I recently listened to this TED Talk on “The Danger of a Single Story” – and it really struck me that stories are very powerful and can have potentially deleterious effects. Right now, people seem to worship the art of storytelling, and we think of stories as mainly being beautiful, true, noble, aspirational. Every conference I go to seems to have a seminar on how to tell your story. It’s all about the narrative arc, what will connect with and tug at the heartstrings of the hearer.

But I rarely hear about what happens storytelling is not wielded for good. Just think about the media and how they blow everything up — they will propagate stories that will sell but probably are often not the stories that are really worthwhile.

I believe stories which represent situations that are rare / outliers, are dangerous and exaggerate probability in two particular ways:

1. Stories can fuel false fear.

Just think about ebola. I mean it really should have been headline news back in March or whenever Medicins San Frontiers started raising the red flag about ebola becoming a raging epidemic in West Africa. But of course, it was not interesting enough to be picked up then. But now we’re hearing about ebola constantly — not necessarily b/c of the great loss of life in West Africa but because we have had a few cases in the United States. All of a sudden, it’s about whether any of us will contract ebola. The irony is that we have a higher chance of dying in car accident than getting ebola — think about it — there are currently, say, 7 cases of ebola out of a population of 300 million. I’d guess that there have been way more car accidents since the first person got ebola in the US. So the media is circulating these stories which greatly and needlessly fuel and exaggerate our fear.

2. Stories can fuel false hope.

I know I sound like a total downer for saying this and maybe I’m wrong. But it just seems like we cling to these random little stories that are so highly improbable and they just amount to false hope to help us keep on keeping on. Like the story of the person winning the lottery ticket — what are the odds? One in ten million? And economists say that buying a lottery ticket is like flushing money down the toilet, and yet there are so many people who still do it. Because they have this false hope that they might be that special one who wins. We use stories in the same way in the church too. The story people love to point to is the story of Abraham and Sarah — the one where God promises them that they will bear a child. And then they wait years and years, and Sarah is getting older and older (it’s a wonder that her womb hadn’t turned to dust). Finally, she bears Isaac. Ta da. And so generations of well-meaning pastors will point to this story and say, Look, if God could do that amazing miracle in the eleventh hour, surely He will come through for you, at the last minute, in your hour of need.

I think the story of Abraham and Sarah is unique. First of all, God verbally/vocally told Abraham that he would be the father of nations. This was a promise. If anything, the principle to draw out from the story is that God stays true to His specific promises. Also God’s promise was about bringing forth God’s own purposes, God’s glory, God’s Kingdom.

Most of us are not as instrumental to God’s purposes as Abraham and Sarah. I hate to burst our collective bubbles and I don’t mean to say that we do not serve His purposes in some way, but I doubt there would ever be books written about us to be passed down to our descendants and studied. Bottom line: I do not think that we can extrapolate God showing up at the last minute for Abraham and Sarah to mean that He will do that for us. I don’t think we can predict what God will do, and I do know there are plenty of stories out there about faithful Christians who died without God showing up with a last-minute save. Think about Eric Liddell who died from a brain tumor in the Japanese internment camp during WWII — had he just lived a couple months longer, the war would have ended and he would have been united with his daughter, whom he had never met.

I am an advocate for responsible, ethical storytelling.

What I mean by responsible storytelling are either:

  • stories that are interpreted in a way to draw a conclusion that was not originally meant (we can study Abraham and Sarah without drawing false conclusions about implications for ourselves), or
  • stories that are carefully chosen to represent and explain the “typical” experience that someone may face — the story closer to the middle of the bell curve, not total outliers.

What I love about Brene Brown’s research (yes, this always leads back to her) is that she has interviewed thousands (like 15,000-17,000 women and men) on the issues of worthiness, shame, vulnerability, empathy, belonging, and connection. Her research is based on all these data points — all these little stories adding up to create a complete and whole picture with findings that are sound and robust, generalizable to a lot of folks. And whenever she does share stories, I know that these are representative. They are stories that almost anyone can say, “Yea, me too. I’ve definitely felt that way.” So I find her work credible and I don’t feel like I’m being sold a false bill of goods.

So I think that we need to think twice about stories — both as a listener and a storyteller. We share stories with each other every day. We listen to stories every day. We need to be more thoughtful and discerning.