Why Stories Trump Statements

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” – Flannery O’Connor

Eighteen years ago I fell madly in love. Her name was Cari. She had long, auburn hair, high cheekbones, dancing blue eyes and a smile that could light up the room. Her laugh was infectious, her demeanor poised, and her confidence was deeply attractive. It was Christmas break and we had returned to college to take part in a peer advising training seminar. Though we traveled in similar circles, we had never met before. And I was smitten.

We became friends and “colleagues” in various college endeavors. We volunteered together, emcee’ed a campus-wide show together and went to no small number of parties together. Our winding road, ostensibly platonic, saw her dating some and me dating others, but ultimately we fell in love with one another. Through graduate and medical degrees, fellowships and residencies, we arrived at the altar of a Catholic Church, stunned to find ourselves so blessed with each other

Now we have two young daughters. And if and when I am asked to describe how I met and fell in love with their mom, words will surely fail me. How do you put into words what can only be expressed in pure and overwhelming feeling?

By telling the story.

Is it any different for our Catholic Faith? If you think about it – I mean really think about it – the truth, the goodness and the beauty of this Faith is utterly overwhelming and initially comes to us via the story of the Bible, not some abstract argument. A God that could have been cold, calculating, and capricious like Zeus or any number of ancient, wicked gods, instead is a loving Creator who runs a risks of renegade creatures by granting us freewill.

He mourns the dislocation that we set into action, but tirelessly seeks to gather us back in his Fatherly embrace. Through rules that champion our dignity, lessons that correct our paths, and enduring hope that quenches our thirst for redemption in the midst of our brokenness, this God – this indescribable Father whose only Son becomes Man – when rightly considered should render us bereft of words. We should be too emotional to speak lest we literally break down and weep.

In becoming Catholic, did I grasp these truths? I’m not sure. Nor am I sure that I ever truly will. But I have moments of apprehension where grace alights and I get a glimpse – a sheer, sweet glimpse – of the God who refused to leave me behind. And where do I most experience those moments? In the stories.

I hear it when someone says, “Jesus loves you.” But I comprehend it when a suffering crucified Christ mutters, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

I am listening when someone tells me, “God forgives you.” But I understand when the undeserving and desperately weeping prodigal son is gripped tighter by his even more emotional father.

Suffer the Little Children by Fritz von Uhde (1883)
Storyteller: “Suffer the Little Children” by Fritz von Uhde (1883)

I am receptive when someone warns, “Don’t sin.” But I am transformed by a Christ who gently calls executioners to account while sparing the adulteress with the loving, yet firm words, “Go and sin no more.”

At the end of G.K. Chesterton’s extraordinary biography of Charles Dickens, Chesterton didn’t convey his appreciation for the man and his message with bland superlatives. Instead he said this:

[Here is part of what Dickens] meant; that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but that rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters: and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.

At the conclusion of Georges Bernanos’ masterpiece, The Diary of a Country Priest, the meaning of grace is not stated primly, but rather is embodied in the last breaths by a selfless and dying country priest. Clutching a rosary, the priest looks upon his attendant who is anxiously awaiting another priest to administer last rites. Bernanos’ priest imparts one last reassurance before dying:

“Does it matter? Grace is everywhere.”

And at the beginning of Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant novel, Brideshead Revisited, the melancholy of a time gone by mixed with the hope of returning to its undying truths were captured in the mutterings of the aging soldier Charles Ryder peering from hilltop at the remains of the estate of Brideshead:

“I have been here before.”

There are numberless glorious statements that can be made about the Catholic Faith. Just like there are innumerable wonderful statements that can be made about my wife. And they can all be true. But sometimes, in the midst of the majesty of God and the magnitude of my love for my wife, a statement, as Flannery said, is inadequate.

So if my daughters look at me and ask why I believe in God or how I fell in love with their mom, perhaps, just perhaps, I should set aside the statements and simply tell them the story. I have a feeling that they’ll like it.

Tod Worner

Tod Worner

Tod Worner is a Catholic husband, father, and internal medicine physician practicing in Minneapolis. He blogs regularly as A Catholic Thinker for Patheos. Dr. Worner has created a Catholic curriculum for high school students finished with confirmation, and also lectures on titans and tyrants from World War II. He is currently at work on his first book.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Bl John Henry Newman draws a very important distinction, when he says, “Theological dogmas are propositions expressive of the judgments, which the mind forms, or the impressions which it receives, of Revealed Truth. Revelation sets before it certain supernatural facts and actions, beings and principles; these make a certain impression or image upon it; and this impression spontaneously, or even necessarily, becomes the subject of reflection on the part of the mind itself, which proceeds to investigate it, and to draw it forth in successive and distinct sentences.”

    If we look at the examples of Apostolic preaching recorded in Acts, it is categorical, not argumentative; concrete, not abstract; concerned with facts and actions and, above all, with a Person; not with ideas or notions or reflections.

    Thus, (1) the age of fulfilment has dawned, the “latter days” foretold by the prophets (Acts 2:16; 3:18, 24); (2) this has taken place through the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; (3) by virtue of the resurrection Jesus has been exalted at the right hand of God as Messianic head of the new Israel (Acts 2:33-36; 4:11; 5:31); (4) the Holy Spirit in the Church is the sign of Christ’s present power and glory (Acts 2:17-21, 33; 5:32); (5) the Messianic Age will reach its consummation in the return of Christ (Acts 3:20; 10:42); (6) the preaching of the gospel closes with an appeal for repentance, the offer of forgiveness and of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of salvation (Acts 2:38; 3:19, 25; 4:12; 5:31; 10:43).

    • Esperanzaypaz

      And what exactly has this learned discourse to do with Dr. Worner’s beautiful and eloquent testimony on faith, love, and the joy of the gospel, pray tell!?

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        The priority of narrative to reflection.

        • Esperanzaypaz

          To wit, stories trump statements. May you have a joyful Christmas!

  • ABBonnet

    In some way, Dr. Worner’s post contains a naturalistic fallacy: that since something *is* a certain way as we encounter it in the here-and-now, it *should* be that way. Stories may trump statements, but should they?

    One of the things Rene Girard has explored over the years is how stories may act to trick us into wasting our lives, giving them over to sin, turning our back on otherwise obvious moral and spiritual truths (see his “Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque,” 1962 and “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World,” 1978).

    Revelation has been given us in stories in order that, as Blessed John Henry Newman writes, “ … the circumstances under which a professed revelation comes to us, may be such as to impress both our reason and our imagination with a sense of its truth …” (“Grammar Of Assent,” Ch. X, §2 Revealed Religion, n. 4).

    The question we must ask of any story is does it “impress both our reason and our imagination with a sense of its truth …” The Narrative, no matter how compelling, must not be allowed to trump the truth.

    • Bro_Ed

      I think the narrative conveys the truth. That’s why the Old Testament has those wonderful Bible stories that make important points; and why Jesus spoke in parables for the New Testament. Stories are always better than someone yelling: “Now hear this!” If we first understand the why then we are more likely to accept and follow.

      I think this is a thoughtful and helpful article.

    • TomD

      If I may respond, it is not an either/or of stories or statements . . . it is a both/and. It is not as if one “trumps” the other. The stories have to be fully supportive of the underlying, foundational “statements” or content of the faith.

      As Bro_Ed stated, I believe that Jesus taught largely through parables, stories, for a reason. The stories provide a means to convey the message without initiating the normal, human defense mechanisms. They are often a more effective pathway to the human mind and heart. Having said this, the parables that Jesus taught were fully in support of the underlying “statements” that would have been, or could have been, used as the teaching mechanism.

      There has been some resistance to the idea of the Bible as a narrative or a story of God and Man. This is due, in large measure, to a false duality, that sees story as somehow opposed to “statement” or doctrine . . . teaching and example as primarily through content. But we must lose this need for false duality and be open to the both/and . . . story and content . . . that the Bible opens up for us in our journey to God.

  • Karl

    Dr. Worner,

    Be disposed toward forgiveness. Live, each day, the commitment you made, in public, on your wedding day. Your children watch you and learn how to behave under your tutelage, both of you.

    Your story is ongoing. The statement that your story makes may very well be instrumental in the faith choice of your children. The world they are growing up in is filled with enticements that may become for them a more rewarding journey than the one their parents have chosen. Your visible committed, loving relationship with their mother and them, lived as a reflection of the Blessed Trinity, on a daily basis, through thick and thin, is your best hope.

    Invest yourself in “wife insurance”. Godspeed.

  • Bill Mulligan

    Bernanos’ priest sounds like a Protestant. Sentimentality is often made the enemy of Truth.

    • Tito of Tacloban

      What the country priest said, following St. Paul and Therese of Lisieux, when correctly translated, was ” Everything is Grace.” Tout est grace.

  • Esperanzaypaz

    Dear Dr. Worner,

    By all means, simply tell the story, for love and faith alike. It is compelling and conveys the joy!

    Thank you for sharing it.

  • In my 6th grade Catechism class, all I do is tell stories.

  • Sometimes stories are needed to catch the nonsensical side of reality … for instance:

    It is 1964 and Che Guevara asks Fidel Castro …

    Guevara: “When are you going to resume diplomatic relations with the US?”

    Castro: “When pigs fly!”

    Guevara: “Oh, come on! Be serious!”

    Castro: “OK. When the US elects a black President and the Church elects an Argentine Pope!”

  • DeaconEdPeitler

    I would consider moving to Minneapolis to have you as my physician. In the meantime, I will content myself by reading your thought-provoking articles here.