Powerful Stories Change Lives

Peter Frederick Rothermel, "Thou Art the Man"

Peter Frederick Rothermel, “Thou Art the Man”

Spiritual Sunday

Earlier this summer I had an interchange with a friend and retired Episcopalian rector, John Morrow, about the power of Biblical stories. John made a point very similar to one made by Sir Philip Sidney in his 1579 tract Defense of Poesy.

On why stories make such an impact upon us, John wrote,

I have always been fascinated by the oral tradition for it is essential to grasp what it really is if we are to understand how the Bible came to be.  We of the 21st century have great difficulty really understanding it. There is less and less reason to retain information and stories for we simply can “look them up” and refresh our already packed memory bank.  

In times past, however, travelers looking for refuge at night often would bring stories of other worlds, fascinating places, and exciting experiences.  Families would gather together and sit enchanted by every word.  When asked about the accuracy of the stories in the Bible, I often remind people that, in another age, minds were not cluttered with so much extraneous information. Therefore a story would be indelibly burned into one’s memory. Because facts would be retained with uncanny accuracy, sharing the stories would be expected and facts unchallenged. 

John wrote that, at a recent Diocesan Convention, presiding Bishop Michael Curry recounted several stories about Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites and then told the attendees, “There is salvation in these stories! You can see it, you can feel it! The story matters! We don’t forget stories that tell us of love and salvation!”

I would add that it doesn’t matter whether the Exodus stories, which would have occurred roughly 2500 years ago and were written down hundreds of years later, were factual. Indeed, archaeologists find no evidence of a mass migration from Egypt. Nevertheless, the Book of Exodus contains the truth that Bishop Curry describes, what author Tim O’Brien would call “story truth” over and against “happening truth.”

Sidney examines the Prophet Nathan’s use of “poetical invention” to shame King David after the affair of Uriah the Hittite and his wife Bathsheba.

The incident, as you may know, represents the low point of David’s kingship. After impregnating Uriah’s wife, David has Uriah positioned on the front line of battle so that he will be killed. The plan works and David marries Bathsheba. Enter Nathan, who tells a story:

But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD, and the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

One can see how Nathan has thoroughly trapped David in the drama of the greedy rich man, at which point he pulls the trigger:

Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.

David acknowledges the fault, telling Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

Sidney is defending poetical invention against the Puritan Stephen Gosson, who regards stories as entertaining lies. Sidney counters by reflecting on Nathan’s use of a gripping drama about someone he has made up. The “austere admonitions” of moral philosophy, Sidney says, would not be half as effective because the guilty party would resist them. Poetry is a different matter, serving up unpalatable truths in a beguiling way that helps the medicine go down:

[E]ven those hard-hearted evil men who think virtue a school-name…and therefore despise the austere admonitions of the philosopher, and feel not the inward reason they stand upon, yet will be content to be delighted, which is all the good-fellow poet seemeth to promise; and so steal to see the form of goodness—which seen, they cannot but love—ere themselves be aware, as if they took a medicine of cherries.

This, Sidney says, is what happens with David:

[W]hen the holy David had so far forsaken God as to confirm adultery with murder, when he [Nathan] was to do the tenderest office of a friend, in laying his own shame before his eyes,—sent by God to call again so chosen a servant, how doth he it but by telling of a man whose beloved lamb was ungratefully taken from his bosom? The application most divinely true, but the discourse itself feigned [fictional]; which made David…as in a glass to see his own filthiness, as that heavenly Psalm of Mercy well testifieth.

It is to David’s credit that the story brings him to self-knowledge. Great literature promises such wisdom, but too often, as Jonathan Swift says about satire, it functions as “a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”

I’ve noticed the acuteness of Sidney’s observation in my own reading. A prescriptive moral that I would instinctively resist becomes more compelling if I discover it myself when reflecting upon the themes of a story that has engaged me. I become a David in such instances.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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