Have We Lost The Art Of Storytelling? // Tom Read
I'm a big fan of crossword puzzles and every so often I'll buy one of those puzzle books you can find in newsagents and airport book stores. These books usually have a mix of different types of puzzles, and one of my favourites is called ‘Connect The Dots'. I'm sure you've probably seen and done one before. Essentially it's a page of numbered dots and you have to draw a line between the dots by following the numbers, and in the process revealing a picture of something at the end.
It works because instead of just showing you a picture, it requires you to engage with it in order to reveal the picture for yourself. I'll often try and guess what it’s going to be before I start, and usually I’m way off but that just makes it all the more interesting.
Another person who was a fan of this ‘connect the dots’ type of revelation was Jesus. Time and again when asked questions, he would give the answers in the form of parables. To help people understand what the kingdom of heaven was like he told stories about mustard seeds, hidden treasure, yeast, pearls, and even fishing nets. He could have just given them the information that they were after, but Jesus understood the power of storytelling.
As worship songwriters, I wonder if we have lost the art of telling stories through our songs?
Writers employ a well-known technique called ’show, don’t tell’ that aims to enable the reader to experience a story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than merely through the author's exposition. For example, rather than telling us that the horse was running fast the author might instead choose to show us by focusing on the thunderous noise of the hooves and rush of air as the horse passes by. As E.L. Doctorow puts it, "Good writing should evoke sensation in the reader - not the fact that it is raining but the feeling of being rained upon.”
Of course, a good story needs both show and tell but when it comes to modern worship I think we've gotten really good at the telling part, and not so good at the showing part. Our worship songs are full of big declarations about God, but when it comes to using the subtlety of metaphors and imagery that show us who God is, we shy away. Perhaps it's a fear of the lyrics being misunderstood or misinterpreted, or the message being lost? Whatever the reason, worship songs tend to be very literal and veer towards the tried and tested (some might say recycled) lyrics that we’ve become familiar with.
The other day I was taking the tube in London and I found myself staring at the posters on the platform walls whilst waiting for the next train. It struck me that these posters are there to serve a functional role. They advertise products. They tell us about things, whether it be a dating website or a West End play. No one goes into the tube with the specific purpose of looking at these posters. They are just something to look at whilst waiting for a train
In contrast, every year over five million people visit the Sistene Chapel in the Vatican City with the specific purpose of viewing the artwork by Michaelangelo, considered to be some of the most important works of art in history. People will spend hours there looking at the art and admiring it's every detail. Not only are the paintings visually stunning, but they tell stories, from the creation of Adam, to the life of Jesus, through to the last judgement.
I wonder if too many of our worship songs today are more like posters that advertise God, rather than artwork that reveals the beauty and depth of God?
The challenge for us songwriters is this: can we write worship songs that don’t just advertise God, but instead draw people in? Songs that declare biblical truths whilst also revealing the great narrative of the gospel? Songs that allow the church to not only sing of that story, but to become a part of it?
Wouldn't it be amazing if our worship times could look a bit more like a connect the dots puzzle; full of songs that lay out a series of dots that people connect together for themselves, and in the process reveal a picture of the One we worship.