I love stories. And I know that you do too. Whether it’s a captivating novel, an enthralling movie, or an anecdote from a friend, human beings love stories. We love to tell them and we love to listen to them.
In fact, we cant’ resist them. In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall says it beautifully: “Human minds yield hopelessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, not matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds.” Good public speakers know that the best way to engage an audience is through storytelling. Whenever I feel like I’m losing an audience, I quickly tell a story and they’re right back with me!
Have you ever thought about how central story is to human existence? And what does this tell us about human nature and the wider world we live in? Let’s begin with the first question. Think about it: Commercials are stories. Movies are stories. Songs are stories. Kids play make-believe in stories (good guys vs. bad guys). Businessmen sell products with stories. Our lives are stories!
Human beings are “storytelling animals,” as Gottschall observes:
“Humans are creatures of story, so story touches nearly every aspect of our lives. Archaeologists dig up clues in the stones and bones and piece them together into a sage about the past. Historians, too, are storytellers… Business executives are increasingly that they must be creative storytellers: they have to spin compelling narratives about their products and brands that emotionally consumers. Political commentators see a presidential election not only as a contest between charismatic politicians and their ideas but also as a competition between conflicting stories about the nation’s past and future. Legal scholars envision as a story contest, too in which opposing counsels construct narratives of guilt and innocence—wrangling over who is the real protagonist.”
But stories are not random meaningless accounts of disconnected events. Rather, stories are about conflict and resolution. In fact, stories universally address three general questions:
(1) Origin—Who is the character and where did he/she come from?
(2) Problem—What went wrong?
(3) Resolution—How do we fix it?
Even though stories vary on the details, they all have this underlying structure and formula. Again, Gottschall says it well:
“As the linguist Noam Chomsky showed, all human languages share some basic structural similarities—a universal grammar. So too, I argue, with story. No matter how far back into literary history, and no matter how deep we plunge into the jungle and badlands of world folklore, we always find the same astonishing thing: their stories are just like ours. There is a universal grammar in a world fiction, a deep pattern of heroes confronting trouble and struggling to overcome… It suggests that the human mind was shaped for story, so that it could be shaped by story.”
Gottschall is right that story is an inescapable aspect of human nature. And he’s also right that there is an objective feature of storytelling that humans have followed since the dawn of time. It is interesting, though, that he describes the human mind as being “shaped for story, so that it could be shaped by story.” He seems to be implying some design, some intent as to why humans are so story-focused. And yet as a Darwinist, he is committed to a non-teleological worldview that lacks the resources to provide any basis for objective meaning, purpose, or value.
Bertrand Russell famously describes the implications of the naturalistic worldview:
“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”
If the universe as a whole is a meaningless story, as Russell suggests, then why are humans so entrenched with experiencing and telling meaningful stories? Where does this deep-seated commitment to story come from? On the naturalist worldview, it is simply some evolutionary by-product that offers survival value. Animals survive fine without it, so why do humans need it? And further, if we live in a “universe of ruins” then why is there an objective structure for storytelling in the first place? How can a chaotic, purposeless universe offer a universal, meaningful formula for storytelling?
The theistic worldview seems to provide a much more robust answer: the reason we are so committed to stories is because we live in a meaningful world, we are made in the image of a personal God, and we are part of a larger story written by the Author of life. The story of our individual lives matters because we are part of a grander, meaningful story.
This brief article is not meant as a “proof” for God’s existence. Rather, I am taking a feature of the world—our storytelling nature and the objective structure of stories—and asking which worldview best accounts for it. Atheism lacks the resources to provide a suitable explanation. But the theistic worldview, which has an author of life at the heart of it, seems to provide a much more natural and promising explanation.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog at seanmcdowell.org.
Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human(New York: Mariner Books, 2012), 3.
Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship” in Why I am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 55.