Good Storytellers Make Good Apologists

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Good Storytellers Make Good ApologistsWhat makes a good apologist? We know some of the usual suspects. Eyewitnesses make good apologists. Matthew, John, Peter, and Paul, come to mind in the New Testament. These eyewitnesses—and hundreds more according to Paul—testify to the truth of the events they witnessed and recorded. Eyewitnesses are good apologists because they report the facts, hand down the events as they happened, and ensure that the reliable testimony is communicated to others.

Close associates of eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection are also good apologists: think about Mark and Luke. Mark wrote much of the Gospel that bears his name on account of the eyewitness testimony of Peter. And Luke, like a good journalist and historian, did his investigative homework.

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. — (Luke 1:1-4)

Likewise, hostile witnesses make good apologists. When Josephus a Jewish historian, or Suetonius and other Roman historians—who have no motivation or gain by doing so—report and record various facts surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus they corroborate the claims recorded in the primary source documents of Jesus’ life and ministry, the Gospels.

We also know that lawyers make good apologists. For centuries, many of the leading Christian apologists have been lawyers: Hugo Grotius, Simon Greenleaf, and Lord Hailsham are just a few notable names. In recent years men such as John Warwick Montgomery and Craig Parton have joined the ranks. Why do lawyers make good apologists? Craig Parton writes:

“...nothing short of the sheer objectivity of Christian truth claims and the factual character of those claims makes Christian faith so appealing to the legally trained advocate.” [1]

And of course, it must be said that all Christians make good apologists, no matter what our station in life. Christians are called to declare and defend the Gospel in their vocation. As Peter reminds us in his first epistle:

"...but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect..." — (1 Peter 3:15)

This is the genius of Christian vocation. Christians speak the truth in love wherever God calls them to serve whether they are in the home and neighborhood, workplace and society, or in their congregation and community. Christians are called to be good apologists.

And yet, there is another often neglected category of people, or aspect of the Christian life, which makes a good apologist. The aforementioned people operate primarily in the left-brained realm: facts and proofs, logical arguments, reason, and rational debate. But what about the right-brained realm? What about people who value creativity, art, music, drama, literature, film, and the imagination? What kind of apologist can declare and defend the Gospel to them? What kind of apologist can appeal to the truth of the Christian faith while also revealing its meaning, beauty, and inherent imaginative appeal? I submit that such an apologist can be found in a good storyteller, and in one who reads good stories. A good storyteller makes a good apologist. And here are a few reasons why.

Human Beings Are Storytellers

We love stories. We tell them to our children. Our children tell us stories, full of fantasy, imagination, and beauty, even in their youthful simplicity. Adults, too, tell stories. We tell them on the phone. We tell them around the dinner table. We even attempt to write short stories within the 140 character limits of social media. We simply can't help ourselves: "Mom, guess what happened at school today!" "Daddy, come here; you want to see something?" "Honey, I've got some good news for you..." "Daddy, again. Read it again!" We are storytellers.

God wired us to be storytellers. God made man in his own image and that image includes a rational mind that communicates in large part through stories. That man is a storyteller can only mean that God himself is a great author. He uses human language to communicate. He speaks to us in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. He commissions ghost writers known as prophets, apostles, and evangelists. Creation is a cosmic story that God cannot keep to himself. But not only Creation, mankind and the cosmos are redeemed from the story of the fall by the perfect God-Man, the perfect story teller. Storytelling is bound into the very pages of man's history, from the moment the Scripture opens, there is storytelling: “In the beginning.” But this is only the first chapter. It is swiftly followed by “the Word was made flesh.”

Christianity must reject the false narrative of the Gnostics. Christmas really should be celebrated all year round. Christ is flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. Not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God. One altogether; not by confusion of Essence; but by unity of Person.

We are not lovers of the flesh for mere epicurean chaos. After all, Jesus taught his disciples through stories and parables. Therein we find the wisdom of the philosophers, the beauty of the mythological, and we find them greater for in this single author we find all the veracity of history. Jesus spoke in the synagogues. He spoke over the water and wind. He declared absolution. He rebuked disease and demons. He breathed his dying breath on the cross. He opened his mouth in resurrected radiance: “Do not be afraid. Peace be with you.”

That is the greatest story which continues in the resurrection, the eternal epilogue where each chapter is better than the last. Perhaps heaven is a bit like that, a book that you can't put down, the pace quickens, the story gets better and the book never ends. Further up and further in.

This is the kind of story-telling we need. Just as man uses words and storytelling to communicate earthly things, so too, we use words and storytelling to communicate the things of heaven that have come to earth.

This is why apologetics—both tough-minded and tender-minded—have found such companions in the medium of storytelling. Christian apologetics addresses the full range of humanity, captivating our intellect and imagination, objective truth and existential meaning. Jesus does this in the parables, illustrating divine truth in short and longer narratives. St. Paul did it in Athens, combining Stoic rhetoric, narrative and driving to the Gospel entirely on the pages of heathen philosophers. And this is what is needed today. We need to continue to communicate the greatest story ever told through well told stories. We need more literary apologists of the Great Eucatastrophe. Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis, Sayers, Williams, Barfield and others have paved the way. It's time for us to learn from the J.K. Rowlings of the world and pick up the pen. We can learn much from Harry and Hogwarts: comfort in death. Joy and hope beyond the grave. Harry's hope is really the Christian's hope.

Good Storytelling Is A Servant

Good storytelling serves apologetics not as a means to an end. Rather it is both means and an end in itself. Literature communicates. And literature, within its prose, points to a story greater than itself. Like the world inside the wardrobe, we are drawn into the pages of the book not to escape reality but in order to see our world more clearly. A good story is always bigger on the inside. It welcomes us into a new world and sheds light on the Primary World in which we live.

Through storytelling, man continues the work of tending to God's creation; here we are sub-creators writing in the image in which we are made.

[Christianity] is one among many stories, only it happens to be a true story. It is one among many philosophies, only it happens to be the truth. — G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 161

And so in the Gospel, both the breadth of storytelling and the depth of wisdom find their conclusion and epilogue.

Stories Are Magnetic

Storytelling draws people into the Christian story through their imagination by painting the objective truth of the Gospel in new and unfamiliar ways. In Surprised by Joy C.S. Lewis writes that reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes “baptized” his imagination. According to Lewis this was one of the many “stabs of joy” he received throughout his life. It was this joy that gave him a glimpse of the true joy he would later know in coming to faith in Christ. And though this stab of joy was not the Gospel, it prepared him to hear the Gospel; it pulled him in by sneaking past his own watchful dragons. Literature, in a way, is a Trojan Horse, but without the deception. This was, in turn, one of Lewis’s hopes in writing The Chronicles of Narnia.

"But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could not one thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.” [2]

Stories Capture And Captivate

Storytelling has a way of capturing and captivating some people’s attention in ways that an argument or logical proof cannot. This is not to say that systematic theology and rational argumentation have no place in the Christian life, quite the opposite. Christianity is built on propositions and assertions: Jesus died on the cross for you. Jesus rose from the dead for you!

A good apologist can tell when a tough-minded or tender-minded apologetic is most appropriate and beneficial in their discussion with a skeptic. A good apologist can discern that there is no competition between these two disciplines. They are complementary not contradictory. This allows for a shift in tactics during a discussion.

Consider the following example. I was on the campus of a local community college talking with someone, making a brief defense (apologia) for Jesus’ death and resurrection. After I was done laying out the main points of my argument the young lady responded, “So what if Christianity is true? What does that mean for me? Why should I care?” She needed something more than intellectual arguments.

What I ended up doing was was trying to further explain my argument. In hindsight, what I should have done was try telling her the same objective facts and historical events in the form of a story laden with subjective meaning. I was giving her intellectual proof and she was looking for existential meaning. I wanted truth; she was looking for beauty. Thankfully Christianity gives us both. Christianity captivates the imagination and the intellect. The Gospel gives us both truth and beauty, objective facts and subjective meaning. The whole person is involved in good apologetics.

Here’s one more example. Through the course of many conversations, and one late night in particular, J.R.R. Tolkien was able to communicate the same thing to C.S. Lewis. Christianity, Tolkien said, is a myth. It is a well told story. And yet it is the best myth, the one to which all other stories and myths point, precisely because it is also true. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus myth became fact, history and story have joined forces.

Storytelling Communicates

When I was younger I watched cartoons like every other kid: Transformers. Ninja Turtles. Batman. X-Men and so on. Every now and then I’d have to endure a ridiculous cartoon in order to get to the good ones worth watching. One of the biggest culprits of absurdity was Captain Planet. How it stayed on the air as long as is it did I’ll never know. But the cartoon communicated something; it told the story of a band of heroes who joined up with the show’s protagonist, Captain Planet, as they ventured out to save the earth from pollution and the ills of industrial society. The music was cheesy. The animation was less than dynamic. And the characters were not as well developed or loved as their Marvel or DC counterparts. But the point was clear. Care for the environment. Don’t pollute. Recycle. Did I mention I grew up in Portland, Oregon?

Whether you agree or disagree with cartoon propaganda or environmental activism, the point is still the same: stories communicate more than plot, entertainment, and adventure. Storytelling gives the listener (viewer, reader, etc.) a worldview. Storytelling is persuasive. Advertising uses storytelling all the time. That’s how they suck you in and the next thing you know, you’re buying a crinkle free water hose for $19.95 (and bonus hose storage contraption!) so that you won’t have to spend your afternoon cursing out your backyard irrigation system.

Where I live now, in Southern California, no one understands this better than Disney. A large part of Disney’s success comes from story-telling. Again, you may disagree with the way they dissect and butcher Hans Christian Andersen stories (like The Little Mermaid or The Snow Queen, i.e. Frozen), nevertheless, Disney is good at storytelling. Don’t believe me? Just ask the average little girl under 10 who she wants to be for Halloween and they’ll tell you one of two names: Princess Anna or Queen Elsa. And then they’ll proceed directly perform an adorable rendition of Let It Go whether you like it or not. In households across America, Disney and Pixar have practically become synonymous with good storytelling. Why? Because storytelling communicates and persuades.

This is also the reason why I am astounded every year that network television allows A Charlie Brown Christmas to be aired on live television during prime time. Now there’s good storytelling. Endearing characters. Classic music. Simple, yet artistic animation. And a clear message: the real meaning of Christmas isn’t found in the hustle and bustle, of materialism but in the material of the manger. Christmas is about the incarnation of Jesus Christ into human flesh. And the truth and beauty of that event is made known in a story about a group of kids looking for the perfect Christmas tree and performing an amateur Christmas pageant.

Storytelling Points People To Jesus

At the parish I serve, and in many churches across America, Sunday school is not primarily about teaching good morals, or the ten better steps to becoming a super Christian. Rather, it is for children to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest God’s holy Word through the main stories and teachings of the Old and New Testament. In doing so we continually point them to Jesus crucified for them and their salvation. As Jesus tells his disciples on the Emmaus road after His resurrection, the Law of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets all testify to Him. We take that seriously in the Sunday school stories we tell our children in church, and in the stories we tell people outside of church.

If the imaginative apologetics we’re using don’t point people to Jesus crucified for their sins, the story is pointless. If storytelling is simply for the sake of storytelling, then we haven’t made a good defense of the Christian faith. If our tender-minded apologetic fails to point people to the God who justifies the ungodly for Christ’s sake, then we might as well join Paul in a toast: eat, drink, and be merry.

This was the center of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Take the passion of Aslan out of it and the whole story falls apart, Narnia crumbles, and both truth and beauty are lost. But with Aslan, the reader is carried along further up and further into the joy of Aslan’s country. So, too, good storytelling will point us away from ourselves and onto Christ. Some of my favorite apologists are good storytellers. Good storytellers make good apologists. And the greatest danger is that the story go untold.

There is such a thing as a human story; and there is such a thing as the divine story which is also a human story; but there is no such a thing as a Hegelian story or a Monist story or a relativist story or determinist story; for every story, yes even a penny dreadful or a cheap novelette, has something in it that belongs to our universe and not theirs. Every short story does truly begin with creation and end with a last judgment. And this is the reason why the myths and the philosophers were at war until Christ came.

That is why the Athenian democracy killed Socrates out of respect for the gods; and why every strolling sophist gave himself the airs of a Socrates whenever he would talk in a superior fashion of the gods; and why the heretic Pharaoh wrecked his huge idols and temples for an abstraction and why the priests could return in triumph and trample his dynasty under foot; and why Buddhism had to divide itself from Brahmanism, and why in every age and country outside Christendom there has been a feud forever between the philosopher and the priest. It is easy enough to say that the philosopher is generally the more rational; it is easier still to forget that the priest is always the more popular. For the priest told the people stories; and the philosopher did not understand the philosophy of stories. It came into the world with the story of Christ. And this is why it had to be a revelation or vision given from above. Anyone who will think of the theory of stories or pictures will easily see the point. The true story of the world must be told by somebody to somebody else. By the very nature of a story it cannot be left to occur to anybody. [3]

[1] Craig Parton, The Defense Never Rests. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2003, p. 71.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said, p. 37 Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. Harcourt, Inc. 1966.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man. Radford: Wilder Publications, 2008, p. 160.