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187euru1qwc8ojpgIn The Bible Tells Me So, I have a section called “Stories Work,” which is my conclusion to chapter 3, “God Likes Stories.”

My point there is that the writers of the biblical narratives were storytellers. They recalled the past “often the very distant past, not ‘objectively,’ but purposefully. They had skin in the game. These were their stories. They wove narratives of the past to give meaning to their present–to persuade, motivate, and inspire.” (pp. 75-76)

Stories work. Stories are powerful. Stories move us deeply, more so than statistics, news reports, or textbooks. We all know that. We only need to think about what holds our attention and makes us long for more—that book, film, or TV series that we wish wouldn’t end quite so soon, that story told of some deep, personal, transforming experience, whether painful or joyous.

The Bible, then, is a grand story. It meets us and then invites us to follow and join a world outside of our own, and lets us see ourselves and God differently in the process. Maybe that’s really the bottom line. The biblical story meets us where we are to disarm us and change how we look at ourselves—and God.

The Bible calls that change repentance. Maybe stories are where repentance can happen best. From what I can see, I think the Bible’s storytellers would agree. (129).

And then I stumbled upon this article, “The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains.” It was nice to see someone coming at this from a scientific angle.

Below is a snippet, but be sure to visit the site and read the whole article for yourself.

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Our brain on stories: How our brains become more active when we tell stories

We all enjoy a good story, whether it’s a novel, a movie, or simply something one of our friends is explaining to us. But why do we feel so much more engaged when we hear a narrative about events?

It’s in fact quite simple. If we listen to a powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.

When we are being told a story, things change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.

If someone tells us about how delicious certain foods were, our sensory cortex lights up. If it’s about motion, our motor cortex gets active:ForTheBibleTellsMeSo

“Metaphors like ‘The singer had a velvet voice’ and ‘He had leathery hands’ roused the sensory cortex. […] Then, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like ‘John grasped the object’ and ‘Pablo kicked the ball.’ The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements.”

A story can put your whole brain to work. And yet, it gets better:

When we tell stories to others that have really helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton:

“When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”

Anything you’ve experienced, you can get others to experience the same. Or at least, get their brain areas that you’ve activated that way, active too . . . .

***The original version of this post appeared in December 2014. For my other books on biblical interpretation, see Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker 2005/2015) and  The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne, 2016).***

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

20 Comments

  • Hill Roberts says:

    So unfortunate that “telling stories” came to be the common euphemism for telling little lies, untruths, and a child’s made up tales. I’ve often heard something like “The Bible isn’t just a bunch of stories, those things really happened.” As if a story contains less truth than a documentary, as if we don’t use story to teach children powerful morality truths (called fairy tales, fables, legends). As if a documentary was not also just a “story” with a viewpoint, an objective, a lesson and very very seldom “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” As if the story of Jonah and the whale can only teach it’s lessons if it is historically factural, even though we use similar stories to teach similar lessons. Dr. Suess comes to mind in the modern era. Guessing Seuss actually has more impact on young people (and many adults) than a whale-tale from ancient Israelite lore. As if we didn’t just have a collection of scattered stories from a few days of Jesus’ life, not a documentary. Stories we remember, facts not so much. Stories move us, facts almost never. Maybe one of the truly uniquely human attributes is that we do story, we are story.

  • Hill Roberts says:

    So unfortunate that “telling stories” came to be the common euphemism for telling little lies, untruths, and a child’s made up tales. I’ve often heard something like “The Bible isn’t just a bunch of stories, those things really happened.” As if a story contains less truth than a documentary, as if we don’t use story to teach children powerful morality truths (called fairy tales, fables, legends). As if a documentary was not also just a “story” with a viewpoint, an objective, a lesson and very very seldom “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” As if the story of Jonah and the whale can only teach it’s lessons if it is historically factural, even though we use similar stories to teach similar lessons. Dr. Suess comes to mind in the modern era. Guessing Seuss actually has more impact on young people (and many adults) than a whale-tale from ancient Israelite lore. As if we didn’t just have a collection of scattered stories from a few days of Jesus’ life, not a documentary. Stories we remember, facts not so much. Stories move us, facts almost never. Maybe one of the truly uniquely human attributes is that we do story, we are story.

  • Gary says:

    A Dan Dennett deepity. This one: Madlibs for Jesus.

  • Gary says:

    A Dan Dennett deepity. This one: Madlibs for Jesus.

  • Darrin Hunter says:

    Candida Moss tells of many stories of the saints that sometimes get more miraculous and fanciful in later editions/renditions. In Orthodoxy we hear these stories in services all the time yet I think this “telling”, which has been locked into our liturgical fabric, has continually captured the imagination and continues to inspire, nay, maybe even “synchronise” our actual hope in suffering. The details of the story need not be necessarily exactly historical. When we read scripture, should we not have the same response?

  • Skeptical Christian says:

    Candida Moss tells of many stories of the saints that sometimes get more miraculous and fanciful in later editions/renditions. In Orthodoxy we hear these stories in services all the time yet I think this “telling”, which has been locked into our liturgical fabric, has continually captured the imagination and continues to inspire, nay, maybe even “synchronise” our actual hope in suffering. The details of the story need not be necessarily exactly historical. When we read scripture, should we not have the same response?

  • charlesburchfield says:

    Here’s a quote I found on Morgan Guyton’s blog from an interview with Rob bell;
    “It seems like so many sermons in mainline Christianity are basically academic exegesis. Sometimes they can be very polished and clever literary productions with great stories and excellent object lessons. But if they’re not witnessing to personal spiritual transformation, they lack the urgency to change anybody’s life. ”

    MHO if one’s has had experience with contact to a loving god one has a story that can help someone else find a relationship too. really being transformed from a gutter drunk to being restored to health, being loving, giving, empathic in one’s own life goes beyond a second or third hand account of what was said or done by sombody else’s professor or pastor’s interpretations of something that may or may not have happened (who really knows? Could be all a myth ya know?) If you need a miracle in order to survive i know sombody willing to give: I have a story of my personal soul & body surviving & within that story that is still going on I’m reaching out in love to whoever is listening and hoping for their own transformation for reasons & wisdom of their own. Flesh & blood can not reveal it only the spirit can. `€=-)

  • Here’s a quote I found on Morgan Guyton’s blog from an interview with Rob bell;
    “It seems like so many sermons in mainline Christianity are basically academic exegesis. Sometimes they can be very polished and clever literary productions with great stories and excellent object lessons. But if they’re not witnessing to personal spiritual transformation, they lack the urgency to change anybody’s life. ”

    MHO if one’s has had experience with contact to a loving god one has a story that can help someone else find a relationship too. really being transformed from a gutter drunk to being restored to health, being loving, giving, empathic in one’s own life goes beyond a second or third hand account of what was said or done by sombody else’s professor or pastor’s interpretations of something that may or may not have happened (who really knows? Could be all a myth ya know?) If you need a miracle in order to survive i know sombody willing to give: I have a story of my personal soul & body surviving & within that story that is still going on I’m reaching out in love to whoever is listening and hoping for their own transformation for reasons & wisdom of their own. Flesh & blood can not reveal it only the spirit can. `€=-)

  • Derek says:

    Valuable article, thanks! I do wonder though that if the biblical writings were essentially ahistorical motivational propaganda, then why on earth ought one believe the spiritual component/narrative of the message? In other words, if you tell me earthly things that are not true, why ought I believe you when you tell me of heavenly things?

    • Pete E. says:

      We need to work on your true = historical / untrue = story dichotomy. Shall I send an intervention team to your house?

      • Gary says:

        Personally, I think the better reason not to “believe the spiritual component/narrative of the message” is the loop back around from story to reality.

        Rather than just going from earthy/historical fact -> heavenly/story, consider thinking through it from the other direction of heavenly/story -> earthy/historical fact.

        Has this story caused a better or worse reality? (It has to be tied to reality this way, otherwise there really isn’t any meaning-making going on.)

        As such, I don’t principally judge the “truthfulness” of the Resurrection whether or not it historically happened but based upon whether or not it has transformed Christians to being distinctively committed to such a way of living as observed anecdotally in my life and more so over the last 2,000 years. (I think most apologists debating “the Resurrection” are debating history more so than anything spiritual as such.)

        For me, this is principally why the Resurrection isn’t “true.” Whether or not it was a historical event, it seems dubious to me as, I, at some level, have limited means of knowing. What I can though easily judge is whether or not it’s changed the lives of its believers as grandly as the claims made. For me, I think the answer is no. I just don’t see the distinctive pivot of history.

        • Derek says:

          As a Christian, I must say that if it was proven Christ had not been raised and his bones were laying around somewhere, I would no longer believe. This is what the Apostle Paul would likewise urge in light of 1Cor 15:14;17.

          In regards to Christian’s essentially sucking, well, that’s kinda the point. Christian’s are human – and in ways that’s precisely the (sin) problem. However, I also don’t think you are being as charitable as you ought to be. After all, I’m sure you don’t know too many Christian’s on a personal level to accurately judge their heart and struggles. It’s easy to judge, but our judgments often only scratch the surface realities and we remain oblivious to much deeper realities.

          • Gary says:

            I’m not sure if it’s charitably you’re most directly appealing to. It might be, more so, *bias*.

            In addition to charitability, I’d suggest we also consider fairness. For instance, I’d think I should offer equal charitability to those of other faiths. Do these other faiths transform the world distinctively for the better? Or maybe, who within these faiths offer such charitable transformation?

            Beyond charity and fairness, I think there’s also justice. How can I be near the brokenhearted and help save those crushed in spirit? Who else would be interested in such a project?

            I get the significance of the heart and the struggles. I’m not sure such a generosity should be offered to those within Christianity (or anything else) with a favorable bias distinctively different to the generosity offered to others.

            Sure, I can find exceptions to the rule where Christians are generously charitable too all. It’s more that Christianity just doesn’t pass its self-set standards. Grand claims, but unimpressiveness of being in the real world.

            If you think Christianity and Christ are the means be which a new creation is created, then simply: DO.

            I reserve the right to judge by fruit.

  • Derek says:

    Valuable article, thanks! I do wonder though that if the biblical writings were essentially ahistorical motivational propaganda, then why on earth ought one believe the spiritual component/narrative of the message? In other words, if you tell me earthly things that are not true, why ought I believe you when you tell me of heavenly things?

    • Pete E. says:

      We need to work on your true = historical / untrue = story dichotomy. Shall I send an intervention team to your house?

      • Gary says:

        Personally, I think the better reason not to “believe the spiritual component/narrative of the message” is the loop back around from story to reality.

        Rather than just going from earthy/historical fact -> heavenly/story, consider thinking through it from the other direction of heavenly/story -> earthy/historical fact.

        Has this story caused a better or worse reality? (It has to be tied to reality this way, otherwise there really isn’t any meaning-making going on.)

        As such, I don’t principally judge the “truthfulness” of the Resurrection whether or not it historically happened but based upon whether or not it has transformed Christians to being distinctively committed to such a way of living as observed anecdotally in my life and more so over the last 2,000 years. (I think most apologists debating “the Resurrection” are debating history more so than anything spiritual as such.)

        For me, this is principally why the Resurrection isn’t “true.” Whether or not it was a historical event, it seems dubious to me as, I, at some level, have limited means of knowing. What I can though easily judge is whether or not it’s changed the lives of its believers as grandly as the claims made. For me, I think the answer is no. I just don’t see the distinctive pivot of history.

        • Derek says:

          As a Christian, I must say that if it was proven Christ had not been raised and his bones were laying around somewhere, I would no longer believe. This is what the Apostle Paul would likewise urge in light of 1Cor 15:14;17.

          In regards to Christian’s essentially sucking, well, that’s kinda the point. Christian’s are human – and in ways that’s precisely the (sin) problem. However, I also don’t think you are being as charitable as you ought to be. After all, I’m sure you don’t know too many Christian’s on a personal level to accurately judge their heart and struggles. It’s easy to judge, but our judgments often only scratch the surface realities and we remain oblivious to much deeper realities.

          • Gary says:

            I’m not sure if it’s charitably you’re most directly appealing to. It might be, more so, *bias*.

            In addition to charitability, I’d suggest we also consider fairness. For instance, I’d think I should offer equal charitability to those of other faiths. Do these other faiths transform the world distinctively for the better? Or maybe, who within these faiths offer such charitable transformation?

            Beyond charity and fairness, I think there’s also justice. How can I be near the brokenhearted and help save those crushed in spirit? Who else would be interested in such a project?

            I get the significance of the heart and the struggles. I’m not sure such a generosity should be offered to those within Christianity (or anything else) with a favorable bias distinctively different to the generosity offered to others.

            Sure, I can find exceptions to the rule where Christians are generously charitable to all. It’s more that Christianity just doesn’t pass its self-set standards. Grand claims, but unimpressiveness of being in the real world.

            If you think Christianity and Christ are the means be which a new creation is created, then simply: DO.

            I reserve the right to judge by fruit.

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