The Science of the Story
Article by Jeremy Adam Smith (2016)
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What is the Science?

What is it about a good story that captivates us? Why do we spend so much of our time listening to the stories from others and telling our own? What might explain the popularity of modern epics such as Star Wars and Harry Potter? Scientists have been researching the neuroscience behind storytelling and found that stories have the power to emotionally transport us into the worlds of others. Once a good story grabs our attention, similar processes occur in our brain that occur if we were actually experiencing that situation. So when Han Solo responds, “I know,” to Princess Leia’s declaration of love, our body is likely to release oxytocin in a similar manner as two lovers would when in close proximity to each other.

Interestingly, this process of transportation often has real world consequences. Compelling stories might actually increase our real world empathic skills, helping us understand what others might be thinking and feeling. Oxytocin released during this experience can even bond groups together. (Ever wonder why fan groups emerge around great stories). We can also be transported into stories of competition, scarcity, and violence. In these stories, the group bonding might result in an us against them mentality which can breed real world violence.

Transportation: The experience of empathically entering into a story, almost as if we ourselves were the characters in that story.

“Where do we end and where does the story begin? With the most intense, involving stories, it’s hard to tell.” – Jeremy Adam Smith

What is the Theology?

We are surrounded by stories that compete for our attention. There’s the hero’s story – I am the one who swoops in and saves the day. There’s the myth of redemptive violence – by hurting this person, it will make the situation right. There’s the story of the consumer – by consuming this product I will be happy and accepted by others. These are just some of the ubiquitous stories in culture that books, movies, television, commercials, and institutions tell. Christians, however, have loyalties to a different story. Instead of being the hero, we recognize that Jesus is the one who saves. Instead of using redemptive violence, we are baptized into the redemptive death of Jesus. Instead of identifying ourselves by what we consume, we are consumed by the God who made us in the image of God. We can allow the story of love, mercy, and abundance shape us, instead of scarcity, violence, and selfishness. The good news is, the story of God is pretty compelling. As pastors, we can proclaim this incredible story and trust that the Spirit of God will weave our own lives into that story.

What to Consider

  • In your context, what stories compete for your attention? What stories compete for your community’s attention?
  • What passages in the Bible have grabbed your attention? For those that are of a different genre than narrative, what is the story within which they were written?
  • In your sermons, what parts do your listeners remember? What receives the most feedback? What do you believe is the most transformative?
  • How do the stories of your life give you purpose? Is there one or two stories that might encapsulate the trajectory of your life?
  • Where is Jesus in your story? In your congregation’s story?

How to go Deeper

  • Make storytelling a regular part of your corporate worship. This could be a time open to everybody, special guest storytellers, or even stories told over good food. Invite participants to pay attention to the work of the Spirit as they hear and tell stories.
  • Do a series on Christian doctrines that focuses on the compelling stories within which different doctrines emerged.
  • Hold a summer movie series. You might include compelling movies with strong Christian themes and movies that tell a different, competing story. Afterward, discuss how God was portrayed, where the Spirit might be working in this movie, and what parts might need to be resisted. If you need ideas, take a look at Reel Spirituality by theology of film scholar Robert Johnston.
  • In your integration of science into your sermons, tell scientific theories through stories instead of only expounding upon the ideas. You might try sharing about the hunt for Dark Matter, telling the real story of Galileo and the church, or retelling the creation narrative from the standpoint of evolutionary theory.

Relevant Scripture

All references in parenthesis refer to Lectionary readings. For more information on what the Lectionary is, please click here. For additional Lectionary resources click here.

Related Research

The Storytelling Animal – Greater Good Science Center

How Stories Change the Brain – Greater Good Science Center

Storytelling in the Bible – Society of Biblical Literature

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About the Author:

Zach is currently a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary researching the role of leaders in congregational change. His calling in life is to train and equip pastors to faithfully lead local congregations. When not studying, he'll most likely be watching Sporting Kansas City score goals or hiking with his wife and two kids.

7 Comments

  1. Weabz April 5, 2017 at 7:21 pm

    This is a thought provoking read, thanks. It makes me think of the telling of “our” testimonies, or “our” stories. How often we look to tell “our” stories and we make our lives and our sin the main focus of the story and the main character, glorifying it to an extent. But the real hero is Christ who saved us, which we of course acknowledge but the way in which we tell “our” story reveals the heart of our narration. I myself have a pretty stupid past full of disobedience and sin and it’s important to reveal the level of my depravity in my disobedience to reveal the amazing grace and work of Christ through my Jonah like life, and yet I always struggle in helping people focus NOT on the extreme nature of my sin but on how the Lord protected me, disciplined me, and transformed me through the evil acts in my life. We must always point to Christ and be careful not to glorify our sinful past. It truly is His story, we are simply blessed to be a part of glorifying Him. Let’s remember to get out of the way.

  2. aidenkang April 19, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten” – Neil Gaiman – Similiar to the definition of biblical myth.

  3. aidenkang April 19, 2017 at 3:23 pm

    “Study after study after study finds that stories are far more persuasive than just stating the facts” – Kind of makes sense why “all leaders are readers”.

  4. matt@ncstudycenter.org May 6, 2017 at 4:15 am

    This article is a helpful distillation of some of the insights of the narrative theology movement. Accessible and thought-provoking!

  5. AustinF May 18, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    This was helpful, especially in thinking about why I love good biblical theology (example: He Will Reign Forever, by Michael Vlach). It’s especially awesome to think about how God fit my life into His grand story, which makes me want to play out my part as well as I can.

  6. Thomas June 22, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    May we never underestimate the power of story. As pastors we must learn and practice the art of storytelling. Not that God’s word needs our help but we have to realize story is a powerful tool in our arsenal to share the gospel.

    • matt@ncstudycenter.org June 29, 2017 at 8:45 pm

      So true….stories in sermons often resonate deeper with the congregation than propositional statements or exegetical insights.

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