There once was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to the market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling as he said, “Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a man in the crowd, and when I turned, I saw it was Death that jostled me. He looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.”
The merchant lent his servant his horse, and the servant mounted it and dug his spurs into the horse’s flanks, and as fast as the horse could gallop, he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace, and he saw Death standing in the crowd, and the merchant came to Death and said, “Why did you make a threating gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?”
“That was not a threatening gesture,” said Death, “It was only a startle of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
What makes a story like The Appointment in Samarra, which has been told for generations, stick? What gives such a story power and prevalence?
Story is a potent and popular form of communication. You could even call story a growing industry. From narrative psychology which focuses on the implications of how a person arranges the plot points of her life, to the emphasis for leaders on the importance of being good storytellers, not just to their customers but within their organization and industry. In order to lead, you have to have a story to share – and a story others can share in.
Even the Christian sub-culture, across the liberal and conservative spectrum, has jumped in on the rise of story. A quick Amazon search for the “story of Scripture” yields over 2,400 results. Ranging from factual evidence for the stories in our Bible, to critical analysis on their structure and history, to the continuity of a single story arch and emphasis; the bandwagon of story has been fully mounted.
It’s one thing to acknowledge the movement, but another to discover why story is influential, why we are a generation captured by story?
There is something our ancestors have known that we are only rediscovering: story is not simply the retelling of events to evoke an immediate response like laughter or sympathy, or merely share information for connection or conversation, nor solely garner support for a cause or sell a product. Rather, a story is a plot unfolded in attempt to capture a theme. Plot, a series of sequential events with characters and details. Theme, a non-sequential essence, often inaccessible to our five senses.
In other words, stories are crafted. They are narratives purposefully put together that disclose continuity in the particulars of the plot-line coalescing to reveal something outside of the visible range: a value, a state of being, a quality, a truth.
This is where the power of story lies: in the crafted nature to capture something we all seek after. Think back on the story above. What theme was captured by the plot? Is that theme tangible or something no less real but so much more?
In many ways, marketers, filmmakers, writers and creatives have always understood the influential nature of story to sell desires and need, to inspire values and valor, to re-create revolution and reverence, to express and explore what can never be accessed entirely by the physical. Stories, whether spoken, written, seen in film or touched in art, help us access the fullness of the world in which we live and move and have our being.
Stories not only help us find our footing in the place we call home but find our place within history and within a future.
Think about the stories you were told as a child, the ones you connected with in college and the ones that draw out deep emotion still today. These stories awaken in us hope and expectation. They are stories that allow us to visualize our desires and dreams, and to express our pain and doubt. Such stories give us a picture of a role with which we can associate ourselves, an identity even. They connect us to meaning in the ordinary events of each day and the grand movements of history. These stories give credence and perspective to our difficulties and direct us in discerning what is valuable and what is unimportant.
We, as humans, and especially as image bearers of a storytelling God, have always told stories in order to help us make sense of the world; from the magnificent metanarratives to the obscure ordinary. Stories root us and help us grow up in a much larger reality than we are able to see and experience at any one moment.
Stories connect the visible plot with the invisible theme and in so doing give shape to our experience within a reality that is also both seen and unseen. Stories are effective because they require you and me to imagine. And, “Imagination is the capacity to make connections between the visible and invisible, between heaven and earth, between present and past, between present and future…”
For life to be livable, we need to have some foundation that reality is knowable, that there is connection and meaning in events in some way, that there are consequences to actions both good and evil, and there is responsibility and choice in human action; not unlimited, but not completely removed or fated. Stories give us such foundations; they capture that which we as humans seek. Which is why as Eugene Peterson so aptly states,
“Every time someone tells a story and tells it well and truly, the gospel is served. Out of the chaos of incident and accident, story-making words bring light, coherence and connection, meaning and value. If there is story, then maybe, just maybe there is (must be!) a Storyteller.”
 The Appointment in Samarra, adapted from W. Somerset Maugham’s 1933 version.
 See Shawn Callahan’s Putting Stories to Work and Mark Strom’s Lead with Wisdom and Nancy Duarte’s Resonate as examples.
 C.S. Lewis, C.S. Lewis On Stories: and other essays on literature. 3-20.
 Eugene Peterson, “Masters of Imagination”, Subversive Spirituality, 132-133.
 Eugene Peterson, “Pastors and Novels”, Subversive Spirituality, 186-187.
Featured Image by Diego PH