A couple weeks back, it was 7:45 am and I was grumpy. My good friend Mark was arguing with me in the car on our way to the metro. We’ve been carpooling every day since Christmas, and he’s a morning person. And he likes to argue. Mark is one of my favorite people, but I’m not a morning person, not these days. Fortunately for both of us, he got smart and made me coffee on this particular morning. So I was enough of a person to keep up with his thoughts and wasn’t just smiling and nodding this time.
The subject at hand was how I tell stories on my blog. He was bothered, because he knew there’s a post I wrote where I told a story about a guy who told me that God told him that I was The One. What he knows is that it’s not just one story, but two or three similar stories, cobbled together to eliminate identifying details and avoid highlighting just one person. I did this because I wanted to use the story, the particular line “God told me you were the one,” without being unkind to the person(s) who used that line. But it’s my story — it happened to me. So I know I have the right to tell it, but I want to be judicious.
His objection is that cobbling the stories together isn’t true and so he was telling me that I shouldn’t have told the story at all if I wasn’t going to be faithful to tell exactly how it happened.
We ended up agreeing to disagree, but I keep thinking back to this conversation. I still think what I did was fine, but there have been some instances lately where bloggers have appropriated the stories and experiences of others they know in order to make a point later on in the post.
There’s a formula for this, and it goes like so:
- Great Quote For Hook
- Full Anecdote In Longer Story Form With Tweetable Soundbites
- Transition About How Blogger Reflects On Story/Event/Moment
- Bible Verses And Some Explication
- Full Point of Post, Driven Home
- Catchy Close-Out Lines, Usually Tweetable
It works well for blogging, and though I will probably continue to wryly jab at it in private, I use it sometimes myself. It makes sense — the story and the soundbites are palatable, quick, and engaging. It’s the same method used by the devotionals our mothers kept in the powder rooms of our childhood homes. It’s not quite storytelling and it’s not quite theology and it meets the layman’s need for a quick wisdom story snack in a pinch.
But it’s bad theology and bad art, most of the time. It’s the writer’s Thomas Kinkade — not technically talented, not true to life or true to truth. It makes you feel good and think on nice things for a few minutes, and then you leave it, largely unchanged.
No, no, you say. Your favorite bloggers have changed you! They are good writers!
Yes, they can be. I’ve been hugely influenced, challenged, healed, moved by deep and heart-full blog posts, had my understanding of theology shaken and made strong by fantastic theological posts, and have witten my fair share of attempts at thoughtful stuff here.
But the best bloggers either let story have full reign and use the power of the narrative to make a point without telling you what it is at the end, just to make sure you get it. This is why Deeper Story has been such a huge thing for the Christian blogging community. They tell stories for the sake of the story, because it moved them, changed them as Christians. But they let their readers do the legwork of connecting the dots, respecting their intelligence and prizing the power of a good story told well.
And this is why bloggers like Rachel Held Evans, Dianna Anderson, Libby Anne, and Peter Enns have been so successful, too. They write layman’s theology, philosophy, ethics, etc. on their blogs, and they respect their readers and the craft of writing. I see this when they don’t rely on cheap story hooks or anecdotes to grab their readers’ attention, when they don’t make every line purple prose or tweetable, when they treat their readers like smart, thinking adults who want to practice their faith (or lack thereof) with intellectual integrity.
But then you get post’s like Preston’s this morning on Deeper Story, which lectured instead of telling a story. And posts like mine, with the cobbled-together details of three events in one to make a point. And posts like Emily’s on Prodigal, which hurt so many people with her flippant aside about her grandmother’s suicide.
And there’s something there worth saying, worth telling. It burns in our bones until we write it. Preston’s post was good and timely for a host of reasons. People responded overwhelmingly and positively to mine. Emily’s written a follow-up post about her grandmother’s suicide, telling more, trying to tell it better.
But we need to know when to tell a story and when to write an essay. Blogging is too quick, too easy, sometimes. Slowing down, picking the right genre and the right platform for a piece can make the difference between choosing the good or the best.
I’d like to respond a bit specifically to Preston’s discussion of how we tell stories and how we preach here, on our little corners of the internet. As I said, it’s a good post. But all these thoughts about stories and how we tell them got stirred up by it, and I have some problems with what he said (as well as with his choice of platform).
I agree with him in essence. When you’re telling stories for a didactic point, your theology matters, because otherwise you’re prostituting story to make a theological argument, and the story is a manipulative tool to open the heart of the reader to the follow-up message.
Christians are particularly prone to this type of narrative, the story-moral-go-therefore. We like to have a good story because we’re human. But because we’re Christian and Everything Matters Because Of The Gospel, we crave that tidy conclusion or moral. We want the platitude, the answer, the systematic theology. We are just like the two housewives in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People.” We have a platitude for every situation in life and we want to tell you about it. No life event, no personal story, no heartache is exempt.
But it doesn’t work like that. You can’t have good art with a platitude at the end, you can’t tell a story and have the story be good if you’re trying to tie it down to a moral-shaped chair. It will wriggle and writhe and resist, and you’ll start chopping off limbs to make it fit just so, and soon you have the bleeding stump of a story, lying still and interesting and ugly, all nicely fitting on your platitude-shaped chair. This is what happened with Emily’s post and her comment about her grandmother. It sort of fit the point she was making, so she trimmed it down to size for effect, and voila! You have a hook. But it’s bad art and bad art usually means bad theology. Respect the form of the story, the craft of argumentation and rhetoric, and you’ll have good art. Don’t bastardize it for your platitude.
Good theology can be captured in a story, but the story has to be dominant and the metaphor cannot be stretched to unnatural places that bend the story out of shape and out of sorts.
I have one other problem with Preston’s post: not everyone can go to St. Andrews college and sit under N.T. Wright and devote their lives to theology. Not everyone has time or resources for exegesis, learning Greek well, or examining the pre-Nicean fathers. I have friends who do these things and I am so excited for them because it’s needed and good and sacred. And, quite frankly, I wish I was able to do all these things, too. And maybe I feel a bit helpless because my life situation doesn’t allow me to be in that season or that place, studying theology and Church history the way they deserve to be studied. And I feel like a bit of an academic beggar, craving a bit more information, a bit more depth, the crumbs from the table of our best seminaries. (Not to mention the myriad of posts I could write about how this makes me feel as a post-QF woman who grew up being told women couldn’t be pastors or argue theology well if their male headship said it wasn’t so.)
I am happy for Preston. Deeper Story and readers like me benefit from his immersion in the world of academic theology. It’s really cool for him and good for us. I hope he doesn’t stop blogging.
But he’s also the beneficiary of educational privilege. And, quite frankly, it’s not fair to expect that everyone study theology as well or as thoroughly as he is able to. Writers of your average Christian-issues-intellectually-thoughtful blog aren’t scholars. We have day jobs and commutes, children and husbands, life drama, depression, PTSD, church commitments, etc. We are the Body. We have different parts to play.
So, yes. We need to be careful to pick our genre correctly, to use integrity in our storytelling, and to take care with our theology. We need to learn our limits and not try to tell stories that aren’t ours or write essays we’re not qualified to write.
Yet, yet. It’s okay to be messy and make mistakes and accidentally write a heretical post and have to take it back later when we realize we’re wrong (one of my favorite things about the bloggers I read is that they’re not afraid to write apology posts and say they were wrong). Let’s try to be realistic about our expectations.
[But when you all start writing books and have proper editors and academic resources, all bets are off, my friends.]