As a creative writing teacher, I think a lot about stories, mostly how to help my students tell them better. But as my preschooler gets older and his attention span for more developed plots gets longer, I also think about what stories to tell him. This idea really hit home for me as I listened to Lori Day speak at the Gala this year. (So, if you missed the Gala, get a DVD from Jo!)
What stood out as I listened to Lori is not a nice fuzzy feeling about how wonderful it is to sit around and listen to people tell stories about their lives, as if it’s just a way to amuse ourselves. Instead, what stuck out is the essential nature of storytelling to building our faith. Why is storytelling so important? I think, in part, it’s because stories organize our experiences and provide us with context for interpretation. Stories connect events thematically, helping us make “sense” of what happens.
This is enacted in the book of Deuteronomy as Moses “makes sense” of what has happened to the Israelites and what is about to happen. As the book begins, the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert is coming to an end. The old generation has passed away (except for Joshua and Caleb) and the new generation is about to embark on the Promised Land. Can you imagine growing up in the middle of the Israelites’ wanderings? The desert would be all you ever knew. So to prepare them, Moses gives a farewell speech and retelling of the law, beginning and interspersed with narratives. But you only get the importance of these narratives or the fact that Moses is re-covenanting the people if you remember the listeners aren’t the same people who experienced the stories. They are not the same Israelites who crossed the Red Sea or made a golden calf or refused to believe in God’s protection when the 10 spies brought a bad report. Moses’ listeners are the children and grandchildren who weren’t originally around.
It seems imperative that this new generation know how God worked in the past in order to understand the present. Retelling the stories point to God’s trustworthiness as he works on their behalf to provide for and protect them. As the Israelites embark on taking the Promised Land, how will they make sense of their experiences? The defeats and victories that follow them for generations to come? By remembering God’s covenant with them and the stories that demonstrate it. What Deuteronomy describes is a culture of remembering and retelling from one generation to the next. The Israelites were called to be “rememberers” for the very sake of their faith.
So as Moses rehearses the narratives and the law, he repeatedly urges them not to forget these things and to teach them to the next generation so they would not forget. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses composes a song reviewing the Israelites’ history (chps. 31-32); the song witnesses to God’s faithfulness in the midst of the Israelites’ unfaithfulness. Had they sung this diligently to themselves and their children, they would have remembered God’s work and their faith would have been strong. It seems, however, that the Israelites were not diligent in this as generation upon generation regularly questioned God’s ability to save them. Later, when little-nobody-David has to rally the troops against the Philistines, it’s pretty obvious the people don’t remember the story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho. Later still, when God sends the prophets to rebuke the Israelites’ for their sins, these prophets don’t have many “new” things to say. Mostly they say, “You already know God’s word and have heard the stories of his works. You need to remember, trust in God, and do what he commands.”
God gives us a beautiful tool in storytelling to help us remember and retell. You may not be able to have a “theological” conversation with your co-worker, but I know you can tell a story about how God has worked in your life. By listening to each other tell stories, like some were able to do through Lori Day at the Gala, our faith is strengthened in how God works. We can learn context for the things in life that don’t always make sense to us. We can rejoice with each other in God’s provision. We can learn from each other’s failings and be warned.
Stories are no trivialities, friend. Stories are what make the world go ‘round. So someone—your neighbor, your mother, your boss, your 4-year-old, your fellow Christian sister—will either hear stories that give them no hope, stories our culture is very good at telling... or they will hear stories that build their faith in God, who he is, and what he has and will do for his children.
We are called to be rememberers. How well do you remember God’s stories . . . and tell them?
Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children.