Everybody loves a good story. That may be cliché, but only because it’s universally true.

Long before anyone thought to record history or study nature, people were telling stories. The oldest cultural artifacts of the ancient world, both in words and images, preserve dramatic tales of cosmic creation and human origins, of titanic struggles between gods, monsters and heroes.

Over time, changing tastes and technologies have shaped the form and content of our stories: epic poems, stage plays, songs, operas, novels, films, TV shows, video games, ad campaigns. Taken together, they testify to the unflagging power of stories to capture the imagination and move the heart.

Such power naturally brings with it a level of caution, especially among Christians. And there’s wisdom in that. We understand that the content of every story reflects the world view of its author and the culture in which it was produced. That world view will either harmonize or clash with the Christian perspective, to one degree or another. In this sense, there’s no such thing as a neutral story.

Our Creator has wired us to respond to stories

Even so, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that our Creator God has wired us to appreciate and respond to stories. This is borne out across cultures throughout history, in our own experience, and by the Bible itself. The majority of the Scriptures – most of the Pentateuch, all of the historical books, a good chunk of the prophets, the Gospels, Acts and Revelation – are in the form of narrative. In other words, God has chosen to reveal himself and speak to us primarily by means of stories – true stories, to be sure, but stories nonetheless.

This is not by accident, but by design. More than any other form of communication, stories resonate with us, stick with us. We’re moved, inspired and changed by them.

Many of us can recall a time when we’ve tried to read through the Bible from the beginning. The stories in Genesis and Exodus captured our interest and kept us engaged, but once we hit the legal codes in Leviticus, we got bogged down.

What happened? We found the narrative portions of Scripture enjoyable and easy to assimilate, but the other parts were harder work requiring more concerted effort. That’s why most of us remember events from the lives of biblical figures more vividly than ceremonial food laws, for example. It’s also why modern marketers prefer to use stories rather than info dumps to communicate their message and persuade their audience.

God’s grand story: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration

Our natural affinity for stories goes deeper still. It’s not just that God has made us receptive to stories, or that he’s recorded most of his Word for us in narrative form. The timeless, eternal God has fashioned reality itself in the shape of a story that plays out over time and history. Events follow events, actions have consequences, causes have effects. There’s a beginning, middle and end. This overarching world narrative has a discernible plotline: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. It’s the ultimate story that gives shape and meaning to all others.

For Christians who tell stories – whether in sermons, songs, blogs, novels, or to their kids at bedtime – there are some major implications here. First off, stories aren’t an optional add-on to “real life.” They’re not window dressing or a pleasant waste of time that could be better spent. Nor are they simply a container for delivering a message; they are in fact part of the message. They’re part of who we are as created beings. They’re an indispensable way for humans to convey the image of God and communicate truth.

In light of this, Christian storytellers shouldn’t feel constrained to tell only “Christian” stories in the narrow sense, limiting themselves to overtly religious themes. All of creation is a legitimate source for story ideas. Hence authors and artists are free to use their gifts for the glory of God by producing work of integrity, honesty and beauty, regardless of its subject matter. In the words of Francis Schaeffer, “The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”

The need for discerning enjoyment of stories

For the rest of us who receive the stories others create, there are implications as well. Rather than approaching stories – especially secular ones – with a default attitude of suspicion, we’d be better served by sharpening our faculties of discernment, both in terms of content and aesthetics. We mustn’t settle for stories just because they’re “clean” and have a “good message.” We need to appreciate beauty and artistic excellence in whatever form we find it.

It can be tempting to live at the extremes – either to reject all “non-Christian” stories as inherently dangerous, or to embrace them all in the name of cultural relevance. Taking a medial position somewhere along the spectrum can be trickier. It requires careful thought and prayerful engagement with Scripture, culture and conscience to draw those lines through the grey areas.

Yet that’s precisely what we’re called to do. An overly suspicious attitude denies the fact that stories are an intrinsic part of God’s good world. It dishonours the Creator and misses out on a gift he’s given for our enjoyment and edification. At the same time, an overly permissive approach fails to recognize that our capacity for stories has been tainted by the fall. It forgets that the world view behind a story is never neutral – it either points us toward God or away from him.

Most of the stories we encounter are neither black nor white. They contain a complex blend of truth and error, beauty and ugliness. To the extent that they echo some facet of the Christian world view and drive us to worship God is the extent to which we can – and should – receive them with gratitude.

God has commanded his people through the Apostle Paul, “Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9). Oftentimes it will take divine grace and wisdom to sift the one from the other and to obey both commands in equal measure.

Sources and further reading

Joe Carter, “Unsolicited advice from a failed filmmaker,” The Gospel Coalition, May 10, 2012.

Mike Cosper, “Create culture, not subculture,” The Gospel Coalition, May 10, 2012.

Mike Cosper, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth, Crossway, 2014.

Brian Godawa, “Don’t discard drama for words,” The Gospel Coalition, May 10, 2012.

Brian Godawa, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment, InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Brian Godawa, Word Pictures: Knowing God Through Story and Imagination, InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Tim Keller, “Making sense of the stories we tell,” The Gospel Coalition, September 18, 2014.

C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.

Brett McCracken, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty, Baker Books, 2013.

Leland Ryken, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, WaterBrook Press, 2002.

Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible: Two Essays, InterVarsity Press, 1973.

Matt Smethurst, “We’re story addicts: Mike Cosper on TV, movies, and the hearts that love them,” The Gospel Coalition, September 12, 2014.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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