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:

  1. Great Quote For Hook
  2. Full Anecdote In Longer Story Form With Tweetable Soundbites
  3. Transition About How Blogger Reflects On Story/Event/Moment
  4. Bible Verses And Some Explication
  5. Full Point of Post, Driven Home
  6. 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 EvansDianna 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.]


  • http://www.redemptionpictures.com/ Micah J. Murray

    artists use lies to tell the truth

    • http://www.wineandmarble.com/ Hännah

      tell the truth but tell it slant

      • http://www.facebook.com/amanda.mckrell.3 Amanda McKrell

        Bravo.

  • mamawest777

    YES!! I wrestled with Preston’s post for these exact same reasons. It’s as if his academia is chipping away at his humanity. I admit to being disappointed and losing some respect for him today. But. As you pointed out so well, we all make mistakes. I just wonder if he sees his.

    • Nish

      You should ask him.

      • http://www.wineandmarble.com/ Hännah

        Here’s the thing: I feel bad posting this when Preston’s on UK time and hopefully sound asleep. But I don’t have a schedule to accommodate other times for writing/posting right now.

        So, I know when he’s on tomorrow, he’ll see this and respond and he’s good at responding well to critical feedback. Which is why I felt the liberty to use his post as a case study for these thoughts on storytelling and blogging–he can take it.

        BUT. This issue is so, so much bigger than him (and he’s not usually one who falls into this trap when he writes). So, ask him if you will. I’m sure he’ll respond. But know that this is not really about Preston himself.

      • mamawest777

        No need. He’s addressed a lot of it in the comments, which weren’t there when I read it earlier today. After reading those, I feel better about what he wrote. This in particular: “That’s not about you not telling your story, it’s about your story not being what created the dogma of the church as a whole or the universal for all Christians. Also, I’d take serious issue with a story ever being more revelatory of Christ than the Bible.”

        After rereading the article for the 3rd time, I know it’s really his delivery that rubbed me wrong. So clinical and impersonal, in my opinion, lecturing, as Hannah described, compared to what I’m used to in his writing. And knowing he’s working on his PhD surely influenced my interpretation. My mistake. :)

    • http://www.eloranicole.com/ elora nicole ramirez

      I agree with Nish. Ask him. :)

  • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

    Hännah, I so appreciate how you don’t mince words in here. Since much of my writing doesn’t fall neatly into “story” — which somehow has become All The Things in the (progressive) Christian blogosphere — I always always always ask myself whether what I’ve written is a personal essay, a persuasive essay, an academic essay, or lastly, a story. The way I define it is whether or not it has an agenda. Personal, persuasive, and academic essays typically have a thesis or hypothesis. I don’t believe stories do. As you said, the narrative and arc of the story should speak for itself. Embedding prose on either others’ watered-down stories or using poetic language to give a lecture essentially diminishes the power of story itself.

    Thoughts?

    • http://www.wineandmarble.com/ Hännah

      Yes, I think that’s largely true. I don’t think it’s necessary to always stick to a pure thesis or our grade school definitions of types of essays, but I think that trying to force a thesis and rhetoric on a story is abusing the story itself, as you say, diminishing it.

      I do think there’s a way to wrestle through issues in non-narrative form, without a true thesis (Caleigh at Profligate Truth is a great example of how this can be done), but the strongest arguments FOR something will have it and use it well. Sometimes, though, people just want to talk through an idea or a struggle, and don’t want to just tell a story, and that’s fine.

      But as my friend Rachel Leon just pointed out on Twitter, authenticity and art are not synonymous.

    • http://www.redemptionpictures.com/ Micah J. Murray

      I think that there’s a place for using stories to make a point. As a disclaimer, I’m relatively new to this whole blogosphere, and to Deeper Story, so I don’t say this in reference to that or to the trend of “story” in blogging. I think one must be careful how it’s done, to make sure that the story is respectful. But I think of the example of Nathan and David in the Old Testament, when Nathan told David that story about the man with the sheep, specifically to make a point. But that’s probably not even the same thing as what we’re talking about here.

      • http://www.wineandmarble.com/ Hännah

        Ah! That reminds me of a point I meant to make, and forgot due to the length: Jesus almost always resisted explaining his parables, resisted giving his audience the moral of the tale.

        There’s a difference between what we do here as Christians who blog and what Nathan did, what Aesop did, what Jesus, and the writers of all the old myths did: we beat the point to death at the end of our posts, and don’t let the story stand on its own as much as it can.

      • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

        Good thoughts, Micah. Not that everyone will always agree on terminology, but I do think that we as bloggers/writers using “story” need to try to more adequately define what we mean. For instance, Nathan told David that story to make a point, which I don’t think it is a persuasive essay or anything like that, but it is a parable, a subset of story. However, I think the subset of story that places like DS or Prodigal rally around are personal reflections, questions, and/or experiences that don’t have an agenda. And since we’re in the process of defining terms, by agenda I mean coming from a place of authority to make a certain point.

  • http://www.facebook.com/debra.baker.79677 Debra Baker

    I’m writing a book. Likely I’m bungling the task but it is growing me as I am writing and if it is only for myself; for the experience that it has afforded me, it is well worth the effort.
    All bets are off or, since the academic resources are mentioned, my sample size isn’t large enough to conduct a statistical analysis.

    • http://www.wineandmarble.com/ Hännah

      “it is growing me as I am writing and if it is only for myself; for the experience that it has afforded me, it is well worth the effort” — yes! This is fine and good. You’re honest with yourself about what you’re doing here.

      If you don’t do self-publishing, and get picked up by a publisher, you’ll have an editor who will help you refine and improve. :)

  • http://www.seeprestonblog.com Preston Yancey

    I’m trying to follow exactly what you disagree with or are pushing against, aside from education privilege which isn’t exactly a fair representation of my post. (I’m not studying under NT Wright. I sit in on seminars with him, but my thesis work is with David Brown.) I centred that argument around the crux of not letting our stories become dogma or excuse for poor exegesis. I certainly recognise we’ll make mistakes–all of us do in this–but I pushed against the assumption that because it’s our story it is beyond critique. And I’m pretty sure I never advocated someone moralising their story or assigning a pretty platitude, so I feel comfortable in saying that when I say stories should find themselves in the Story, that doesn’t mean it always has to be obvious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/memilywould Emily Nicole Wood

    I can’t lie — I felt Flannery coming on and I hoped you’d go for it. You did. Good morning to me.

    I read Preston’s post yesterday. I liked it because, even though my resume isn’t radiating extensive theological jargon (the little words “religion minor” make me happy, because I am a Christian and a nerd), I resonate, like you said, with the hunger for more. Outside our English program, I’ve always had to FORCE myself to sit down, chill out, and read fiction. I know it’s not a waste of time, but it feels like a waste of time, if I let it, compared to the theology/philosophy/psychology books on my shelf. I’ve always wrestled to try to find the ground between know-it-all and heretic. Now that I’m out of school, can’t afford to back to school, can barely afford to pay off the schooling I had, it’s hard to read posts like Preston’s without announcing to my husband that we’re off to seminary, so that I can be qualified for blogging.

    It’s true that our stories are not dogma. Sharing them does not make us Insta-PhD’s. But I still believe that we should share them, online or otherwise. The reason I like your blog and others – like you pointed out – no matter their resume, the authors write humbly, open to criticism, to someone whose education is more extensive or whose story is different.

  • http://hipsterconservative.wordpress.com/author/hologravure/ Holgrave

    I really feel this post. The phenomenon you describe is one of the things that annoys me the most about the evangelical/post-evangelical blogosphere. There’s no difference I can tell in the way people structure their writing between these two interwoven groups, other than that perhaps the post-evangelical blogger may use more appeals to emotion and experience, whereas the evangelical might feature more proof-texts and maybe (if we’re lucky) some kind of ratiocination.

    I confess I don’t read a lot of these kinds of blogs on a regular basis, not because none of them have anything good to say, but because of the “frame” you describe. Everything’s so uniformly chopped up, rolled in salt or sugar and shrinkwrapped.

    Nevertheless, we can’t entirely fault the bloggers for this because it seems like every bestselling book one sees today relies on the same hackneyed formula. It matters little whether it is a self-help volume, inspirational business manual, or devotional. Tell a cute, anonymized story about someone, draw a lesson from it, polish the tweetable nugget, and finish, perhaps, by finishing the story with which the chapter began in such a way that the characters benefit from the wisdom that the author has imparted.

  • k_larson

    I’ve read a number of books by therapists or psychologists, and I know in those contexts, creating composite characters and changing identifying information is not only de rigueur, it’s *required* so that they don’t breach client confidentiality. I don’t know how well it makes the crossover to blogging about friends or acquaintances, but it strikes me as ethical and reasonable, to the extent that the story’s core remains intact – that is, that the emotions and basic facts of what happened and how (minus identifying information) are not altered. I suppose that would be subjectively determined, but I think there is a way to do it well. I also think the readers of a blog should be informed that the story is created with a composite character or a composite of several real events (which is usually included as a disclaimer in the therapy-related books I’ve read).

  • janelleful

    Hannah,

    It’s simple. Take out loans, study theology. Carpe Diem! And have that anxiety of huge amounts of loan debt hang over you for the rest of your life.

    Because there ain’t a lot of space in the Chuch for female leaders or theologians. :/

    I cringe for my MDiva friends here at seminary who have little hopes in a job world already pretty insecure.
    Signed,
    A Girl Seminarian

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