Time to Return to Christian Storytelling

Time to Return to Christian Storytelling
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Alberto Methol Ferré, a Uruguayan intellectual, attended the Latin American bishops conference in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979. He took a taxi from the conference to his hotel, and his driver asked, "Have you seen that with each passing day the Pope speaks better Spanish?"

Ferré replied in a halfhearted way: "If you say so, it may be true."

But the driver, raising his voice said, "Yes it is. And do you know why? Because he loves us."

With his broken Spanish, Pope John Paul II had cut the taxi driver to the heart. But intellectuals who had been focused on "analyzing what the pope said," as the Uruguayan put it later in an interview, had missed the meaning of his gesture.

This style of communication -- cutting to the heart -- has not been much utilized in the public communications of the church in recent decades. Examine the debate over gay marriage, and it's obvious that Christians, relying on reasoned arguments and appeals to authority, have not penetrated the hearts of the masses. While gay marriage proponents, with all their talk of personal love, have broadly resonated.

Perhaps this is what Pope Francis was getting at when he urged the church to talk less about gay marriage and more about "what makes the heart burn."

But Christians should not copy the secular communications strategy of the gay marriage movement. Cutting to the heart is a far older approach and a deeply Christian practice. In Acts 2, Luke records that after Peter rose to speak about his friend and teacher Jesus, the people in Jerusalem were "cut to the heart." Following in Peter's footsteps, countless Catholic and Protestant saints have aimed to win friends for God by resonating with that core muscle: Francis, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Philip Neri, John XXIII, John Wesley, Smith Wigglesworth, Billy Graham.

Recently, I was speaking to a group of leaders in the People of Praise, an ecumenical Christian community I belong to in South Bend, Indiana. I showed them clips from the viral video of Pope Francis greeting a group of Pentecostal leaders affiliated with Kenneth Copeland's ministry. I asked the leaders to call out adjectives that described the pope's communication style. Their responses: "genuine," "sincere," "joyful," "humble," "warm," "vulnerable." Let's add a few others: heartfelt, spontaneous, raw, attractive, beautiful, and bold.

In a penetrating article for Our Sunday Visitor, Francis's biographer Austen Ivereigh marshals numerous examples of the pope's public communications: his washing the feet of a female Muslim prisoner, embracing a man with a face disfigured by boils, kneeling to pray at the barrier that separates Israel and Palestine, telling mothers it's okay to breastfeed in the Sistine chapel.

"[Francis] knows that in a word-glutted world, actions speak loudest," Ivereigh writes. This mode, as Ivereigh points out, goes straight back to Francis's forefather, Ignatius, who wrote in his Contemplation to Attain Love, the crown jewel of the Spiritual Exercises, that "love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words."

But Francis by no means has a monopoly on this kind of heartfelt communication. In her book Resonate, the California based communications guru Nancy Duarte points to the storytelling of John Ortberg, the pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. In a filmed sermon, Ortberg chokes up as he quotes lyrics from the Showboat tune "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," creatively appropriating a few lines from an old song to describe God's love for his human creations. A wave of emotion can travel from Ortberg to his audience, leaving little doubt that the love is coming not just from God but from his messenger.

Why is this type of heartfelt communication so well suited to our time? Ferré, a philosopher whom Francis admired, offered an answer. In a book length interview, he said that our culture is one of "libertine atheism." "Libertine" includes both extreme pleasure-seeking and extreme freedom-seeking behaviors, while "atheism" refers not to a militant anti-God philosophy, but to living in a godless world.

The answer to libertine atheism is not to repudiate it with arguments, but to follow the classic evangelistic strategy of going in through the culture's door but coming out Christ's. A genuine desire lies at the heart of libertine atheism -- "a buried need for beauty," as Ferré puts it, a hunger for an enfleshed Christianity that consists of embodied practices more than Platonic ideas.

If this analysis is correct, then this is a time for Christian communicators to return to their roots, relying more on stories -- personal testimonies of God's saving action in real human lives. Add to stories: music, gestures, symbolic actions, dialogue, beautiful visual images and videos, together with uncontrolled, raw and spontaneous words -- the kind of communications which are open to the Holy Spirit, who knows best how to cut to the heart.

In John 8, Jesus, the Word made flesh, expressed his own frustration with his ability to get through using words alone. "Why do I speak to you at all?" he wonders. Ultimately, he concludes that one gut-wrenching deed is his best hope for revealing all that is in his heart: "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he."

Sean Connolly is the communications director for the People of Praise based in South Bend, Indiana.

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