I remember visiting my Grandmother when I was a young. She’d often make fried apple pies and there was nothing like them. Many times when I’d visit, my Great Grandfather, her dad who we all called Grandpaw Henderson, would be sitting at the table. I knew he was about to tell me a story, maybe several.
I was young and I had little patience. Grandpaw was in his 90’s and had time to spare. I didn’t understand the value of the stories he told. My Great Grandfather Henderson lived 106 years. He was born the 17th of August, 1885. His dad was a Confederate veteran. My Grandpaw Henderson told stories, a wealth of treasures I neglected. I wish I had listened intently and inquisitively.
My Maternal Grandad was also a storyteller. He was a man of few words about some important topics though. An important part of his life, his experiences in World War II, were too painful for him to talk about. My youth prevented me from understanding that. I longed for those stories and neglected the ones he told that were just as relevant.
I wish I had those days back…
The art of storytelling
Storytelling is an art that takes practice. Just like a musician or painter, a storyteller refines his work. Good artists practice to make their work better, more appealing. Good art grabs the attention of the hearer or onlooker. Artists speak through their medium, communicating through pictures, melodies, or words. The best artists hold our attention long after the music fades or we have left the museum.
Storytelling is the same. A good story told well will not be forgotten easily. It will reverberate or even haunt the listener long after the story is told. The best of these stories, if told well, impact the hearer and even change them. A story told well can do all of this and leave the audience wanting more.
The strength of storytelling
The strength of storytelling is the ability to artfully communicate truth in a way that connects with people personally. That’s because the best stories are personal.
Just like music, the best stories have three things in common. They are about a real and specific time, place, and people. This means that the best storytellers must have a real story to tell. Often complicated, sometimes untidy, stories anchored in real people and places bring the audience into the story as a participant. The strength of storytelling doesn’t reside in obscurity or melodrama.
A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell them to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning.-Flannery O’Connor
This has always been an inherent strength of Southern people. They have a real story to tell. That was the strength of early Country music and Rock and Roll. It undergirded classics like Gone With the Wind. The strength of storytelling lies behind the wrinkled faces of many a grandparent. The reality of their experiences are what drives the virtue of our culture and the coarseness of time has worn off the edges of whatever might otherwise be offensive.
Winning the person
Storytelling is inherently inoffensive. When we tell good stories, people are brought into our struggle with us. That’s a hard place to pass judgement on us. Christians ought to keep that in mind. If we can learn anything that may be considered true and valuable from our Southern elders, we should learn to be storytellers who are difficult to dislike because our stories are real.
Storytelling is personal. Our stories ought to come from our lives. We are real people, saved by a real Person. He, not our virtue signaling, is the object of our faith. We need to communicate that better.
Culture vs Ideology
Christianity cannot be separated from its doctrine, but it is not essentially a set of ideals. Christians ought to avoid becoming ideologues. In that sense, making our stories personal is appealing, rather than offensive. We are real people with a real story and a real Saviour.
Storytelling is not merely intellectual. As I mentioned earlier, real stories don’t come tied neatly with a ribbon. They are complicated because life is complicated. In that respect, our stories ought not be melancholy. They ought to resemble reality.
Reality is appealing to real people. Our stories, if told well and honestly, will be too. Stories are not merely intellectual lessons in virtue. They are reflections of life in all of its messiness.
Tell stories like the Master
Christians ought to practice telling stories that present the audience with that messiness and a need for virtue, but also the hope of Christ. Good Christian storytellers do that in a way that’s almost irresistible. It’s a strong apologetic. That’s the strength of storytelling.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jesus. Jesus was a storyteller, known worldwide for his stories. They have loose-ends theologians have tried to untangle for centuries. He communicated undeniable truths though.
We ought to take a page out of his book and become good storytellers. Stories were foundational to his apologetic. They are integral to ours. Christians, especially of the Southern variety, ought to be good storytellers. We should be known for that.
“A People are not known by its statements or statistics, but by the stories it tells.”-Flannery O’Connor