Story, not a sermon

Hey look, I can post something other than sermon audio and accoutrement.

Stories are powerful. That’s not revelatory in any way. I know this. And yet, for months now, I’ve really wrestled with how we interact with stories: what stories do for us, what they do to us, how they define us, how they restrict us. I wrestle with this in terms of preaching and teaching at church, sure. I mean, I included this idea in the title of the first sermon in my series on the book of Ruth. And we’re investigating stories in our weekly youth group gathering. But it goes beyond church applications. What stories do we tell about our neighborhoods? About our families? About our politics?

That last one…oh, boy. That’s the proverbial $64,000 question, is it not? That’s the one we here in USAmerica have been falling all over ourselves trying to answer since the 2016 election brought us the shitstorm that is our current president. What stories got us to this point? How is it possible 62 million of us were perfectly fine checking that box for a man who is openly and unrepentantly racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic? Who openly and unrepentantly admits to sexual assault and is a cheating, lying, lout? What stories could possibly justify that?

Some of the answers are fairly obvious: decades of shitty, douchebag, dudebro, white frat boy rape culture coupled with centuries of white supremacy and its long, lingering tentacles.

I’m no sociologist (at least not a professional one. We’re probably all sociologists though, just as we are all theologians, even if we are unaware of it), but I wonder if we can drill down to the core of the stories we tell, the stories with which we surround ourselves? In so doing, can we learn enough about ourselves to answer the questions of the moment? Can we learn enough to change?

This week in youth group, I asked our students and adult leaders to write down no more than three of their favorite TV shows, movies, and books. Then we looked for connections among each person’s responses. Some noticed that all their choices were in the same genre — comedy or sci fi. Or they picked all detective stories or stories that focused on cool vehicles. (These are middle school students, after all.) Or stories of powerful kids. Or stories that are about the search for identity. (Ok, probably no surprise that was me.) Some saw no connections at all, their responses were so varied.

Those lists offer some insights, but as a way to keep digging I asked: To what types of stories are we attracted? What types of stories do we avoid? I intend to push farther into those questions next week as we consider how our interactions with, and preferences for and against, certain stories affects how we approach biblical stories. Which in turn affects the life of faith we strive to live.

As a group, our older students concluded they like to read dark stories but watch funny ones. We’re not yet sure what that means for them. We aim to find out.

One reason I’ve been thinking about all this from the perspective of story is a piece Eliot Peper wrote in Medium back in August. In it, Peper shares a story from the incomparable Neil Gaiman who said,

Stories are space-time machines. Through them, we can explore distant galaxies, visit the ancient past or the far future, and peek inside other people’s hearts and minds…The magic of escapist fiction is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place, and in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better.

But Peper also shares a story of his courageous grandmother which leads him to this insight, truly a light-bulb moment for me:

But the Nazis who persecuted Helen, my grandparents, and so many millions of others were also inspired by stories. Theirs were stories of militant nationalism, will to power, racial superiority, and the return to a mythical past, stories that are disturbingly resurgent today. The Allies and the Axis both had stories they were willing to die for.

That’s part of our answer for the rise of Trumpism, is it not? The alt-right and all their supporters, both direct and indirect, tell themselves stories of “militant nationalism, will to power, and racial superiority.” As unbelievable as it seems to me that anyone could buy into those disgusting stories as a way of life, we must conclude that they are true believers.

Again, I hope you’ll read Peper’s whole essay. He concludes with questions I’m trying to respond to as well:

Take a moment to consider what that story [you’re enjoying] means, what larger narratives it fits into. Is it something you would die for? Is it something you would die to prevent? Who might suffer, and who might be empowered, if it were to come true?


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