The Power and Value of Story Telling

I often read articles and hear discussions and see occasional book titles that deal with the topic “death by entertainment”, describing an almost insatiable and ubiquitous pursuit in our mainstream American culture for constant entertainment of one sort or another.

The pursuit of pleasure and its corollary cousin, entertainment, has indeed become a central obsession within what is called “The American Way of Life”. Truth to tell, there is nothing inherently wrong or immoral about desiring pleasure of one kind or another, nor is there anything necessarily inherently sinister and evil about enjoying the, at times, needful stimulus of being entertained.

Problems seem to arise only when the pursuit of pleasure and entertainment become a sedative – a psychological, spiritual, social and emotional – medication to cover up or deny or bury or forget about our pains, our fears, our brokenness, our lack of meaningful and deep-spirited living. Unfortunately, it seems as though this approach to entertainment is all too often the primary one that people take to the idea of entertainment or pleasure-seeking. These pursuits and the temporary relief they provide seem to have become pandemic in American culture, ends in themselves, a form of addiction that momentarily lifts us beyond our deeper responsibilities to others, to self, to God and to the purpose of our living.

Seen from this perspective, I would say that being caught up in the swift-running current of popular, mainstream American cultural values is definitely harmful, detrimental and diminishing to the human psyche and its built-in need for meaning and fulfilling purpose. On the other hand, there are considerations that relate to this topic that may also reveal a deeper need, one that is God-given and, again, built into the human spirit.

Most people groups have at one time or another in their history and experience given high value to story and story-telling. The term “bard” or “Story-teller” or “Story-keeper”, or related terms, such as, “Song-Keeper” or “faith-keeper” or even priest or shaman in some cultures, are variously used in the life of different people groups, both in more ancient cultures and those of ongoing contemporary people groups, to describe the foundational value that human beings place on the telling and hearing of stories. For it is in stories that we find the means of symbolically connecting to the central meaning and values of life, whether they be moral, ethical, social or spiritual.

This value of story and story-telling is, in most instances, begun and passed along in oral form, either in families, in tribal and communal gatherings, religious events or public celebrations. There is vast evidence from many fields of research to support the notion that story and story-telling is a central element in human ability to grasp the meaning of life and to share that meaning with others. Story often gives to people groups, nations and individual families a sense of their identity as a people, a sense of their worth, their particular uniquenesses and their values and contributions to the world around them, as well as how they are to interact with creation, other people and the larger and more cosmic issues of life.

Story-telling has such a great power to mold, to inspire, to inform, to enrich, to teach and to guide because of the great Story and the great Story-Teller who has created us. God has created human beings and all of our fellow creatures to participate in His great Story of Love and purpose – His plan of good for the world He has made. Jesus Christ is often called in Scripture and Church history the Word or Logos of God; God’s means of revealing and expressing Himself and His purpose for creation and human life – the meaning of it all. As the Great Story-teller, this Three-Personed God that we have come to know in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ invites us as the creatures He loves and has made in His own image to, as it were, gather around the Fire regularly to hear the Story again so that we won’t loose our way. The Word Himself is the one who is both telling and writing or scripting the Story we have all been invited to be part of. He has been attempting to pass on the Great Story for as long as human beings have populated this good earth.

This Story comes in different forms and symbols in the life of different people groups and cultures. The early Church Fathers taught often that the Logos/Word – God the Son – had at various times through history given partial light or insight into the one great Story and its meaning for human life and, thus, all people groups have had some hints at the fullness of the Story that God is telling and wanting us all to be full participants in. One of the early phrases used to describe this understanding was “seeds of the Logos” planted in the heart of each people group on earth echoing the writer of Ecclesiastes when he says, “He (God) has set eternity in their hearts”.

There is something deep within the human heart that resonates with stories so powerfully that we often find aspects of our own personal situation illuminated and given deeper significance through the impact and insight that stories often bring with them. In addition, we find the deepest and most fulfilling meaning of our own lives as we learn to engage with the Great Story-teller and find our own unique place and role in the greater Story, so that all our own personal stories are made more meaningful by being caught up in the Story that God is telling to His creation.

Well,” you say, “what does this have to do with entertainment and its addictive excesses in our mainstream culture?” To begin with, without entertaining elements, such as humor, paradox, mystery, bravery, love, adventure or the conflict between good and evil, stories would lose much of their charm and power to shape and instruct us. So, entertainment, as we have stated earlier, is not inherently wrong or evil. In fact, I am convinced that one of the reasons movie-going has mushroomed so dramatically since the 1980’s is that people have been so conditioned by the development of technological gadgets, games and playthings from the evolving virtual world of digital entertainment devices, that we have lost a great deal of the value of reading, having long ago in American society at large learned to rely on other forms of story-telling than the original oral means. Reading and drama have taken the place of oral story-telling in more “modern” societies, but are fast being replaced for many by the digital and virtual forms of entertainment that many times tell something less than the Great Story in its many and varied applications to life.

Hence, as people in a post-Enlightenment age find themselves at the same time hungering for the spiritual and the sacred, and yet secularizing all of life, thereby marginalizing the sacred to the fringes of meaning for life, we have been greatly diminished in our ability to respond to or connect with the Great Story God is constantly inviting human beings into. We have all too often rejected the Great Story in favor of stories of our own making, or those with darker and more dubious values to express. Without doubt, we are shaped by the stories we give ourselves to. Therefore, when we find ourselves confronted with claims that the Great Story would make about the nature of life, meaning, purpose and reality, if we have lost our moorings in that Story and have, consequently, failed to discover our unique place and role, we find ourselves adrift, looking for other stories to tell us who we are and what life is supposed to be.

When we replace the stories that derive from the Great Story with those of our own choosing or making, the brokenness (or “fallenness” as theology would describe the human condition) that we live out of comes to be reflected in the stories we tell and are drawn to with ever-increasing darkness, horror, irrationality, violence and “pleasure for pleasure’s sake”. Evil finds its way into these kinds of stories by ever so subtle incursions and subtexts of its own in the weaving, unfolding and telling of these stories. In fact, the Scriptures reveal that Satan is “a liar and the father of all lies”. Lies are normally something we initially “tell” and pass on, gradually come to believe and then live by.

When the movies or the novels or other forms of entertainment that we are gravitating toward contain ever more overt aspects of evil, we find, from a biblical perspective, that Satan – the Evil One – is telling his own stories, and certainly his own version of the Great Story. And it’s never a story that concerns true love, as the Great Mystery of Love Himself has revealed and imparted to human nature as an innate and God-given expression of life, but one that cloaks the concept of love in more and more self-centered, self-indulgent and destructive terms. Thus, pornographic elements and fixations with adultery and other forms of perversions of love in movies and other entertainment forms are substituted by the story-teller as love and made to seem irresistible, normative and fulfilling, all the while inwardly diminishing the human capacity for true, self-donating love, care and compassion that is other-centered.

So, we find competing stories and claims about the truth of life and its purpose, depending on who’s telling the story. And yet, because we have been wired through our creation to connect with Story as the meaning-giver for our lives, we continue to seek more and more stories and, sadly, we end up perverting the very function of story for our lives and begin to look at entertainment in general as sometimes a means to an end (that of medicating our worries, fears and lack of deep-spirited living), and sometimes an addictive end in itself. In the process, we find the power of story and all of its entertaining aspects to shape and instruct and inspire and awaken us beginning to be an instrument of our darkening, of confirming our fears and of bringing us ever more subtly under the influence of evil. Evil is made ever so subtly attractive by the inclusion of half-truths, many of them derived from the heart of the Great Story. Thus, entertainment engaged from this perspective becomes the alternative story the Evil One is telling to blind us to the beauty, the love, the transforming and liberating power, the wonder, joy and reverence of the Great Story we have been created to live in, find our place in and contribute to.

In some concluding reflections, it seems to me as though the penchant for more and more people in our society to get caught up in a more pervasive viewing of movies and television and engagement with certain kinds of digital and video games is, at the same time, both an indication of our love of and need for stories to give meaning, shape and direction to our lives, and the perversion of story that leads us into mind and spirit-numbing addictive spirals of “death by entertainment” and self-diminishing pleasure seeking. The classical terms for the perversion of story for our lives are terms such as “narcissism” and “hedonism”; isms that, along with most other isms we could explore, have very little power to ennoble and elevate human life to its true purpose.

Therefore, I encourage all of us as human beings made in the image of God our Creator to re-evaluate the stories we are giving ourselves to and begin again to explore the depths of the Great Story, which, contrary to the alternate story the enemy of our souls is passing on, is one of great adventure, great courage, great hope and love, great Romance, beauty, goodness and Truth. Let us look for elements of God’s Story in all the other stories we eagerly give our attention to that we in our day may begin to glean fresh glimmerings of the Light, the Word Himself, who is writing the Greatest Story ever told.

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