Four things storytellers can teach the church

Storytellers are teachers.  For generations, oral storytelling was the only method of learning and culture-making. For the ancient Greeks the stories of their gods carried the morals and norms for the culture and served as a civilizing force. In tour day, the power of narrative has been co-opted by every major political movement. Triumph of the Will is recognized as one of the greatest films in cinematic history, and yet it was Nazi propaganda that helped Hitler secure his hold on power. But this truth also holds great power for good.

C.S. Lewis strongly believed he was a teacher through stories, as we see in his defense of fairy tales for children. “Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies," he said, "let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. . . Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.” He knew the power of words and ideas in young minds, and how those same ideas could be used decades later to fight the dragons of the modern age.

I believe passionately in the role that storytellers have in making culture and shaping minds of all ages. So, when I spoke to the writers and editors at our last Story Team training day I outlined four ways that they teach our church.

We demonstrate how to talk about sin and struggle

When we show our subjects struggling through sin or suffering, and we demonstrate their honest responses, we reveal how to think about these issues. When you write about a family trying to adopt, but who are struggling with finding the money, you have an opportunity to shed light on God’s faithfulness to the call he places on our lives. You can tell the story of how the adoption came to be in light of that struggle, through the doubts and fears that family had, and how they overcame them.

In the same way, when we tell the story of a mother fighting cancer we can show how the hope of the gospel can overcome doubt and fear. The language we use as writers frames the story. Do we write honestly about the struggle and show it warts and all? Or do we gloss over the hard stuff? Do we take on doubt directly, or do we cover it platitudes? Do we show the sufferer finding hope in the truth of the gospel, or do we show them fighting in their own strength?

How we tell stories of sin and struggle will reveal how we view the gospel.

We show that obedience is not only for “super Christians”

The call to obedience is on the life of every believer, yet how often do people look at so-called extraordinary acts of obedience and only see Christians that appear “better” than themselves? As storytellers we have the opportunity to show that obedience is a very ordinary thing. We provide examples, tangible, down-to-earth examples, of how to be obedient. We can show the struggle to defeat sin, love for the orphan through adoption, or the reality of forgiveness in a messy world.

Paul knew that we need models for our thinking and action when he wrote to the Philippians, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Our stories give believers a gospel example to look to.

We advocate for our people, and for the gospel

We are absolutely not objective. We are not reporters. We believe in our message. Therefore we are openly advocating for the gospel, for our subject, and ultimately for our readers. Our stories are not reporting actions dispassionately, they are teaching the truth of Christ.

We must be truthful—always. We must never tweak a story to make our point sharper. Being humble as a gospel storyteller means, in part, knowing that God does not need our help in crafting his story. Humility also means that we want people to read these stories and see Jesus and his work, not our people, and certainly not us

We teach our people how to talk about the gospel

The language we use the most important part of applying our craft in gospel stories.

As just one example, we have a chance in a lot of our stories to show that change comes through prayer and the Holy Spirit, but that active obedience is part of the process. We can deny the lies of legalism, behavior modification and stoicism in our stories. We can demonstrate the truth that repentance is both a gift from the Lord through faith, and active obedience. A paradox that is hard to explain can often be illustrated through a story with more clarity.

In the end, I want to encourage Christian writers that whether you are telling real life stories of gospel change or writing fiction, you are teaching your audience how to think. You are helping form patterns of thinking that will guide and affect them. It's an important job, and it's a job with high stakes.

Take this responsibility seriously.

15 books every storyteller and writer should read

A good storyteller should always be looking for stories of all kinds. Knowledge is fundamental to the creative process. Whether it is an understanding of process and medium, knowledge of what others are doing in your field, or something completely unrelated to the work in front of you, we bring all of it to bear on the challenge of telling moving stories. Your path to growth runs directly through the work of other artists.

In light of this, I'd like to share my list of 15 books that I think every storyteller and writer should read:


  • The Elements of Story - Francis Flaherty
  • Save the Cat! - Blake Snyder
  • Story - Robert McKee


  • The Elements of Style - Strunk & White
  • Wordsmithy - Doug Wilson

Selected fiction, and a memoir

  • Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
  • East of Eden - John Steinbeck
  • High Fidelity - Nick Hornby
  • The Road - Cormac McCarthy
  • The Harry Potter series - J.K. Rowling
  • The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Little Way of Ruthie Leming – Rod Dreher

On being, and working as, a creative

  • Steal Like an Artist - Austin Kleon
  • Manage Your Day to Day - 99U
  • Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality - Scott Belsky

Did I leave something off the list? Did I make a terrible choice? Let me know in the comments below.

Top 5 posts from 2013

As I look back over the last five years, I now realize that each year has been better than the last. In fact, it would not be much of a stretch to say that this five-year span is the best  five-year chunk in my life. 2013 was a good year, not always in every part, but in the whole, it was really good.

Revitalizing my blog this year was one of the high points. To close this first year on my new(ish) blog I wanted to share my top five posts from this year. Here they are, in descending order:

1. My social media workflow

There are so many apps, sites and social media networks with significant numbers of users, and this poses a real problem. How do I find good content? How do I save long articles to read later, digest, or blog about? How do I share valuable links and articles with friends, colleagues and followers, where they are on the web?

But the most important question is this: how do I do all of this while still maintaining a marriage, a job, writing projects, and my healthy addiction to books? Well, the answer is certainly “not as easily as I would hope”, but I have developed an efficient system that maximizes spare time and allows me to process a lot of new ideas.


2. How I use Evernote: capturing information

Evernote is the most versatile tool in my digital toolbox. I use it for, what seems like, everything. I’ve heard their CEO say many times that their desire is for the service to be a ‘second brain’ for their users. If I am any indication, they are well on their way.

Why am I taking the time to write a post about a product that I have no financial stake in? Two reasons: First, I love it. I genuinely do. I am a big fan of the service and the company. They do things right, and I really appreciate that.


3. The table bears the weight of all

They sit around a dinner table, sheltered in the warmth of friends and food, bulwarks against the dark and rainy night, both within and without. Eight people, for whom this common table is the tangible evidence of metaphysical truth.

Laughter and joy fill the room. Conversation flows easily, story lines are synchronized and updates offered.

The joyful interactions are not a veil, but a balm. This family, gathered around this table, comforts each other in love.

Dinner is on the table, a handmade relic with fading value. The family finds joy in the simple pleasure of a meal, around a shared table. Feasting in the light of truth already known, and beauty yet to come.


4. Is Austin really a no-kill city?

Saturday at the first weekend of the Austin City Limits Music Festival was a beautiful day. It started off warm, but cooled down to a nice, rare, fall afternoon in Austin. Lindsey and I go to ACL every year and it is a special weekend for us. We get to spend time alone (well, with 50K+ around us), see some of our favorite bands live and discover new ones.

One of the bands we listened to took the opportunity near the end of their set, as many bands do, to make their chosen political statement for the day. This band chose to praise Austin’s very admirable position as a no kill city for dogs and cats. Being a dog owner and lover, I love this about my city. I think it is great that we do not kill pets that could be adopted and cared for.According to the Austin Humane Society, they save over 11,000 cats and dogs a year, with most taking only 2-3 weeks to find an adoptive home. This is a truly good thing.

But as the cheers from the crowd rose to greet the praise of the visiting band, one thought came to mind: would this band, and this crowd, praise our city if the same thing could be said for our babies?


5. There is no wrath for my cheating heart

On Monday, after reading several chapters in Hosea, I tweeted:


Not too long after that, I got a message from a friend I have not talked to in years, asking what I had read to prompt this observation. After taking the time to respond, I realized this is actually a great point to draw out further.


Thank you, dear readers, for a great year. I pray you all have a Happy New Year!

There is no wrath for my cheating heart

On Monday, after reading several chapters in Hosea, I tweeted:

Not too long after that, I got a message from a friend I have not talked to in years, asking what I had read to prompt this observation. After taking the time to respond, I realized this is actually a great point to draw out further.

When I compared what I read in Hosea 6-10 with what Paul writes in Romans 8:1-4, it became clear that, most of all, Christians should be thankful for the grace and mercy shown to us by God in light of the wrath that all of mankind deserves. Instead of fearing his wrath, we should be thankful for his mercy.

This section of Hosea paints a picture of God's wrath that will be poured out on Israel because they have strayed from him and broken his law and are unrepentant about it— again. A sample:

"You have plowed iniquity;you have reaped injustice; you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your own way and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-arbel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children. Thus it shall be done to you, O Bethel, because of your great evil. At dawn the king of Israel shall be utterly cut off."
Hosea 10:13-15

In Hosea, Israel is called a whore because of their wandering hearts and worship of false gods. In the first chapters of the book, Hosea is commanded to marry a prostitute named Gomer. He does, she bears him children and he is faithful to her— even while she continues to sleep around. This illustrates how God loves and pursues his people— even when we stray. If we also consider Paul's depiction in Ephesians of Jesus as the groom and the church as the Bride, then the metaphor becomes even more poignant.

When we read Hosea with the proper view of our own sin, we realize that we are not Hosea being commanded to love those who hurt us. Even the "best" of us cannot keep God's law perfectly— just as Israel could not. I always wander away from my God, despite his love and sacrifice for me. I, too, deserve the wrath that was poured out on Israel. I am a broken person who cannot do good on my own. I am Gomer.

But, in Jesus we have the good news of grace and mercy. Because, as Paul tells us in Romans 8:1-4:

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."

Where all people deserve condemnation, for believers there is none. If you have been saved by God— if you been saved by his grace through the power of the crucifixion and resurrection— please don't see God's wrath the same way as one who does not have hope. Instead of fearing his wrath, be thankful for his mercy.

Where we deserve wrath, instead there is love. This is the basis of how we understand God's love and his affection for his people. It starts with grace, not wrath.

Is your work truly your own?

How much ownership can an artist claim over their work, especially after it is in the public consciousness? I began to ponder this question after watching this really excellent cover of Led Zepplin's "Stairway to Heaven" at the Kennedy Center Honors.

Led Zepplin is an important band to me. They do not carry the weight or influence of The Beatles, but they are the first full on rock band I fell in love with, and in many ways I look at rock through Zepplin-colored glasses. "Stairway" is easily my Zepplin favorite song, and yes— I know that's not very original. That's why I was surprised by how much I like this version.

As a writer and avid reader, I spend a good deal of time thinking about how ideas are communicated in the written word, and how much our words, phrasing and feel (in short, the craft of this medium) shape the actual reception of an idea. I'm not alone. This is a topic on the minds of many like-minded literary nerds, and there is little consensus. Oh sure, the fashionable academic elites are settled on a throughly post-modern view of literature— that the reader's interpretation rules all. But, not everyone agrees. I tend to stick with authorial intent, although I am not settled on it. "Reader response" feels too narcissistic for me.

Figuring out this question is not easy for a writer, but I suspect music gives us a better playground to think about it. Take this video for example. The song is absolutely Led Zepplin's, in every way. They wrote it, performed it and brought into worldwide acclaim. But this cover is not the only one. It has been reworked by many. Each of those performances are the covering singers for sure, but you cannot remove Zepplin from the equation in any of them.

When a new creation is released into the wild, the wild will act upon it. Society and culture will go to work on it, shaping, turning, cleaving and polishing it. In the end, the song, book, poem or play will exist both inside and outside of the creator's mind, as both singular and varied. It will be at once the piece that the artist created and the image of it the public has settled on. Once this has occurred, how much ownership can the originator really claim? Is it his? Is it his fan's? Is it his imitator's? Is it the culture's? In some sense, the answer may be 'yes' to all.

This work of art, reinterpreted by many, is one item, one objective thing, with many faces. Some of them are beautiful, some of them are ugly, but all of them have the original at their heart. They are separate, but the same. Unified, but unique. How do we reconcile these two facts found in our experience?

I don't know. I might call it magic. Or dismiss it as a quixotic philosophical conundrum. But I think the better place to leave it is this: it is a metaphysical mystery that all artists, and audiences, should pause to consider. There is beauty in this ambiguity, and frankly, I think it tells us something about our Author.