Story telling

May 27, 2009    By: Matt W. @ 9:08 pm   Category: Life

One place I think there is a big gap in theology and religion is the place of story-telling. Why, if it is so important that we have this life, do we spend so much time reading, watching, playing, listening to stories of other lives? What is the place of fiction and fantasy in God’s great plan? Does it have a place, or is it just pointless enjoyment? Sometimes, it can be a problem, like when I almost dropped out of college when Final Fantasy VII came out and I didn’t go to school for a month. Sometimes it can be a big problem. But other times, it can be such a blessing. Like when I decided it was ok not to be an atheist while reading the Fantasy Novel “Beyond Ragnarok”.

So what role does art, and particularly fictional stories, play in our theology?


  1. Men are that they might have joy. Stories bring us joy.

    (Plus they teach us lessons, remind us of our history, and serve a whole host of other useful purposes)

    Comment by Geoff J — May 27, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

  2. Can you imagine the library of movies that we will have access to once we pass through the veil. I would bet that if there is a Critic’s Guide to the Movies in Heaven, that our movies wouldn’t even make the top 1E9 listings.

    Heck how about listening to music in the Adamic Language…

    May have to go check out Beyond Ragnarok.

    Comment by Mike M — May 28, 2009 @ 12:58 am

  3. Rod Dreher had this post a while ago:

    The Tolkein and CS Lewis section was particularly interesting. Quote:

    Myths, Lewis told Tolkien, were “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”

    “No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.” Far from being lies they were the best way — sometimes the only way — of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor, whereas materialistic “progress” leads only to the abyss and the power of evil.

    Comment by Dan Ellsworth — May 28, 2009 @ 4:30 am

  4. The more useful term is “narrative,” and there has been a lot of discussion of what it is and how it enters into scripture and theology. Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) comes to mind.

    “Storytelling” (not “story telling”), as a term, carries the unfortunate connotation of an oral recitation directed at a group of children, like what happens Tuesday morning at your local library. Or like Bilbo telling the story of his encounter with the trolls to an enthralled group of wide-eyed hobbit children in the opening scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring.

    Comment by Dave — May 28, 2009 @ 6:41 am

  5. Geoff: I guess I can live with the purpose just being ‘happiness’ with a potential pinch of education, but then there is the whole balancing question of whether story ever ought trump real life experience in terms of value.

    Mike M: If you do, your reaction may be “How’d he get that out of this?”

    Dan Ellsworth: That’s great, I’ll definitely read that post when I get some time.

    Dave: Ouch. Sorry for the whole use of the word story thing. I’ll continue so as to show my shame to the world. In any case, Biblical Narrative seems like a bit of a cheat hear. To be clear, I’m talking about why I spend a couple hours sitting on my but watching Lost*. I don’t think that’s been addressed by The Art of Biblical Narrative?

    *- For the record I started watching Lost last week. I got half way through Season 1, got worried for the pregnant girl’s baby, and read the rest of the seasons up to current on Wikipedia.

    Comment by Matt W. — May 28, 2009 @ 7:43 am

  6. I remember when Final Fantasy VII came out while I was in high school. I played that game for almost 24 hours straight. Didn’t even sleep. Just bathroom and snack trips.

    I can’t imagine doing that now (I think I’d last only a couple hours at best), but believe it or not, it’s still a fond memory.

    Comment by Seth R. — May 28, 2009 @ 8:55 am

  7. The moral value of life is that we are presented with predicaments through which we learn to make judgments. Stories do the same thing, but much more quickly. Reading a story is like living several lives as once, as you identify with each of the characters, respond to their judgments, and even feel their emotions. You are presented with experiences you might never have in real life, and you grow as you determine how you would respond (in action or feeling) to those experiences.

    Comment by Dane — May 28, 2009 @ 9:28 am

  8. I think there is value in that it can save us some time and sad experience. If I can learn from the mistakes of others I might avoid them myself. If I can learn from the success of others, I may be able to progress faster.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — May 28, 2009 @ 9:39 am

  9. Orson Scott Card has an interesting point about this in an essay titled “Fantasy and the Believing Reader”:

    Behind the illusion of importance, however, fantasy really is important to the believing reader. The point of fantasy is not its novelty — the same conventions can be endlessly repeated because what matters is not the event, but the way the events are fit together and the importance that is given to them by the characters. Losing a finger is unfortunate; Frodo’s losing a finger is his personal redemption and the redemption of the world. And yet as soon as I express it in words like that, I have paraphrased and turned it to discourse, and therefore removed its effect. The power of fantasy is not in the fact that a sacrifice has taken place, but that the participatory reader remembers the experience of sacrificing. What makes the Riddlemaster of Hed important is not that there is an identity crisis when God turns out to be the Devil, but that I the reader remember experiencing the terror of that moment, without comfortably naming it “identity crisis”. It was myself at risk, myself who suffered. And the very subjectivity of the experience makes it resist the fashionable language of criticism today.

    Stories are what help us gain empathy for others and relate to others in ways that we would not normally be open to.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — May 28, 2009 @ 11:25 am

  10. I used to wonder why I wanted to see certain movies again. And some I want to see regularly – say yearly. I’ve come to think its because watching that movie – or story – is causing something to happen inside of me. How would I react in that situation? What would I do? Would I have that kind of dignity, or courage? And these can be deeply meaningful moments – even edifying to our real life. Good stories don’t stand alone but can connect to us is significant ways.

    Comment by Hal — May 28, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

  11. So what role does stress balls, and popcorn play in our theology?

    So what role does hanging out with friends, and singing play in our theology?

    Comment by Trevor — May 28, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  12. I think we hunger for story even more than we do for music. We’re attracted to narratives that lift us out of our myopic madness and give us a grander view of the totality of our existence. And we resonate most with such narratives that are deeply metaphorical — those that evoke inexplicable human response — something deeper than emotion or any intellectual process — something that comes from our bones. We want narrative that gets us in touch with who we really are — what we’re really made of. And that’s where story and theology connect. We barely comprehend ourselves — let alone God. And it is our ache to comprehend our humanity that drives us to drink in story — good story and not so good — to the point of overflowing.

    Comment by Jack — May 29, 2009 @ 8:25 am

  13. I view fiction as a useful way to convey a message on a level that it can be understood by it’s intended audience.

    The story of Eve being created from Adam’s rib, for instance, was on a level that the Isrealites could understand.

    My opinion only…mileage may vary.

    Comment by Bruce Johns — May 29, 2009 @ 11:13 am

  14. I was a D&D junky growing up in the 80s. Given some members’ attitudes toward D&D, I have to say that role playing games are not welcomed in the mormon culture.

    Comment by Dave C. — May 29, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

  15. Jack: This sounds great, and feels good, but why do we watch things like “seven”?

    Comment by Matt W. — May 29, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

  16. Matt, everyone is fascinated by evil and the idea that even people like you and me can succumb to become evil. I think it is as much a desire to understand ourselves and our own battles with our personal demons as anything else.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — May 29, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

  17. Dave C.,

    I think Tracy Hickman might disagree with you on that one.

    Comment by RickM — May 31, 2009 @ 5:41 pm