It’s not just a story

I was ten years old when my grandfather took me to Water Gate Square. We gathered with our neighbours to listen to Ezra, the scribe read from the law. Grandfather was a big man, and as strong as a bear. He’d carried, chiselled, and cut great blocks of stone and put each one into its place to build Jerusalem’s new city walls. But he crumbled as a stone dropped from a great height when he heard the stories of old, and his tears watered the ground.

This story from Nehemiah Chapter 8 could also be told in a series of bullet points.

• Ezra calls the people living in Jerusalem to meet by the Water Gate.

• He reads from the Torah.

• On hearing his words, the people weep.

Which passage is the most powerful? I guess most people will say the first, where the facts are presented as a fictitious recollection. Stories are the primary way we learn as children, and we tell each other stories all the time. I ask my friends how they are, and they reply with a story from work, which makes us laugh. Another will tell of a funeral and I will weep with them.

From the opening page to the last, the Bible is chock full of memorable stories, and Jesus could not stop telling them. He told his listeners stories about wayward sons, lost coins, good neighbours and ungrateful servants, and the gospels are full of stories about him. Even in his famous sermon in Matthew, he could not resist adding flourishing touches. If only someone had invented PowerPoint two thousand years ago, then he could have held seminars and made slides of his salient points!

And now for the science bit

Science, and in particular neuroscience, is confirming what writers have understood for generations. That telling a good story is one of our most fundamental means of communication. But what is it about a story that moves us to laughter or tears of sadness?

Imagine you are listening to a seminar and the speaker is presenting a series of bullet points. Listening to the talk activates the language processing sections of your brain, but that’s all. Now imagine you are curled up in your favourite chair and reading a story. As you read other areas of your brain light up alongside the language-processing areas. It is as if you are experiencing the events alongside the hero.

If we read a sensory description of a meal, or metaphors used to describe a person, then our sensory cortex is aroused. When the protagonist runs for her life or jumps a canyon, then our motor cortex lights up. And reading about a funeral or a wedding will stimulate our emotional brain regions. A story, even a work of fiction, involves the reader’s entire brain, and not just the language-processing areas. A novel reaches parts other books can’t.

All this is the product of mirror neurons, which light up when we watch someone do an action. These are important to babies and children as they learn, but they also fire when we read about someone performing actions. They are our internal mirror of other people’s experiences, even when we know they are a fictitious character in a make-believe story. Our mirror neurons re-create the emotions and actions of what we read; it is as if we are experiencing the story ourselves. It’s this that keeps us reading the next chapter when it is time for bed, but we just have to find out what happens next.

Martha’s voice

I wrote Leaving Bethany in the first person, that is in Martha’s voice. Her story is told through her eyes. First person narrative has the benefit of drawing the reader into an individual’s story, and you experience her life as she does. Her highs and lows and her successes and failures are laid bare. I could have written a theological treatise upon Martha’s life and included the Bible references, historical background to the life of a first century Judean woman, and church traditions as to her life afterwards. I hope I would have made it interesting. But would you have had the same emotional response to the crucifixion scene as Debbie, a Leaving Bethany reader, had?

“The telling of Jesus’s death brought me to tears. This story, of which we are so familiar, became so poignant, the hairs on my arms stood on end. I felt the fear, the sadness of their loss. We know it had a happy ending but, at that moment, it had such a profound loss.”

When we share Martha’s story, dopamine is realised in our brain. This chemical aids memory helps the brain to process information and contributes to feelings of pleasure. All of which helps us to remember the story long after we have finished reading.

The author’s old adage of “show not tell” is always relevant, and now we know why. Showing what the hero does and how he feels helps the reader to create a vivid mental picture and a shared felt experience which creates a lasting impression.

Now we know why Jesus did not give his listeners a list of theological points and instructions. Instead, he told them memorable stories. These have stuck in the minds of his followers for two thousand years and stay forever new as we tell them to the next generation.

From the opening page to the last, the Bible is chock full of stories.

“The hairs on my arms stood on end. I felt the fear, the sadness of their loss.”

Susan Sutherland is the author of Leaving Bethany which was published in November 2020. She is currently working on a sequel.

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