I have a friend who recently began reading lots of fiction. More than once she has mentioned being amazed that authors can weave the stories she is reading.
And yet my friend is a wonderful storyteller.
Over and over I’ve heard her tell a story—often from her past—that helps make sense of or casts a new light on something we’re discussing. Her stories are more helpful to me than any sets of facts she might recite.
I grew up in a storytelling family. I later would learn that we were part of what is often called an oral culture. My sister and I were the first in our large extended family—except for one uncle—who went to college. That doesn’t mean that members of my family weren’t gifted or bright. We simply used different tools to make sense of the world.
As I became educated in the literate culture of academia, I still loved and relied on stories. It’s probably no accident that I gravitated to journalism—a field in which I could get paid to write the stories I heard and observed. Later that same love of stories guided me to study narrative theory—especially as it applies to organizations, including congregations.
One of my companions along the way has been Tex Sample—or, in more formal company, the Rev. Dr. Tex Sample. For years he served as professor of church and society at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. He also wrote and spoke extensively about the need for pastors and the church to bridge the gap between the worlds of oral and literate cultures.
Like me, Sample grew up in an oral culture: “My world was not one of discourse, systematic coherence, the consistent use of clear definitions, and the writing of discursive prose that could withstand the whipsaws of academic critique. Rather, it was a world made sense of through proverbs, stories, and relationships.”
I wonder what might happen if—regardless of the culture in which we were raised or have been educated in—we embraced the power of proverbs, stories, and relationships in our families, congregations, and communities.
What might happen if we used proverbs—“short sayings made out of long experiences”—to help find and share wisdom? How about telling stories to help explain our experiences, perspectives, or feelings? How might thinking in relationships offer different results than more abstract, conceptual thinking?
Perhaps we would be just as amazed as my friend is by the fiction she’s begun reading. (By the way, the next time she mentions her amazement, I plan to point out that she’s a pretty amazing storyteller herself.)
Associate Executive Minister