People love stories. We always have, we always will.
Here’s some famous first lines, the starts of stories that have captivated generations over the last hundred years or so… (Titles below!)
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”*
Know it? What about:
“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.”**
Or finally, a bit trickier…
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”***
Stories transport us to another world. Childlike escapism is the wonder of the play, the book, the film or the TV series. Through the ‘Once upon a time’s of a good story, we live the lives of others, we experience their highs or lows, we love their loves and hate their hates.
Stories are amazing ways to captivate an audience, to engage a crowd, to tell someone something exciting, important, incredible.
The Early Church knew their world loved stories. Whether it was the epic poems of gods and heroes that had survived for millenia, or the comic dramas of men like Plautus, slapstick comedies that had whole theatres full of Roman men and women in stitches. So the Early Church used storytelling to tell the Gospel.
Clement of Alexandria wrote a document called the Exhortation to the Greeks. It’s essentially a twelve book letter to the pagans of Roman Greece, in which he describes their gods, and the lies that they are, before encouraging them to come to Jesus. About poetry (meaning for Clement: drama and epic poetry – the stories of Greece!):
“Let poetry also approach – poetry, which is occupied entirely with what is false – to bear witness now at last to truth, or rather to confess before God its deviation into legend”
Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation, 7.
Clement thinks he should use the stories of ancient Greece to tell them about their gods, and to describe to these pagan readers his true God. Clement describes Zeus “exposed and put to shame,” or the “raving Dionysus.” Clement uses storytelling to tell his audience that they are living out fantasies in a made up world. These gods are no good, says Clement, but there is One who is.
At one point Clement accuses the Greeks of “turning Heaven into a stage!” They have made the gods a subject for drama, comedy, poetry and mockery. But he says he has a story to share with them that is written into the very pages of history. After six whole books on these false gods, Clement turns to the Old Testament, and begins to spell out the wonderful, true story of Jesus Christ.
Because Clement, and the Early Church, had a better story to tell in a world full of stories. Clement uses the second half of his work to tell this story, the story of the Divine Word.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
John 1:1-4, 14.
The story Clement had to tell was the story of a Creator God come down to Earth. Not a fake Greek deity, but the real, living God. And it was the story of this God living among us, loving us, and ultimately, dying for us. And as John 1:14 shows us, people saw this story unfold. It was a true story.
The Early Church loved to use storytelling to reach the world around them. Today the idea of storytelling is so often used in evangelism because everyone has a story, everyone has something that makes them who they were and are. But in the person of Jesus the church has a story for the ages, a true story of love, rescue, drama and victory. The Early Church loved this story, and they told it.
The greatest story ever told. Told for nearly 2000 years. Still just as true, still just as powerful to change lives all over the world.
If it’s the right story, then storytelling can be a powerful thing to do.
*Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s stone for our American friends!)
** Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe
*** Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)