Sun, May 08, 2022

The power of story

Duration:12 mins 50 secs

According to Robin Dunbar––

the Head of Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience at Oxford University––

what separates humans from other animals is the ability to tell stories;

what is truly unique to humans is “the ability to live in a virtual world of the mind”.

Perhaps, somewhat similarly, the American journalist, Shana Alexander has suggested that…

“the paradox of reality is that no image is as compelling as the one which exists only in the mind’s eye”.

It is our ability to construct abstract images and to combine them into narratives… 

which, not only defines us as a species…

but also as a community.

We use stories or shared narratives––

in the form of foundational myths, fables, histories, and moral tales––

to build and sustain community.

Think about some of our national stories––

the tales of brave pioneers and explorers…

or foolish ones, like Bourke and Wills;

Ned Kelly;

the Eureka Stockade;

the hapless young soldiers at ANZAC cove…

or the ones slogging the Kokoda Trail.

These stories are told… 

and retold… 

because they engage our imaginations and our emotions;

they tap into our hopes, dreams, and aspirations;

they say something about who we are or who we would like to be…

or, perhaps, who we don’t want to be.

Some of our stories––

perhaps the ones that we don’t like to tell but we tell anyway… 

like tales of Aboriginal dispossession, child removal, and slaughter––

are told because they do disturb us;

because they force us to re-examine and re-think;

because they remind us of things that we dare not forget;

because they inspire us to change.

As people…

as a community…

we tell stories.

Some stories are told simply because they are good stories.

But, in many cases, it’s how the story speaks to us––

and what the story symbolises for us––

that makes it especially powerful and ensures its longevity.

As with myths and legends… 

it doesn’t really matter whether the stories have a factual core that has been embellished…

or whether the stories are the product of creative imagining…

what matters is what they symbolise:

what they say to us…

and what they inspire in us.


Of course, all of that is true of much of the Bible…

and it’s particularly true of the two stories found in this morning’s reading from Acts.

In the first, we have the story of Aeneas:

someone who has been bedridden for eight years…

in some way weak, feeble, or disabled––

although we’re not really told why––

until along comes Peter… 

and simply says to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!”

And, immediately, Aeneas does.

He gets up and everyone is astounded.

In the second, we have the story of Tabitha––

otherwise known as Dorcas––

the devout widow…

the tireless worker for the disadvantaged…

the faithful servant of Jesus Christ.

But she’s not just feeble, weak, or disabled like Aeneas.

Rather, Tabitha has died.

Her congregation has laid her body out and begun the burial process.

People are grieving––

lamenting her loss and all that it will mean for their community.

So they send for Peter, who is in the next town––

some eighteen kilometres away.

And he comes…

bustles them all out of the room…

kneels down and prays––

although the Greek suggests that it wasn’t a long prayer––

and then he turns to her lifeless body and simply says:

Tabitha, get up.”

Whereupon, she opens her eyes…

and Peter takes her by the hand and helps her up.


So, what are we to make of these two stories?


No doubt there are many church-going folk who assume that they are simply historical…

and who accept them at face value.

For others, such accounts of miraculous deeds are more than a little embarrassing…

in light of all that we know now about medicine and the laws of physics.

Some people try to explain such things away by taking refuge in rationalisation.

Such an approach will point out that we’re dealing here with primitive people…

un-scientific people…

people who didn’t understand about disease or medicine.

So, maybe, what happened to Aeneas and Tabitha wasn’t so miraculous.

Maybe, there’s a feasible scientific explanation.

Maybe, Aeneas wasn’t really paralysed.

Maybe, he had been told that he was so many times that it had become true––

the so-called ‘nocebo effect’…

and the power of suggestion…

a phenomenon well known, especially among more ‘primitive’ cultures.

And maybe Tabitha wasn’t actually dead.

Maybe they just thought so…

because they didn’t understand about medicine and biology.

Now, there’s probably a certain element of truth in all of that.

But is that all?


Perhaps, rather, these stories were never intended to be taken factually.

After all, the author of Acts is a master of dramatic story-telling;

and he’s never averse to crafting stories to make a particular theological point.

So, perhaps, these stories were intended…

all along… 

to be symbolic.

Perhaps, they were actually trying to say something else…

something other than simply reporting another miraculous healing.

That that is the case is clear from the familiar echoes contained in these stories.

It’s most apparent in the story of Tabitha.

There are striking parallels between it and a story in Luke’s Gospel––

namely, the story of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter.

In both of those stories, messengers come, pleading for help;

there are weeping bystanders;

the gathered mourners are shunted out of the room;

the one who has died is told to rise…

is taken by the hand…

and helped up.

And these elements are only found in these two stories.



Rather, the author expects his readers to make that connection.


Well, he’s writing more than sixty years after Jesus had lived.

He’s writing to a small, struggling church––

a community suffering ostracism and oppression:

shunned by their neighbours because they have chosen to follow Christ…

and have turned their backs on the gods of their city and their empire.

No doubt, they were beginning to experience threats from the local authorities…

and feeling like the whole world was against them.

What’s more, all of the original disciples were long dead…

as were the first couple of generations of followers.

Meanwhile all of the promises that Jesus would return hadn’t been fulfilled…

leaving them feeling isolated and alone;

and, perhaps, feeling like they had made a mistake––

that, maybe, God isn’t interested in what was happening to them;

that, maybe, God isn’t really active in their lives.

Through these stories––

through these deliberately crafted echoes and parallels—

the author is trying to affirm that God is involved;

that Jesus is still at work in and through the church;

indeed, that the Church is even now carrying on the ministry of Jesus.

He’s trying to affirm that Jesus can still bring healing and new life.

True, they may no longer see people who appear to be healed miraculously…

or even brought back to life––

anymore than we do.

But, through these stories, the author is encouraging us to believe that the risen Christ is with us––

even now––

that he is at work among us, and at work through us.

Because, whenever the Church works to bring healing and new life… 

the risen Christ is present.

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