How Stories Do Their Work On Us

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.