Poking at the Human Condition
It’s often said that we tell stories to know who we are—to understand ourselves and our place in the world. It’s as though all of our stories are a way for the imagination to poke at the human condition, testing its borders and depths, looking for ways to understand the why behind the what of our lives. In his memoir, author Salman Rushdie describes how his father told him old folk tales and legends, teaching him that “man was the storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told stories to understand what kind of creature it was.”
Stories help give us a sense of place. They stir our imaginations and help us to experience love, betrayal, hatred, and compassion that might be otherwise foreign. They prepare us for experiences like love, or help us process things like sorrow and suffering.
The way that we understand our lives, our relationships, our past and future is all tied up in story. Your past is not only a set of facts. It’s also a story you tell. “I was born here, I grew up here, I married there, we had our children then, and we watched them grow up.”
Your future, too, is a story, but it isn’t built upon memory. It’s a story of anticipation—hopes or fears that seem imminent and likely. “I’ll go here, I’ll do this, I’ll try that.”
Even your fantasy life, the daydreams into which you wander, is a story you tell. We drift off, playing out visions of winning the lottery, telling off our boss, fulfilling our loves or lusts, making things right with broken relationships, or escaping from the circumstances of the much less glamorous reality in which we live.
The way that we understand our lives, our relationships, our past and future is all tied up in story.
Stories both entertain and educate, occupying the mind and forming it at the same time. Uncle Tom’s Cabin stirred the compassion of a populace, turning its conscience against the institution of slavery. It was also a gripping narrative, pulling the reader along in a story that one felt desperate to resolve.
Evolutionary theorists have tried to make sense of the brain’s capacity for (and gravity toward) storytelling and fiction. Possessing a worldview that understands life through the lenses of natural selection and biological purpose, they wonder why so much human energy goes toward making up and retelling stories. Why imagination? Why fiction? Why day-dreams and oral traditions? Why is so much biological energy dedicated to the storytelling organ in our heads?
Some theorize that we evolved a capacity to imagine in order to plan for feeding, hunting, and mating, and that once the capacity evolved, we started using imagination for stories as a side effect. Others theorize that storytelling is like the feathers of a peacock—something developed to help attract mates.
It seems to me that the answer is much more simple: we were made in the image of a storytelling God.
Storytelling in the Image of God
All human creativity is an echo of God’s creativity. When God makes man, he forms him in the dirt, breathes life into him, and sends him out in the world (Genesis 2). We’ve been playing in the dirt ever since. Just as God took something he’d made, shaped it, breathed life and meaning into it, and transformed it into something new, so we set about our own business, taking creation, shaping it, and giving it new meaning and purpose. Clay becomes sculpture. Trees become houses. Sounds are arranged in time to become music. Oils, pigments, and canvas are arranged to become paintings. Various metals, glass, and petroleum products become iPhones.
The same is true of stories. There is nothing new under the sun, and our stories—no matter how fresh and new they might feel—are all a way of “playing in the dirt,” wrestling with creation, reimagining it, working with it, and making it new. Our stories have a way of fitting into the bigger story of redemption that overshadows all of life and all of history. Because that bigger story is the dirt box in which all the other stories play.
The storyteller’s raw material is the stuff of ordinary, everyday life: relationships, conflicts, love, loss, and suffering. Behind that raw material is the bigger picture of which we’re participants. We live in a world that was meant for glory, but is now tragically broken. We hunger for redemption, and we seek it in a myriad of ways.
And so we tell stories that reveal the deep longing of the human heart for redemption from sin, for a life that’s meaningful, for love that lasts. We tell stories about warriors overcoming impossible odds to save the world. Stories about how true love can make the soul feel complete. Stories about horrific, prowling villains carrying out a reign of terror, only to be vanquished by an unexpected hero. Stories about friendships that don’t fall apart. Stories about marriages that last. Stories about life, death, and resurrection.
We tell other stories, too. The world is like a faded beauty who looks in the mirror remembering her youth, mourning the long-gone glory of Eden. She is now battered and scarred, not merely by age, but by tragedy, war, and defeat. She feels all too heavily how far she’s fallen, and in her sadness she tells mournful tales of glory lost. Of heroes who fail and unravel. Of sin and consequences. Of evil that triumphs and prowls. Of darkness that swallows all who draw near.
This excerpt was adapted from The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth by Mike Cosper.