Narrative changes lives

Read what happened when Sucheen was given more than just proof texts; she was given the truth in story.

Amy Whitsett is associate director for Global Mission Center for East Asian Religions, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Whenever I have a chance to travel to Asia, I love to visit temples. It is not to enjoy the peace and serenity, though many temples do tend to be quiet and contemplative. Nor am I attracted to the glitter that some temples boast, evidences of generous donations given to earn merit and good reward. Instead, I go to see the art, specifically the painted temple murals. Ah, a connoisseur of art, you might be thinking. But you would be wrong. In fact, I really don’t know the first thing about interpreting or appreciating art. Instead, what attracts me is the story that the murals tell.

Often found in the main temple building are intricately painted murals depicting the Buddha’s life. Such scenes often include his prior existence in Tushita heaven; magical conception and birth;early indulgent life and marriage; renunciation of his life of luxury; period of asceticism; meditation under the Bodhi tree; enlightenment and first sermon; and finally his death or “parinirvana,” the entrance into nirvana. It is fascinating to see the many variations portrayed in the stories as well as the differences in their illustration. Some are more artistic while others are much more basic, but all communicate the story in a special way.

I spent several days shadowing some Buddhist nuns. Some, old and widowed, became nuns to earn merit in preparation for their death and supposed next life. They reflected on the Buddha’s life stories and emulated his compassion through acts of kindness to better their existence the next time around. Younger nuns came to the temple because they had a character flaw they wished to overcome through meditation and merit-making. These nuns would spend hours sitting in the temple buildings, contemplating the Buddha’s life and hoping to gain strength to fight their inner battles. All of them regarded the Buddha’s story as important.

Lay people also benefitted from the Buddha story, both as art and as celebrated festivals that commemorate various events in his life. When asked what the festivals mean to them, participants frequently said that remembering the Buddha’s life encourages them to live more generously, less selfishly, and with more self-control.

The power of story

The power of story is undeniable. It moves, motivates, and changes us. While we do not always realize it, one of the reasons we find ourselves drawn to story is because when it is well-written or well-told, when we finish the story, we feel as though we have lived it ourselves. Story invites emotional participation. That is one reason why the Bible is full of stories and why Jesus taught in parables.

The power of story has wonderful implications for mission and ministry. Charles Kraft, a Christian anthropologist, suggests that worldview gets changed two ways: by a new experience or by a new explanation of reality.1 While we cannot always give our people a new experience of their own, we can help them encounter truth through story.

The difference was story

The information we give, by itself, is not adequate to convince people to change. It is also not effective when working with people from non-Western cultures that are more oral in nature. The tool of story is much more effective. My husband and I encountered this during our 16 years of cross-cultural ministry in South East Asia. It is perhaps best illustrated through story itself.

The first story happened while we supported a church member through the grief and loss of her six-year old granddaughter. Though a Christian, MaeTou’s life had been very difficult and full of pain. Her husband had divorced her years earlier after he had fallen in love with another woman. She had poured her life and love into her two children, but as they had grown, their choices further shattered the family. The only thing that gave MaeTou purpose in life was raising her granddaughter.

We met MaeTou and her granddaughter, Joy, during one of her visits to the Adventist church, and we instantly bonded. However, we noticed that Joy was almost always sick. She would either be coughing and have a runny nose or she would have a fever and be lethargic. Doctors eventually discovered that she had thalassemia, a blood disorder that required frequent blood transfusions. The diagnosis overwhelmed MaeTou, so we spent time accompanying her to doctor visits, supporting her through the difficult process of the blood transfusions, and teaching her how to man-age the illness at home. Over time, we began to see Joy’s health begin to improve. Her weight and height remained below average, but the doctors were hopeful.

Then our family had a call to work in a neighboring country. The move was difficult for MaeTou and Joy who had come to feel that we were family. But others in the church continued to support them.

Several months later we received a phone message saying that Joy was in the hospital. MaeTou and Joy were both asking for us to come. So, we quickly packed a suitcase and made the 10-hour trip to the hospital. When we arrived, we discovered that Joy was in a coma. Spending much of the night in prayer, we were devastated when the girl died the following day. The next few days were a blur as we helped MaeTou through the wake and funeral before returning home.

We kept in touch with MaeTou who plummeted into a deep hopelessness. Nothing anyone said or did seemed to help. Several months after Joy’s death, we invited MaeTou to visit us for a couple weeks. Those two weeks were an emotional roller-coaster. We would study the Bible and pray, asking God to replace her despair with hope. Her spirits would lift, but then something would trigger a memory, and the depression would return. The next day we would spend in Bible study and prayer, helping her claim the promises of heaven, including that of reunion with Joy. Her depression would begin to lift, only to be followed by another dream or memory, and the cycle would repeat. At the end of two weeks all of the studying and praying seemed to have made little difference.

The last weekend before MaeTou returned home, we had a Bible study during our Friday evening family worship about the importance of the Seventh-day Sabbath. But instead of a traditional Bible study, we looked at the Sabbath as a story beginning with how God had established it at Creation, telling how the Sabbath was sustained through the Old and New Testaments, and ending with Sabbath in the new earth. We set the story in the metanarrative of the conflict between God and Satan and showed how by observing the Sabbath we are demonstrating our commitment and loyalty to God.

The next day at church my husband felt impressed to share what we had studied the evening before. MaeTou took notes as he preached. After church, she asked if he would go through the story with her again. So, we went through the story once more, this time emphasizing the Sabbath as a sign of our trust that God will fulfill His promise to fix all that is broken and right all that is wrong. Then we ended by spending time thinking about what the new earth might be like and how wonderful it will be to be reunited with Joy again.

The next morning MaeTou woke up a trans-formed person. Her depression and hopelessness were gone, and she was full of joy and hope. It had taken three tellings, but, having experienced the transforming power of truth in story, she returned home on fire and and eager to relate the story she had learned to others.

MaeTou had heard the texts many times before. All of the information we shared had been a part of the Bible studies she had previously had about the Sabbath. The difference was the story.

Steven Evans, a cross-cultural and oral communications specialist, supports Kraft’s theory that experience, even in the form of a story, changes worldview. He says, “it is through processing truth embedded in ‘story’ in all of its connotations as it touches the very core of one’s being that causes one to either consciously or subconsciously evaluate and even question existing worldview issues and change them when deemed beneficial to the individual.”2 MaeTou, though she had studied about the Sabbath previously, never had a worldview shift until she experienced it in the story. And, by pairing the biblical narrative with her own, the story became even more powerful.

Unfortunately, it seems that we often focus more on giving people new explanations. However, Steven Evans observes that most people are overloaded with information.3 He suggests that we require story to help us make sense of all of the factual and intellectual input so that we can adjust and find our place in the greater metanarrative. In other words, after a certain point, facts without story become useless, instead of creating the worldview and behavior changes we are working for.

So why do we continue to inundate our people with more and more information? Because it is how we have been trained. We have learned to mark our Bibles with studies that advance from verse to verse, book to book, and we are really good at presenting and defending our beliefs with lists of scriptural passages. We have learned to approach Bible study as if we are building a legal case, shoring up arguments and closing loopholes with various explanations and discourse. Such an approach may work well when it comes to black-and-white issues. But when it comes to the gray areas, the topics that do not have a clear “thus saith the Lord,” our method falls short.

Finding the Good Power

Another experience that demonstrates the power of story happened with a young business woman we were studying with in Bangkok. Disturbed by the fact that the media, movies, and music focused on negative and dark themes, it seemed clear to Sucheen that an evil power lurked behind it all. “If that is true,” she reasoned, “there must also be a good power out there.” So, she began a personal quest to find the Good Power. Her search led her to the Adventist church, where we met and began studying the Bible.

Sucheen was eager to study and quickly accepted the truths she learned. But believing that God had chosen the method of dreams to communicate truth to her, she was not willing to regard the Bible as the ultimate authority in her life. It became a real prob-lem when she began having dreams about her future husband. She believed it to be God’s indication that she should marry a particular non-Christian man.

At each meeting, we would share Bible texts about not being yoked with unbelievers and passages from Proverbs about the importance of following godly counsel. We presented the story about Saul and the Witch of Endor to help her see that the devil could cause illusions that made things seem real and true. Finally, we even talked about the physiology and psychology of dreaming and suggested that she cut back on spicy food before bedtime! But nothing we said convinced her that she could not trust the dreams and should instead accept the Bible as the only safe authority in her life. She felt that God had chosen dreams as His preferred method of communication with her, and that was that.

Since Sucheen was interested in biblical prophecy, we prepared a short series of studies that took us through the books of Daniel and Revelation. Knowing that she was from an oral culture and would struggle with all the numbers and beasts, we instead looked at the greater metanarrative of the controversy between God and Satan and showed how the various prophecies fit into it. As we built the story, she began to notice a theme of deception and how Satan had been using it throughout history to entrap humans. In the middle of one of our studies, she sat up straight and exclaimed, “Now I understand why I can’t trust my dreams. Satan is using dreams to deceive me. It all makes sense to me now!”

Like MaeTou, she knew the verses and the arguments from the Bible, because we had studied them with her multiple times. But it was just information that was collecting mental dust. It was not until truth was couched in the metanarrative, the greater story, that the facts and information made sense and she saw her place in it. She had a new experience that challenged her worldview, made sense of the new information she had already received, and led to worldview change.

Finding my story

This is the reason I enjoy temples. Their art helps refocus me, not to be a better person by trying to follow the Buddha’s way, but by reminding me that we also have a story. As with the Buddhist story, ours is also about a man. But our story is not the account of another human being who made his mark by teaching “a way” that comes from within. Our story is about a God who put aside His divinity to become a Man so that He could dwell among us, to show us that the ultimate solution can never emerge from within us, because our best is still just filthy rags. Our story is of a Man who was tender, compassionate, and kind, but was despised, rejected, and killed. A Man who, because He was God, rose again, conquering death, and is alive today. A God who is intimately knowable and present with us, offering strength and grace to endure all our suffering. A God of a grand and wonderful metanarrative, through which all of life has meaning. And a God whose story needs to be told—through stories. Only that will change hearts and transform worldviews.

1 Charles H. Kraft, Anthropology for Christian Witness (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996).

2 Steven A. Evans, “From the Biblical World to the Buddhist Worldview: Using Bible Narratives to Impact at the Heart Level,” In Communicating Christ Through Story and Song: Orality in Buddhist Contexts, Paul H. DeNeui, ed. (Pasadena, CA: William CareyLibrary, 2008), 128–150.

3 Steven Evans, “Media’s Role in (Re)Shaping the Values of Today’s Urban Buddhist and its Impact on the Gospel Proclamation,” in Communicating Christ in Asian Cities: Urban Issues in Buddhist Contexts, Paul DeNeui, ed. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library,2009), 41–71.

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Amy Whitsett is associate director for Global Mission Center for East Asian Religions, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

September 2019

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