Art / Culture / Spirituality

The Transformative Power of Story

“Culture changes,” the Rev. Timothy Keller says, “when a society’s mind, heart, and imagination are captured by new ideas that are developed by thinkers, expounded in both scholarly and popular forms, depicted in innumerable works of art, and then lived out attractively by communities of people who are committed to them.”

That is a statement, it seem to me that is worthy of some serious reflection.

Notice, for example that Keller doesn’t mention politics. It’s implied, of course, because our life together always has a political aspect, an ordering of the community to pursue justice and peace. As a culture changes the politics of that culture will change as well. Still, it’s important today to reflect on why Keller didn’t highlight politics in describing the dynamics of cultural transformation. Contrary to our modern assumptions the political is not ultimate. The belief that it is ultimate is why so many conversations on almost any topic so quickly degenerate into debates between conservative and liberal political agendas. Often people talk, even in Christian circles, as if the only way to really change the world is to engage in political activity. That real change, if it occurs will begin with a political movement of some kind. But that is mistaken, a form of idolatry. Politics is always downstream from the culture.

Notice too that Keller’s vision for cultural change involves the full spectrum of callings and vocations. This means that cultural change is not merely accomplished by a few, some elite that gets the job done while the rest of us watch from the sidelines. Instead ordinary people being faithful in the ordinary and routine of daily life is as essential for cultural transformation as scholars developing ideas and artists making art.

And finally, notice that Keller includes the arts as part of what is needed if real cultural change is to occur. New ideas will only be plausible if they are seen to nurture our humanity. New beliefs and values will only take root if they can be imagined as attractive for human flourishing across all of life and reality. And this suggests that one art form essential to cultural transformation is storytelling. Ideas come alive when they can be indwelled, when they are shown to fit with the larger story of reality in which we live and move and have our being. As a Christian my ideas about the gospel will only make sense to my neighbors if they can see the grace of the gospel fleshed out in the story of history, and in the history of my life.

The power of good storytelling
Storytelling is a particularly powerful art form because life and reality are inexplicable apart from it. We were made for story and life is without meaning unless we see ourselves as part of a narrative that provides a sense of purpose and significance.

We are drawn to stories not just because they are entertaining, but because stories help us make sense of life in our beautiful, bewildering and badly broken world. This is why children are instinctively drawn to storytellers.

One time when she was quite young my oldest granddaughter picked out a book and curled up on the couch beside me. “Read it, Grandpa,” she said, and I did. When I reached the final page she said, “Read it again, Grandpa.” So I did. And on the last page she repeated her request once again. Now, being the sort of grandfather I am, the third reading introduced some very small changes into the narrative. Nothing too drastic, you understand, just subtle shifts in minor details not all that important to the plot. I had discovered that bigger changes could elicit a deep sigh and the taking of the book over to grandma, something that must be avoided. So I introduced my little changes as I read and each time my granddaughter would interrupt to correct me. “No, grandpa, that’s not right. It’s blue not gray,” she would say from where she lay under the afghan. She was too young to read at the time and wasn’t looking at the pictures, but not one of my changes slipped by her. She wanted me to reread the story not because she didn’t know it but because somehow it resonated deeply within her heart, mind and imagination. That is the power of story.

In our world of advanced modernity, film (and television) are the primary story telling mediums that both reflect and shape our imaginations, ideas, values and worldviews. In the process of that reflection and shaping they work to transform how we see things and respond to them. We may not be able to make films, but we can learn to engage them in discussion with friends and colleagues and so be part of how the images, values, convictions, questions and ideas of modern cinema are received and processed.

Let me suggest an exercise that makes clear the power of story. Watch the 2016 movie Sully, starring Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger and directed by Clint Eastwood. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you probably know the story because it was in the news. On January 15, 2009, US Airways flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York. Three minutes into the flight, a bit northeast of the George Washington Bridge the plane hit a flock of Canadian geese knocking out both engines on the Airbus A320. Captain Sully and First Officer Jeff Skiles, played by Aaron Eckhart in the film, successfully landed the plane on the Hudson River. The temperature that day was below freezing, and the water temperature in the river was just above freezing. Seven ferry boats with 130 commuters on board and hundreds of first responders rescued all 155 passengers and crew safely within 24 minutes.

And since you know the story and how it ends, I have an assignment for you—try not to be drawn in as you watch the film. I’m serious about this—try your best to remain aloof and detached as you watch it, to not be drawn into the story that unfolds on the screen.

I can’t know this for certain, of course, but I seriously doubt that anyone can successfully fulfill my assignment. I know the story, I remember the day it occurred, I’ve seen the film more than once, and I’ve even worked on extracting clips from the movie to use in lectures and I still find myself moved by and drawn into the story that the film depicts so powerfully.

The trajectory of stories
We are drawn into story because we are creatures living in a greater story within the passage of time. We have a beginning, a middle and an end, just as stories do, so we instinctively fit in them and are drawn into them. (See figure 1.) This may seem to be a very simple fact, and it is, but the simplicity should not detract us from recognizing the importance of this dynamic. It can be argued of course that this is merely an adaptation that has been developed over millennia of human evolution. Perhaps, but it should not be forgotten that this explanation reduces the dynamic to chance and requires that no overarching purpose accompanies our love of and embrace of story. I prefer the Christian explanation, finding it both more satisfying and plausible.

We are drawn in because stories follow a trajectory that reflects our experience of life in a broken world. (See figure 2.) Stories include an element of tension that must be resolved, and in doing so echo the deep yearning we have for redemption from the alienation, fragmentation, failure and disappointment that always lurks in the shadows, bringing tension that we cannot escape. Of course not every good story includes all these elements. Good storytellers can mix the order things that are revealed and can leave out elements that we supply with imagination. Still, the trajectory remains and remains the reason that we are drawn in so powerfully.

The creativity we enjoy in storytelling engages this trajectory with details that paint a picture that engages our imagination. (See figure 3.) We learn of some setting, some context whether fantastic or realistic that defines the normal of the story. An occasioning event occurs, introducing tension and then complications bring the tension towards some climax, when we hope that some hero will appear to bring resolution and allow life to go on, even if a bit changed from where things started.

And we are drawn in to story because the gospel is the true story, unfolding in history that defines the trajectory for all human stories. (See figure 4.) Creation, fall, redemption and restoration is not an exotic doctrinal nicety that Christians believe as a matter of ritual. Rather, it is a definition of the reality in which all human beings live and move and have their being.

“Biblical dramas do not follow the patterns of literary dramas because someone ‘massaged’ the stories to make them fit,” Dan Doriani says. “Rather, God has structured human nature and creation so that certain elements are present in all stories worth telling. If biblical dramas have the same structure as fiction, it is because art imitates life, not because the Bible imitates art.”

Transformative stories in scripture
The power of story to transform should not surprise us as Christians. Consider four texts of scripture that reveal something of the dynamic of what is involved. The first two texts are foundational texts for the Christian worldview and the second two are illustrative, but all point to the essential and powerful impact of story as we live out our lives before the face of God.

The creation narrative teaches us that we were made for story, since we were created to live in God’s story of reality as we live out the story of our lives. God made our first parents, we are told in Genesis 2:15 to be creative in and to tenderly care for God’s world, “to work it and keep it.” This was to be an ongoing and unfolding adventure of learning, creativity, exploration and work. The story for life and reality was not invented by human beings but was initiated by the Creator and the creatures he made in his image were placed in that narrative. In this view story is essential to being human.

In the narrative of the fall, the second text, our first parents determined they would prefer living by their own wits rather than according to God’s word, and in so doing walked away from the ultimate source of light, life and truth. “What is this that you have done?” God asks in Genesis 3:13, eliciting their story and demonstrating how seriously he takes it by actually listening to it.

The creation and fall narratives in scripture are foundational texts for the Christian understanding of life and reality. The creation narrative reveals that story is not an alien or unimportant part of human existence but essential to who we are as human beings created in the image of God. The fall narrative reveals that this distinctive part of our humanness is not erased by the fall, but instead is identified by God as the way in which we must account for ourselves as his creatures. God not only made us for story; he actually asks to hear them.

And now we can consider two more scriptures, this time texts that illustrate how stories have the power of transform, for blessing or for curse. In each case we will be exploring a story that is told within a story, and seeing the effect of that story on those who heard it.The first illustrative text of scripture is a famous story involving Israel’s king David. It was spring, and the kings from neighboring nations mustered their armies for war. There were grievances that went back generations, numerous border and water disputes, and constant jockeying to control the lucrative trade routes that were essential to the region’s economy. David sent Israel’s army out to besiege the city of Rabbah, which today is Amman, the capital of Jordan, but he stayed behind in Jerusalem. Then one day he walked on the roof of his house and spied a woman, Bathsheba, bathing; “the woman was very beautiful,” the scriptures record (2 Samuel 11:2). So, the king sent for her, she came, they had an affair and not too long afterward Bathsheba sent word that she was pregnant. Now that was problematic because her husband, Uriah, was off with the army in Jordan. David tried a few clever maneuvers to cover up the problem and when they backfired he ordered the army commander to assign Uriah to a dangerous corner of the battle and Uriah was cut down in the fighting. Bathsheba mourned the death of her husband, and then married King David and bore him a son.

“But the thing that David had done,” the scriptures record, “displeased the Lord. And the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, ‘There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.’” (11:27-12:1). In other words, Nathan gained an audience with the king and told him a story. The story is a simple one, though I suspect that the version recorded in the Bible is only the briefest summary of what he actually said. In any case, the rich man had numerous sheep while the poor man had only one, a lamb that was the family pet and beloved by both the poor man and his children. Then one day a friend showed up at the rich man’s house and rather than slaughter any of his own animals for dinner, he took the poor man’s lamb and made that the main course.

David had been drawn into the story, perhaps because he had been a shepherd as a young man and perhaps Nathan’s story awakened memories of lambs he had cared for and loved. As king he cared for justice, and angrily said the rich man must make restitution and be punished for his act. “Nathan said to David,” the scriptures say, “You are the man!” (12:7).

It was a transformative moment. David repented of his wickedness, of his deceit, abuse of power, adultery, and murder—the text is an illustration of the power of story to work change, for blessing in a broken world.

And finally, a fourth passage of scripture, once again a story within a story only this time it transforms in a way that leads to curse rather than blessing. This too is a famous story, about Joseph as a young man when he was in Egypt. Joseph was born into a rather dysfunctional family. Though he had a dozen brothers his father doted on him, even having him wear a special robe that set him apart from the rest. And Joseph must have been more than a little annoying, telling his brothers about dreams he had that predicted they would someday bow before him as a great ruler. So they sold him to a passing band of slave traders, who took Joseph to Egypt and in turn sold him to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials. Joseph served his master faithfully and soon was in charge of everything Potiphar owned.

“Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance,” the scriptures record. “And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me.’” (39:6-7). She apparently tried to seduce him a number of times, but Joseph resisted. One day while Joseph went about his work Potiphar’s wife noticed that all the men of the household happened to be gone. She tried once more to entice Joseph, grabbing his clothes to pull him towards her, but Joseph “left his garment in her hand,” the scripture says, “and fled and got out of the house” (39:13). She called the men of the household and told them Joseph had assaulted her, but that she had screamed and he had run, leaving his clothing behind.

Later, when Potiphar returned home, “she told him the same story,” the scriptures say (39:17). Potiphar was enraged and threw Joseph into prison. Though the Scriptures give us no details, without doubt the prison we’re reading about was not a pleasant place. The text uses an unusual word for prison, found only here in all of Scripture, which is from a Hebrew term suggesting a round structure, perhaps a fortress of some kind. The text says it held the king’s prisoners and history tells us that the Egyptians had established remote desert outposts, fortresses where convicts were sentenced to hard labor. Whatever the details of Joseph’s imprisonment, here is a story that transformed Potiphar’s view of Joseph and then transformed Joseph’s life, not for blessing, but for curse.

The point here is this: from a Christian perspective, story is essential to human life, the way we try to make sense of things in a broken world, and can be used for blessing or for curse. The premier story-telling art form in our world is cinema, and it is here that competing visions of reality and differing answers to the perennial questions of existence are considered and explored.

Some stories of our day
Consider some of the films and television series capturing attention today and look past the surface details to identify some of the great themes on which they based. The great myths and perennial questions that human cultures have always wrestled with are explored and explicated in the art of storytelling that is the cinema.

Penny Dreadful tells a story in which the great myths of Western literature, the myths of Frankenstein, werewolves and Dracula might suggest that supernatural powers of evil are arrayed against both God and humankind. Stranger Things suggests that forces greater than we can possibly imagine might be at work in the shadows of modern society, unleashed by science, hidden by secret governmental departments but beyond technology to control.

Manchester by the Sea explores how tragedy distorts lives and perspective producing ripples that fan out over time and across generations. Silence, based on the classic novel by Shusaku Endo, tells the story of persecution that drives Christians in 17th century Japan to hide their faith and wonder why God has become silent in the face of their suffering.

Hidden Figures tells the true story of people made in God’s image who are marginalized by a racist society, by our society, and who are yet crucial for some of the grandest scientific exploits of that society. Hacksaw Ridge explores what it means to be a person of conscience even when that person’s convictions are despised and vilified as traitorous and cowardly by everyone else.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, written by J. K. Rowling uses fantasy to confirm what I as a child knew instinctively, that strange powers and creatures, some good and others very bad, actually exist and make a difference even though my parents scoffed and told me not to worry because there is nothing hiding in the darkness. The Reluctant Fundamentalist asks questions that are relevant to today’s news headlines—and I recommend you see it and discuss it with friends. Since at best we know only in part, what does it mean to see only part of someone’s story, especially if that person is other, different from us? And how do we live and love in a world where contrasting and competing fundamentals are passionately believed but that threaten to tear apart the delicate fabric of relationships and societies?

And then consider the life and work of Philip Mangano. In the 1970s, while working as a music agent in Los Angeles, one afternoon Mangano went to see Brother Sun Sister Moon (1972) a new film at the time by Italian director Franco Zeffirelli. The movie tells the story of St Francis of Assisi who gave up his wealth to serve the poor. “‘This movie slipped behind my defenses, because it was so beautifully portrayed by Zeffirelli,’ Mangano recalls. ‘For the first time, I understood one could give expression to one’s life in committing it to the poor.’” Mangano gave up his music agency, moved home to Boston and launched the Housing First movement, working to end homelessness. Mangano says his work to eradicate homelessness is a spiritual calling, not a profession.Stories act subversively in all sorts of ways. They challenge our view of things, subtly raise questions and doubts, propose alternative answers, portray characters that surprise us, define old ideas in new ways, and so much more. Movies and television, as cultural storytellers have the advantage of including music, camera angels, lighting, color and all the other cinematic techniques and technologies available to draw us in so we experience the plot from the inside instead of merely as a disinterested observer. This is not a reason to be fearful of the power of these art forms but it is a reason to be people of discernment who do not leave their brains at the box office.

One of the interesting things about being drawn into the story of Sully is that much of the film is actually relatively slow and unexciting. That is the power of good storytelling as demonstrated in cinematic art. We experience something vicariously that is actually outside our experience, identify with people we do not know, see admirable and despicable characters, invest in the plot emotionally—we are drawn in. Though we may not realize it, even though we may know how it ends, we are involved and changed—we are not quite the same afterwards.

Few of us make films, but people love to talk about the movies they watch. This allows us access to stories that subversively work on our hearts, minds and imaginations.

Every human story is an echo of the True Story. This is why the gospel can speak intelligently and creatively into every human story and into the story of every person’s life. “Trying to understand another person, Vern Poythress reminds us, “is a form of love.” Story is transformative. The gospel speaks intelligently and substantially to every human story. And when we engage in conversation about the story, we get to see into our neighbor’s hearts and imaginations, into our own, and can explore the things that matter most.

“Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp,” J. K. Rowling says, “I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”


The story and quotes of Philip Mangano online (

Daniel Doriani from Getting the Message by Daniel Doriani (P&R Publishing, 1996)

Poythress quote and figures from In the Beginning was the Word by Vern Poythress (Crossway Books, 2009).