Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Pointed Stories
distributed 6/1/12 - ©2012

No matter what your theological leanings or religious affiliation, you have to acknowledge one thing about Jesus of Nazareth. He was one hell of a storyteller.

His parables, especially, are gems of the narrative art. In just a few sentences, they break open remarkable insights, shift our perspective on faith and ethics, skewer our own hypocrisy with penetrating humor, and spell an unapologetic assertion of truth.

Reading the biblical Gospels -- which are themselves world-class examples of persuasive narrative -- it is clear that Jesus had a definite purpose behind this tales. His memorable stories and his most pointed comments all make a point. They give a vivid glimpse into the realm of God and the qualities of life oriented toward God's purposes.

Jesus had an agenda in his preaching and teaching. He didn't travel the countryside as an entertainer, spouting a random string of jokes and gossip. His words and deeds were intended to change perspectives, change beliefs, change lives and change the world.

Stories are powerful. A good story isn't just a recitation of events. "Just the facts, ma'am" is about gathering evidence, not telling a story. The stories that catch our attention and influence our opinions all have a point and a purpose. They hook us with a message that speaks some kind of truth (which may or may not be grounded in facts!).

Whether we are telling the stories or hearing them, it is important to be aware of the way those stories are framed, and the point that they are making. Preachers and activists need to work hard at focusing their stories, and at critiquing opposing narratives. Those of us who hear stories will benefit from attentive and informed listening.

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Here in the United States, we have five long months ahead of us before the elections in November. We will be deluged by advertising and political messaging for candidates, parties and initiatives. Every commercial and every mailing will be carefully designed to make a point, and most of them will try to be very subtle about the "truth" at the core of their story.

Political experts at the art of persuasion -- some might call it manipulation -- will use all their skills and their enormous budgets to hone message so that they stick in our consciousness and shapes our perceptions. Words, images and music will evoke strong feelings and powerful associations.

The political ads are a form of storytelling. They may not look like the stories Jesus told, or the ones that we trade at the dinner table, but they will all, on some level, be designed to tell a story about who we are. As I wrote a couple of years ago, those core stories can be very, very short, boiling down to contrasting messages like "you are an individual" or "you are a neighbor."

These political stories will try to plant very basic themes about the good life, fairness, trust and morality. They will often play with some aspect of the contrasting stories between individualism and community.

Last summer, Elizabeth Warren, a candidate for the US Senate from Massachusetts, told a story that spread far beyond her campaign and her home state. The gist of her statement is contained in about a dozen words: "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody." She elaborated about the services provided by a community without which individual initiative cannot succeed: roads, educated workers, police and fire forces, etc. Her story of a social contract was a direct rebuttal to contrasting stories of "self-made" wealth.

There are well-defined principles that can guide the framing of stories to make a point, and to stimulate action. The greatest storytellers are artists, but we can all learn how to craft our message to be effective in establishing a compelling perspective.

An extensive guide to "Framing Public Issues" describes the use of "episodic" and "thematic" frames, and illustrates the differences between them with the opening lines of two imaginary news stories about homelessness. As with Elizabeth Warren's statement, the shift of frame make a big difference in how we are likely to respond.

  • "Betty Jones and her family of four are braving the elements tonight because the homeless shelter was full," begins an episodic story on the homeless. Such a news story might go on to describe how the children miss their toys, how cold it is, when they last ate, etc.
  • "The homeless shelter at 4th and Q was full again tonight because of drastic reductions in city allocations, and this situation is taking its toll on families like Betty Jones'. But the mayor says the Jones family will have to brave it because there is no more money in the city to pay ..." represents a thematic frame with details about trends, not just individuals.

The guide notes that "The episodic frame presents a portrait, while the thematic frame pulls the camera back to present a landscape. The importance of this distinction is that the two types of frames have very different effects on how people view a given problem -- and whether people will see the need for individual-level and/or broader environmental or institutional solutions to that problem."

(This material is drawn from the long manual by the FrameWorks Institute -- jump to page 6 of the PDF file.)

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"A preferential option for the poor" is a theme in Christian theology and ethics that was named by a meeting of the Catholic bishops of Latin America, held in Puebla, Mexico in 1979. It is a thematic framing with deep roots in the witness of Jesus and in the Judeo-Christian faiths. Robert McAfee Brown wrote, "To the degree that the cries of the poor are given priority over the complaints of the rich, the bishops argue, there can be movement toward a society that is more, rather than less, just."

My Christian theology draws me toward a such a thematic view of the world, one that begins with relationships, community and justice, one that acknowledges powerful institutions, and the influence of race, class and gender. For me, a faithful view of the world will always see the interdependence of all people and all creation. Faithful ethics affirms a preferential option for the poor -- and, as liberation theologian Leonardo Boff wrote, the cry of the Earth is joined with the cry of the poor. As we see in the stories told by Jesus, the realm of God is about right relationship, compassion and sufficiency in our lives together, not about individual bliss in a far-off heaven isolated from Earth.

The stories we hear and the stories we tell shape us and define our choices about how to live. In the coming months, as we are exposed to so many carefully crafted political narratives -- and the accidental moments when candidates slip up with more candid expressions -- we have an ethical obligation to study the stories and discern their messages. We need to consider whether the "truth" presented in the ads corresponds, even partially, with the truth we name in our faith.

In our churches, the need to frame our message carefully and intentionally extends far beyond any political season. At all times, in season and out, we need to shape our preaching, teaching and storytelling on the model of Jesus, and be sure that we are always proclaiming the realm of God in community.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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