The Neverending Story

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The Neverending Story
The Transforming Power of God’s Story

The movie, The Neverending Story, opens with a young boy named Bastian who awakens from a dream about his recently deceased mother. At the breakfast table, Bastian’s father expresses his frustration with Bastian’s fantasies and admonishes him to get his “head out of the clouds and start keeping both feet on the ground.”

On the way to school, Bastian finds refuge from bullies by retreating into an old bookstore. Once inside, he hears someone shout, “Get outta here. I don’t like kids.” Bastian walks toward the voice and sees an old man named Coreander sitting in a chair and reading a book. The old man continues, “The video arcade is down the street. Here we just sell small rectangular objects that are called books. They require a little effort on your part and make no b… b… b… beeps. On your way please.” Bastian replies, “I know books. I have 186 of them at home! I've read Treasure Island, Last of the Mohicans, Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Tarzan…” Upon hearing this, Coreander takes a newfound interest in the boy.

Bastian then asks about the book Coreander is reading, “What’s that book about?” Coreander replies, “Oh, this is something special.” “Well, what is it?” Coreander responds, “Look. You're books are safe. While you're reading them you get to become Tarzan or Robinson Crusoe.” Bastian replies, “But that's what I like about them.” “Yes, but afterwards you get to be a little boy again.” Bastian asks, “What do you mean?” Motioning for him to come near, Coreander whispers, “Have you ever been Captain Nemo, trapped inside your submarine while the giant squid was attacking you?” “Yes.” “Weren't you afraid you couldn't escape?” Bastian quickly replies with a hint of frustration in his voice, “But it's only a story.”

In disgust, Coreander replies, “That's what I'm talking about. The ones you read are safe.” Bastian asks, “And that one isn't?” Coreander responds, “Don’t worry about it.”

At this point, the phone rings and Coreander puts the book under a newspaper to try and hide it. Getting up to answer the phone he says, “Forget about it. This book is not for you.” As Coreander is away at the phone, Bastian uncovers the book – The Neverending Story. Fascinated by it, he takes the book, leaving Coreander a note, “Don’t worry, I’ll return the book.” From his office, Coreander knowingly smiles as if this is what he intended all along.


The Relationship of Story and Truth

“It’s only a story” is a flippant response that must be rejected. Stories possess a wondrous and dangerous power. Indeed, stories are the most powerful means of transformation known to humanity. “You are your stories. You are the product of all the stories you have heard and lived... They have shaped how you see yourself, the world, and your place in it.”[1]

Ultimately, truth is storied. Stories do not simply illustrate truth – they are truth. Contrary to modern thinking, stories are not inferior to abstract reason, but are a powerful truth medium. We tend to equate truth solely with universal, absolute, abstract propositions. These things cannot be expressed by a story, but only illustrated by a story. It is for this reason that this aspect of truth – truth as stated in universal, abstract propositions – is not as “real” as stories. Truth (or better, reality as we know and experience it) is personal, particular, concrete, and relational. The ancients had it right: Reason is not superior to stories; abstract propositions are not superior to narrative. Almost one century ago, G. K. Chesterton wrote,

People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are. Life may sometimes legitimately appear as a book of science. Life may sometimes appear, and with a much greater legitimacy, as a book of metaphysics. But life is always a novel.[2]

The Bible is a storybook, not an encyclopedia. It presents the story of God at work in human history and human lives. Brian McLaren states this succinctly, “[The Bible is] not a look-it-up encyclopedia of timeless moral truths, but the unfolding narrative of God at work in a violent, sinful world, calling people, beginning with Abraham, into a new way of life.”[3] The Bible refuses to be reduced to a collection of morals and principals, or concentrated to a systematic defense of abstract truths. To do this is to deny the very shape (as well as the content) of the Holy Scriptures. Ultimately, the Bible is a collection of stories that together reveal the one great story - the good news of God in Christ - that underlies all stories and gives each individual story significance and meaning. The “storied” form of the Bible and its message cannot be denied without distorting its message and tampering with its truth.[4]

The climax of the Bible’s story is the gospel (literally, “good news”). The gospel is the story of God’s redemptive work in Christ, planned and executed by God for the good of all people. Amazingly, the deepest truth about God is found by means of a simple story!

Christians are people caught up in God’s story of redemption. Because Christians are storydwellers as well as storytellers, the goal of Christian spirituality is not simply to advance to a greater degree of systematic, rational, and logical thought; the goal is nothing less than passionate, holistic participation in God’s story. An old Jewish saying states that “God made man because he loves stories.” This is obvious when reading through the Old Testament. As story after story unfolds, we see that God deals with people personally and particularly. Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Ruth, David, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah (just to name a few) do not experience the same story. God deals with them individually. Every story of the Bible is unique – personal and particular rather than abstract and absolute. These are the stories God has given us to help us make sense of our own lives.


The Power of Stories

In order to highlight the power of stories, I present fives aspects of stories that make them powerful instruments of truth and transformation.

Holistic: Stories embrace the whole person and not simply the intellect.Stories give shape to truth by embodying truth. They act “by incarnation, giving flesh and life to what otherwise is detached and abstract.”[5] Because of this, stories embrace emotions, passions, drives, desires, and attitudes, as well as the mind. It is this holistic element of stories that contains the power to transform us – reason without emotions is powerless to bring change.

The holistic aspect of stories protects us from the errors of Gnosticism. Stories plainly reveal that God works in and through “material” – through “stuff.” Stories help us to see that truth is more than “mind candy” but is meant to be embodied – the incarnation of God in Christ is the supreme demonstration of this. As participants in God’s story we are meant to be storydwellers – finding life by living in and through the biblical stories.

Relational: Stories connect us to others. We are who we are as a result of our relationships with others. “[O]ur stories are interwoven... We cannot live our story alone because we are characters in each other's stories. What you do is part of my story; what I do is part of yours.”[6] It is this reality that lies behind our profession of the “communion of saints.”

We know who we are in relationship to others. Regardless of where we are in life, we are positioned within a complex fabric of human relationships. The first words of every new human story – “I was born…” – immediately connect us with a place, a people, a culture, and a time. These relationships are vital to our identity. To be a person is to be in relationship. Try telling your story without mentioning any other people. It is impossible.

Our stories invite further relationship with other people. Telling our stories invites others to share our experience, and possibly, be shaped by it. Through the sharing of our stories, we come to a deeper relationship with others.

Storied truth is an antidote against individualism. We are products of our personal relationships, our particular history, and our particular culture. These are forces we did not choose, but they shape us nonetheless. It is impossible to tell our story apart from the context of the complex set of human, historical, social, and cultural relationships that we find ourselves in. Whether we like it or not, we are related to others.

Moral: Stories expose the underlying moral fabric of our lives. Stories are inherently concerned with right and wrong – with morality. All good stories are inherently moral. All characters within a story bear the consequences of their own choices. Not all consequences are good or beneficial. It becomes quite obvious in the telling of a story that certain actions are good or right and others are wrong. Refusing to admit this reduces every story to insignificance. If every choice is of equal weight then nothing is truly good or bad, right or wrong.

For all the reflexive relativism in our culture, we still believe in good and evil in our bones and are drawn to microdramas of 'ought' and 'should'.[7] Stories protect us against moral relativism. Whether we believe it or not, stories force us to recognize that there is such a thing as the “good life,” and subsequently, a “bad” or “wasted life.”

Particular / Progressive: Stories demonstrate our uniqueness and growth over time.A character is changed over time by his or her choices in a story. It is this human transformation that interests us most in a story. The growth or degeneration of a person's character within a story links together the events of a story. A story is more than merely a string of unrelated events. Instead, a good story links together significant actions that change a character, for better or for worse. Events in a story lose their significance if they hold no potential to transform a character in a positive or negative way.

Stories present us not simply with personalities but also with a person’s character. “The single aspect of story that draws us most irresistibly is character. We remember characters from stories long after we've forgotten plot, language, and theme.”[8] A character is “a bundle of values in action.”[9] Our contemporary culture worships at “the cult of personality” with very little interest in character. Stories prove that “[w]e should worry less about our personality and more about our character.”[10] Personality comprises what distinguishes us from others individually. Character has to do with growing in virtue or vice. The unique way we express virtue or vice is what sets us apart individually – not our mere personality quirks or oddities.

Stories are an antidote against meaninglessness. Stories connect isolated events and give meaning to the whole. Events – whether good or bad – have meaning in regard to how they impact the whole character of a person. Each of us lives a unique, unrepeatable life. Our uniqueness takes on beautiful hues when we are shaped by the common virtues which make for a good life.

Transformative: Stories open the possibility of transforming us. “Every powerful character we encounter in a story is a challenge to our own character, and holds the possibility of changing us.”[11] Each story is a challenge to our own story, calling us to learn and grow. In this way, every story is inherently moral, exemplifying the “right” or “wrong” way to live. To lose this component is to trivialize every story.

Embracing a new story changes our perception of reality. New stories reshape our own personal story. The genius of Paul Harvey’s popular, “the rest of the story,” is that the new information we receive sheds further light on the old story we already know.

It is possible for a story to completely reorient our perspective of self, others, and the world. “[W]hen we accept a new defining story for our life... [n]othing – past, present, or future – looks the same.”[12] For example, if we grew up without stories of God or the supernatural, we are not likely to sense God at work in our lives. But if we consider the possibility of God or the supernatural as part of the story of our lives, we are more likely to sense a spiritual reality behind the material one.[13] Our perspective is radically reoriented by introducing us to a completely new reality.

Not only do new stories change our perception, but stories allow us to imagine something better. Through stories, children “see themselves being in the future something other than they were presently.”[14] They can imagine “something more and better than [they] presently are.”[15] By opening our imagination to other possibilities, stories expand our perception and change our lives

Stories are an antidote against perfectionism. Human health is evidenced by growth and progress, not unchanging perfection. Understanding ourselves and others (much less God!) is a lifelong process. Our own stories will constantly need revising. Our stories of God will also need reworking. We must always leave room for the “rest of the story” in regard to ourselves, others, and (especially) God!


Conclusion: Story as Truth

Understanding truth in this way fits our lives and experience. “Seeing our lives as stories is more than a powerful metaphor. It is how experience presents itself to us.”[16]

This also conforms better to God’s self-disclosure in Scripture. The Bible presents the story of God and how it intersects with our own personal stories – or, better, how our stories intersect with God’s story.

God’s story spans from creation to consummation. Some divide it into four episodes: Creation, fall, redemption, new creation. Others divide it into seven: Creation, crisis, calling, conversation, Christ, community, consummation.[17] But no matter how it is divided, the overarching story remains the same: God graciously redeems a fallen creation by reconciling all things to himself through Christ and restoring all things through his Spirit. This story is best summarized in the ancient creeds common to all Christian traditions.

Amazingly, God’s story spans even further than creation to new creation. It truly is a neverending story for it begins with the triune God in eternity and ends with the triune God with his people in eternity. This is the ultimate and true “once upon a time” and the only satisfying “happily ever after.”

It is vital that we recover the narrative structure of truth. The story of God is meant to impact our lives and shape our own stories – our own truth. It can only do this insofar as it becomes our story.

The Bible sets forth a story of the world, from its beginning to its ending. It is the only true story of the world, all other stories being at best partial renditions of the world story disclosed in the Bible. Consequently, all other stories must be inscribed into the biblical story, rather than the biblical story into any one of them. Insofar as we allow the biblical story to become our story, it overcomes our reality. We no longer view the world as once we did; we view it from the point of view of a character in the Bible's story.[18]

It is this story which gives us identify, meaning, and hope. It gives us a past, present, and a future. It is this story that we tell and indwell. As the old hymn states, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations!” As the angels sang on Christmas morning, this story is “good news of great joy for all the people.” This is the story that we are to tell and indwell. It is no use being a storyteller unless we are storydwellers.


[1] Daniel Taylor, The Healing Power of Stories, 1. (This book is currently out of print, but has been republished by Bog Walk Press under the title, Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories. All page numbers refer to the original edition.)

[2] G. K Chesterton, Brave New Family (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 44-45.

[4] This is the main problem with systematic theology. It’s bent toward the expression of timeless, static, and universal truths tends to undermine cultural particularities, historical contexts, progressive understanding, and particular applications.

[5] Taylor, Healing Power of Stories, 54.

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] Ibid.,19.

[8] Ibid., 41.

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] Ibid., 41.

[11] Ibid., 42.

[12] Ibid., 87.

[13] Ibid., 27.

[14] Ibid., 28.

[15] Ibid., 28.

[16] Ibid., 4.

[17] McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 278.

[18] Gerard Loughlin, Telling God's Story: Bible, Church, and Narrative Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 37.

© Richard J. Vincent, 2004

4 Comments

I blogged about God's story and our part in it for holy week. Then I remembered my children's favorite movie, so I searched and found this blog. Now I need to figure out how to link it to my blog links.
Rich, One of the timeless truths that I learned from you years ago, is that you cannot approach the scriptures and interpret them as abstract propositional truths. It does not work. Narrative form is much more conducive to seeing the truth in the scriptures. If you ever read the Koran or Buhdist teachings, the majority of it is more of a "how to do" spirituality handbook. They do not use narrative soley as our scriptures do. This is big. Our Scriptures use of narrative with a timeline adds to the historicity and authenticity of our scriptures. This is very convincing to the person who needs "proof" that the story is historic and accurate. No other religion offers this kind of proof. Thanks again Rich, Your friend, Scott Canatsey
Again your insights are helpful, encouraging and delightful. Thank you! (I'd be glad to help you with proofreading to remove the punctuation errors I spotted,if you'd like.)
I was praying to God, asking him to explain why there was evil and basically what I got back was that Evil was the absense of Good. I'd never really got that before, and it made me think of 'The Nothing' in 'The Neverending Story' so I Googled it and found this. You are so right about stories. Personally I can't grasp anything without a story!

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