The Effect of Stories on Our Values

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Nathan Pickup

Stories are powerful, not only because they affect our emotions, but because they also affect our values. When we enter the world of a story, we enter its value system—right or wrong, good or bad, praiseworthy or unworthy are all determined by the values expressed (either explicitly or implicitly) within the story. By engaging in a story, we sometimes—if we’re not careful—“buy into” the story’s value system and interpret its events with standards dictated by the story itself. This effect is evident when we catch ourselves rooting for two characters in a love story to consummate their love outside of marriage, or supporting a fictional couple’s divorce, or cheering a “hero” who finally achieves his revenge by murdering the “villain.” These few examples illustrate how stories can cause us to buy into a value system contrary to the one we would normally affirm.

brainThe subliminal effect a story has on us is not limited to the time we spend within its fictional world. When we enter a story and its value system we usually, even if subconsciously, bring something of that story’s value system back with us into the real world. We see this whenever a Christian judges the actions of a fictional character using the values of that character’s story, rather than the value system of the Bible.[1] It is then only a small step for that Christian to take the values of the stories they’ve been engaging with—values that seemed a legitimate basis for judging the actions of fictional characters—and use them to judge human actions in the real world, rather than use the Bible’s values as their standard of judgment. A Christian is then unwittingly conformed to this world as their notions of morality become shaped by our culture rather than the character of God. Once this occurs, a triumphant victory is achieved by Satan over the Christian—a victory won not by breaking down the Christian’s fortifications, but by digging underneath those fortifications to take over from the inside.

However, the subliminal effect stories have on our values is not inherently negative. The negative or positive nature of a story’s influence is determined by the nature of its values. If the story contains a value system created by the world, then its effect on us will assuredly be negative to some degree since the world and its values are ruled by Satan (John 12:31; 14:30; 2 Cor. 4:4; 1 John 5:19). But if the story is based on biblical values, then its effect on us will only be positive. Thus the need for constant time spent in the story of the Bible.

When we enter the world of the Bible’s story,[2] we enter its value system—right or wrong, good or bad, praiseworthy or unworthy are all determined by the perspective of God. In this story, time has an imminent end because a judgment is coming in which the Creator will enter creation to remove “all causes of sin and all law-breakers” (Matt. 13:36-43). The “good guys” in the Bible’s story are always those who follow the written or spoken commands of Yahweh. They may not be perfect (e.g., David, Samson, Peter) but their actions are never judged apart from the standard of God’s written law and character. For these individuals, the story of the Bible is clear: they will be spared the coming judgment through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 5:9-10) and will reign victorious in God’s kingdom (Rev. 3:21; 2 Tim. 2:11-12). In contrast, the “bad guys” in the Bible’s story are always those who refuse to obey the written or spoken commands of Yahweh. For these individuals, the story of the Bible is equally clear: they will be defeated, along with Satan and the rebellious angelic forces, when Yahweh comes “to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way” (Jude 15).bible reading

The more time we spend with the Bible’s story, the more it will affect the way we look at the world. Biblical guidance is not solely the conscious act of thinking “how does this passage apply to me?” The Bible’s guidance is also the subliminal effect it has on our minds as we spend time in its story and value system, having our outlook molded—even if subconsciously—by its evaluative point of view, and allowing that point of view to become so completely synced with our own that we can’t help but view things in light of its values. This transforming of our minds to be able to discern “what is the will of God” can only come about by spending time in serious study of the Bible’s story, rather than the world’s stories which will only result in conforming our minds to the world (Rom. 12:2).

The impressionability of our human minds is such that we can’t help but have our minds shaped by something. This leaves us with a choice: either spend the majority of our time with the world’s stories, allowing them to insidiously shape our notions of morality through the values they promote; or spend the majority of our time in the Bible’s story, allowing it to shape and transform our values so that we see the world as God sees it. Only when we learn to judge human actions by the sole standard of God’s character and written commands can it be said that we have “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:17-24). This only comes about through time spent with the Bible, so it is up to us to structure our lives in such a way that as much time as possible can be spent with God’s word. This will necessarily mean less time with the things of this world, but that is a small price to pay since “the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:16-17).

[1] We can also be influenced to a degree that we judge an entire story as worthwhile despite the brazenly anti-biblical values the story promotes. We sometimes compartmentalize our enjoyment of these stories outside of the Christian worldview we espouse, thus allowing us to claim adherence to Christianity’s values while spending time in the worlds of stories that directly oppose those same values. This is a flagrant contradiction between our behavior and the standards we profess, and we must be mindful of the consequences.

[2] In speaking of the Bible’s story, the term “story” is not meant to imply anything about the historicity of the events recorded. In using the term “story,” I simply mean the narratives in the Bible (and the metanarrative they collectively create) that, while historically true, have been crafted by the biblical authors into literary works that follow the literary conventions of their day.