by Sarah Carson
There is a wealth of scientific data in support of the power of a story to make a difference.
Interestingly, it’s not just that a story itself that possesses this superpower, however, but a particular aspect of storytelling: Researchers have found that it’s the emotion behind a story that has an impact on us.
Studies show that the human brain is wired to respond to an emotionally-charged narrative. Brain scans have documented that when we hear a good story, our brain activity can sync with the brain activity of the storyteller.
Is it any wonder, then, that storytelling is such an important part of so many faith traditions?
Before the written word, storytelling was necessary to pass on one’s spiritual heritage.
And while the Christian Bible collects all manner of documents within it—including historical records, letters, songs and prayers—when we read the Bible for its stories, in particular, Lutheran theologian Mark Allan Powell says we see the “texts as mirrors that invite audience participation in the creation of meaning…[and] shape the way readers understand themselves and their own present circumstances.”
Stories help us make meaning of our lives, and emotionally impactful stories, in particular, make that meaning all the evident.
Take the story of Gideon, for example, which I still remember vividly from Sunday school.
In Judges 6, the Israelites are under the rule of the Midianites. Gideon is separating wheat seeds in a wine press (doing his threshing in secret so the Midianites won’t find his harvest) when an angel appears to him and declares: “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.”
Gideon is dumbstruck. He replies (I’m paraphrasing), “Who are you calling a mighty warrior? I am using a wine press to hide wheat from the Midianites! What about this says ‘mighty warrior’ to you?”
To test whether or not this is truly a message from God, Gideon lays out several challenges. In one, Gideon sets out a fleece and asks God to keep the grass dry and collect all of the dew on the fleece overnight. In another, Gideon asks God to do the opposite: to wet the grass, but not the fleece.
When I first heard this story, the idea that God might so tangibly answer one’s doubts was irresistible. I went home and retrieved one of my dad’s shop rags from the garage.
“God, if you’re out there,” I said, “then tomorrow morning, let the grass be dry and this rag be wet.”
Of course, in the morning, the rag and the grass were equal parts soggy. I didn’t understand how God could be so quick to answer Gideon but not me.
For some, the value of a story like this might be the literal facts of it—that a God exists who could perform such a miracle.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned that there is also great power in the emotional truths of these stories. God did not place the morning dew on my dad’s old shop rag. But when I’ve tested God in other ways—when I’ve lived by fear instead of by love or turned my back on something I may have been called to face, have I seen my own kinds of signs around me? When I’ve needed proof that I was not alone in the world, has it shown up? You bet.
When we learn to see ourselves in the stories we read or hear, we form a point of connection with others. We are able to see how we all fit into a bigger story—that we are not alone and that we have more in common than we might think.
And when we become able to see ourselves like this, we can also see how we can show up for one another.
Because even if God didn’t turn my shop rag into Gideon’s wool fleece, God has certainly showed up for me in the kindness of strangers, in the mercy shown to me by friends and family.
And when I’m able to see myself in the greater story of humanity, I’m more apt to become the stranger or the friend who shows kindness or mercy, too.
1. Are there stories from the Bible you turn to because of the emotional truth they hold? What are they? Why?
2. What stories have comforted you when you’ve had doubts or worries?
3. What characters do you see yourself in—both in the stories of the Bible and beyond?
Loving God, thank you for the gift of stories—and for the gift of each other. May we be reminded that we share far more than we remember sometimes—and may we be called to share as much as we can.