Unpublished: Addicted to Stories

In my limited experience in writing books and speaking and in my much greater experience in reading best-selling Christian books and listening to popular Christian speakers I've noticed something.

Stories sell.

If you are, say, a pastor or a church planter and you want to write a best-selling book or be a popular speaker you need to have a lot of good stories. Funny stories of your mishaps. Stories where you learn something important in an unexpected way or from an unlikely teacher. Stories that move people emotionally.

And maybe a person doesn't set out to be an author or a speaker. But something huge happens to them. Suddenly, they have this huge, dramatic story to tell. So a book deal comes along with the associated speaking tour.

None of this is bad, but our addiction to stories can be problematic. Emotionally and intellectually.

Emotionally, a captivating story can move you deeply. How many of us have listened to a speaker who just ripped our guts out with a powerful story? The seduction here is that by evoking strong emotions a story can make us feel, temporarily, like we've been changed. But we haven't. We've felt something deeply, but our habits haven't changed. Odds are, 48 hours after hearing that gut wrenching story, we are back to our old self.

Intellectually, stories can make you feel like you've learned something when you haven't. You might read, say, a church growth book. In the book you'll hear all sorts of stories about how this church went from ten members to ten-thousand. It's all very inspirational and motivational, all those stories, but when you put the book down can those stories be replicated in your own experience? Same goes for business and parenting books. Lots of stories of successes and failures, but little of it adds up to something concrete you can use in your own life. You're a different sort of person in different circumstances. Those stories can't be or won't be your stories. So after reading all those stories you're still standing at Square One.

In short, because stories give us an emotional or intellectual buzz I think we can become addicted to stories. Addicted to the buzz we find ourselves moving from story to story looking for the next mind-blowing or tear-inducing tale. And the Christian publishing and speaking industries are geared to keep these stories coming, to keep us buying and consuming more and more stories.

But in the face of all this consumption the question presents itself: How do we move from story consumption to spiritual formation, behavioral change and habit formation?

--from an unpublished post ruminating on how feeling moved and inspired by a good story so rarely translates into the hard sacrificial drudgery of Christian discipleship

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

20 thoughts on “Unpublished: Addicted to Stories”

  1. OK, I'm walking into it, eyes wide open; but, this is my story. However, one with a lesson learned.

    I grew up in a family of worriers. We lifted worry to an art form; there is no denying it. Yet, when I became a young preacher I was determined to cure myself. So, I bought the book, THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING by Norman Vincent Peale. I read it, and read it again. I was getting this down.

    In the mean time I was ministering at a church in a farming community; loved the folks. It was a joy visiting with the farmers and their families. One day I stopped in to see a farmer who was having problems, family as well as with his crops, obviously worried sick regarding both. He would say over and over again, "I know I shouldn't worry like this". So, I went into my book learning spiel. After a few minutes this kind gentleman looked at me and said, "Preacher, I know you fellows have to say 'Don't worry, be positive'. But, to be honest with you, all I have to do to mess up a day, or a week, is to start fooling around with positive thinking". That stopped me cold. Because, that was me. In spite of all the bits and pieces of that book in my head, when I was listening to the farmer, I was looking at, and listening, to me. So, I stopped for a few seconds, took a breath, apologized, and just talked; we simply talked.

    It took a while to come to grips as to what really happened. But over time I started to sense that this was one of my first and best lessons in the power of imperfection; of how real our lives become when our imperfections embrace.

  2. The other problem, the one in which I find myself, is you get to a point where you become so jaded with story that they lose virtually all power to move you. Especially the slew of obvious just so stories that dominate our culture. I frankly resent the attempt at manipulation and so reject most of them. This is somewhat of a lament, although I don't view disenchantment as necessarily a bad thing. I remember how nice it felt to be swept up and in.

  3. I think the issue is not so much the fact that we relate to stories - it's a matter of which stories get all the air time. In general, the stories that get all the attention are the ones that wrap themselves up nicely in a bow, where no matter where someone starts, it all works out okay in the end - and usually better than okay, as the speaker now has a 10,000 member church or a bazillion dollars from the tech company they founded or a best seller or whatever. It's basically the same story over and over and over again.

    I think we need more stories of the ordinary and of failure, more stories from the margins that are hard and complicated. I've done a fair bit of group therapy - and that's basically telling stories with the crappy, hard bits included. There aren't many spaces where you can share and hear stories where everything is a mess and no one know how it will end, and maybe it won't end well. You've got AA and group therapy and that's about it.

  4. What I hear you objecting to is the manipulative uses of story. However, my experience and observation is that we are fundamentally motivated to to change our behaviour through our imaginations. Story stimulates my imagination far more effectively than abstract principles. Would it be fair to say that the primary texts for spiritual formation in the church have been the stories of Jesus told in the gospels? I loved when Ray Anderson said that he wished not only Jesus words but his actions were in red letters as well.

  5. I think of stories more as a way to understand other people. So I am unsure if it is good or bad that we have a longing for relationship with others that can be used against us but no point in fighting it. I think it is one of the perks most of the time.

  6. I KIND OF agree with your premise, but not with the assertion that you're back at Square One.

    We delude ourselves if we think the act of listening to a story and having an emotional experience imparts some inherent moral virtue. HOWEVER, I think it's also true that good stories are empathy-machines, and can show us a better way - a way that can seep into our emotional selves and possibly help us to make a kinder, more other-centric decisions the next time we're in a somewhat-relatable situation.

    It's no given we'll choose kindness - but I do think that all kindness (even vicariously-experienced) does have SOME effect.

  7. I read your blog daily, and I've never disagreed before, but I do here! I agree that few individual stories make a lasting difference in our habits or behaviors (although I think some do), but an addiction to stories does change us. When we read, we meet, empathize with, and inhabit characters who are fundamentally different from ourselves. We find words for what we believe so deeply we are unable to articulate it. Through stories, we develop the habit of looking at situations from multiple points of view. We begin to consider our own character as the protagonist in our life stories, and hopefully we allow that consideration to shape our actions to some extent. My addiction to stories has made me a more compassionate and faithful person!

  8. The story or the abstraction? Which is the best way to "stir up/provoke/stimulate/motivate one another toward love and good works?" An old and worthy question. Perhaps the best answer is either, both, neither, depending upon the learning style of the one who's listening/reading. I hasten to add that a story to illustrate an abstract point is more likely to be effective, as evidenced by Christ's frequent use of a good story and what we know about adult learning styles.

  9. Ravi Zacharias would disagree wholeheartedly with this post. His talks are mostly stories, linked together in a powerful, memorable way.

  10. No worries at all about any pushback. There's a reason these posts were unpublished. After writing them I didn't now if I agreed with what I wrote...so...I left it unpublished.

    So, yes, stories are important, central and vital. We can't live without them. Human are narrative animals. But there is something to ponder here--how stories give us a buzz, and how the Christian media industry is built around this buss--about the connection between story and spiritual formation. And, personally, I don't know if that linkage is given much attention.

  11. One of my homiletics professors said, "the problem with stories is that they work." He was nibbling around what you've written here. My issue is that I see myself primarily as a story-teller. I was in a group of preachers prepping for a major conference in 2016. An older gentleman in the group, "Well, the thing about stories is that they have to be controlled."

    For me, all this means is that story-telling is a tension that must be managed. As a communicator, I know how easy it is manipulate through stories. At the same time, it's nearly impossible to inspire people without them.

  12. In our therapeutic church culture in North America, the stories that addict are very often stories of *self-improvement* and *institutional renewal*.

    Tony Campolo's story of the diner birthday party for the Hawaiian hooker, for all its greatness, would have a different quality if it were told by the hooker and included her messy story both before and after the -- sorry, I can't resist -- white man's heroic self-insertion, victory, and extrication.

    My pastor preached Sunday (the first of Lent, and after this post originally appeared) and shared his own story of the tensions between activism and apathy, between passion and nonviolence. He stressed how the tensions are never eased, and the temptations to violence never go away, just as Jesus experienced in the gospels. That story, coming from an authority figure, with its lack of resolution, spoke powerfully to the congregation.

  13. yes & in the back of the big book (alcoholics anonymous) are LOTS of stories, gritty, unglamorous about ppls struggeling w/ addiction.

  14. that is such a good question! i like best the stories of ppl who encounter barriers to living b/c of structural violence. ppl who, for one reason or another, are painted into a corner, experience a double bind decision, damned if you do damned if you don't ppl, places & things. I look for the solution in those most hopeless cases where seeking, knocking, asking, taking it to the lord in prayer & turning it over yields a way where there wasn't one. The intervention of the holy spirit is real and helps real ppl.

  15. empathy comes to one who has embraced and learned from their pain. This is a loose interpretation from psychologist Robert grant. I think it's only then that honesty can bridge the gap b/t ppl who suffer & seek to live in the solution. I can't teach what I don't know, or am in denial abt. I find I am likely to project my pain & violence on vulnerable ppl if I am not caught up on my own inventory of character flaws & disconnected from the reality of help from the holy spirit.

Leave a Reply