What Christians should learn from Rob Bell and the psychologists…

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5352592011_fff4a2dce4_z.jpgHow Stories Deceive is a worthwhile read. It tells the story of a con artist who claims to be a sexually exploited underage teenager. But what the article is really about is the power of stories. Of course, it would have to be in story form to prove the point, and it does a good job. First, some excerpts, then I’ll make a few comments:

“Stories bring us together. We can talk about them and bond over them. They are shared knowledge, shared legend, and shared history; often, they shape our shared future. Stories are so natural that we don’t notice how much they permeate our lives. And stories are on our side: they are meant to delight us, not deceive us—an ever-present form of entertainment.

“That’s precisely why they can be such a powerful tool of deception. When we’re immersed in a story, we let down our guard. We focus in a way we wouldn’t if someone were just trying to catch us with a random phrase or picture or interaction. (“He has a secret” makes for a far more intriguing proposition than “He has a bicycle.”) In those moments of fully immersed attention, we may absorb things, under the radar, that would normally pass us by or put us on high alert. Later, we may find ourselves thinking that some idea or concept is coming from our own brilliant, fertile minds, when, in reality, it was planted there by the story we just heard or read.

“Give me a good story, and I can no longer quite put my finger on what, if anything, should set off my alarm bells. When the psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock decided to test the persuasive power of narrative, they found that the more a story transported us into its world, the more we were likely to believe it—even if some details didn’t quite mesh. The personal narrative is much more persuasive than any other form of appeal. And if a story is especially emotionally jarring—How amazing! How awful! I can’t believe that happened to her!—its perceived truthfulness increases.”

This is what allows scam artists to make a healthy living, whether they are small-time or in the big leagues. Psychologists and others have studied this, and Rob Bell seemed to grasp it intuitively. Why do we fall for lies, whether theological or otherwise, when there’s a good story?

It is because of the appeal to our emotions.

“The more extreme the story, the more successful it becomes. Emotions on high, empathy engaged, we become primed to help. Azzopardi may have been lying, but that isn’t all she was doing. She was also giving people the opportunity to shine in the humanitarian light that they always suspected lay within them.”

This is why it’s so important to question our motives. Trying to figure out why some people fall for scams and others don’t, one researcher unwittingly and accurately described why Christians often fall for the ruses used by false teachers.

“Some people don’t see the signs of fraud, but, he felt, this couldn’t be the fundamental factor; if it were, there wouldn’t be nearly as much diversity in the victim pool. It was, he concluded, a question of visceral influence: greed, hunger, lust, and the like. “They are so eager to get their hands on the proffered scam payoff that they fail to pay even rudimentary attention to the details of the proposed transaction and ignore scam cues that may be obvious to others not so overwhelmed by desire,””

But con artists and false shepherds aren’t the only ones who understand this. Movie producers get it. This is why I laugh when people claim that they aren’t affected by all the movies that they watch. All that is necessary for a movie producer to take you in with a big lie is that he connect with one wicked desire in your heart. Claiming we can consume trash without being affected by it is to claim that our own heart is not desperately wicked, or deceitful above all else.

Advertisers get it, too.

“One factor, he found, was central to a commercial’s success: whether or not it had a dramatic plotline. “People think it’s all about sex or humor or animals,” he told Johns Hopkins Magazine. “But what we’ve found is that the underbelly of a great commercial is whether it tells a story or not.” The more complete the story, the better.”

Rob Bell understood it too. The power of his Nooma videos back in the day came from the fact that they each told a compelling story that evoked a powerful emotion. That was when the poison-tipped dagger slid unnoticed into your heart. You were so distracted by the story and your emotions that you didn’t realize he was preaching a different gospel. And for many, that seed found fertile ground in a sinful desire in our heart. It rested there and grew up, ultimately blossoming into bad fruit in our lives. Some rejected God. Others rejected his bride, the Church. Still others were no longer willing to call sinners to repentance.

You might be the type of person, like myself, to read all this and then decide that you’re done with emotions. Logic will rule you. No more stories for you. But this would be wrong for many reasons, not the least of which is that Jesus taught this way. In parables. Stories meant to connect to our emotions.

So how should we respond as Christians? Let’s tell stories. Let’s connect with people’s emotions. Let’s do it with truth. We shouldn’t be cynical with it. We shouldn’t be manipulative with it. We shouldn’t use it to downplay propositional truth. Instead, we should use it like Jesus, to communicate God’s truth.

But there’s another lesson for Christians to learn, too. We should always be questioning motives—our own and others’. If we don’t, we will be susceptible to the lies that appeal to our own wicked hearts—the lies that get bundled and hidden within the stories that we hear every day. Powerful stories. Emotionally moving stories. Deceiving stories.

This post first appeared on the website of Christ Church, a new church plant in Cincinnati where Joseph is serving. 

Image credit: Will Temple

Joseph and his wife, Heidi, have five children, Tate, Eliza Jane, Moses, Fiona and Annabel. He graduated from Vanderbilt University and Clearnote Pastors College. He is currently planting Christ Church in Cincinnati with several other families.