10 Keys To Using Story To Communicate Truth

The Good Samaritan story has so impacted the world that it has become part of our everyday vernacular to describe someone who helps a person in need. Although a lot of Christian symbols and expressions are being suppressed today, you can still say someone is a “Good Samaritan” without it being seen as a Christian bias.

This past week at the Coastal Church Istoria Conference, I spoke on using story to communicate truth. Jesus embedded the truth of loving your neighbor into a powerful story and it has successfully been passed down through the ages. This is because we are wired to be moved by stories, not by bullet points.

In Brene Brown’s book, Rising Strong, she writes, “The idea of telling story has become ubiquitous. It is a platform for everything from creative moments to marketing strategies. But the idea that we’re wired for story is more than a catchy phase. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has found that hearing a story – a narrative with a beginning, middle and end- causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin. These trigger the uniquely human abilities to connect, empathize, and make meaning. Story is literally in our DNA.”

Jesus obviously knew this. He only had three years to leave behind His message and the medium Jesus chose was story. If you study storytelling you find that Jesus skillfully used the ingredients that make stories work.

Bobette Buster is a story expert, a screenwriter, a professor at the University of Southern California, and a consultant to companies like Pixar. In her book Do Story – How To Tell Your Story So The World Listens, Bobette distills storytelling to ten essential components. It is interesting to see how Jesus uses these tools. They are:

1. Tell your story as if you’re telling it to a friend: this applies no matter where you are, or who your audience is.

Just prior to Jesus relating the story of the Good Samaritan to a lawyer, who tries to justify who his neighbour was, Jesus said: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

God chose to hide His wisdom from those who think they know it all, and reveal it to those who are childlike. Jesus wants this lawyer to understand, so He uses a story to communicate this truth to him. He doesn’t write the lawyer off because he is wise and learned, but rather speaks to him in a story.

Who do we tell stories to? To our children, to our friends, and typically to people we like. I really think Jesus loved this lawyer that was testing Him and He used a story to reach his heart.

2. Set the GPS: give the place, time, setting and any relevant contact. Keep it factual, short and sweet.

Can you remember where you where and the time of day when you first heard about the disaster of September 11, 2001? If I was to tell my grandchildren about what happened on that day, I would start by telling them it was about six in the morning; I was driving to the office, about to get on the #1 highway, listening to the traffic report when the news came on. I would set the “GPS”.

This is exactly what Jesus does with this story. In Luke 10:30 we read: Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.”

3. Action! Use action verbs. Spice up your verb choices but keep them to succinct.

Jesus used a number of action verse paint this story for us. They include:

attacked ….. stripped
compassion ….soothed
now go

4. Juxtapose: take two ideas, images or thoughts and place them together. Let them collide. This tool wakes up your audience, and it is the root of all successful stories.

The collision of ideas here is that the priest and Levite (the religious ones) don’t stop to help, but their enemy does. The audience would have been shocked to hear the idea of a Samaritan stopping to help. It would be the equivalent of hearing a terrorist stopping to help an enemy today. This certainly would have woken up the audience!

Samaritans were the despised enemies of the Jews. The listeners would have expected a Jew to be the hero of Jesus’ story; instead they would have been surprised to hear that it is a Samaritan. For one moment, the Samaritan no longer sees the hated Jew, but a human being. He sees his neighbor in need, and he realizes his ability to do something about it.

5. Gleaming detail: choose one ordinary moment or object that becomes a gleaming detail. Something that best captures and bodies the essence of the story. Make the ordinary extraordinary.

There are a few gleaming details that stand out in the story, but one that is significant is that “he felt compassion for him and soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine”. Especially for the audience of the day, this detail would have stood out. It represents caring attention, a sacrifice of time, an expense and humanity.

Bobette suggest to use gleaming detail as a device, but use it sparingly. Position it only once or twice so that it will stand out. Don’t qualify, justify or explain. Simply tell the story. Quite often the more ordinary the detail, the more extraordinary the truth that is revealed.

6. Hand over the spark: reflect on the experience or idea that originally captivated you and simply hand it to your audience as if it were aflame. Carry the fire.

As you develop your story, ask yourself: what is a truth within the story that I want to tell? What is the truth that can be carried? Certainly this “flame” that Jesus handed His audience that day is still being carried.

7. Be vulnerable: dare to show the emotion of your story. Let your audience know what you question along the way so they share your doubt, confusion, anger, sorrow, insight, glee, delight, joy, and epiphany.

Although we can’t perhaps see the emotion of Jesus telling this story, we certainly know He would express this deep emotion when He became the ultimate Good Samaritan in going to the cross and taking on the sins of the world. In the Garden of Gethsemane He would wrestle with such agony that He would sweat drops of blood.

8. Tune into your sense memory: choose the strongest of the five senses in your story and use it to make a deeper connection with your audience. There is always one primary sense that dominates every memory.

Have you ever been the first to arrive at the scene of an accident? The first sense usually impacted is sight. For some the sight of blood and open wounds is enough to become sick and retreat. Jesus highlights this sense when telling this story, “….when he saw the man lying there…. walked over and looked at him lying there.”

9. Bring yourself: story is as much about you as anything else.

If you study the life of Jesus you will find this is who He was. More than once the scriptures say, “He was moved by compassion He healed them.” No doubt this was reflected as He told the story stating that the Samaritan was moved as he felt compassion for the wounded man.

10. Let go: hand over your story letting it build to its natural emotional punch line, then end it and get out fast. Leave the audience wanting more. Less is more.

The joy of storytelling is to enlighten your audience and move them to take action. The lawyer was trying to justify himself for not caring about certain people. Jesus doesn’t give him the law, but a story. He concludes by saying: “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbour to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked. 37 The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

In the book The Art Of Neighboring the authors make the case that we need to learn to love our actual neighbor. Their research has shown that when people are asked to write the names of the 8 people living closest to them, only 10% can get write them down. When asked to give some relevant information about these people – like they grew up in a certain town, their career or their favorite sport – only 3% could give this information. They go on to say if we don’t take Jesus’ commands literally, then we turn the Great Commandment into nothing more than a metaphor. We have a metaphoric love for our metaphoric neighbors.

There is an urgent need for Good Samaritans in our world today. Last week when Pope Francis was in Washington, the USA Today newspaper published this quote from his speech: “The innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism… – at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters. It is wrong, then, to look the other way.”

At the end of the Good Samaritan story, Jesus leaves us hanging. He leaves it up to us to wonder whether the lawyer went and did likewise or would he look the other way. Was he childlike enough to catch the truth of the story?

What do you think? Are you childlike enough to go and do likewise?