Telling The Old, Old Story

by Rick Shrader

Christian literature, to be accepted and approved by the evangelical leaders of our times, must follow very closely . . . a kind of ‘party line’ from which it is scarcely safe to depart.  A half-century of this in America has made us smug and content.  We imitate each other with slavish devotion and our most strenuous efforts are put forth to try to say the same thing that everyone around us is saying.

A.W. Tozer1


As I began this season, in my normal pattern, to speak of “the Christmas story,” I found myself strangely uncomfortable with such a designation for the Incarnation.  That word, “story,” has become a most popular word for today’s communication models.  However, a quick scanning of the dictionaries confirmed my suspicion.  In a 1967 dictionary, the first synonym listed under “story” is “history,” but in a 1993 dictionary, the first synonym is “tale.”  In other words, if I use the word “story” to describe the birth of our Lord, Mary and Joseph, the angels and the shepherds, it may come across very naturally to my audience as a “tale; an anecdote; an account of imaginary past events.”2 You see the dilemma.  I can better relate to my audience by telling a “story,” but risk meaning. Or, I can explain “history,” a boring subject to today’s image-conscious generation.

We feel a right to object since the four gospels are given to us in narrative form.  But are they “story” in today’s sense of the word.  They may be (technically) “narrative” but they are emphatically “history” as any past fact is history and yet must also be narrative (if it actually “happened”).

Why are we confused about this?  I think because of a Christian exploitation of a modern error.  That modern (or postmodern) error is that history doesn’t matter as much as how the “story” of history affects you.  It is not the fact but the feeling about the fact.  Why do we think commercials appeal totally to fantasy in order to persuade us to buy?  Because we care about the facts?  As Troy Aikman ironically says, “get real!”  Now, we communicators, knowing full well how our audience is affected by story-telling, often capitalize on the method without thought of the results.

We all know the popularity of Christian fiction by the volumes in the book store.  We have all listened to contemporary music that drones on and on telling of someone’s recent dream about going to heaven and back.  A recent issue of Leadership magazine reports, “Pollster George Barna agreed on the importance of stories. ‘Busters are non-linear, comfortable with contradictions, and inclined to view all religions as equally valid.  The nice thing about telling stories is that no one can say your story isn’t true.'”3 And, of course, no one can say your story is true!

In the 40’s, C.S. Lewis lamented, “In lecturing to popular audiences I have repeatedly found it almost impossible to make them understand that I recommended Christianity because I thought its affirmations to be objectively true.  They are simply not interested in the question of truth or falsehood.”4 In the early 70’s, Francis Schaeffer warned about erasing the line between fact and fiction.  “History as history has always presented problems, but as the concept of the possibility of true truth has been lost, the erosion of the line between history and the fantasy the writer wishes to use as history for his own purposes is more and more successful as a tool of manipulation.”5

More recently, William Lane Craig has explored the problem of presenting historical knowledge.  “The narrative approach tends to ignore the intent of the original author and evaluates texts only on aesthetic or non-cognitive grounds, while the objectivist hermeneutical approach seeks to discern the author’s intent and so to penetrate more deeply into the past.  Narrative non-realists are thus unconcerned with historical truth of narratives or with what actually happened.  Indeed, it is not clear whether there really is such a thing as the past on a thoroughgoing post-modernist view.”6

The question remains:  how far do we adopt our generation’s methodology knowing that, though we are speaking their language, the further we walk this path with them the more they are unconvinced of what is real?  If we stop and insist, “we must now come back to reality and believe or not believe facts,” we risk losing the buster generation.

But it is a risk that must be taken!  As a matter of fact, it is what the New Testament calls preaching the gospel.  Roger Lundin warns, “The language of postmodernism is anything but a morally neutral tool that people of any persuasion might pick up and use to some appointed end.  Instead, that vocabulary commits its user to a very specific vision of the self, truth, and the ethical life–a vision fundamentally at odds with the most basic affirmations of the Christian creeds.”7

I love stories for stories’ sake.  But the reason I have eternal life is because of a fact of history.  God became man at a time and place.  He died and resurrected in like manner.  If I can call that a “story” it is fine with me.  If I have to choose between a happy audience and the facts of the gospel, I’ll stay with the facts.  In rhetoric, we really don’t gain by giving up.  As Chesterton said, “In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it.”

1. A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit Of God (Harrisburg:  Christian Publications, nd) 92.
2. “Story,” The Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Oxford University Press, 1993.
3. “This Is Not Your Boomer’s Generation,”  Leadership, Fall 1996, p. 17.
4. C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986) 65.
5. Francis Schaeffer, The Church At The End Of The Twentieth Century (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994) 70.
6. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 1994) 167.
7. Craig quoting Lundin, 39.