The New Storytellers

the-new-storytellers-coverI’ve just uploaded a new e-book, on the subject of the popularity of first person narratives written by younger Christians. I examine the shape and source of the phenomenon and offer some thoughts in response to it.

One important recent trend in Christian, and particularly evangelical, biography has a number of distinctive features, perhaps the primary one being a focus upon autobiography and personal memoir: most of the authors in question write primarily about themselves and their own experiences. The second striking feature is the youth of the authors. The phenomenon of persons, a majority of whom are under thirty-five, writing memoirs and autobiographies seems surprising in itself, especially when one considers that few of these individuals were widely known before writing those memoirs. These are not lives that would typically seem to be inviting subject matter for biographical treatment.

Despite these seemingly unpromising characteristics, many of these writers have won a ready and deeply appreciative readership for themselves. Their memoirs are typically written in a highly engaging manner and are warmly received by readers who identify strongly with their writers and the experiences recorded in them. Through their ability to connect with their readers at a very personal level these memoirists have considerable influence over the faith of their peers and the upcoming generation. For many young readers they may be like slightly older siblings in the faith, spiritually streetwise individuals who will teach them the ropes, speak on their behalf, and stick up for them against any that try to attack them. For a number of readers of their peer groups and older, they are people whose experiences resonate with and validate their own. The extensive presence and engagement of many of these writers on social media encourages the formation of communities around them and a very close identification between writer and readers.

The influence of these writers is considerable and in many instances it has been powerfully used for good, providing accessible and welcome guidance and examples to readers whose particular concerns and struggles—often largely generational in character—aren’t being adequately addressed by their churches’ teaching. For many readers, these memoirs introduce them to friendly and approachable fellow travellers on paths that may otherwise have been lonely and isolating for them, people who have experienced difficulties like theirs and found their way through to a better place. I am sure that, as a genre, such youthful spiritual memoirs have rescued many a young person’s faith.

Read the whole thing here:

The New Storytellers

This booklet was originally written over a year ago for a Christian website (which will remain unnamed), who asked me to write for them, but never paid me for my work or took steps to publish it, while keeping me from doing anything else with it with unsubstantiated promises of action. By this point, I just don’t want to see the unpublished document on my hard drive anymore, so I thought I’d publish it myself, even though it means giving up entirely on receiving a payment I’d been assured I’d receive. It is free for you to download and pass on. If you have found it helpful and would like to donate, please follow the link at the back of the book, or use the button below.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Christian Experience, Culture, Society, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The New Storytellers

  1. Jonathan James says:

    Alastair – Excellent! I think I appreciate both the appeal and the drawbacks of this genre better.

    Do you think that the dangers could be moderated somewhat by a recovery of the notion that storytelling is an art or a craft? That these biographies are not, in fact, unmediated lives, but experiences that are chosen, shaped, interpreted, and imaginatively formed into stories. And this process is not mere “self-expression” but *craft*, deliberately designed with a purposeful shape and (to put it old-fashionedly) a moral. A story isn’t “sharing life experiences” but *shaping* life experiences.

    Perhaps recognizing the shaping, crafting power that’s gone into these stories would re-enable us to make moral judgments about them. When we disagree with someone’s story, it isn’t their life or their experience we disagree with, but the moral of their artistic product.

    (But perhaps this wouldn’t do any good. In an article you link to ( Dianne Anderson considers it inconceivable that she could have gotten wrong, not the facts, but the interpretation of her own life. If interpretation of experience is above criticism, there may be little good in emphasizing the creative interpretive work that goes into these stories.)

  2. WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

    as a former Mars Hill member it’s interesting to read The New Storytellers and observe that this first-person primacy of narrative seems to have a stronghold not just in the ostensibly liberal/left/emergent scene but that it was an essential component in Mark Driscoll’s persona from 2000-2014. The Driscolls studied speech communication (Mark) and public relations (Grace) in college before planting Mars Hill. As tempting as it may be for evangelicals to think of the new storytellers mainly as younger this trend in the “advertisers gospel” approach has been incubating for a generation or two. It can even be, to some extent, observed in the propensity of traditionally trained pastors to share personal anecdotes as a springboard to explaining historical elements in biblical texts. It’s only because when I read old sermons by Jonn Donne or Martyn Lloyd-Jones that I see NO personal anecdotes of any kind that it’s easier to notice in American preaching how often the pastor sneaks themselves and their lives into what could be construed as otherwise expository preaching.

    There’s a sense in which what’s different about the new storytellers isn’t the tethering of a doctrinal or dogmatic assertion to personal narrative so much as the ratio of personal narrative used to do so. A relatively traditional American preacher these days may have 10-20% personal narrative in a sermon and 80% expository/topical preaching whereas a new storyteller “may” have the ratio reversed.

    It seems worth noting that compelling readers and auditors to interact with ideas through the scrim of personal narrative was a pretty big part of Mark Driscoll’s approach to public controversy before his star began to wane in the 2013-2014 period. One of the more memorable assertions Driscoll made was that Esther was a nominal believer at best, and Evans described Driscoll as essentially saying Esther was a whore. For those who heard the sermon in which Driscoll made that assertion he asserted it and then framed the assertion within a story about a conversation he had with his daughter, who he described as saying that she would not comply with the Persian edict. Driscoll, at least in his prime, was as much a new storyteller as RHE and others mentioned in the booklet; and it was an essential part of his approach that he leaned heavily on personal narrative. As controversy around his personal ethics grew he began to tilt more heavily toward personal narratives not about himself but about his wife and children–it was perhaps easier to gain sympathy by appealing to tales of his wife and children than to risk pleading for personal sympathy as stories of harsh treatment of people who disagreed with him began to be shared for the record. Driscoll’s case history as a storyteller (for those with the patients to read through it) is a reminder of how curated the personal narrative approach still is.

    • I agree with a lot of what you are saying here and there are definitely relationships and clear overlaps between the phenomenon of sermons including narrative and personal illustrations and the new storytellers phenomenon I have described (Driscoll being a great example). However, I think very important distinctions should be drawn between the use of personal narrative and testimony in homiletics and the use of personal narrative as a larger framing device for thought and as authority through relatability. Although there is an evolutionary path from one to the other, they clearly represent two quite distinct states. Even though the Driscolls and Bells of the world make a great deal of personal narrative, there is something slightly different going on in their cases, though definitely related. The evolution here is likely convergent, though.

      • WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

        no disagreement there, but I’ve been thinking that Driscoll’s Real Marriage book used personal narrative as a framing device in a way that provided a template or prototype for Evans’ derivative reaction to Driscoll’s approach (that and Evans was jumping on the bandwagon of the stunt/lifestyle tourism book fad). Having seen the rise and fall of Mars Hill I’m just not sure I agree that what Driscoll did was as different from what an Evans does, particularly since Evans made a point of formulating her brand as a kind of anti-Driscoll brand. Perhaps I can clarify what I mean a bit by saying the brand formation dynamics in using personal narrative seem the same for a Driscoll circa 20078-2012 and Evans now even if they are ostensibly on the red and blue state sides of the American evangelical divide.

        You raise a good point about Bell and Driscoll being pastors having a different effect, because when Driscoll made himself a pastor (he joked about it but he did say he ordained himself) he opened himself up to far more trenchant intra-Reformed critique, critique he was not able to withstand. An Evans can be as theologically incompetent as she likes without fear of censure so in that sense, definitely, she represents a different case. The lack of any formal theological training is probably the strongest defense the new storytellers have. So now we’ve got Evans with a role in the Obama administration while Driscoll’s trying to rebuild his brand in Arizona. I would personally prefer neither of them had particularly vibrant brands but that’s just me. 🙂

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