The value of stories

Mark Stephens on the human craving for narrative, the importance of storytellers, and the Bible's focus on story.

A new worry has gripped me. I’ve started fretting about when Netflix will run out of decent content. This may or may not have to do with my watching Will Ferrell’s Eurovision movie. You be the judge.

The older I get, the more I appreciate storytellers. I’m best described as “narratively challenged.” I prefer analysing ideas than telling a tale. That’s why storytellers are God’s gift to me. To obtain a full perspective on life, you cannot be limited to dissecting concepts. As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts it:

“[We] have never lived enough. Our experience is, without fiction, too confined and too parochial. Literature extends it, making us reflect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feeling.”

I would extend Nussbaum’s point beyond fiction to the way we tell real-life stories through biography and history. We crave narratives, tales crafted with beauty and care, because I desire to be more than entertained. I want to be changed. As Karen Swallow Prior has noted, human desire is shaped by both knowledge and experience, and to engage with stories is to have an experience.

In my own Christian tradition, it is easily passed over that more than 40% of the Bible is narrative, both history and parable. Much of it is messy, some of it quite difficult, and often it is misinterpreted. It takes patience and focus to read these narratives well. And yet the Bible’s strong focus on story is part of its enduring relevance. For our own good, we need to be shown, not just told.

So this analytical soul will keep making space for story. And I’ll keep thanking God for the gift of my storyteller friends.