Everyone loves a good story. Tales with gripping emotions, heroic feats, epic love. Stories often allow us to escape from reality for a moment and peer into another world that is unlike our own. Other times stories become commentaries on life around us, attempting to give us meaning and direction.
But are stories more than just entertainment or artistic expression? Can stories actually influence the way we live and think?
On September 20, 2016, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary hosted the Drummond Bush Lecture at the Center for Faith and Culture with guest speaker, Mike Cosper, founder and director of the Harbor Institute for Faith and Culture in Louisville, Kentucky, who discussed the major role that stories play in our culture.
According to Cosper, stories shape our world—they affect us on deep levels and open our understanding of how we know what we know. Stories “have this way of giving a name to an experience and then simultaneously shaping that experience as the stories get passed along.”
Cosper explored how culture has been shaped over time through various stories and then offered ways Christians can be part of a culture of storytelling.
Stories Change, Culture Shifts
The prevailing story in our culture today is that of progressivism—the tale that we were once bigoted people but thankfully we have shed the gods and superstitions and now understand humanity and how it works.
“You see all kinds of stories and all kinds of ways of talking about human experience that are essentially designed to shame us away from belief,” said Cosper.
These stories tell us that there is no mystery, no spirituality, nothing outside of this world to believe in. But this was not always the case.
Citing the work of philosopher Charles Taylor, Cosper explained that around 500 years ago the world was “enchanted,” meaning ordinary life was full of mystery and the sense of the supernatural.
“The world itself was full of a certain kind of mystery. We didn’t know how the weather worked or where disease came from,” he explained. “So the way we comprehended those things…was often to tell stories, to write myths, to give names to the unknown and the mysterious.”
This way of telling stories to explain the world left people with the sense that there was much more to this world than we can see. People looked outside of themselves for answers to their deepest questions.
“Today, however, we live on the other side of a massive cultural transformation,” explained Cosper. “Today we don’t believe that our souls are vulnerable to blessings and curses and there’s more to the world than what we can see.”
This “age of disenchantment” came along with Carl Marx and others who saw religion as a tool used by the powerful to oppress the weak. Their way of looking at the world boiled down to focusing entirely on what we can see and experience in this world, leading popular thought down a road where transcendence and mystery no longer had relevance.
And so we find ourselves in a culture that says there’s a rational and material explanation for everything, leaving no room for mystery or the vulnerability of souls.
We need to learn to tell better stories.
Christians as Storytellers
Despite the cultural story of progressivism telling us that we do not need anything outside of ourselves to feel a sense of wholeness, people still seem to be looking for a better story.
“We hear these disenchanted stories that say there’s no such thing as mystery, there’s no such thing as spiritual vulnerability, there’s no consequences beyond what we have in this life,” said Cosper. “And shaped by that story, we end up looking for other stories that satisfy the way that eternity resonates in our hearts.”
So people look to fame, money, materialism, relationships and more to satisfy that longing for something more.
With all of these stories vying for people’s souls, how can Christians tell a better story that will capture the attention of the disenchanted? Cosper offers a few suggestions:
1. We need to become better readers and critics of culture. What are the stories around you? What do they hold up as valuable? Where do they point people to find meaning and fulfillment?
Cosper mentioned several things here—celebrities, home improvement shows, and reality television to name a few. What are these things trying to show us?
He noted that many Christians are concerned with content warnings—sexuality, violence and profanity—but more subtle idolatry sneaks right past these filters. Home improvement shows give us a picture of what we need to make us happy. The lives of celebrities show us that fame and wealth are ultimate accomplishments. But what they don’t often show is how these idols crush us and ultimately do not fulfill.
So we need to be more discerning about the content of the stories around us and how they affect our thinking.
2. We need to be shaped by a better story. As Cosper says, “Worldview is only transformative if it’s a way of life.”
He suggests that churches do more to learn to pray, teach children to pray and immerse people in the story of scripture rather than just consuming content.
He also says that we need to continually hear the story of the gospel in our churches, even though some caution that telling it too much will make it become rote.
A good point to consider from Cosper: “What I would point to as a counter argument is Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. How many times did they make the same movie over and over again, and how many billions of dollars did they make? People love hearing the same stories over and over again if it gives them a plausible hope for themselves, and that’s what those Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan movies did brilliantly.”
Can the gospel story do this too? It certainly offers a plausible hope beyond any Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan movie.
3. We need to learn to tell better stories. Being shaped by a different (gospel) story comes first. After we are people whose lives are transformed by the gospel, other people can encounter the story we have to tell. And this is more than creating overtly Christian art.
As Cosper explained it, Christians are reoriented to the world, and as we live we share a story that disenchanted people are going to encounter. As they do, they discover a crack in their disenchantment and open up to the possibility of transcendence, of a God who loves them and died to save them.
So we need art that allows disenchanted people to encounter these “cracks” and introduces them to this possibility.
Cosper suggested that overtly Christian media, while it serves the Christian audience, does not really participate in the broader cultural conversation.
In quoting Steve Martin, Cosper encouraged people to “be so good they can’t ignore you” or to work as craftsmen and artists to create art that “bears witness to another world” and “opens up possibilities of different ways of thinking and experiencing the world.”
Are we engaging our culture to tell a better story? It might just shape a new trend in culture that opens people to trust in Christ.