Ceci n’est pas une pipe.
This is not a pipe. It’s a painting of a pipe. An artistic representation. This painting – Treachery of Images by René Magritte – reveals a deep truth about the relationship between art and reality. Art may imitate life (or vice versa), but the two are not equivalent.
About this painting, Magritte himself said, “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!”
This concept isn’t just true for painting, but for any type of art. Photography, sculpting, writing. But today we’re going to focus in on the art of storytelling.
I am a fan of storytelling. I believe it’s one of the most powerful art forms out there. Not necessarily because of the art itself, but because of the interaction between artist and audience. Sure, a beautiful painting can draw you in and impact you in many ways, as can a captivating photograph. But storytelling does this on a deeper level. It invites you into the heart of the conversation and the creative process.
Here’s a short road map for the rest of this blog post. We’ll talk about story as the foundation of the human condition and the Christian worldview. Then we’ll talk about storytelling in the Bible. But first, we need to get on the same page and talk about what a story even is.
I’m not saying this is the definition of the English word “story.” I just want you to know what I mean when I use this word.
My definition of story is “a malleable, artistic representation of an event or a series of events, constructed with a particular purpose and intended for a particular audience.”
Let’s break that down.
Representation of Events
Like the painting of a pipe, a story is a representation of an event or, more likely, a series of events. Stories must not be confused with the event or series of events themselves.
Since a story is a representation, every story must have a referent. In other words, since a story points to something, there has to be some kind of something to which the story can point. It can be a historical event or a fictional event. But for the sake of the story, the something really isn’t that important.
To keep with our theme from earlier, let’s imagine a painter painting a bowl of fruit. In this scenario, the artist’s referent is the bowl sitting in front of them. The artist’s goal in painting the fruit is not to reproduce the image in exact detail, but to represent the bowl in a creative and artistic way.
This may lead them to take some creative liberties. Perhaps the artist sees the grapes sitting inside the bowl, but decides to paint them flowing over the side onto the table. Or if the apple has any defects or bruises, the artist may decide to leave those out of the painting. All of this is acceptable and, moreover, expected because the artist is creating a representation.
The artistic representation of an event is malleable, because the event can be told from multiple perspectives. If a story involves two or three people, it can be told in a completely different way depending on the eyes through which we see the events take place. Or if a story covers a multitude of subjects, one can tell the story differently depending on the themes and subjects one wishes to emphasize.
Let’s return to our fictional artist painting the bowl of fruit. If this artist invited other artists to come and paint the same scene at the same time, we would expect each painting to turn out differently, due to several factors. The angles from which the artists viewed the bowls, the colors the artists had at their disposal, the styles of painting the artists are familiar with. No two paintings would be the same.
Why, then, are we surprised when we hear two people tell a story of an event in a different way? We criticize news outlets for telling a story from their own political perspective instead of just presenting the facts. But malleability is the very nature of storytelling.
Constructed with a Purpose
An event representation without a purpose isn’t a story, but a random string of sentences. A story is carefully put together from the start with a particular purpose in mind, either consciously or subconsciously.
Every decision the storyteller makes is based on the larger purpose for which he or she tells the story. The details the storyteller includes, the portions they leave out. Everything depends on the purpose.
So, if you want to tell a story about something funny that happened at work today, your purpose will probably be to make someone else laugh. If that’s the case, you probably won’t include all the boring details like “I walked into the building, took a right, walked to the time clock, punched in, put my lunch in the fridge, went to my desk, checked my email…” You’ll get right to the point, including just enough detail to let your audience know the setting of the story and to get them to the punchline as quickly and comedically as possible.
Which brings us to the final point of our definition…
Intended for an Audience
Like I said before, this is where the power of storytelling truly lies. I could construct the best story ever, but if I have no one to tell it to, I’ve wasted my time. The power of storytelling lies in the telling.
Depending on your audience, the way you tell your story will differ. If my story is about something funny that happened at work today, I’ll tell the story differently to my wife than to my co-worker.
Telling the story to my wife, I’d have to explain things a bit more. I’d have to tell her who the main characters are and what they do. I’d have to explain settings and processes a bit more.
Telling the same story to my co-worker, I wouldn’t have to give any of those details. I could say “the fixture room,” or “the ambient cooler,” and my audience would already have a clear picture in their head of what I’m talking about.
The difference here is one of context. To my wife, I’d have to add more details because it would be low-context communication, meaning she doesn’t share the same context as I do. To my co-worker, I could leave out unnecessary details because it would be high-context communication.
It’s in this contextual conversation that the story lives. A story is not for the storyteller to ponder alone, and it’s not for the storyhearer to take for themselves. A story is a conversation. A conversation that lies deep at the roots of what it means to be a human and what it means to be a Christian.
Story at the Heart of Humanity
If you gather a bunch of people from cultures all over the world, the first thing you’ll notice is how different everyone is. You’ll see people of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. People with different beliefs and customs and tastes. But you’ll also see a lot of similarities. In fact, if you can look deeper than the skin, you’ll find more similarities than differences.
There are several anthropologists that have tried to get past cultural differences and boil down human behavior to a set of “cultural universals.” These are concepts that are the same across all human cultures across all time. These are the things that make us human.
Storytelling is one of these cultural universals. As long as we’ve been able to use language, we have understood ourselves and the world around us through stories.
We are the people we are today, not because of a series of events that brought us to where we are, but because of the story that brought us here.
Sure, there are historical events in all of our lives that have shaped us into the people we are today. But those events in and of themselves mean nothing unless we attach significance to them. And the moment we take a collection of random historical events, tie them together, and install them with meaning, we are no longer dealing with a string of events. We are dealing with a story.
That’s not to say those events didn’t happen, or that those events in and of themselves weren’t important. It just means the event was a stepping stone to something larger. The event, like the bowl of fruit, became the inspiration for a work of art.
Let’s add another dimension to this concept.
In my life, I have experienced a series of random and unconnected events. Retrospectively, these events together have become the referent for the story by which I define myself.
In your life, dear reader, you have experienced a series of random and unconnected events that have become the referent for the story by which you define yourself.
The stranger down the street has experienced a series of random and unconnected events… okay, you get the picture.
Now we have seven billion seemingly unconnected stories, which are artistic retellings of seemingly unconnected events. What happens when these individual stories themselves become referents? What if, like the events, these stories are woven together to tell one larger story?
This multidimensional weaving is the human condition.
But there’s a fourth dimension, which brings us to the Christian story.
Story at the Heart of the Christian Worldview
The fourth dimension is the idea that this story of humanity is a small part of a larger story about God. God is the one who created us and invited us into this grand storytelling adventure that is life.
But it doesn’t end there. This God, who was outside of our story, literally stepped into it to rewrite the ending. We were lost in sin and death, but now we are found in Christ. We were blind but now we see.
As Christians, our entire worldview is based on the idea that the story of Jesus is the climax of the multidimensional story of humanity. Our stories – individually and corporately – have been retold in light of the climactic story of Jesus.
It should come as no surprise, then, that when this God revealed Godself to humanity, God did so through the art of storytelling.
Story and the Bible
The Bible is a library full of creative and artistic pieces of literature from every genre. It’s a book of narrative, poetry, discourse, oracle, law, adoration, lamentation. But at its root, the Bible is a book of stories. Our individual stories, our human story, God’s story.
The stories in the Bible are representations of events. As Christians, we believe that all of the events described in the Bible are true, historical events. That’s our assumption when we read. But we must understand that we are not reading events themselves, but theological and literary retelling of events. Ceci n’est pas un événement historique.
The stories in the Bible are malleable. Depending on who tells them and why, the stories in the Bible – like any other story we tell on a daily basis – is malleable. The biblical storytellers emphasize, add, and leave out certain details depending on what they are trying to emphasize.
The stories in the Bible are purposeful. The writers of the Bible didn’t sit down intending to write a full account of everything that ever happened in Judeo-Christian history. They told their stories with a purpose, and they chose their events and details based on that purpose.
The stories in the Bible are intended for a particular audience. And unfortunately for us, we were not that intended audience. The writers of the Bible wrote their stories in a very high context culture. They were writing to an audience that shared their history, religion, and values. As such, they told their stories with just enough detail to get that audience up to speed. What does that mean for us, an audience lacking the shared cultural experience? It means we have our work cut out for us.
In the next few posts in this How to Read the Bible series, we’re going to take a look at storytelling in the Bible. How exactly does a biblical author take a historical event and translate that event into a story? How do we, in the 21st century, read and understand these stories? How do we find significance in these ancient stories?
At the end, hopefully we will find a way to look past the historical events and to read these stories in a way that they begin to transform how we see and tell our own stories.
For now, I’m going to leave you with this quote by Philip S. Keane. I’ve mentioned this quote before, but it’s worth repeating and rereading.
“A story-formed community… will not be so sure it has all the answers. Such a community will listen for surprises, for strangers, and for imaginative new ideas which it cannot control.”