Serial, The Power of Narrative, and The Problem of Real Life

Last Thursday, season 2 of the Serial podcast came to an end. This time around, there was not a flood of news coverage. In fact, my guess is that many people still have unplayed episodes sitting in their phone — a fact that would have seemed blasphemous in season 1.

We can argue over why one season was captivating and binge-worthy while the other has fizzled out: One was true crime and one wasn’t. One story featured characters, settings, and motivations we could connect with. The other was an exploration of an unusual man, the military, and government bureaucracy.

But what season 1 and season 2 have in common is critical for us to understand as preachers, teachers, and communicators: There is a very real tension between storytelling and real life.

Storytelling is hot right now. In many ways, it has been hot forever. Science Mike told Donald Miller on a recent podcast that humans have been storytellers since long before we developed agriculture (more from this conversation later). But storytelling has definitely had a renaissance lately.

Gone are the days of researching facts, crafting rational arguments, and presenting your case point by point. News articles that used to begin with the primary facts now read, “It was raining when 39-year-old Sharon first noticed something was off…” The presidential campaigns on both sides have been less about policies and more about who presents the most compelling narrative about life in America. Even ministry-focused resources and blogs are promoting the power of story (including yours truly in a post on church announcements).

Serial Season 1 benefitted from being a compelling story that most of us didn’t know. But many were frustrated by the ending. There was no smoking gun that had remained a secret for a decade to prove guilt or innocence (though a discarded eyewitness statement is now being reinvestigated). The truth and what it all means were ultimately left up to the listener. Season 2 tells a story that has been international news for years, and so there is much less mystery. Instead of being one coherent narrative, they employed narrative techniques to explore different issues — often again ending with a note of “it’s up to you” — which is not what we want from a good story.

In the podcast conversation referenced earlier, Science Mike talked about the power storytelling has on the brain:

“Reality is complicated, and what story does is allow our brains to build a simplified, usable model of reality. And that’s what our brains crave… The imagined experiences of a story become real to our own brains… In studies, we’ve seen [that] two weeks after hearing a good story, people will report the fact claims of that story as if they came up with them themselves.”

Whether we are trying to communicate the Gospel or we are trying to memorize a shuffled deck of cards in less than 60 seconds, narrative elements will help. Jesus himself did a large portion of his teaching through parables. But these same techniques can be used to manipulate. Even oversimplifying or stretching to make a perceived good point can prove dishonest and harmful. A prime example might be the Christian movie industry.

Speaking about Hollywood in general, screenwriter Craig Mazin said on an episode of Scriptnotes:

“Well, unfortunately, this is where movies have hurt culture… We want the certainty that a good story gives us. This is right and this is wrong. These are good people, these are the bad people… And now, we like narrative so much we want to change reality to conform to narrative. Well, reality will not change. Reality will always be anti-narrative.”

As you listen to podcasts, read blogs, and hear conference keynote speakers tell you to use the power of storytelling to enhance your ministry, remember that with great power comes great responsibility. We best serve our people when we use storytelling to help real people connect with the real God and the real world around them.

Header image by Flickr user John Lemieux. Used under Creative Commons License. Edited/Cropped from Original.

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