Tell Me a Story

Everybody loves a good story. It doesn't matter whether it's drama, adventure or fantasy, historical or science fiction -- even non-fiction. Certainly both the form and content of any story will reflect the variety of human culture, historical experience, and perspective. But storytelling is part of what it means to be human. It is at the core of what is common to all of us. Stories powerfully entertain, instruct, and inspire. They even have to the power to form a lasting human communities--that is, if they are well told.

In this digital age, we are bombarded daily with stories of every genre and kind. Many of us move seamlessly from office computer, to car radio, to cell phone, home cable television and internet, email and, strangely enough, the U.S. mail. The quantity of what we're told has dramatically increased. The quality? Well, that's another matter. The sheer volume of what we hear in one form or another almost guarantees that most of what we're exposed to is simply pap. That is what our world can churn out quickly enough to keep getting our attention, if only for a moment. Good stories, and good storytelling, takes time--more time than we seem willing to give.

I've often criticized what I consider to be an inordinate drive in our culture towards entertainment. But perhaps beneath all the dehumanizing sensationalism of our society is the very human need for good stories and good storytellers. Perhaps all that sensationalism even testifies to that need. The truth is that we no longer need to hear a story that will lull us to sleep, but one that will awaken us to the possibilities of human life and personhood.

As Catholic Christians, we ought to know that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most compelling story ever told. (Sometimes, though, I just wish we'd tell it as if we ourselves were convinced of that!) But how can we tell our story well? Or at least, how might we tell the Good News of the Gospel better than we often do?

Before we even open our mouths, we ought to recognize that good stories can be told poorly, and bad stories can be told well. The fact that Christianity is the best story doesn't give us an edge on how well we tell it. Still, there are principles of good storytelling that can apply as much to communicating our faith as they do to writing the next bestseller or great American novel.

First, we're best at telling something we've known personally, not just something we've researched or read about. In other words, the best stories are often told in the first person. "I've experienced salvation and grace in Jesus," is far more powerful and convincing than "Jesus offers salvation to the world." A second characteristic of good evangelism, (and that is what we are ultimately talking about here), is a preference for "show" over "tell." We receive a message best when we can visualize it. Because actions speak louder than word, we need to make sure that the life of Christ as we tell it is living and active. Third, a story is better told through dialogue than it is through narrative. That is because dialogue is interaction between persons, not just a single perspective articulated in a vacuum. Faith is all about God's dialogue with humanity. It is a conversation with the Divine within and between hearts, not a lecture in a hall.

The most critical thing, though, is to make sure that the story we're telling is truly ours to tell. That is, we ought to recognize that only Christians can give an effective account of salvation in Christ. Hans Urs Von Balthasar wisely stated, "Theology is done on one's knees." To me, it seems equally true that the life of Christ can be well told only by one who is committed to living it. The more fully we ourselves own and are owned by Jesus, the more fully we allow him to live his life in and through us, the more compelling our "telling" of that story will be. Jesus instructed his disciples not to be merely "hearers of the Word," but "doers of the Word." Proclaiming the Word is not speaking it, but doing it. That is a story the whole world still longs to hear.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an inspirational author, speaker, musician and serves as an Associate Children's Editor at Pauline Books and Media.