Reading with my children has reminded me of a truth that years of adulthood had almost caused me to forget: that “story” is truer than “precept.” We adults tend to think that we arrive at the truth of a story by reducing it to two or three abstractions that the narrative embodies. The parable of the Prodigal Son is “about” grace and forgiveness.The Lord of the Rings is “about” courage and friendship. We listen with half an ear as the preacher reads the scripture lesson, because his sermon is going to boil it down to three basic truths anyway.
But our children know it’s the story that does the work on us, not the disembodied precept. If you don’t believe it, open up a book of Aesop’s Fables; skip the fables, and just read the morals at the end of the fables. You might just as well tell punch lines instead of telling jokes. The moral may summarize the story and bring it to a point, but the moral isn’t the point.

It’s not that abstract concepts or ideas are unimportant. Mercy, forgiveness, repentance, abundance—all the things that form the basis of Christian truth—are abstract concepts. But being mere mortals, we can’t really understand any of those things if they aren’t grounded in what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. You can talk about grace until you’re blue in the face, but you aren’t going to come up with a definition that improves on the parable of the Prodigal Son: a father, arms outstretched, welcoming a rebellious and wicked son back into his home. And the word “friendship” doesn’t mean much unless you’ve seen a friend in action—Sam Gamgee, for instance, nearly drowning himself rather than let Frodo journey to Mordor alone.

The Habit of Understanding
The moral benefit of a story goes far beyond the “moral of the story.” Almost by definition, an avid reader is in the habit of understanding what it’s like to be somebody else. Whatever the moral of the story, reading sharpens the skills of empathy, which is not only a moral virtue, but a huge advantage in any pursuit. Habit Five of Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” boils it down: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Readers, you might say, are habitual understanders. A story allows a reader to join in the inner lives of its characters. Readers aren’t mere spectators or audience members. A well-written book allows them to experience what it’s like to be another person. And isn’t that the very basis of empathy and kindness? Isn’t it a key component of love?
Our natural tendency is to close in on ourselves, to be so concerned with our own interests, our own preoccupations that we find it hard to understand another person’s perspective. More than that, we find it very hard to understand our own selves.

Consider the case of David and Bathsheba. Because I tell stories for a living, one of my heroes is the prophet Nathan. He’s the one who had the unfortunate job of confronting David about his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah.

One has to be careful when exposing a king who has already demonstrated a willingness to murder in order to keep his guilt hidden. So Nathan made up a story. He told about a rich man with many flocks and herds and a poor man who had only one little lamb that he loved like a family member. When the rich man needed a lamb to feed a visitor, he took the poor man’s pet lamb rather than slaughter one of his own.

David was enraged. He vowed that the rich man would die for this injustice. That’s when Nathan brought the truth down like a thunderstroke: “You are the man.”

It was one of the great moments in the history of fiction. Cut to the heart, David repented of his sin. And Nathan the prophet lived to tell more stories.

Nathan’s story did what all great fiction does: it took David out of himself, and it gave him an emotional attachment to what it is good and right. Nathan didn’t tell the king anything he didn’t know already. David knew it was wrong to kill a man and take his wife. But he had built for himself a little world of self-justification and self-protection and self-indulgence that made it possible for him to ignore the moral facts of the matter. Nathan’s story took him out of that world and let him see what it looked like from the outside.

Loving the Right
As the prophet Nathan knew, it’s not enough to know what’s right. People have to desire what’s right before they’ll do it consistently. Stories have a unique ability to shape a person’s sympathies—to change what they desire.

I love the Narnia books. I think what I love most about them is the fact that they give us a chance to renew the way we feel about things we’ve known all our lives. If you’ve been paying attention in Sunday School, you already know all the theology in the Narnia books. They don’t give you new facts to chew on. They help align your feelings and desires with regard to the facts you already know.

Instead of giving you a lecture on the importance of staying warm, Lewis builds a fire and says, “Here—feel this. Doesn’t that feel good?” You can hardly help but love Aslan for the things he says and does. You can hardly help but desire what’s good and right and true.

A virtuous life is a life of adventure—of facing challenges, standing firm, rescuing the powerless, righting wrongs. A good adventure story dramatizes that adventure and makes it seem like the sort of life that nobody would want to miss out on. It doesn’t just tell the reader what’s right; it helps the reader towant what’s right.

Real life doesn’t always feel like a great adventure. Sometimes doing the right thing is rather dull. Great adventure stories remind us that in the end, the choices we make every day are the stuff of greatness. The world is changed by people who choose to tell the truth, to show kindness, to be courageous.

Our natural tendency is to burrow into our own little lives and so lose perspective on what really matters and what’s really true. Our good deeds start to seem irrelevant, and our bad deeds start to seem like they’re no big deal. We all need to step outside ourselves now and then—perhaps to try out another, better self, or perhaps, as David did, to see our own situation from another viewpoint.

  • […] a little gem from his How Stories Do Their Work on Us post: Instead of giving you a lecture on the importance of staying warm, Lewis builds a fire and […]

  • Terri DeFoor
    1:55 AM, 19 August 2010

    Amen, Dr. Rogers. I loved your Trilogy, and have given the books to several children I know. I also loved your book on The Chronicles of Narnia. I re-read the books as I read yours. One of my favorite of your commentaries was the description of Edmund as he is walking toward the White Witch’s castle. Edmund has to struggle to stay on the wrong road, but he does it with great determination. Just like all us prodigals are wont to do. We fight and claw to do things our way at all costs. I’ve read what you said in that section of your book out loud to more than one of my grown children, as well as to myself. One can, of course, readily feel Edmund’s determination, even while our reading hearts are screaming for him to turn around and forget that pile of Turkish Delight. But a little well-placed commentary is good for us all.

  • Jason Shipman
    2:05 AM, 7 September 2010

    You’re a good man. High on my short but distinguished list of storytellers. Thanks.

  • Laura Peterson
    5:49 PM, 21 November 2010

    Yes, yes, yes! Thanks for this post. Reading this was a welcome reminder that stories give me “a chance to renew the way we feel about things we’ve known all our lives.” I need to NOT forget that.

  • S.D. Smith
    1:49 AM, 12 May 2011

    This is fantastic. I have always thought so. I read from it in my small group tonight. Thanks.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      2:21 AM, 12 May 2011

      Aw, thanks, SD. Glad to hear you like it…and that you shared it with your small gp.

  • Fellow Traveler
    1:17 PM, 18 July 2011

    You’re getting at something Joseph Conrad address brilliantly in his _Preface to the Nigger of the Narcissus_, which is quite possibly my favorite piece about writing ever. You’re both describing the same principle: Great art must show, not tell.

  • Julie Silander
    5:54 PM, 18 July 2011

    I try not to be preachy, but if I was, this would be one of the sermons.  I love story.  I love that my children have been swept up in its power.  Thank you.

  • sally apokedak
    2:25 PM, 19 July 2011

    I’ve probably read this six times and I love it every time. 

  • luaphacim
    12:31 AM, 20 July 2011

    Excellent essay – spot on in how it describes the power of stories. 
    This makes me think back to my graduate school days, when I took a seminar in metaphor theory.  

    Many theorists believe that language and thought are constrained by our perceptions of the physical world.  In other words, no matter how abstract our ideas get, we will always understand them metaphorically in terms of physical experiences.  

    I think that’s why stories can be so powerful: they bring us back through the whole process as we identify with the characters.  We start with the vivid, concrete details that every good fiction writer includes, move to forming some sort of gestalt understanding of the situation, and then end up somewhere between reflection and decision as we consider the story’s problems and their resolution. 

    Our capability to move from concrete to abstract is one of the most remarkable things about humans.  It’s amazing how God gave us this intellectual skill-set, and equally amazing that we can gain so much from made-up stuff. 

  • Dan R.
    2:52 PM, 21 July 2011

    This may have already been said somewhere else, but I’ll say it here.I watched the last Harry Potter movie last night, and I think this essay, especially the first part, hits somewhere near the heart of why, throughout the whole movie, I kept thinking that it didn’t measure up to the book: the movie just wasn’t as good a story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get a Quote