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Why Story Matters

Why do stories matter?

Ultimately, because of who we are - made in the image of God. Human beings possess the twin faculties of Reason and Imagination, both God-given, both essential for a right relationship with the world (and for a right understanding of one’s place in the world).

However, something has gone badly wrong in our culture. In a slow process that began with the Enlightenment and has continued to the present day, these faculties of Reason and Imagination have been separated, to the detriment of both.

On the one hand, Reason has been given free rein, and the pursuit of knowledge using our God-given intellect has become scientism and materialism, the idea that only those things that can be empirically measured and logically figured out can be considered “true” or “real.” In the world of science, truth is held to be only that which is measurable and testable. Intangible things like emotions and spiritual truths are decidedly second-class citizens. After all, souls can’t be detected with an MRI, and love can’t be weighed and measured!

This adulation of Reason without the counterbalance of Imagination leads to an inevitable diminishment of the vision of what it means to be human. Our culture is showing many signs of this part of the Reason / Imagination divide. For instance, in a culture that embraces “scientific” ways of thinking, it becomes difficult to justify spending any extra time or money in promoting the arts, or making buildings beautiful.

In older cities like Boston or Philadelphia, the public buildings from the 18th or 19th centuries – the town hall, the courthouse, the banks – have elegant, inspiring architecture. Contrast that to your local 20th century Department of Motor Vehicles.

More seriously, the fact that the human soul cannot be weighed, measured, or detected with scientific instruments has led to a creeping tendency to define human beings by what they can do, not by their innate dignity as men and women made in the image of God. The elderly and disabled, who cannot define themselves in terms of what they can accomplish, can very easily be considered a burden on society.

Narrowing the definition of truth to what Reason alone can determine makes it possible for people to design functional buildings that depress the soul, and for people to talk about the suitability of ending one’s life simply because one is old and tired.

With the use of Reason alone, it is too easy to make categorical distinctions; a person can be a statistic, not recognized as one of the human beings that the scientist or bureaucrat interacts with on a daily basis. It is Imagination that would reveal the truth: the true connection between the imago Dei, the image of God in human beings, and each individual, unique human being.

Yet in the broader culture, unchecked Imagination goes its own route to error. Ungrounded and undisciplined, a de-Christianized Imagination has not led to more beauty, but to less. When less is left to the imagination, storytelling becomes shallow and limited. In order to get some sort of response, art, literature, music, and film move toward  the breaking of standards for the sake of destruction, and the rejection of limits of any kind.

Sexuality and violence, ever more of it, and ever more corrosive, become the norm for entertainment. In movies, we have gone from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho to the gore-fest of Saw III, with the same trend appearing in books. The popular young-adult series The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, is full of graphic depictions of violent injuries and gruesome death. The high level of sexuality in books and film, including books for younger readers, has become so much the norm that one of the things that makes the Harry Potter series distinctive is its refreshing lack of explicit sexuality and its depiction of chaste dating behavior – in other words, J.K. Rowling is notable for holding to standards that were normal up to a few decades ago.

Criticism of these trends is muzzled, however, because all of these excesses are claimed to be for the sake of art or fun, with no “meaning” behind them whatsoever. “It’s just a book” or “It’s just a movie” are the most common retorts to any expressed concern about the ideas and behavior being presented (and implicitly promoted) in the media.

We need to recover the connection between Imagination and Truth. Without the recognition that our values are objectively grounded in the living God, and that our flourishing as whole human beings depends on a right relationship with Him, the imaginative impulse will lead us to destruction as surely as unchecked Reason.

But we are all storytellers, and the human need for story pops up wherever we look, even where we would not expect to find Story at all.

In the realm of unchecked Reason, skeptics tell just-so stories to explain every aspect of our lives in terms of biology and evolution.

In the realm of unchecked Imagination, celebrity culture allows people to participate in drama, and to have heroes and villains (if only for a fleeting moment).

Even when we’re completely wrong about the way the world works, with our lives completely out of touch with the living God, we are drawn to narrative, imagery, characters – story. Such is the power of storytelling. Rightly used, Story can help re-connect Reason and Imagination – and in so doing, help re-orient us toward Truth.


What an outstanding stream of thought; such a pertinent article. God, raise up the raconteurs of the Church to get their message of Imago Dei out into the world.

This article epitomizes a common and, I believe, rather destructive misconception about non-believers held by a subset of theists, especially American Christian theists.

The misconception is that those of us who subscribe to naturalism (i.e., accept as true only claims that are demonstrably true) are unable, or only partially able, to appreciate art and beauty. We "lack imagination." It's a way of asserting that non-believers are not fully human.

Of course, nobody can "prove" that he is as full a human being as his neighbor. But I will say this: it is possible to stand in awe of the universe, to value human life for its inherent value, and to live out one's days lovingly and gently, with a sense of respect and gratefulness for the universe around us, without believing in anything that is not physically real. That which is physically real IS awe-inspiring.

Sometimes Christians like to respond with some version of, "yeah, but if you were in MY religion then you'd have an appreciation of beauty that you can't even *fathom* with your mind so limited by rationality." My response to them is the same as my response to hipsters who imply that I'm not cool enough to ever fully appreciate their Indie music: "maybe so."

God greatest gift is the Freedom. It us who make decisions, but of course we are responsible for the decisions we made. - Banners Broker


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Dr. Holly Ordway is a professor of composition and literature. She speaks and writes regularly on literature, especially fantasy literature and poetry, and literary apologetics.