The Grace of a Story Well-Told
By: Brian Scully - ACE 22, Biloxi
Why does Christ so often talk in stories?
You could likely recite them given their opening lines alone: “A sower went to sow some seed…”; “There was a father who had two sons…”; “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector…” It seems every time someone asked a tough question, Jesus had a great story ready to tell.
Take the story of the Good Samaritan. Why doesn’t Jesus just tell us who our neighbor is? Why does he so often forego direct answers—no botched interpretations, no flubbed deliveries—in favor of narrative, characters, the three-act structure? What are we supposed to get that we wouldn’t otherwise? Stephen Colbert recently spoke about this idea on Fr. James Martin’s show Faith in Focus:
“When I was younger, I would listen to the parable, and then our priest would get up and say… polite variations on, ‘well, this is what it meant.’ And I used to think, don’t tell me… Don’t explain it away. Don’t give me the scalpel to undream the dream, you know? Like, let it affect me. I imagine that if you do believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and is God from God, light from light, I think if he could say it better he would’ve.”
Don’t explain it away. Let it affect me. The experience of a story is different than the explanation of a story. Speaking as a performing arts teacher, the telling of a story is, of course, its parts: project so Grandma can hear you, observe the playwright’s punctuation, make sure you hit your light. But it is also much more than that. The experience of a story rides the line between the tangible and the ethereal. The here and the there. You’re both sitting in an audience and adventuring in Wonderland, or Wakanda, or the Wonkavator. Or, to go back to our parable, both sitting in a pew and lying in the dirt, watching as the priest and Levite pass you by.
Why do we feel so much for fake characters? Movies, plays—it’s people playing dress-up. So why are Mary Poppins or It’s a Wonderful Life or Star Wars able to speak to me so deeply that I keep coming back to them over and over? (Or, in the case of Star Wars, over and over and over and over.) The bedrock of the classic stories, the beautiful performances, is empathy.
We’re aware it’s all made-up, but there is some real, emotional involvement at the heart of things. Even though we know it’s just light projected on a screen, we really do want Frodo to destroy that ring. And we hope Dorothy gets back to Kansas. And we get excited when Spider-Man saves those kids.
And we want someone to stop for the man lying on the side of the road. And we cheer when the prodigal son returns to his father’s house. And we wish that just one of these times the Pharisee would learn and repent like the tax collector. We tell these stories out loud week after week, engaging in the lives of these people in a very real way—even if they are fictional.
In his author’s note to The Fault in Our Stars, John Green suggests that the idea that made-up stories can matter “is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.” As students engage in the performing arts, they are practicing understanding the minds and hearts of other people. It is not merely the academic study of empathy, it is the experience of empathy.
They are attempting to know another’s inner life, motivation, and even their physicality. They are trying to relate to another person in a very visceral way. What a great word: perform. To do. To be as another is. Performing arts students directly engage with the experiences of a thing outside of themselves. They explore, those who are moral and just and those who are lost and broken. And you could say, ‘sure, but what do Harold Hill or Elphaba have to do with legitimate human empathy?’—but you tell me with a straight face that you didn’t cry at the end of Toy Story 3.
The great story experiences speak to our human want and need to relate to each other, to understand each other, to reveal ourselves to each other. In the words of CS Lewis, “What! You too?” God used stories to do this with us; and don’t we do similarly with our children, engaging them in real empathy together with Madeline or the Velveteen Rabbit? If done correctly, performing arts as taught in schools can be a real experience in empathy. The more a person can engage in empathy, the more driven they will be to “go and do likewise.”
When asked why he speaks in parables, Jesus answered: “In seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear.” (Mt. 13:13). John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists says:
“None can sense more deeply than you artists… something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of His hands… Through his ‘artistic creativity,’ man appears more than ever ‘in the image of God’… With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark… calling him to share in His creative power… Every genuine inspiration contains some tremor of that ‘breath’ with which the Creator Spirit suffused the work of creation from the very beginning… [and] the human being is able to experience in some way the Absolute who is utterly beyond.”
So we use our spark to tell and to perform. We attempt to create, to find some glimmer of truth hiding in Uncle Albert and Mr. Potter and Lando Calrissian. And hopefully in our best efforts we are able to reach that “genuine inspiration,” that tremor…
At the very least, we should keep rehearsing until we come close.