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Sermon illustrations

Story

Chapter One of the Great Story

In the epic conclusion to the Narnia Chronicles, C.S. Lewis attempts to express the absolute joy that will come as our earthly lives come to an end and we are reunited with our God for all of eternity:

The things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Macmillan, 1956), p.165.

The Dickensian Approach to Storytelling (Or, Rather, the Biblical Approach)

Sometimes great stories introduce the protagonist in the very first paragraph. In Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, for example, we are immediately introduced to Pip, the central figure of the novel, and we learn why he has such an odd name. Yet other stories wait for some time before the protagonist appears. In Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, Jean Valjean does not show up until around page 50 (out of 1200). If you were not familiar with Hugo’s classic story, you might think while reading the first chapters that the Bishop of Digne is the main character. As it turns out, he plays a pivotal but relatively small role in the story of Les Misérables, in which Valjean is the main character.

The Bible takes a Dickensian approach to its protagonist. The leading figure appears in the very first verse: “In the beginning . . . God.” …today, I want to underline the centrality of God in the biblical story.

God is the protagonist. God is the main actor. God is the one who ties together all the pieces of the story. God is the one who orchestrates the events. Indeed, God is also the author of the biblical story. To be sure, the Bible tells a human story as well, with people playing an essential role from the first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation. The Bible also narrates the affairs of the nations, especially Israel. The Bible can be useful for philosophy, psychology, and a wide array of other disciplines. It provides the sure foundation for right theology. But, at its core, the Bible is a story, a story of God, the story of God.

Taken from Mark D. Roberts, Life for Leaders, a Devotional Resource of the DePree Leadership Center at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Entering Into a Story

Is it possible to read a story and not enter into it; to write a story and not become part of the script? When I was writing my first book, my family and I were living in Cambridge, England. Our young son, who was just nine years old at the time, decided to write a book as well. So every evening after school, he would get out his pad of paper and start dreaming his plot. Needless to say, every second page was filled with some kind of crisis. One day, I came to the table where I had my material all set up and I saw him seated there as well, pen in hand, pad in front of him, the weight of the world apparently on him as tears ran down his face.

I immediately put aside all I was thinking of and asked him what on earth the matter was. “I know it, I just know it,” he said between sobs. “Know what?” I asked gently. “I just know the dog is going to die.” I had to pause to process what he was talking about and realized that the world of make-believe and his make-believe characters had taken over his own will to believe. It was amazing to see in his eyes the sense of inevitability from which he wanted to escape but couldn’t, even though it was in his power to do so. Frankly, I didn’t know whether to break him out of the role of storyteller or let him know that when you write a story, it tends to take on a life all its own.

Such is the immense power of the imagination when it intersects with reality. This is actually how cultures are shaped. It is one thing for this to happen in the mind of a nine-year-old who enters the world of make-believe; quite another for it to happen in the mind of an actor employed in the billion-dollar industry of sophisticated storytelling, the biggest imagination-controlling business in the world today. If Heath Ledger [Ledger committed suicide while filming his role as the Jokerin the movie, The Dark Knight.] couldn’t break free from the story, being close to the script and knowing he was just acting, how can the audience break free from the story when they don’t know what is going on behind the scenes?

Ravi Zacharias, Why Jesus?, Faith Words.

The Fictions We Live

The simple truth of our being gets lost in the metanarratives we spin. We become the fictions we live. Consequently, our way of being in the world is so false and unnatural that our presence is thoroughly ambiguous.

It is no wonder that we find the presence of most people so clouded as to be not worth noticing, and it is no wonder that a truly unclouded presence is so luminous and so compellingly noteworthy!

David G. Benner, Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life, Brazos Press, 2014.

Finding the Plots of our Own Lives

The same impulse that makes us want our books to have a plot makes us want our lives to have a plot. We need to feel that we are getting somewhere, making progress. There is something in us that is not satisfied with a merely psychological explanation of our lives. It doesn’t do justice to our conviction that we are on some kind of journey or quest, that there must be some deeper meaning to our lives than whether we feel good about ourselves.

Only people who have lost the sense of adventure, mystery, and romance worry about their self-esteem. And at that point what they need is not a good therapist, but a good story. Or more precisely, the central question for us should not be, ‘What personality dynamics explain my behavior?’ but rather, ‘What sort of story am I in?’ –

William Kilpatrick, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong. New York: Simon & Schuster.

How Stories are being used by Companies to Shape Character

Why a story? We all think of our lives as stories, each with a main character (us) theme, and plot (interesteing so far, but as yet unfinished). We also love to hear stories about others and even about things. Stories hook into our curiosity-what happens next?-and into our emotions: What would I do in that situation?

Stories have the unique power to engage and, if they engage enough, to trigger empathy, enchant. Designers, having tapped the potential of personalizing, socializing, and gamifying, can work to embed a drama in our heads. They can involve us in a story so the narrative gains a purchase on both our minds and [our hearts]. It becomes part of our heritage, our folklore, our mythology. We can feel as if we are part of the action, even a central character in the tale.

David Rose, Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things.

How Stories Move us to Action

When I was fifteen, I applied for my first job, at Eureka Baking Company, and ran into a complication. The job interview was a few miles from my high school, and I didn’t have a way to get there. I suggested to my dad that I might reschedule, but he immediately shot down the idea.

“When I moved to Oakland from Mississippi at nineteen, I heard General Motors was hiring,” he said. “The plant was in San Leandro [the next town over]. I wanted the job, so I woke up at five a.m. and walked the eight miles to the open job interview. I got the job. I didn’t ask them to reschedule, I made it work . . . so make it work!” Now this may sound like the classic “uphill both ways” story, but I remember it to this day, and it inspired me to find a way to the interview and get the job.

Why did my dad share this story? Because stories are the most effective way to convey information, teach, and to move people to action. He could have just told me it’s important to be adaptive and make an effort, but instead he showed me how those attributes served him in a very real way.

Heather Box and Julian Mocine-McQueen, How Your Story Sets You Free, Chronicle Books, 2019.

The Land of O-Z

The American writer and journalist Frank Lyman Baum found that his first book began when a band of children, including his own four sons, asked him to tell a story one night in their home in Chicago. The story began immediately with a farm girl from Kansas named Dorothy and the amazing journeys she went on. At one point, the children asked what country Dorothy had landed in, and Baum needed a little inspiration. The first thing his eyes landed upon was a filing cabinet, with the label O-Z. “The land of Oz!” he exclaimed!

Stuart Strachan Jr.

No More “Been-To’s”

Several years ago I was conducting a seminar in the interpretation of Scripture in a theological seminary…Our topic that day was Jesus’ parables…One of the priests, Tony Byrnne, was a Jesuit missionary on sabbatical from twenty years at his post in Africa. As we discussed the biblical parables, Father Tony told us of his experience with his Africans, who loved storytelling, who loved parables. His Jesuit order didn’t have enough priests to handle all the conversions …and he was put in charge of recruiting lay-persons to carry out the basic teaching…

When we first began the work, whenever he would find men who were especially bright he would pull them out of their village and send them to Rome or Dublin or Boston or New York for training. After a couple of years they would return and take up their tasks. But the villagers hated them and would have nothing to do with them. They called the returnee a been-to Dublin, he been-to New York, he’s been-to Boston.”

They hated the bean-to because he no longer told stories. He gave explanations. He taught them doctrines. He gave them directions…The been-to left all his stories in the wastebaskets of the libraries and lecture halls of Europe and America. The intimate and dignifying process of telling a parable had been sold for a mess of academic pottage. So, Father Byrne told us, he quit the practice of sending the men off to those storyless schools.

Eugene Peterson, Tell it Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in his Stories and Prayers.

Metapahors, Parables and Dramatic Actions

The biblical writers and reciters make extensive use of metaphors, parables and dramatic actions. Jesus does not say, “God’s love is boundless.” Instead, he tells the story of the prodigal son. He does not say, “Your benevolence must reach beyond your own kith and kin.” Rather, he tells the story of the good Samaritan.

He does not say, “Try to influence the community around you for good.” But he does state, You are the light of the world. A city set (by men) on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do they (i.e., the women) light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. (Mt 5:14-16; author’s translation)

Taken from Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story by Kenneth E. Bailey Copyright (c) 2009 by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Persuading Ourselves of the Truth

When we observe evil, sinful behavior from a distance, the inclination is simply to see people as acting with malicious intent. We assume they are “bad people.” But often the motivations that lead to significant lapses in moral behavior are quite different. Because most people want to see themselves generally as “good,” they engage in a complex game of rationalizing and self-deception that enables them to perform these sinful acts.

Over time, what starts as a set of questionable lies we tell ourselves becomes capital T “Truth.” An excellent example of this from history took place during the Watergate scandal. In an interview from 1975, the whistleblower of Watergate, John Dean, explains just how this worked with those involved in the scandal:

INTERVIEWER: You mean those who made up the stories were believing their own lies?

DEAN: That’s right. If you said it often enough, it would become true. When the press learned of the wire taps on newsmen and White House staffers, for example, and flat denials failed, it was claimed that this was a national-security matter. I’m sure many people believed that the taps were for national security; they weren’t. That was concocted as a justification after the fact. But when they said it, you understand, they really believed it.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Lyndon Johnson was known as a master at the game of self-justification. His biographer, Robert Caro, described what would happen when Johnson came to believe something to be true, he would believe in it “totally, with absolute conviction, regardless of previous beliefs, or of the facts in the matter.”

George Reedy, an aide who witnessed the same behavior, described LBJ as having “had a remarkable capacity to convince himself that he held the principles he should hold at any given time, and there was something charming about the air of injured innocence with which he would treat anyone who brought forth evidence that he had held other views in the past. It was not an act … He had a fantastic capacity to persuade himself that the ‘truth’ which was convenient for the present was the truth and anything that conflicted with it was the prevarication of enemies. He literally willed what was in his mind to become reality.”

Stuart Strachan Jr, with Source Material from John Dean, interview by Barbara Cady, January 1975; Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (New York: Knopf, 2002), p.886.

Scripture Grounds our Story in Place

Our Scriptures that bring us the story of our salvation ground us in place. Everywhere they insist on this grounding. Everything that is critically important to us takes place on the ground. Mountains and valleys, towns and cities, regions and countries:

Haran, Ur, Canaan, Hebron, Sodom, Machpelah, Bethel, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Samaria, Tekoa, Nazareth, Capernaum, Mt. Sinai, Mt. Of Olives, Mt. Gilboah, Mt. Hermon, Ceasarea, Gath, Ashkelon, Michmash, Gibeon, Azekah, Jericho, Chorizan, Bethsaida Emmaus, the Valley of Jezreel, the Kidron Valley, the Brook of Besor, Anathoth.

Big cities and small towns. Famous landmarks and unvisited obscurities. People who want God or religion as an escape from their place because it is difficult (or maybe just mundane), don’t find this much to their liking. But there it is—there’s no getting around it. But to the man or woman wanting more reality, not less, this insistence that all genuine life, life that is embraced in God’s work of salvation, is grounded, is good news indeed.

Eugene Peterson, Introduction to Eric O. Jacobsen, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith.

Story as Worldview and the Example of Passover

Stories, after all, are one of the most basic modes of human life and are a characteristic expression of worldview. Human life is constituted by a series of stories, implicit and explicit, that makes sense of experiences, and allows us to describe them in a coherent manner.

Consider the story recited at every Passover:

My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians ill-treated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labour. Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey . . .

This story is a summation of the events and experiences that define the Jewish people, which speaks to their beliefs, identity, and hopes. As historians, then, we are principally storytellers, trying to get inside the storied lives of ancient peoples—filled with diverse and often competing stories—and constructing our own successful explanatory story to account for theirs.

Taken from N.T. Wright and Michael Bird, The New Testament in Its World, Zondervan Academic, 2019, pp. 57-58.

Stories Expand our Lives

We have never lived enough. Our experience is, without fiction, too confined and too parochial. Literature extends it, making us reflect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feeling. . . . All living is interpreting; all action requires seeing the world as something.

So in this sense no life is “raw,” and . . . throughout our living we are, in a sense, makers of fictions. The point is that in the activity of literary imagining we are led to imagine and describe with greater precision, focusing our attention on each word, feeling each event more keenly—whereas much of actual life goes by without that heightened awareness, and is thus, in a certain sense, not fully or thoroughly lived.

Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature, Oxford University Press.

Stories Synchronize our Brains

Groundbreaking work by Dr. Uri Hasson has shown that the brain of an individual listening to a story actually synchronizes with the brain of the individual telling the story—an event known as neural coupling. Working with functional MRI, which can measure brain activity in real time, Dr. Hasson demonstrated the power of stories. “By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions into the listeners’ brains,” Hasson says.

“A story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.” This has tremendous implications for the power of story. People adopt your experience as their own in the moment. This allows us to cultivate empathy in powerful ways. For example, when we hear the story of someone who was beaten as a child, we put ourselves in their place, feel their fear, and gain insight into the scary reality of their experience. Story expands our knowledge and our emotional connection to a topic.

Heather Box and Julian Mocine-McQueen, How Your Story Sets You Free, Chronicle Books, 2019.

Stories Teach Us about How the World Works 

A good story goes beyond just describing what actually happened. It tells us about how the world works more broadly, in ways that pertain to things that didn’t actually happen or at least haven’t happened yet. When Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth can’t stop washing her hands after killing King Duncan and cries, “Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why, then ’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky!” we learn not only about the remorse of a single fictional character, but also about the emotional consequences of murder…A good story has a moral that applies not just to this world but also to other worlds that we might find ourselves in.

The reason we recount Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac on Mount Moriah is not just to add to our inventory of facts about Abraham and his family; it is surely to learn a lesson about loyalty to God in whatever situation we find ourselves. In that sense, storytelling requires that we do something that is way beyond the capabilities of any nonhuman animal. It requires that we use our understanding of our world’s causal mechanisms to build whole alternative worlds to think about.

Storytelling helps us to imagine how the world would be if something were different. This is clearest in science fiction: Authors help readers readers imagine alternative worlds with life on other planets or drugs that guarantee happiness or robots that take over the world. But many other kinds of stories also involve alternative worlds, especially stories we tell ourselves. You might imagine, for instance, that you’re a rock star. What would the consequences be? To find out, you can consult your understanding of how the world works and draw out the effects that being a rock star would cause. For one, you’d probably stay in fancier hotels, drive around in limousines, and spend a lot of time signing autographs…Thinking about alternative possible worlds is an important part of being human. It is called counterfactual thought, and you can see that it depends on our capacity to reason causally…Why do we so naturally tell stories that require reasoning about counterfactual worlds?

Perhaps the main motivation is that it allows us to consider alternative courses of action. We are very comfortable thinking about what the world would be like if we did something differently—if we changed our hairstyle, bought a new lawn mower, or sold our house and bought a yacht. And because we can think about such hypothetical actions, occasionally we actually pursue them. A thinker who can’t conceive of a new hairstyle is not going to go out and get one (at least not intentionally). And a thinker who can’t conceive of a bill of rights or a new kind of vacuum cleaner is not going to get one of those, either. The ability to think counterfactually makes it possible to take both extraordinary and ordinary action.

Steven Sloman, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, Penguin Publishing Group.  

Stories in Music

The musicologist and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin estimates that we hear about five hours of music per day. It sounds impossible, but Levitin is counting everything: elevator music, movie scores, commercial jingles, and all the stuff we mainline into our brains through earbuds. Of course, not all music tells a story.

There are also symphonies, fugues, and avant-garde soundscapes blending wind chimes and bunny screams. But the most popular brand of music tells stories about protagonists struggling to get what they want—most often a boy or a girl. Singers might work in meter and rhyme, and alongside guitarists and drummers, but that does not alter the fact that the singer is telling a story—it only disguises it.

Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, HMH Books.

Stories We Tell Ourselves

A man named Jack was driving on a dark country road one night when he got a flat tire. He saw a cabin in the woods and began to walk towards it. He told himself that the person who answered the door would be angry and irritated for the interruption. In fact, the person would probably harm him. He was probably a truly terrible person. Who else would live out in the woods away from people? Jack convinced himself that the person who lived in the cabin was a menace to society, so when the door opened, Jack punched the man in the nose and ran away.

Quoted in the Cruzman

Surviving Navy Seals Training

And as difficult as most of their training is, nothing can compare to BUDS, which stands for Basic Underwater Demolition Seal Training. If it sounds intense, it’s actually worse. During BUDS, you have to survive “one-hundred-ten hours without sleep.” You have to carry a log over your head for hours. Countless swims, endless runs, jumping out of planes, and then there’s perhaps the hardest part of all, called “pool comp.”

In “pool comp” you are put underwater with all your scuba gear on, the instructor yanks your regulator out of your mouth, he ties your air hose in knots, he mocks you constantly as you struggle for air. What your mind is naturally telling you at this point is simple: You are going to die, but if you want to pass “pool comp,” you have to calmly follow all protocol to pass.

It’s not hard to see why there’s a 94 percent attrition rate. Now the question is, why do some pass, while most fail? This was a question the Navy wanted to find out, because after 9/11 they were in desperate need for more Seals, but didn’t want to water down the quality of their seals. So they began studying the data. And the results were quite surprising. The Navy didn’t need more macho guys or strong guys, they often were the first to ring the bell and give up. Nope, but they could use more used Car Salesman.

Why? Because Used Car Salesman have learned how to survive the seemingly never-ending amount of rejection they receive by changing their self-talk. That is, by changing the stories inside their heads.

The truth is, we aren’t like computers, going from place to place with mathematical computations inside our heads to make each decision. No, we are story-tellers. We tell stories because stories are how we make sense of the world around us. Scientists know this, Jesus knows this, and now even the Navy knows just how important stories are for our lives.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Villians Over Heroes

In imaginary works it is difficult to make virtuous characters as believable and attractive as bad characters. The villains of literature and screen–Captain Ahab, the boys who go bad in Lord of the Flies, Darth Vader, Norman Bates, Hannibal the Cannibal—all are, as a rule, larger figures, more gripping and more memorable, than are the heroes and heroines of even the same authors and producers.

This is as true of religious literature as it is of secular literature. In Paradise Lost, Milton’s Satan has all the good lines, but who remembers a word of his Christ? Dante’s The Divine Comedy is one of the great masterpieces of world literature, yet literary critics as well as college freshmen rarely read The Paradiso, and those who do usually judge its virtue and bliss flat and insipid compared to the gargoyled vices of The Inferno.

There is a good reason why this is so. Human nature stands closer to evil than to good. Intrigue, scheming, and deception are more instinctual to us than love, goodness, and forgiveness. The vices are “first nature,” so to speak, whereas virtue is “second nature,” either a learned response or no response at all.

It is easier to figure out ways to cheat the IRS than to solve the problems of hunger or violence. When we are wronged, we can hatch ten brilliant schemes of revenge; but try to devise even a paltry plan for redeeming a bad situation. Dostoevsky thus had an easier task in creating Raskolnikov, the brooding ax-killer of Crime and Punishment, than he did in creating Alyosha, the only virtuous figure in a family of miscreants in The Brothers Karamazov. This is not to diminish Raskolnikov, he is a powerful figure of darkness and depravity. It is simply to say that it is harder to make Alyosha as scintillatingly good as Raskolnikov is bad. And it is nearly impossible to conceive of a world in which the reverse would be true.

James R Edwards, The Divine Intruder, NavPress, 2000, pp.109-110.  

We Need a New Story

This quote from the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich is both extremely insightful and filled with potential for those individuals and communities who grasp the power of stories to change lives. The gospel of Jesus Christ is at its core the story of God’s love for a broken world and His desire for His adopted people to become members of his own family.

This story (the gospel) was powerful enough to overtake an empire (Rome) and change the course of history. Where communities of faith have atrophied or become stale because of the status quo, remembering the story and making the story central to their identity might just be what is needed to cause revitalization and personal renewal.

Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step.… If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story. 

Ivan Illich, “Storytelling or Myth-Making? Proclamation, Invitation, & Warning, July, 2007.

What Sort of a Tale Have We Fallen Into?

“Yes, that’s so,” said Sam. “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose its often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it.

“I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”

“I wonder,” replied Frodo. “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, single-volume edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p.696).

Willing Suspension of Disbelief?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously declared that experiencing a story—any story—requires the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.” In Coleridge’s view, a reader reasons thus: “Yes, I know Coleridge’s bit about the Ancient Mariner is bunk. But in order to enjoy myself, I have to silence my inner skeptic and temporarily believe that the Ancient Mariner is real.

Okay, there! Done!” But…will has so little do with it. We come in contact with a storyteller who utters a magical incantation (for instance, “once upon a time”) and seizes our attention. If the storyteller is skilled, he simply invades us and takes over. There is little we can do to resist, aside from abruptly clapping the book shut.

Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, HMH Books.

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Story. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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