The Power of Stories

“Long ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

All of us have experienced the power of stories.  From the bedtime story tenderly spoken while nestled in a parent’s arms to the romantic epic we see while nestled in a lover’s embrace, stories are interwoven throughout our lives.  From paintings on a cave wall to the latest big-screen blockbuster, stories have always been a part of us.  They mean something to us, they do something for us, in a way that nothing else can.

Why is this so?  While many philosophers & writers have mused about the power of stories, they all come down to this reality:  that we experience our own lives as a story— not as a textbook or a lecture or a mathematical equation, but as a story.  And since our own life is a story, that gives other stories the ability to connect with us, our own story, in a unique and powerful way.

Master story tellers have long known this truth.  What is the most printed book in the English language?  Not a book on science or math or philosophy or theology, but a story: Pilgrim’s Progress.  John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, wrote many fine books on theology, but it is his story written from a prison cell that has been read by tens of millions of people throughout the centuries.

Stories can do many things for us— make us laugh, make us cry, make us remember, and make us forget.  They touch us in as many ways as there are stories to tell. But the greatest blessing of stories lies in their power to open our eyes, move our hearts, and change our lives.

Think of the last time you had a story open your eyes.  You saw something about life that you had never realized before.  Was it about the horror of injustice, or the beauty of love?  Did it give you new clarity, new insight?  Stories have this power. 

The best example I know of a story’s power to open eyes is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  It opened up the eyes of millions to the cruelties of slavery, and became the best selling novel of the 19th century.  Many who would have never bothered to listen to an anti-slavery speech or analyze columns of statistics on the number of slaves read this story, which President Lincoln would later credit as the reason the Civil War started.

Because stories connect with our own story, they also do something that mere facts and figures cannot: they move our hearts.  We do not cry at the end of a math lesson; our hearts have never soared upon reading a grammar textbook.  It is the very nature of story to reach deep into our hearts, open them, and then move them. 

I think that is a reason that Jesus so often used the power of story in his teaching.  He did not simply tell us that God loved us; He gave us the story of the Prodigal Son.  He did not simply tell us to love even the unlovely; He gave us the story of the Good Samaritan.  Most of all, He lived the story of his own life, from birth to ministry to death to resurrection, giving us “the greatest story ever told.”

Because stories open our eyes and move our hearts, they also have the potential to change our lives.  I think that should be the ultimate purpose of any good story: to open up a time and space in our lives for us to consider who we are and who God is, to open our eyes and move our hearts, and then let our lives be changed as a result. 

Life is all about change. Change is how we grow; change is how we become people of love and strength and wisdom.  Stories play a vital role in how we can change throughout our lives. Indeed, the story of Jesus shows us the path to a change that brings life with God forever.

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