“What unites people?” asked the imp Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. “Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.”
Although the final season of the HBO megahit Game of Thrones was full of controversy, I have no beef with what Tyrion said about the power of stories. They are, as he said, better able to unite people than armies, gold, or flags.
Jesus knew this well, which is why he did so much of his preaching and teaching through parables.
Instead of lecturing people about the kingdom of God, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground” (Mark 4:26). When people heard the beginning of a story like that, they leaned in and wanted to hear more.
In the years that followed, Jewish rabbis continued this approach through two types of biblical interpretation: midrash halakhah, which focused on Jewish law and practices, and midrash aggadah, which centered on the ideas, values, story or characters of the biblical law.
There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Jesus knew this, as did generations of rabbis.
As a pastor, I know that my preaching and teaching can cause people to lead back, instead of lean in. Some listeners become defensive. A few might even push back and say, “Don’t preach at me.”
If I were to instruct a group of Christians to reach out to Muslim neighbors and talk about God, they might put their hands up and say, “No thanks.” But if I tell them a story of a pastor having a jailhouse conversation with a Muslim inmate, they are going to listen with interest, and maybe see some new possibilities.
In my novel City of Peace, a Methodist pastor named Harley Camden is asked to visit a prisoner named Muhammad Bayati.
Muhammad had been arrested on suspicion of murdering his daughter. In jail, he protested by going on a hunger strike.
“Let me tell you a little about myself,” said Harley after meeting Muhammad in the visitation room. He described how he had served churches in the Washington area for thirty years before coming to Occoquan, and talked about his denomination’s openness to interfaith relations.
Harley concluded by becoming more personal and telling Muhammad that he had recently lost his wife and daughter. Looking Muhammad in the eyes to gauge his reaction, he said, “They were killed by terrorists at the Brussels airport.”
Muhammad’s eyes welled up, which was not the reaction Harley expected. “I was informed of your loss when you arrived in Occoquan,” he said. “You have my sympathy.”
Harley thanked him but felt a little off balance. Why would this guy feel any emotion about the killings of two people that he didn’t know, by terrorists he didn’t know, in a country that he has probably never visited?
“You may know that the Qur’an says that whoever kills a person unjustly, it is as though he has killed all mankind. I condemn the killers of your wife and daughter.”
“The killers deserve condemnation,” Harley said. “They are not men of God.”
“Nor is the person who killed my daughter,” Muhammad said. Harley wondered, How do I know that you did not kill your daughter? He looked long and hard at Muhammad, trying to pick up on any expression or body language that might signal guilt. Muhammad simply sat there silent and grief stricken.
Harley refrained from judgment. “I think we have much in common,” he said. “We serve the same God, a just God.”
Nodding, Muhammad said, “God has judged the killers of your family. May he do the same to the one who murdered my daughter.”
What unites people? Not preaching or teaching. What unites people is stories. There is nothing in the world more powerful than a good story, especially one that inspires people to reach across the barriers of culture and religion and discover that we do, in fact, have much in common.
When has a story inspired you to reach out to a neighbor in a new way? Join the conversation through a comment below.