Friday, April 18, 2014
The power of story is getting unlikely attention. In a fascinating collaboration, literary scholars and neuroscientists have teamed up to explore the physiological impact that stories have on the human brain.
A recent Wall Street Journal article by Allison Gopnik entitled “Want a Mind Meld? Tell a Compelling Story,” described a variety of brain scan studies that show that stories not only shape one’s thoughts, but also foster a connection between a story-teller and listener. The closer the connection, the greater the understanding of the story. Gopnik concluded that “results suggest that we lowly humans are actually as good at mind-melding as [Star Trek’s] Vulcans or the Borg. We just do it with stories.” Other experiments have looked at how stories help develop neural pathways, and affect our relationships by altering how we order and understand information.
Such timely research sheds new insight on the timelessness of the human love of and hunger for stories, and their power over us both individually and communally.
This Holy Week, we celebrate the climax of the greatest story ever told – a story of amazing love and inconceivable sacrifice – that God himself took on the constraints of human form, willingly died to secure the redemption of the wounded, weak, and wicked, and then defeated death itself to open a new way of life.
It is an old story, yet eternally relevant, both culturally familiar and widely misunderstood, annually observed and frequently attacked. But it is noteworthy that Christianity is a story –rather than a series of propositions or laws – with an extraordinary distinction: it is true and alive, a grand narrative that is both accurate and incarnate. As C.S. Lewis observed:
“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying God without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences… By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other is.”
Followers of Christ have long testified that this story changes those who hear and embrace it. It changes the way you think, what you love, how you live. It shapes your apprehension of what is real and true, and forms your imagination. Indeed, most of the spiritual disciplines consist of reading, contemplating, and meditating on this story and its Author – and promise that by coming to better know the Great Story, our mind becomes more conformed to its Author and protagonist.
As our faith has long claimed, and studies now indicate, the stories we attend to shape us. The observance this Holy Week of the Great Story changes us; meditation upon the Good News molds and melds our minds to better hear and heed its Author. Immersion in the myth that became fact baptizes the spirit.
Recommended Readings & Resources:
Allison Gopnik, “Want A Mind Meld? Tell A Compelling Story,” The Wall Street Journal, April 5-6, 2014.
C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper, New York: Ballantine, 1970.