I recently had the pleasure of talking with Joseph Pearce about the power of personal stories, especially as a means of evangelism. He’s uniquely well-suited to the topic: he has taught and written on fictional characters’ journeys, and he has shared others’ stories as a biographer of men such as C. S. Lewis, Hilaire Belloc, and William Shakespeare.
Most recently, he’s told his own powerful story in Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love. There is something special about story, whether you’re telling one from your imagination, from another person’s life, or from your own experience. Mr. Pearce has done all three.
He pointed out that while there are many ways to spread the faith – including many simiarly creative ways, such as art or music – Christ Himself told stories. He created, for example, the prodigal son. And He created the prodigal son rather than give a lecture on God’s radical love and forgiveness.
Why? Our Lord may have done it because stories are interesting. People are interesting – and a personal story helps us take interest in the idea. It supports our attention and understanding. It stoops the big idea down to where we often need it. When Christ told that parable, the prodigal son became, in a way, incarnate. He is now a truth clothed in fictional flesh, and that is a nature we can related to. “I am like that person,” one might say, but not, “I am like that idea.”
True stories have that same quality. They relate lessons, insights, and experiences better than a straight presentation of the facts. Someone may be nodding along with a story, when they’d be nodding off at a sermon.
But which stories need to be told? Which lessons are important? All of them. We are all different, and so we all have different needs. Providentially, we all have different stories, as well, to fill those needs.
In any one story, I may find this point of contact – his background, her hobby, his childhood experiences, or her favorite author – and it can be a different point of contact than you’d make. For both of us, though, there is something in the story to connect with, something to catch our interest, and from there – once our attention and imagination is engaged – the Holy Spirit can work.
Pearce can work through many stories – through nearly any story – because “there are many paths to Rome.” “Life is a quest. Life is an adventure with a goal.” I go down one path, you go down another, but we have the same goal. Miraculously, incredibly, we end up in the same place.
“That’s fascinating” to us, as Mr. Pearce said, and it explains why we have such a variety of saints – why we have so many different stories, of the old and young, the ancient and the modern, the lifelong faithful and the lifted-up-again. There are stories for each of us – living points of contact with truth, with goodness, and with beauty, whether they live in the world or the imagination. We connect with stories, and that brief connection is all God needs.
That moment of contact is enough to get inside us and start transforming our hearts and lives. It’s enough to start new stories of transformation – and God only knows whose lives those stories will touch.
Find more about Joseph Pearce and his current projects at Ignatius Insight and The St. Austin Review.
Copyright © 2013, Joe Wetterling
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