Words and stories have a unique way of shaping readers’ minds and helping ideas stick. Throughout the scriptures biblical characters tell fictional stories to get their point across. Nathan tells David a parabolic narrative to help the king recognize the weight of his sin with Bathsheba, and some of Jesus’ most revolutionary ideas come through stories such as the good Samaritan or the prodigal son.
Unfortunately, the art of storytelling is less relevant today in some circles. Cultural movements like the enlightenment, scientific progress, and modernism helped people gain an appreciation for cold hard facts which sit at the top of the hierarchy of truth. With such a mindset, the truest things are the ones that a person can prove or touch, hear, taste, smell, and see. Tangibility and empirical evidence reign supreme and stories have been pushed to the side as merely a piece of entertainment, a hobby if one can find the time.
Some artists and writers continue to fight for the value of good stories. Marilynne Robinson, one such advocate, even uses the art of storytelling within her Pulitzer Prize winning book Gilead to illustrate the value of good stories.
The novel, written as a letter from the dying Reverend John Ames to his young son, has deeply impacted readers for well over a decade by bringing them to a place where they care about the elderly reverend. Ames, nearing the end of his life, recognizes that he will not get the opportunity to watch his young son grow up, so he embarks on a mission to reveal himself through stories he writes down for his son to read once he’s older. Ames’ hopes that even after he’s gone, his life can live on through his stories.
While this makes for a wonderfully heartwarming story, Gilead stands out for another reason.
As readers engage with Ames’ stories, they start to develop a sense of his personality, too. His fictional life becomes real to readers, and the ideas and messages he wants to instill in his son begin to enter into the reader’s mind as well.
For instance, Ames doesn’t directly say “it’s very important for a caring individual to listen to the differing perspectives of others,” but that principle comes across through the stories he chooses to tell his son. He cites many theologians and philosophers and regularly quotes poetry and scriptures. Perhaps the most intriguing thinker he often mentions is Ludwig Feuerbach, the 19th century atheist philosopher and anthropologist. He even goes so far as to set a Feuerbach book aside for his son to read in the future, which reveals a great deal about how the Iowa pastor values engaging with challenging material.
A Bigger Picture
In essence, Ames’ wants his son to know him after they are no longer together. For orthodox Christians, this will likely sound familiar. God, our true “Father” has revealed his character and nature through the written words of the Bible.
Like Ames, God does not reveal every single detail to His readers. We Christians still have plenty of lingering questions. But God does include the information necessary for people to know Him. Like Ames’ son, we can know our true father through the stories he has handed down to us. Gilead reminds readers that it is possible to build a relationship with someone by engaging with their revealed, written words. It shows us how stories can help us renew our minds.
In Paul’s letters to the Romans, he instructs them not to be conformed to the ways of the world, but to instead be transformed by the renewal of their minds (Romans 12:2). Good stories can renew minds; they can expand imaginations and help people see things in a new way.
But readers have to take them seriously. We have to pay attention.