The Truth Needs a Good Story

By the Rev. Ken Howard

Falsehood flies and Truth comes limping after
Jonathan Swift (1710)

Jonathan Swift’s comment seems just as relevant now as it was when he wrote it in 1710. Both lies and truths tell a story.

Why is it that a lie (a false story) travel so much faster than truth? Why do people seem to latch onto lies so much more easily?

I think it’s because lies always have better stories. Lies are stories: false stories but stories all the same. Their stories are often better because they are free to create them from scratch. Human beings are pattern seekers and meaning creators. We want there to be a reason for things. We don’t like chaos, unpredictability, or lack of control. And we much prefer it when the reason comes wrapped in a simple story that ties everything together and puts a bow on it, even if it’s not quite true

People who spread lies are free to create them from scratch, free to write a convincing narrative, free to write emotionally satisfying script at plays to their own biases about good guys and bad guys, and to give the listener the satisfaction of being one of the good guys. As H. L. Menken once said, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.”

The mistake many of us make when we are trying to convince people of the truth – especially people who have already bought the lie (or even are simply convinced of their own bias) – is to think that sharing the facts is sufficient. Perhaps it should be. In a better world, perhaps it might be. But in this world, it demonstrably is not the case (60 years ago, Thomas Kuhn’s research showed that even scientists, when faced with evidence contradicting the generally accepted paradigm, more often than not, ignore or are even unable to perceive it). 

The bottom line is this: Data alone does not change people’s hearts, minds, and behavior, unless people can find meaning in the data. And the way humans ascribe meaning is through story. Which means if we want to help people to recognize, accept, and change their thinking and behavior based on the truth, sharing just the facts, while necessary, is entirely insufficient. Instead, we have to help them find meaning in data, by helping them see the story in the data and helping them find themselves in that story. Is not the reason the Gospels are so transformative that they are not just a collection of facts and conceptual truths for review, but a collection of stories that embody the Truth?

We find this to be the case in our work helping congregations and their judicatories better understand and more effectively engage their communities. Both our approach (data-grounded strategic missional assessment and strategy development) and our platform (MapDash for Faith Communities) are designed not to provide them with “truth on a silver platter,” but to help them to flesh out the story of how God is already at work their neighborhoods and then discern what their place is in that story through visualization, contextualization, analysis, and storytelling. We live for those “holy crap” moments when the story breaks into their blind spots.

One example of this is our work on Mapping and Mitigating Systemic Racism. We have found that simply giving people facts and figures about systemic racism, telling them how bad it is, and how the must work hard to dismantle, while it might make us feel like we’ve done something positive, it doesn’t actually achieve real behavior change in individuals and institutions. Because Systemic Racism (aka Structural Racism) is based on a simple, coherent, and persuasive, yet false narrative, it cannot be dismantled so much as displaced by an even more persuasive yet true narrative narrative grounded in the unique and specific impacts of systemic racism in their own neighborhoods, which motivates them to address those impacts in specific and doable ways, and helps them create a better story for the future of their neighborhoods.

Someone once told me that she believed that when Jesus said, “You will know the Truth and the Truth will make you free,” he forgot to add, “but first it will piss you off.” I don’t know if the Truth has to piss people off before they will let it change them, but I do know that it does first have to engage them in an emotional, visceral, and incarnational way.

You can tell a story without any truth in it. But you can’t deeply communicate the Truth without a story.

Which is why I say,
“The Truth needs a good story.”