The Art of Storytelling

Back in February of 2010, I had the opportunity to hear Andrew Peterson lecture on "The Place of Imagination in God's Kingdom" at Southern Seminary's Institute for Christian Worship. Peterson is a Contemporary Christian music artist and the author of the Wingfeather Saga, a fantasy fiction series for young adults.

Here are links to the audio versions of his two lectures:

My biggest take away from Peterson's lectures were six points he made about the art of great storytelling.  I've kept them, and I like to regularly review them and consider my teaching. As we think this month about telling Old Testament stories, I think it's time to review them again. Here we go:

1. All great stories have a “joyous turn.” That's the point at which you think the bad guys are going to win the day and good is going to be vanquished forever – but suddenly everything changes! The incarnation of Christ is the “joyous turn” in the human story, and the “joyous turn” of the incarnation story is the resurrection. It is the decisive moment everything turns around – death is defeated and God’s new creation is ushered in. From this point forward, the enemy’s end is certain. All good, engaging stories work like this! Even twisted horror stories – like the great ones by Stephen King  – are so excellent because they play on our expectation that a story should have a joyous turn. But, in the horror story, the turn takes you in the opposite direction. 

2. Life itself may be best understood as a story. We understand our place in God’s kingdom better when we understand we are characters or players in the Author’s larger epic. For this reason, good stories illustrate a deep and profound truth about all of life – there is hope to be had in this world, despite all appearances, because the last great enemy has been defeated and resurrection awaits both believers and the entire creation. The great joyous turns of life are written into life’s very fabric. As Luther has said, “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection not in books alone but into every leaf in springtime.”

Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection not in books alone but into every leaf in springtime.
— Martin Luther

3. You cannot have a good story without conflict.   Writing great stories, as Donald Miller has said, involves chasing your main characters up a tree and throwing stones at them. On a more personal level, you begin to understand your own story better when recognize this profound truth. We begin to understand and find comfort in the midst of our own suffering when we discover a way to reconcile where we find ourselves in this world with what the Author of our stories tells us about himself. He tells us that he’s good. He tells us he is at work in all things to bring about good for us, and he tells us we should trust him. Seeing how a story works gives us the ability to see above the fray and imagine what God could be up to. Stories remind us that our lives and our suffering too are going somewhere.

4. Stories open our eyes to the real world beyond our sightIf we adults are honest, most of us do not use our imaginations in the ways that we did when we were kids. We may daydream about a new job, a new iPhone, or a new home, but we certainly don’t spend our time thinking about dragons, fairies, swords, and giants. As we grow up, we start to forget what it’s like to use our imaginations for good both because we think we’ve got the world figured out and because we begin to lose the sense of wonder that captured us as children. The older we get the more our eyes are drawn only to what’s in front of us, and we fail to remember there is an entire world beyond what our eyes can see! We often fail to remember there is a real battle raging in the spiritual realm—even when the fruits of this battle are being played out in our fantasies.  Because we’ve forgotten to dream about fighting against the powers of darkness, we forget this is what Christians do. Fairy tale darkness experienced through great stories is meant to shed light on life as it really is in the present—life in a fallen world, which is presently ruled by evil principalities and powers, with whom we are at war.

Fairy tales do not tell children dragons exist. Children already know dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children dragons can be killed.
— G. K. Chesterton

5. Stories inspire hope by giving us a “peek” at the end. Despair is not just a sin theologically—because it assumes that the grand story is about us.  It’s also a mistake because it assumes we know the end of the story. In her book Spiritual Parenting, Michelle Anthony wrote, “We often don’t tell our kids about the end of the story… Maybe we think it’s too bloody or too intense, or maybe we don’t understand it all, but in reality it makes Jesus the kind of hero worth living and dying for. Knowing that Christ is the ultimate victor gives each one of us the courage to walk with Him on the journey.” For kids, knowledge of darkness is sometimes intuitive, but they need to be told darkness can be defeated. Perhaps, G.K. Chesterton said it best: “Fairy tales do not tell children dragons exist. Children already know dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children dragons can be killed.”  When we are reading Revelation and we see the king and the white horse and the dragon thrown into the pit, we can step lighter and smile wider. Peeking at the end makes us optimistic. As the old hymn says, “Though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

6. The hope we glean  from knowing the larger story (and even smaller ones) inspires us to step into others’ stories with courage and love. Since we know how the story ends, we can “rejoice that our names are written” by persevering through trial and stepping out in love.  This doesn’t just mean talking about heaven but also bringing heaven here—pushing back the effects of the fall and casting rays of hope into the middle of the pain, the sickness, and the sorrow. Knowing how our own stories are intertwined with the story of God gives us courage to tell our own stories to those who need inspiration. Having hope inspires us to shape the stories of others.

What have you been learning lately as a storyteller? Leave a comment below to let us know.