“Wound caused by sword heals; wound caused by word, never.” (Azeri proverb)
Your Christian testimony is your story that tells how you came to believe in Christ or rather how Christ found you. Everyone has such story or testimony even if she doesn’t know how to articulate it. Did you know that stories are universal?
There is no society that does not tell stories. In fact, storytelling and story-writing (more on the difference later) are two of the most widespread ways of communicating and experiencing life.
Before abstract thinking, children learn concrete thinking embedded in stories and details. Adults often share stories as a way of establishing and maintaining an intimacy with their significant other. Stories attract us because they make us feel, understand, and they move us to action. I bet you have heard so many stories that by now you don’t even notice many of them unless those stories stand out from the noise.
No wonder the Bible is packed with stories.
We perceive our lives as stories too.
My familiarity with stories goes way back to my early childhood. My grandma used to tell folk tales, some of which I still remember: a bard who dreamed of a girl and, after waking, journeyed to far countries to find her; a brave woman who wore male battle armor and challenged men.
My memories of the Soviet Union are also engraved in stories. In that nation, we all were fed up with one grand narrative or super-story. Here is a squeezed and chopped down version of the tale: We (the Soviets) built a socialist nation to establish justice and equality on earth. Our “good” government tried to usher in socialism into other nations like Hungary, Poland, and Afghanistan whenever capitalists (think of NATO) wanted to steal equality and justice for all. We were even “invited” into Afghanistan (think of the Soviet-Afghan War) to defend the peasants’ just society from capitalists.
Does that story sound familiar to you?
One of my first memories about the USA is actually a story I read in a textbook we used in the Soviet middle school. The story described a black teenager Joe who could not go to school. Instead, Joe had to go out in winter to shine the shoes of white men so that he could make money.
More than twenty years later, when I first time told this propagandist, half-lie, and half-true story to a group of American pastors, some were offended despite my intention to share details from the Soviet educational system. Stories have power. If you don’t know how to handle that power, it may hurt you.
Although my life changed, my involvement with stories did not.
When I became a lawyer, I wrote stories, told stories, and found holes in others’ stories.
Nowadays, I’m a minister who wrestles with biblical stories, which link to other stories within other stories. In between my leaving law and becoming a minister, I published several short stories, one book, and won a contract for publishing a novel that tells a story embedded within twelve others.
Naturally, I gravitate towards good stories and read about the craft of story-writing. Reading and learning about stories guide me in ministry. As a minister who comes from another faith and country, I am often invited to churches to share my story or to teach. These opportunities give me the chance to see how others use story. I learn from them. I polish my story craft because the church blesses me with these opportunities. I think I owe it to the believers so that I don’t make egregious mistakes.
Some mistakes are almost unforgivable.
Years ago I attended a missionary speech in a Midwestern church in which a missionary who worked in Turkey was sharing a story about Muslims. At some point he said that according to doctors, Muslims have a unique part of their brain that makes them tell lies. I was appalled. It seemed to me that the audience would swallow this “missionary” bullsh*t, but to the people’s credit, someone stood up and refuted this lie (it was not me but a Christian from the Middle East).
You never forget such hurtful stories. Their wounds do not heal.
Books that teach how to tell stories
If you are interested in learning how to craft a story so that your stories become sharper and persuasive, then the Bible is the book to start with. It will give you a lot of clues about good stories as well as plenty of clues about dead end tales.
Do you love telling or reading stories and are willing to take your story craft seriously? Then below are the books that can teach you how to craft your story whether in writing or in speech. I have read every one of them, and they changed the way I craft and use stories in churches. The outcome? I can easily establish trust with audience, adjust a story to their needs, tell a multilayered story, and keep their attention for longer than the average person who throws up a crude half-tale.
So explore the books below, and sacrifice some time for them. They deserve it. Telling great stories in church and leaving lasting memories that propel people towards Christ never emerge from quick-fix mechanical rules. They emerge from attention to detail, from life experiences filled with dilemmas, and last but not least, from the tools that help you craft the raw material of your life into graceful stories. One more thing. All book links are affiliate links; since I have learned a lot from these books, I know they will be worth your money as long as you have right expectations. Please know that these scholarly works written by professionals who practice what they preach. They explore the craft of narrative in depth. So be ready to read a lot of deep stuff.
1.Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form by Madison Bell
This book approaches stories as an artifact that requires some design. It will teach you about linear design, modular design, and other elements of good storytelling such as character, plot, tone, point of view, etc. It is also filled with stories in which those elements are analyzed by the author for you to see how they work together.
2.Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
This book takes story apart and then shows you how the various elements of story should be used in screenwriting. But make no mistake. It has a lot to offer to the storyteller and writer from a very unique angle that many writers outside of screenwriting are not familiar with. Reading this book will convince you that story stands above the medium (screenwriting, fiction, creative non-fiction, painting, photography, performance arts) and can be transmitted through various media. You will learn why some stories capture us and are made into movies while other stories written by geniuses like Dostoevsky never show up on the TV screen. It will introduce you to such concepts as the inciting incident, various types of conflict, beats and changes, structure and setting, etc.
3.Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French
This is a book actually used in universities to teach fiction writing. Do you wonder what fiction writing has to do with telling non-fiction stories in churches?
A person who is unable to construct a compelling story on paper has less of a chance to construct a good story on the go in church. Storytelling and story-writing are connected. An individual unable to construct fiction will have more difficulty being faithful to what is not fiction because the boundaries are not clear-cut. Besides, things like perspective, character, dialogue, place, and time in stories are present whether it is fiction or non-fiction. So read this book, and learn how to craft stories with rich details.
4.The Hero with A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
This is a book that analyzes mythologies from all over the world to discover common patterns. You would be surprised how many biblical patterns show up in places that the Bible had not yet shown up before missionaries. The book will even enrich your understanding of truth. It will do so by opening your eyes to myth as a way of expressing truth that is no less complex than the flat and dehumanized accounts of ancient patterns of thinking. You will learn such patterns as the departure of the hero, the return of the hero, the protagonist’s transformation, and the cosmogonic cycle.
5.Turning Life into Fiction by Robin Hemley
His book will teach you how to use your life as the material for stories. You will learn how to transform real people into characters. Moreover, the book will introduce you to legal and ethical concerns that come with using real life as raw story material. I would especially advise you to read its introduction, “Experience Versus the Imagination: A Transformation.” You will see why it is wrong to think that in order to tell the truth of your life, you have to just passively report the events (which is impossible anyway) and pass it along as a story.
In the second part of this post, we will deal with why your life story matters and how it could change you and other people.
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