This article is adapted from excerpts taken from The Power of Story: A Student’s Guide to the Power of Story by Joe Deegan (Christian Focus, July 2021).
People say you are what you eat, and we consume stories all day long. What kind of person are you becoming based on your diet of stories?
Movies, music, shows, sports, books, gossip, social media—these are all stories we munch on daily. But how do they affect our souls? Do they mold us more into the image of God? Or do they drive us further away from the light of his presence?
Stories shape us in ways very few things can, from the Serpent’s tale in Eden to the parables of Jesus to the entire narrative of Scripture. Our attraction to stories is woven into our spiritual DNA. But we must seek biblical wisdom as we sift through the stories around us. Not all of them are good, and not all of them tell us the truth.
Falling for False Stories
In 2009, Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker designed a human experiment called “Significant Objects.” They bought hundreds of cheap antique knickknacks for a total of $128.74. Their goal was to resell the items on eBay by adding one thing: a story. They hired more than 100 creative writers to add interesting, funny, or sentimental backstories under the description of each item—all of them fake.
The result? People bought it. In the course of four months, the objects sold for a total of $3,612.51. If you’re doing the math, that’s about a 2,800 percent return on investment from nothing more than made-up stories.
Movies, music, shows, sports, books, gossip, social media—these are all stories we munch on daily. But how do they affect our souls?
It’s easy to criticize the online buyers for being gullible and believing something so ridiculous, but let’s be honest—how many times have we fallen victim to similar traps in life? Glenn and Walker’s experimental hypothesis was this: “Narrative transforms insignificant objects into significant ones.”
They were right. Stories shape us. Even the bad ones.
What’s the Standard for ‘Good’?
As followers of Christ, how can we know whether a story is good? Pastor Skip Ryan once said, “Beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder. There is a standard of beauty in this world because there is a Beautiful One.”
The best way to judge the quality of a story is by comparing its beauty and goodness to that of the Lord’s. Paul says in Philippians, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). Here is a template for God’s idea of objective beauty, qualities we should treat as gatekeepers. Every time we engage with a story, we should ask ourselves, Is this story true? Is it just? Is it excellent?
Every time we engage with a story, we should ask ourselves, Is this story true? Is it just? Is it excellent?
We also know, thanks to the fall, that every story eventually comes up short of God’s perfect standard. Most stories have good and bad peppered throughout. It’s not as if they move from bad to good when they reach a certain score on an excellence meter.
But the more truth and beauty we see in a story, the more its excellence will shine. The more a story points us to the destructive nature of pride and selfishness and the redemptive nature of love and sacrifice, the more we will hear the echoes of God’s story from Scripture. These are the types of stories that tell us the truth, and when they are crafted with beauty and skill, they should draw our attention as followers of Jesus.
Training Our Tastes for Goodness
Even as we look to Christ as the objective standard of beauty, we know there is also such a thing as subjective beauty. God has given us all individual tastes and preferences, and he created a diverse world where beauty and excellence can be expressed in many different ways. We don’t all have to love all the same things in the same way. But as we grow in Christ, it’s important to make sure we develop a taste for what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise.
You don’t have to like broccoli just because it’s good for you. But don’t let Oreos be the replacement for broccoli. Find another objectively healthy food that appeals to your subjective tastes. (But if the Oreos are double-stuffed, sure, go right ahead.)
In all seriousness, here’s another way to think of it—the more dimly lit the room, the harder it is to see. So if we imagine the qualities of Philippians 4:8 as lamps in a room, then we can know that a good story will be well-lit because it will shine with truth and love and purity and excellence. It will be a story that lights our way and helps us see the truth of who we really are and what God made us for.
On that note, let me give a word of warning: the more time we spend enjoying bad or “dimly lit” stories—stories that wallow in brokenness or celebrate sin, for example—the more our eyes will begin to adjust to the darkness. God has not called us to be spiritually nocturnal. We are creatures of the day, called to live in the light: “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true)” (Eph. 5:8–9).
Determining the objective beauty of a story may not always be as simple as labeling it good or bad. But the more we orient our hearts around the beauty of God’s story, the more we will know the difference between the stories that carry that same torch and those that lead us into the shadows.