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Editor’s preface: This is a guest post by our friend Alexander Pierpoint. He’s a writer and former PNW resident turned Ohioan. Alexander was recently engaged and we wanted to shout a big CONGRATULATIONS to him! Be sure to leave Alexander some love in the comments or by sharing his work.
Everyone loves a good story. Whether it’s hearing about a friend’s life, reading a classic novel, or watching a cinematic adventure, there’s something distinctly human about appreciating stories. There are countless names that have earned the “top tier storyteller” title: Shakespeare, Tolkien, Twain, Poe, along with modern classics like Rowling. A name that might not quite as stereotypically make the cut as a great storyteller is Jesus. Yes, Jesus of Nazareth of the Bible. Now, regardless of one’s thoughts and opinions on the person of Jesus, one thing is for sure; He was quite the storyteller. He was telling parables and using metaphors before it was considered artsy or trendy.
I’ve always thought it was interesting that whenever we read about Jesus being asked a question, He seldom gives a straight answer. Rather, He launches into a story. There’s something to be said about that. Jesus chose stories, not only to communicate points, but to appeal to more foundational things. He chose stories to challenge the status quo and flip people’s preconceived paradigms on their heads. Consider this: the idea of love your neighbor as yourself is a pretty foundational concept that most would consider a positive one. You might say, treat others, as you want to be treated. Now, when Jesus communicates this point, He doesn’t simply offer up this principle. He launches into a parable (which is Bible talk for story).
You may have heard the story of the Good Samaritan. What they don’t tell the kids in Sunday school is that this story is definitely Jesus’ most controversial. To give us some context, the ancient Jews hated the Samaritans. Really hated. The Samaritans were, to put it bluntly, half-breeds. Jews that had married into relationships with non-Jewish people, which to the Jewish people was worse than being a straight up non-Jewish person.
The story starts with a Jewish man who has been mugged lying on the side of the street, close to death. Two separate Jewish church leaders end up passing him by and essentially ignoring him two separate times, and this is where Jesus would have done a figurative mic drop. The only person who does stop and help the Jewish man on the side of the road is a Samaritan. For perspective, this would be the equivalent of, say, a Westboro Baptist member lying on the road, and a Gay man willingly and happily coming to his aid. Unheard of. I’m telling you, this would’ve blown people’s minds. That’s another thing Jesus was good at. Not only was He including a Samaritan in the story, the Samaritan was the protagonist!
The majority of writings we have about Jesus, in fact, include similar tactics. He pulls the bait and switch; setting up a story and finishing with an often unheard of twist. He challenges the status quo by frequenting the phrase, “you have heard it said… but I tell you…” His stories, more often than not, are centered on empowering groups of people; often those who are marginalized or forgotten. Perhaps most important of all is His core message that a new way of living, a new way of understanding reality, is coming, and He’s the one ushering it in.
Again, setting aside your religious convictions, or lack thereof, about the historical person of Jesus, what can we learn from His unique and influential storytelling? Well, first off, given that through 12 average, lower-middle class men He was able to ignite the biggest worldwide movement in human history, we can gather that He was effective. Jesus’ storytelling spoke to something foundational and central to whom His listeners were. They were real, they were honest, they were not too flashy, and they didn’t merely appeal to emotion. What He gave them was a new reality that they had never known.
That’s what compels people. The ancient Jews were living in a culture so saturated with religious talk and tradition, that Jesus’ new way of looking at things stuck out. Similarly, we live in a time and place where we are constantly bombarded with messages and stories; most of them being advertisements that take thirty seconds or less to try and sell you an idea or a product. If someone wants a story or message to get through or be unique, it might take using techniques that are counter intuitive and outside the box, but still familiar. That’s exactly what Jesus did. “Love your enemy?” Really? That isn’t exactly pleasing to the ear initially. But after being fleshed out, that sentiment appealed to Jesus’ demographic in a way that the status quo, thirty second pitch could never match.
Think about Microsoft or Nike. Both are perfect examples of modern companies using the “you have heard it said… but we tell you…” tactic. Apple changed the way we would look at computers, music, and now television and mobile devices forever. Nike changed the standard for what sportswear and athletics was and needed. Not only did they do that, but watch an ad campaign from either brand. They are not just thirty seconds. You might not even know exactly what the product is for half of the add. They aren’t fast. They have actual cinematography. They stick out. They empower the user. And they say this is for you.
This matters because it tells us something about humanity. Since the time that Jesus lived, people have valued realness, narrative, and true, authentic storytelling. Somewhere along the line we were taught to forget this. We’ve been given advertising and marketing for most of our lives whose strategy is, “give them some facts, make it look nice, and tell them why they need it.” That’s kind of it. But things are changing. We’re remembering the thing inside of us that values people over price tags and lives over logos. Jesus was someone who was able to embrace this aspect of people’s identities and use it to further his purpose. He wasn’t there simply to sell; He was there to connect. People saw that; they felt it. Today, when people see that, whether it is in a person or a company, it reminds them of their need for story. And they like it. We as people, and as agencies, companies, and businesses, can gain so much from looking at Jesus in this area.
Now, I don’t want to come across as saying Jesus was just a salesman or a brand like Nike and Microsoft. What I do want to do is appeal to the notion that we know how important a good story is. A good story is what motivates someone to choose this brand over that. A good story appeals to empathy and identifying with a person, cause, or even company. And, ultimately, a good story is what contributed to what is now the biggest system of faith that exists today. If you haven’t, try reading though the Gospels and pay attention to how Jesus tells stories and ignites His movement.
A good story can, quite literally, change the world.
Editor’s note: For more information about Jesus’ parables, this Wikipedia page is a great start.