The Witchery of Story

|God made man because He loves stories.|  Elie Wiesel 

Storytelling AnimalOne of the best books I have read in a while is “The Storytelling Animal” by Jonathan Gottschall.  Gottschall reminded me of something we all know deep in our bones.  We (humans) don’t just love story – we ARE story.

Gottschall does this little experiment in story in chapter one of the book that illustrates the “witchery of story” over human beings.

Take Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea.  It’s not a work of fiction, but it’s still a storybook, and a wonderful one at that.  Philbrick shapes a riveting tale about the real-life disaster that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick: the sinking of the whaleship Essex by a huge and furious sperm whale. Before offering you a taste of In the Heart of the Sea, I want you to steel yourself.  Philbrick is a crafty old wizard; he waves his pen like a wand.  The effect is to drag readers’ minds out through their eyes, teleporting them across time and halfway around the world.  To resist this wizardry, you must concentrate.  Don’t lose awareness of your chair, or the drone of traffic in the background, or the solid feel of this book in your hands.   Page one.  It is 1821.  The whaleship Dauphin is zagging off the South American coast.  The Nantucket whalemen are straining their eyes for the steamy plumes that announce their quarry.  The Dauphin’s captain, Zimri Coffin, spots a small boat bobbing on the horizon.  He roars to the helmsman to bring the boat under his lee.  Philbrick writes:

|  Under Coffin’s watchful eye, the helmsman brought the ship as close as possible to the derelict craft.  Even though their momentum quickly swept them past it, the                brief seconds during which the ship loomed over the open boat presented a sight that would stay with the crew the rest of their lives.  First they saw bones – human bones – littering the thwarts and floorboards, as if the whaleboat were the seagoing lair of a ferocious man-eating beast.  Then they saw the two men.  They were curled up in opposite ends of the boat, their skin covered in with sores, their eyes bulging from the hollows of their skulls, their beards caked with salt and blood.  They were sucking the marrow form the bones of their dead shipmates.  |

Quick, where were you?  Were you still in your chair, noticing the ache in your back and the drone of traffic, the ink printed on the page? Was your peripheral vision picking up your own thumbs on these margins, the patterns on your living room carpet?  Or did Philbrick bewitch you?

And that is the witchery of story.  We are so enraptured by story because we are part of a story called history.  We have a story.  We are citizens of a story.  We ARE story.  Story is not just a nice anecdotal relief from the world around us.  No, the world around is a story all it’s own, of which we are key characters.

I will offer another post or two in this thread, casing a couple of examples of people who tell the Story well.  But for now – who tells the best stories for you?  Care to share some examples in the comments?  It can come in the form of sermon, film, play, book, etc.


  1. Excellent post, Joe. I typically write historical fiction, but a year ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with a single line running through my brain over and over, “John Paul was a boy with two first names.” Long story short, I wrote a novella titled “The Sixth Day: a 17,175-Word Novella about Creation and Prizefighting” published in 2012. In May, Alistair McKenzie and Jasmine Fontes produced the audio book. Earlier this week, I met with Mr. McKenzie and Ms. Fontes in Los Angeles. Two finer people, both Christians, I’ve not met. That single story of less than 20,000 words has gone from print to audio, and now these experienced entertainers have completed a screenplay. Core message of “The Sixth Day:” We are all Jesus! In “The Sixth Day,” ‘the old man’ explains why God made man. His explanation is somewhat different than Mr. Wiesel’s, but I am certain that God indeed loves stories.


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