What did you want to be when you grew up? Depending on the stories that captured our young imaginations, that answer could range from princess or pirate to doctor or dinosaur discoverer. We shape our young expectations for our life’s trajectory around the heroes we encounter along the way.
God, being the grand architect both of the world and of our human imaginations, knows our predilection for allowing story to mold our choices—both small and big. It’s little wonder, then, that when he set out to reveal himself to most of the human race, he chose to do so in story.
The Bible, as I’m sure you know, is a story composed of stories. That’s not to say it’s fiction, but it is to say that it’s constructed as a narrative complete with a plot and characters, crises and villains, victories and, well, happy endings. We’re familiar with the greatest stories of the Bible: Noah sailing over the world in a floating zoo; David toppling the mighty Goliath with a rock, and Jesus striding across the raging waves of the Galilee.
For many who’ve grown up in the church, those stories filled our childhood. From flannel graphs to Veggie Tales, one thing’s clear: The Bible is full of stories. But what if those stories aren’t the complete picture? What if there’s a greater story running through the flood and the giants and the waves? It may not come as a complete surprise that the answer is yes, there is.
In recent years, it’s become quite popular, perhaps even necessary, to talk about the unified story of the Bible. Speakers and authors and professors will describe the overarching narrative as God creating something good, sin breaking that good thing, and God redeeming it into something even better than the original: Creation, Fall, Redemption. And, while perhaps this misses a few important elements, these are indeed the themes that bridge the Bible’s stories.
But rarely do you hear the discussion of why. Why is the Bible constructed as a story-from-stories? Why didn’t God just set down a list of instructions for how to live, give us a run-down on his character traits, and then send us off with a to-do list for the Christian life? Wouldn’t that have at least been clearer? Certainly, there’d be less debate about the nature and practice of Christianity if things were less story and more explanation.
While that’s a perspective that has some merit, I’d like to offer the suggestion that there’s something unique about stories that makes them the most powerful means of teaching human beings about, well, everything.
There’s a group of neurons in the human brain called “mirror neurons.” Their job is simple—fire off the same physiological response in us that we see displayed in the actions or experiences of someone else. It’s the core of empathy—when you see someone else smile or frown or cry, your brain triggers the same, albeit lesser, signals in your own nervous system.
We experience other people’s lives as if they were our own, whether we want to or not. And the imagination-capturing power of story takes it to a whole new level. We’ve all experienced it—whether at the campfire or in a movie theater, a scary story well-told often leaves us checking under the bed and behind the closet door.
At the neurological level, we very much become like the characters we love the most in the stories we ingest the most. So, when God set out to reveal himself to the human race that had forgotten him at Babel, he chose to do so in story. In the arcing narrative of the Bible, we find the main character, God, building something beautiful and then fighting to rebuild it after it’s broken. But more than that, we encounter his character every step of the way in how he interacts with the human race.
God’s sorrow in the Flood and his anger at the Golden Calf and his rejoicing over David and his tears over Jerusalem all hit our mirror neurons in a way that cold data simply can’t. We learn God’s character by experiencing it. And the more we soak ourselves in the stories of Scripture, the more we learn to be like God. We see what he cares about and what brings him delight. We get to watch how he shows mercy and when he chooses to enforce strict justice. We learn what it feels like to be generous and kind and loving from God’s perspective.
But when we treat the Bible like a choose-your-own-adventure manual for life, we run the risk of shaping Christianity into some kind of therapy for our personal problems. We deprive the Bible of its power to show us God and shape our very character to look like him. And when we ignore the Bible entirely and fill our lives with other stories—fictional or no—we disconnect ourselves from the tool that God gave us to grow into his character.
So that’s the question: What stories are you consuming? Are you feeding your imagination the story of God as he works in the world? What characters are you allowing to shape your empathy? And when you do read the Bible, who are you looking to for inspiration? Are you watching the God of the universe work his compassionate plan?
The stories we tell ourselves make us who we are. And if we want to embody the character of the God who’s called us into his service, we should get to know him the way he chose to reveal himself to us. In a story that begins in a garden and ends with the return of perfection to the world.