Telling a Better Story – a book review
What does telling stories have to do with apologetics?
My interest was sparked when I saw this new book on apologetics focusing on telling stories earlier this summer. Apologetics has traditionally been oriented to philosophy and logic. Yet most people understand life through stories they seek to practice. Expressing the reason for the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15) is best communicated through stories. People relate to stories better than to formal syllogisms. Josh Chatraw’s new book, Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age (Zondervan, 2020) reimages apologetics for today’s context. The book is divided into three parts: Part 1 – A Better Story About Apologetics; Part 2 – Offering a Better Story; Part 3 – Objections to the Story. He writes the following about apologetics:
Once viewed as a tool to win debates, apologetics is now becoming more focused on generating productive conversations that open doors for people to consider the gospel. Rather than encouraging others to use what Charles Taylor refers to as “conversation-stoppers” (e.g. “I have a three-line argument which shows that your position is absurd or impossible or totally immoral”) or what Alan Jacobs refers to as the habit of “militarizing discussion and debate,” many apologists are emphasizing the need for Christians to become better listeners who seek to understand the person thay are speaking with before making appeals. This enables us to meet people where they are and find points to affirm before finding points to challenge.1Josh Chatraw, Telling a Better Story, Zondervan, 2020, p 19.
Listen to their stories
The author wants us to listen to their stories because they are windows for understanding. Stories, both big stories and little stories, are purveyors of culture and worldview. Stories explain life. They answer the big questions about the meaning of life and how to live well. Chatraw writes:
Stories both ask existential questions and seek to answer them. We are storytelling animals because stories speak to innate human needs and desires. Every culture speaks in story. Every culture explains in story.2Chatraw, p. 48.
Why talk about stories rather than worldview?
Many have pointed out that worldviews are expressed in stories that people tell to explain who they are. Chatraw prefers to speak about stories rather than worldview when engaging others in conversation. In “Telling a Better Story”, he explains:
Stories also strike a more personal note and can be much less contentious. To put it practically, if you walk up to a new acquaintance and say, “what is your worldview?” you will probably get a confused expression or a defensive reaction. But if you ask them, “What’s your story?” their eyes are more likely to light up and engage in meaningful conversation. . . . “What’s your worldview?” can sound like you are looking for a fight, while “What’s your story?” communicates you actually care and that you want to have a conversation. And if you listen closely as they tell their story, you’ll likely hear how they make sense of themselves and the world around them.3Chatraw, p. 56.
The “Inside out” framework
The heart of Chatraw’s book is his “inside out” framework for apologetics which he develops and models in Part 2. He explains the approach toward the end of part 1:
“Inside out” begins by entering a person’s social imagination and engaging their ideas from within it. This is critical. It is not enough to recognize that someone has different assumptions and “common sense” thinking that differs from us; we need to step into their story before pointing them to the way out. Someone who has assumed the “givens” of late modernism brings deeply rooted assumptions, and they won’t flippantly discard these assumptions in favor of the Bible or Christianity. We must then engage their story to tug at their assumptions and invite them to consider the Christian story. By beginning within their own story – listening for hints of the larger narratives that inform their life, paying attention to what they look to in order to fulfill the inescapable features of personhood – we are positioned to identify commonalities, listen so we can discuss points of disagreement, challenge their view on its own terms, and show how the prevailing cultural narratives fail to live up to their deepest aspirations.4Chatraw, p.62,63.
His development of this approach focuses on the late modernism (postmodernism) context of North America and Europe. The chapters of part two show how the Christian story provides a better meaning, better true self, better happiness, better inclusiveness, and better reason(s). We can apply this framework, however, to any context by listening to the stories that local people tell to explain their lives.
Answers to objections
The third part of the book provides answers for objections to the Christian story. He addresses charges that it is oppressive, unloving, and untrue.
Telling a Better Story is a very practical book that provides a helpful model for everyday apologetics. It will help you avoid “conversation-stoppers” and open possibilities for meaningfully engaging others with the Christian story. I highly recommend it. If I was still teaching “Intro to Apologetics”, I would use it as a textbook.