By Walid Zailaa
Long after I hear sermons, the parts that usually remain most vividly in my mind are the pictures painted through the telling of stories. These tales oftentimes resemble my own personal stories, and through them I have learned lessons, come to decisions, and made significant U-turns in the course of my life. Simply put, stories are powerful.
Whether teaching in a seminary, preaching in a church, or studying the Bible in a study group, a narrator’s mindset is key to a transformative approach that is utterly different from conventional teaching, preaching, and Bible study formats. This mindset draws comparison reflecting the hearer’s reality today, perceives the power-dynamic effect on the audience and includes the audience as if the story of the Bible were their own stories. In this blog post, I will consider three examples from scripture of the power of stories in moving hearts to realize a hard truth and respond with repentance.
1. Draw Comparison: The Story of the Ewe-Lamb (2 Samuel 11)
When the prophet Nathan narrated the account of the ewe-lamb, he depicted David’s deep desires, secrets, and sins. Fighting for his king, not knowing about the wicked plot, Uriah died and his wife became David’s wife. Nathan pinpointed the consequences of David’s actions by drawing him into the world of a story. As it unfolds, we are struck with the rich man’s shocking act of selfishness compared to the Near Eastern tradition of hospitality. He broke the norm by taking the beloved lamb of a poor man rather than one of his own in order to honor his guest. Nathan draws David into a state of righteous anger over the rich man’s action without him noticing that this action parallels his own.
A short story aims initially to engage the listener’s interest by drawing attention away from ourselves and drawing us into the story. Ensnared by Nathan’s shrewdness, David stepped through a door, which was left open purposely, into the world of the story. He faced his reality, not just of the past, but also the future. His confident judgment of the rich man was clear self-condemnation once Nathan identified that he is the man. David leapt into the unresolved gap between the rich man and the poor man in the story, appointing himself to the role of just judge who will redress this imbalance, only to be told that the role he really plays is that of the unscrupulous oppressor. After recounting the story of the rich man who has destroyed the unity of the poor man’s family, Nathan accused David of rupturing the unity of Uriah’s family. This event in scripture is a dramatic account of the use of a short story that led to David’s self-condemnation, transformation, and repentance. Nathan’s use of a story demonstrates how divine messengers know the disarming nature of a well-told story in conveying a divine message in a timely manner.
2. Power-Dynamic Effect: The Story of the Wise Woman (2 Samuel 14)
After his encounter with Nathan, David’s story recounts how his sin is reproduced in his two sons, Amnon and Absalom. Following the murder of Amnon, Absalom was sentenced to live in exile. Nevertheless, Joab wished to help David, who had high regard for the law, to forgive his son. Joab, therefore, set the stage by sending a wise woman to recount her alleged story to the king. The plan was to have the king pass his sentence on a fictitious case and then reveal to him the similarity of the woman’s case with one of his own. The different levels of negotiations between the woman and the king showed her talent in bringing her case upfront until it reached the turning point of comparison.
Being able to tell a story that includes the audience is a vital turning point in the transformative story-telling approach. Unlike Nathan, the woman lacked the immunity of power and approached from a position of weakness. Because women in early Israel did not have political or religious power, their wisdom manifested itself by employing shrewdness and persuasiveness. Although the underlying purpose of her story was always masked, there are clear echoes of Absalom and Amnon. The law required the death penalty while the woman’s case suggested possible grounds for mercy. The wise woman might not have Nathan’s authority as a prophet but she certainly had the skill of turning a fictitious story into the base for a multi-level conversation. She had the necessary skill to bring the story to a point of comparison where the king was able to perceive that the judgment in her case could be applied to his own situation. Although the woman lacked the authority of a prophet, her narration and communication skills kept her in front of the king long enough. Each time the conversation seemingly ended, she would ask a question that opened the door for another round. The skills of telling and engaging the story progressively contributed toward achieving her goal and having her request fulfilled.
3. Include the Audience: The Story of the Vineyard (Isaiah 5)
The opening of the story depicts the disappointing vineyard that, despite all the efforts of the landlord, has yielded only bad grapes. For the contemporary readers, it is easy to understand what this vineyard represents. But, like Nathan’s story, it is not until later that Isaiah’s hearers were able to link the story to themselves. The difference between Isaiah and Nathan is that the former is dealing with a nation and the latter is addressing an individual. It is no longer an individual’s sin to deal with; the whole nation has sinned against God. The efforts involved and the time needed to cultivate the first fruit were considerable. As the story is unveiled, the hearers realized the kind of grapes this vineyard had produced: worthless ones.
The rhetorical question about the reasons behind the unexpected bad grapes has the clear tone of an indictment. The owner decides to destroy the vineyard, the walls, and the watchtower. It will grow weeds and thistles that will be eaten and trampled by cattle. Finally, the owner reveals himself, He is the Lord. The contrast between good grapes and bad grapes is explicitly spelled out in terms of justice and righteousness in contrast to bloodshed and rebellion. Like Nathan’s account in 2 Samuel 12, the storyteller asks the hearers to pass the judgment first and then to accept the judgment as it applies to themselves.
The plot of Isaiah resembles Nathan’s when he used a story to get king David to condemn his own action. Isaiah sets up his hearers to judge themselves. However, it is important to note that the self-judgement took place gradually as the story unfolded to the hearers. In this story, God the narrator disarmed the audience so that they do not quickly make the connection between Him and people. Including the hearers and bringing them to the point of seeing their life stories reflected in the narrated story is a necessary step in bringing God’s message to its transformative climax.
Stories have the power to disarm people. People get easily offended and become defensive when someone makes a direct accusation. However, with stories, people lower their guard and enter into the realm of the experience. This is well seen with David when Nathan told him the story of the poor man and his one lamb. All the rationalizations David had created for his immoral behavior against Uriah were swept away in an instant. Similarly, the wise woman through her storytelling, multi-level discussion, and negotiation skills, was able to reverse David’s decision and implicitly point to his sin of assassinating Uriah. The same is true of the story of the vineyard in Isaiah 5, which represents the disobedience of the people through the image of “bad fruits” or“bitter grapes.” Toward the end of the story, God the storyteller invited His people to judge between Him as the farmer and His vineyard only to discover at the end that they, the people of Israel and Judah, are the vineyard and their sin is the bad fruit.
Stories define us as human beings, shape us, control us, and make us because they are part of our daily life. Furthermore, stories hold the power to transform us as listeners; they take us on a journey that changes how we think, feel, or act. Nathan’s story changed David’s life by awakening him from his slumber while the woman’s story reversed his decision and cast light on his previous actions. The Isaiah story exposes the sin of the people of Israel and Judah, which will lead to a radical transformation in exile, allowing the remnant to come back in due course.
The different forms, structures, genres, and characters of stories do not undermine their transformative power. A good story simulates people’s lives, drawing them into its world where they can reflect on a parallel situation to their own, on which they are able to reflect and from which they can draw conclusions free from the self-protective reactions one might have in direct confrontation. However, a good story does not achieve its intended purpose without a skilled storyteller, be it a pastor, a teacher, or a preacher.