The Power of Storytelling

Josh Buice

BLM-Trayvon-Martin

Years ago I recall my teacher standing before the class and explaining the “power of the pen.” Her goal that day was to encourage us to enjoy writing. I would later learn, it’s not just the power of the written story, but also how that story is actually communicated that matters.

A few days ago, Mark Dever took to Twitter to mark a historic date. That’s nothing new if you know how Mark Dever uses Twitter to point back to historic moments from the pages of history. This is what the tweet stated:

9 years ago today, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black youth was returning home from a convenience store and was killed by George Zimmerman (2012). Pray for justice and mercy in our society. Pray for people to come to know God, even in the face of tragedy, through Christ.

I responded on Twitter with a statement that pushed back on Mark’s statement.

While I agree with you that we should pursue justice and pray for people to come to know God, the fact remains that Zimmerman was acquitted of any wrongdoing. How we tell the story can provide light or confusion, and we must aim for light.

The fact remains, Trayvon Martin is dead. George Zimmerman killed him. The story is tragic and one more sad ending in a long line of broken roads in this sin cursed world. However, the point I raised was not centered on the fact that Martin was killed or that Zimmerman did it. The point I raised is that how the details are communicated are crucially important. For instance, what happened between the moment Trayvon Martin left the convenience store and being killed by George Zimmerman matters. Nine years later, how we tell these stories will affect our future.

In this article, my goal is to demonstrate the power of a story and our responsibility to communicate facts because how we report history matters. Through the years, I’ve been greatly helped by the ministry of Mark Dever. However, I believe that we must be willing to engage in open critique and dialogue on important matters such as social justice or other important theological subjects. I am not engaging in ad hominem attacks on Mark Dever’s character, but I am critiquing his tweet, and I believe with good reason.

Partial Truths and Powerful Stories

If you are called to take the stand and give testimony in a court of law in the United States of America, you will be sworn in by affirming a statement very similar to the following:

Do you solemnly swear that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?

What’s the point of making someone make such a promise? The point is clear—partial truth is not enough. The whole truth is what often provides light and clarity that reveals whether or not a person is guilty of breaking the law. Partial truths and partial stories can lead to disastrous endings.

We are all familiar with the Prince of Preachers—Charles Haddon Spurgeon. One of the most quoted lines of Spurgeon, often cited in sermons and academic work, is the famous quote:

I take my text and make a beeline to the cross.”

Typically, the use of this line is employed with great precision in order to drive home the point that we must be preaching Christ as Christian preachers. While we must all agree with that idea, the problem is—Spurgeon never uttered that famous line. Lewis Drummond attributed it to Spurgeon in his biography, Spurgeon: The Prince of Preachers, on page 223. While this famous quote might summarize Spurgeon’s approach to preaching, he didn’t actually communicate it personally. In this case, telling the story of Spurgeon making “a beeline to the cross” lends credibility and adds power that moves people’s emotions.

In studying history, we often hear the dramatic story of Martin Luther walking down the cobblestoned road of Wittenberg, Germany to the front door of the Castle Church with his 95 Theses. The story is often infused with a great deal of drama as this Roman Catholic professor of theology is pictured hammering his protest to the door in order to stand up against the false teaching of the Pope of Rome. However, that’s not exactly what happened in that historic scene.

The reality is, Martin Luther was a committed Roman Catholic when he made his way with his list of challenging points that were nailed to the door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church). He intended to remain a Roman Catholic. It was quite possible to have other documents or statements nailed there on that same day as well. That was the common way of dialogue, debate, and challenging ideas of the day. In some ways, the door of the Castle Church functioned as a primitive form of social media that predates Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram by nearly 500 years.

Although God would eventually save Luther and use his work to spark what we know as the Protestant Reformation, it’s how the story is often told that misses the mark. When we engage in storytelling, we can lead people with our preconceived opinions and positions if we’re not careful. Rather than allowing history to speak and facts to be evaluated and criticized—we can create confusion that instills fear, stirs emotions, and ultimately leads to division. We can do this in articles, sermons, and short 240-character sentences.

We must remember that we are all students of history—learners on the road of life. How we communicate stories can lead us to truth or lies—light or darkness.

We are familiar with all sorts of famous stories of history that never actually happened. For instance, the famous story of the apple falling on the head of Isaac Newton never really happened. Newton’s friend, William Stukeley in 1792, in his biography communicated the the scene by stating, “the notion of gravitation came into his mind…. occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood.” That’s not exactly the same as him sitting under an apple tree where he received a hard knock on the head by a falling apple which sparked the study of the law of gravity. How we communicate that story matters, and far too often it will be embellished in order to help school children get the picture of the historic figure working out the details of gravity.

We must remember that we are all students of history—learners on the road of life. How we communicate stories can lead us to truth or lies—light or darkness. Carl Trueman, in his book, Histories and Fallacies writes the following, “Now, we need to be clear that historians always have some kind of moral or ethical agenda that shapes the way they construct and present their narratives.” [1] We must not forget that how we tell the story often reveals our hidden goal that we seek to accomplish by communicating the event. Trueman goes on to write:

There are plenty of other examples of which one could think. The famous Newgate Calendar of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a collection of stories of the crimes and misdemeanors of various villains who invariably came to sticky ends. The book was historical in the sense that the main characters really existed, really committed crimes, and really came to bad ends; but the stories were told in sensational ways and designed to instill fear and dread in the children to whom they were meant to be read as warnings of the bad ends that inevitably come to those who choose to walk in paths of unrighteousness. The basic pattern is something like this: little Richard was rude to his parents; eventually he became highwayman Dick Turpin, did a lot of very illegal things, and was hanged by the neck for his trouble. Again, the moral agendas of the writers shaped the way the stories were told and quite probably led to embellishments of the basic storyline that could not be verified but where were nonetheless essential to the purpose of the work. [2]

Not only does what Trueman communicate apply to historians who tell the story of the American Revolution, but it also applies to how we engage in storytelling on social media as well.

Commitment to the Truth

As Christians, we are to be people who are committed to the truth. We are people of light and we must be committed to the light. As we communicate in sermon or story—we must point people to the truth in order that people will be led to make decisions that are based on facts rather than something less than the truth.

This is crucially important in our present culture divided by all sorts of cultural lies. We are divided by politics, religion, and race (ethnic prejudice). Sadly, much of the division is based on tragedies that become politicized and weaponized to divide people. These polarizing stories are communicated and repeated until they divide and destroy.  

On August 9th, 2014, Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old young man, was shot and killed by 28-year-old Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. We all remember what happened next. The storyline became clear. Michael Brown was not just an 18-year old man, he was an 18-year old black man. Officer Wilson was not just a 28-year old police officer in Ferguson Missouri. He was a 28-year old white police officer in Ferguson Missouri. How the rest of the story was communicated by witnesses left an indelible mark on Ferguson and the rest of the world.

The story was told that Michael Brown, just moments before being shot, raised his hands in the air and said, “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot!” The heart wrenching emotional story moved the entire community of Ferguson and led to open marches in the streets where citizens were raising their hands and repeating the phrase, “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot!” This phrase became a cultural phenomenon appearing on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and went viral on social media with memes and personalized pictures of people with their hands raised. The St. Louis Rams NFL players took to the field with their hands up, in response to the shooting of Michael Brown. It was also the catalyst to the entire city of Ferguson being set on fire by angry mobs fueled by what was portrayed as a wrongful murder of a black man in the street by a white police officer who shot Michael Brown execution-style.

The problem is—the “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot!” narrative was a lie. According to the DOJ reports, the phrase “Don’t shoot” was never uttered by Michael Brown while having his hands raised in the air. That whole emotional scene never happened. It was the product of lies told by witnesses who were exposed as providing false statements or providing contradicting storylines of the events. Yet, that story continues to be told to this very day. It’s a story that is weaponized and intentionally used to divide our culture on ethnic lines.

Regarding the Trayvon Martin story, how we tell the story matters. History matters. We have a responsibility to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We can either lead people to the truth and allow the truth to speak for itself, or we can infuse an erroneous narrative into a story which can potentially lead to confusion. With all due respect to Mark, I believe he missed an opportunity to accomplish the former. His tweet was suggestive that George Zimmerman got away with the killing of Martin and that we must continue to pursue justice.

Furthermore, regarding the facts of that specific case—Zimmerman was acquitted. [3] The six jurors were given the following three options: second-degree murder; the lesser charge of manslaughter; or find they could find him not guilty. Based on the evidence, not emotions, of the case, they found him not guilty after 16 hours of deliberation.

How we choose to tell stories of history will have an impact upon our future.

One of the things we cannot do is judge Zimmerman based on his character and lifestyle after the case. We must judge him by the facts of the case. Our decision must be made based on the evidence rather than the emotional pull or cultural opinion of the case.

How we choose to tell stories of history will have an impact upon our future. If we lionize Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin we are communicating that these men were victims of injustice and we turn them into heroes of the social justice movement. They become cultural wrecking balls that destroy—which is the ultimate goal of the deconstruction agenda of the woke movement.

It’s terribly sad that Trayvon Martin was killed. Nevertheless, we cannot use that situation as an excuse or rationale to pursue a new kind of “justice” (1 Timothy 5:24). There is only one true justice, and the ultimate foundation is found in Scripture—in God himself. Woke justice is mob justice—a justice that is rogue, rebellious, and results in anarchy.

If any group should get it right on the issue of race—it should be the Church of Jesus. Furthermore, if any group should get it right on justice—it should be the Church of Jesus (Micah 6:8). Our gospel is pure and powerful (Rom. 1:16). Our hope is Jesus. Our unity is real (Gal. 3:28).

In a day where we are allowing anarchistic mobs to tear down statues of historic figures like Abraham Lincoln, we certainly don’t need to replace them with statues of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, or George Floyd. These men are not heroes—regardless of how their lives ended.

It doesn’t matter if it’s Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin—we have a responsibility when telling the story to tell the whole story and to do so with a commitment to truth. I wholeheartedly concur with abolitionist and educator Booker T. Washington, who said, “I have great faith in the power and influence of facts. It is seldom that anything is permanently gained by holding back a fact.” [4] We are people of light and we must walk in the light (Eph. 5:8; 1 John 1:7).

______________________________

  1. Carl Trueman, Histories and Fallacies, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 53.
  2. Ibid., 54.
  3. George Zimmerman Case Timeline: https://www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-fast-facts
  4. Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery: An Autobiography, (Vigo Books, 2010), 57.
Author BLM-Trayvon-Martin

Josh Buice

Pastor Pray's Mill Baptist Church

Josh Buice is the founder and president of G3 Ministries and serves as the pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church on the westside of Atlanta. He enjoys theology, preaching, church history, and has a firm commitment to the local church. He also enjoys many sports and the outdoors including long distance running and high country hunting. He has been writing on Delivered by Grace since he was in seminary and it has expanded with a large readership through the years.