The “Science” of Story: An Oxymoron?

Does analyzing art spoil its impact?

Does studying “the science” of storytelling thwart its magic?

David JP Phillips, a lecturer on effective communication, gave a TEDx about the science behind storytelling. He says:

“Is it possible for you to be so easily tricked by something so simple as a story? Because you are tricked. It all comes down to one core thing: emotional investment. The more emotionally invested you are…the less critical and the less objectively observant you become.”

He highlights three hormones involved in this “trickery”: dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins.

Material vs Immaterial?

This makes one wonder: are hormones the only thing that makes a story powerful? In other words, if we lacked these hormones, would stories still draw us in?

Perhaps not. But while humans are the sort of beings who use hormones, that doesn’t necessarily mean stories are void of something objective.

When life is dissected and defined according to the periodic table, is ultimate meaning lost?

C.S. Lewis offers an important point on the matter:

“Whether there is anything behind the things science observes…is not a scientific question. If there is ‘Something Behind,’ then either it will have to remain altogether unknown to men or else make itself known in some different way.” 

“The Different Way”

Perhaps this “different way” is what the Incarnation describes: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Simply put, the universal was manifested in the particular.

This is why stories matter for Christian apologists and educators. Through particular narratives, audiences engage with universal truths. And the hormones? They merely facilitate the bond between character and audience–and incidentally engage the latter with the ideas therein!

Many people only saw a particular man–material–when they saw Jesus, but those who saw the universal, “Something Behind,” had “eyes to see” (Matt. 13:10-17).

That’s why Christians have faith in the revelation of God, as recorded in the Bible (2 Tim. 3:16) via the presence of the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 1:5).

Granted, our faith is rooted in historical events (1 Cor. 15) and is thus defensible for those who accept such evidence (John 8:30-31), but there is so much more to grab hold of imaginatively. That’s why we must not forsake the mystery of storytelling.

Imagination!

Malcolm Guite, poet and priest, says: “[imagination is an] active, shaping power of perception….a faculty that is capable of both apprehending and embodying truth….[it] informs reason and is in turn informed by it” (Faith, Hope and Poetry, page 15).

Guite touches on exactly how imagination benefits the proclamation of the Gospel: it enables people to “apprehend” truth–to glimpse it (faith in a world unseen, hope), and not merely comprehend it (naturalism, empiricism, reason).

I suggest that stories serve as a “dim mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12) that incubate hunger for the Really Real. Christians should not simply use stories to prove a point, but to arouse an existential longing. If the truth of God is truly “Something Outside,” then how do we expect to make people comprehend it? All we can do, in this present age, is invite people to let their hearts and minds wander heavenward.

“In this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling” (2 Cor. 5:2).

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