace. Faith is formed when a listener hears the story and discerns that it is truthful, that it is in fact good news. The story is what is essential; it is the only vehicle capable of conveying the mystery of incarnation, because story itself is incarnational.

But there are (at least) two sides to every story. Just as there is authentic and counterfeit religious expression, there is a breed of story - mundane and holy story alike - that is maddeningly artificial. Narrative that is spun for the purposes of manipulation is awful. I've heard a certain speaker on a number of occasions who is a renowned storyteller, and I don't get it at all. The seams revealing the artifice of this person's stories are so apparent, yet well-placed vocal tremors and pregnant pauses coax the audience to weep and my eyes to roll. I think part of my reticence to incorporate more narrative into my preaching is my fear that storytelling can pander to cheap grace and massage empty emotions.

The gospel has been called the greatest story ever told. I want to tell this story, but I don't want to boil it in a pot with carrots and celery and spoonfeed it to the soul.

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