Why stories captivate us (by Frederick Buechner)

IN THE SIXTH month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary,” and that is the beginning of a story—a time, a place, a set of characters, and the implied promise, which is common to all stories, that something is coming, something interesting or significant or exciting is about to happen. And I would like to start out by reminding my reader that in essence this is what Christianity is. If we whittle away long enough, it is a story that we come to at last. And if we take even the fanciest and most metaphysical kind of theologian or preacher and keep on questioning him far enough—Why is this so? All right, but why is that so? Yes, but how do we know that it’s so?—even he is forced finally to take off his spectacles and push his books off to one side and say, “Once upon a time there was . . . , ” and then everybody leans forward a little and starts to listen. Stories have enormous power for us, and I think that it is worth speculating why they have such power. Let me suggest two reasons.

One is that they make us want to know what is coming next, and not just out of idle curiosity either because if it is a good story, we really want to know, almost fiercely so, and we will wade through a lot of pages or sit through a lot of endless commercials to find out. There was a young woman named Mary, and an angel came to her from God, and what did he say? And what did she say? And then how did it all turn out in the end? But the curious thing is that if it is a good story, we want to know how it all turns out in the end even if we have heard it many times before and know the outcome perfectly well already. Yet why? What is there to find out if we already know?

And that brings me to the second reason why I think stories have such power for us. They force us to consider the question, “Are stories true?” Not just, “Is this story true?”— was there really an angel? Did he really say, “Do not be afraid”?—but are any stories true? Is the claim that all stories make a true claim? Every storyteller, whether he is Shakespeare telling about Hamlet or Luke telling about Mary, looks out at the world much as you and I look out at it and sees things happening—people being born, growing up, working, loving, getting old, and finally dying—only then, by the very process of taking certain of these events and turning them into a story, giving them form and direction, does he make a sort of claim about events in general, about the nature of life itself. And the storyteller’s claim, I believe, is that life has meaning—that the things that happen to people happen not just by accident like leaves being blown off a tree by the wind but that there is order and purpose deep down behind them or inside them and that they are leading us not just anywhere but somewhere. The power of stories is that they are telling us that life adds up somehow, that life itself is like a story. And this grips us and fascinates us because of the feeling it gives us that if there is meaning in any life—in Hamlet’s, in Mary’s, in Christ’s—then there is meaning also in our lives. And if this is true, it is of enormous significance in itself, and it makes us listen to the storyteller with great intensity because in this way all his stories are about us and because it is always possible that he may give us some clue as to what the meaning of our lives is.

—Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

 

 

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