The Power of Story to Trouble the Waters and Heal the World

Download a copy of this position paper by clicking here.

In March 2010, experts came together at Auburn to talk about how story moves people in faith communities to bridge religious divides, build community, pursue justice, and heal the world. New media experts, documentary film experts, and experts in religious leadership were asked to reflect together on where the most innovative storytelling is happening currently, in and out of faith communities, and what it might look like in five years.

The conversation went something like this:

Whether it is of Jesus or George Washington, Mary or Esther, Moses or Muhammad, Siddartha or the New Orleans Saints, story gives our lives meaning. Story tells us who we are and are not, what is and what is not possible, today and throughout time. It tells us how to live and what to do. It makes us believe in the unbelievable. It not only allows us to imagine the unimagined but inspires us to bring it into being.

From Susan Boyle to Avatar, from Yes We Can to the Tea Party, it is a boom time in storytelling. Marketers, politicians, meaning makers, and artists are using new and old technology as they always have to move us to act as they wish.

So what does it mean that in most faith communities, we tell stories in such outdated styles and forms that we bore ourselves and our children to the point of disinterest, disaffectation, and disbelief? And this at a time when our children and our old people spend more and more hours glued to storytelling machines? Even our books cry out to us from machines.

We know that story has shaped our cultures, our vocations, our survival. Consider the story of the Exodus for the Jews. Consider the same for African Americans. What story will inspire us today to survive as a species and protect our fragile planet? What stories will ignite us now to organize for justice? What is the right way right now for such stories to be carried from person to person to catalyze and sustain our movement for peace and justice for all?

Watch this:
(you are now joining 10,180,484 people listening to a story).

Now click here to watch this.
(you are now joining 11,289,883 people listening to a story)

Now this:
(you are now joining 882,497 people listening to a story).

Now this:
(you are now joining 1,281,080 people listening to a story).

Now watch this:
(you are now joining 20,957,745 people listening to a story.)

And click here to watch this.
(you are now joining 45,487,284 people listening to a story).

These videos – they get us to vote, to buy, to act, to strive. They cost nothing to view and
they don’t have to cost much to make.

Watch this:
(you are now joining 652,552 people listening to a story).

When you preach a story from your pulpit, how many people are tuning in? When you teach in your Torah study or Sunday school, how many people are listening?

The smallest number of viewers of the videos you just watched exceeds the population of Baltimore. The largest number equals a third of all Americans. But this story circle you have just joined is not in America only. It is all over the world and right now, as you read
this sentence, it is growing.

Every time I watch these clips, I cry. I remember the first time I saw them where I was and who I was with and how I felt transformed, which I feel again when I watch them now. And these are just the playlist of one gay white American 44 year old dad. But clearly I am not alone.

Story transforms. Story becomes ritual. Whether it is my children and their favorite DVDs or me with my favorite YouTube clips, we repeat screenings like our foreparents read stories from the Bible out loud at home and at worship.

Content: the story that moves us.

A story moves us and then we attach to it or devise from it meaning, rationale.

I live in New York City. I know I should wear a safety belt, but I don’t always – especially in taxicabs. After seeing the man in his pretend car look at the people he loves most – his wife and daughter – after seeing his beloveds form a human safety belt out of love for him and save him from death, I now think of my daughter as I get in a car. I have known that if I do not use a safety belt that I can die for as long as I can remember, but now I think of the toll it will take on my family and how my heart will break if theirs do. This story has not informed me. It has moved me, and because it moved me, I took its message to heart. Today, I got in a cab, considered not buckling, saw the face of the little girl and then my own little girl, and buckled.

Why do people buy Macs over PCs? Functionality? Really? That’s not what Apple banks on. It makes its arguments by engaging identity, not facts. Remember this?:

(Note: you have just joined 3,698,745 fellow listeners.)

This story has its own internal meaning and value system and is meant to influence you emotionally. If you buy the story, you will identify with a character and buy accordingly.

Of course, this capacity of story raises ethical questions about how stories are used.

Just as we (let’s say we are the target audience) are moved to identify with the creative free thinker in the Mac ad and give our money to Steve Jobs, we are moved to identify with the healthy heroes in Triumph of Will and support Hitler for ruler, and we are moved to identify with the gorgeous young famous people of hope in the Yes We Can video and support Barack Obama for ruler. Story can provide ritual that identifies us and calls us to a course of action. In each of these stories, we (if we are the target audience) are meant to identify with the values of the actors and so act.

Watch this:

(Consider the company of 16,927 you now have joined.)

So, as we decide who to trust, storyteller becomes important, alongside the value of the story itself. The no-budget video of the World War II veteran who supports the right of his lesbian daughter to get married in Maine works both on the merits of the story but also the teller. Of course, this man is both storyteller and actor. We are encouraged to identify with his values and act as he does, and vote no on Question 1, upholding the right for same sex couples to marry in Maine. There is of course the other storyteller – Maine Coalition for Same Sex Marriage that is principally responsible for the packaging and viral distribution of the story.

And even when we know the story to include falsehood, sometimes truth is understood to transcend fact. Years after it was made clear that there was no evidence of WMDs in Iraq, 50% of the American people still believe that Iraq had WMDs. Consider Global Warming, Evolution, the Virgin birth.

Form: the story that we can move.

Enough about content – things on the content front have changed quite little since Biblical times. The 21st Century game changer is form. As the Protestant Reformation relied entirely on the printing press to affect its cultural revolution, the religion that harnesses new media is likely to go down in history as the dominant culture belief system of our time and perhaps long after.

And when we talk about form these days, we talk in two key terms: aggregation and flow.

Aggregation: Not long ago, stories came to us either through our own imagination or memory, through performance and ritual, or through print, radio or TV. Our books and magazines were distributable but in bulky limited editions. TV and radio, like performance and ritual, offered story that came at a scheduled time and was gone once the story ended. Today, the archive of stories online – whether on YouTube or freeranging websites is larger than any library on earth, free, portable, and always open to those who have internet access. All you need is a phone, computer, or some other device, and such access is increasingly widespread.

And today, almost anyone can hear almost anyone’s story. You can post your written story if you can get online. You can post your video story on Facebook right now if the computer or phone you are using has video capability. So archives are growing into communities of storysharing not unlike story circles at church, at synagogue, at quilting bees, at book groups, at teachins. No publishers. No gatekeepers. Just a whole lot of folks like us at a story swap that spans the globe.

To explore the implications of current aggregation capacity, first I ask you to consider the power of the fact that now anyone with a texting phone from Haiti to Iran can tell their story in the heat of crisis It’s happening right now. Click here and then click on the “Watch the Video” button.

Reporting on Ushahidi, a New York Times reporter asks: “So what will it mean to bear witness in the future? They say that history is written by the victors. But now, before the victors win, there is a chance to scream out with a text message that will not vanish. What would we know about what passed between Turks and Armenians, between Germans and Jews, if every one of them had had the chance, before the darkness, to declare for all time: “I was here, and this is what happened to me”?”

To consider what it would be like to recover your history, story by story, that your oppressor planned to eliminate along with every single one of your people, click here.

To consider what it would be like, rather than to leave your story in the country you left behind, to ask your generation to collectively record it, click here.

If millions of patients can tell the stories of their illnesses day in and day out available anytime to any researcher interested. (Click here.)

And towns across the country are lifting up their voices to end hatred. (Click here.)

Think of the things you can do, religious leaders! When a group of religious environmentalists were tasked with getting the film An Inconvenient Truth screened at 4,000 houses of worship, the storysharing project churchbasement style led to the formation of today’s most influential religious ecojustice
organization, Interfaith Power and Light.

Click below for the story:

And for a simple way to get started, click here.

Flow: The second key to today’s revolution in storytelling form is flow, shareability. We must not just think in terms of storytellers. Now we must consider the story sharer, the story carrier. What if I email any of the clips (or all of them) to the 1,342 contacts in my Outlook address book? And each of them forwards it on to their contacts? What if we all then post these clips to our 463 Facebook friends? As was the case with Susan Boyle and “Yes We Can,” these stories can go international virally in days, jumping from 0 to a million overnight.

But there is an interesting feature that matters a lot about what stories people tune into – what clips people watch and how much of them. Length has been calculated down to a science. Rebecca van Dyck, corporate marketing guru, says that the 30 second format rules. Clay Shirky, new media guru, says that there are three key lengths of viral audio or video that work at this point in time:

  • The 3 minute format – the length of time it takes to send a document to the printer
  • The 15 minute format – the coffee break
  • The 40 minute format – the commute.

Convenability: And of course online we cannot only listen and offer our own stories for others to hear, we can chat about them en masse. Where two or three are gathered together has risen to a whole new level. For just one example, click here.

Challenges: The challenges are clear:

  • You have to be wired.
  • We don’t yet know the down sides of being wired.
  • And it is also very hard to calculate the upsides – measuring actual impact in the wild,
    wild West of online storytelling is yet to be pioneered.


Story is the match that ignites social networks into being and behavior. Faith groups have networks already; we are groups of social actors organized around sacred story that commits us at least in word to making the world just. Given that faith communities have succeeded throughout history to galvanize humans though story, we now must harness its power in new ways to organize this generation for justice.

It is time for us not only to consider the match, but to ignite it anew.

For all involved, this convening was unprecedented in that it brought discreet communities New media experts, documentary film experts, and experts in religious leadership that had not come together to listen to one another and organize previously. All recognized extraordinary opportunity and identified considerable challenges and unknowns. In the end, it was acknowledged that, though the three groups of experts understood distinct aspects of the matter at hand, they hoped to remain in conversation and strategize together in order to play a significant role in helping faith communities spark social transformation through story. Stay tuned as we continue the conversation and join it with your own ideas and insights by emailing [email protected]

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