stories work for “skeptical believers”

stories work for “skeptical believers” March 30, 2015

Dan TaylorI just came across Daniel Taylor’s 2013 book The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist. Many of you are likely familiar with Taylor’s The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & the Risk of Commitment, first published in 1986.

Anyway, I haven’t read all of The Skeptical Believer. For my tastes it’s a bit long (almost 400 pages) for a book with a popular vibe. Still, I’m enjoying it so far (about 80 pages in) and I wanted to share a few paragraphs with you from pp. 30-31.

Rather than type it all out as I usually do, I thought I’d explore new territory and snap these pics with my new iPhone–because I can–and throw them up onto the world wide interweb the way the young people do. If hope it’s not too irritating to read this way, but at least you won’t find any typos.

This excerpt is about the power of stories for “making sense of human experience.” Taylor tells us we are not so much “truth-seeking creatures” as we are seeking meaning and significance, which come from the stories we embody. My favorite line is:

“This is not a metaphor. Life is not like a story. Life is story. Your life is not like a novel. Novels are like your life–and that’s why we read them.”

I resonate with this idea. I suppose I see myself as a “skeptical believer” similar to what Taylor describes (with some disagreements), and I’ve come to see  in my own way how stories inevitably shape us and how we see our world.

Taylor’s thoughts sync somewhat with what I wrote in The Bible Tells Me So (Chapter 3 “God Like Stories” and the final section of that chapter “Stories Work.”). I’m also trying to finish up this month (if I’d only stop blogging) a draft of my next book with HarperOne on how seeking “certainty” in our faith hinders trust in God.

[Note: the italicized portions in parentheses below are Taylor’s “inner atheist” arguing with him. It adds both a funny and honest tone throughout.]

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  • “Humans are not necessarily truth seekers.”

    For me, there is a constant internal question of how much much I am pattern-seeking as opposed to truth-seeking. How much meaning am I infusing into the random events of life and how much is God is present in those events? It seems preposterous that Providence plays a part in what brand of laundry detergent I pick up. Was it the Hand of God that led me to pick Tide? OTOH, that sort of divine micromanagement seems to be one of the implications of Matthew 10:29.

    I question whether all people who goes back to “licking the earth” are as straightforwardly hedonistic or sinful as Pascal seemed to say. Most people don’t have the time to consider religious and philosophical matters in depth (because they are still working on acquiring the bottom two tiers of Maslow’s Needs). Many of us are privileged to have houses, internet access, nutritious food, access to clean water, and the luxury to freely and openly discuss such things. But what do meaning and significance mean to life at the bottom? Maybe rich Westerners are driven to distraction and decadence by the Vanity Fair, but much of the rest of the world is concerned with more basic necessities. The story of life seems incomprehensible, needlessly painful, and terribly paced when compared to the stories we can dream up. The best we can do is assist those who aren’t able to muster the resources to see themselves as a part of anything larger than day-to-day subsistence. While my living honestly means I can’t pretend I detect anything recognizable as a story in my own life, I can occasionally glimpse it through the lives of others.

    So, TL;DR: I think if life really is a story it has to be considered communally – about all of us, rather than an individualistic focus.

    • Judy Buck-Glenn

      But that is implied in the very word “Story”! We TELL our stories to others! And we listen to theirs. I have been a priest for a number of years and a lifelong listener because I love stories. And maybe not everyone is a philosopher, but even the people who are struggling with Maslow’s needs frame their experiences as stories.

  • docmyron

    Taylor has been on my reading list since the late 80’s and each time I share his work with friends who are struggling with faith as they were “told” it was to be, find him a breath of fresh air. Thanks for making his work known to many others.

  • Annie

    I loved this book! I found it was like talking with a trusted counselor as I muddled through my doubt and my conservative upbringing. Highly recommend.

  • Jim Eisenbraun

    Taylor’s book is wonderful; gracious; honest; helpful. I’ve given away about 20 copies to friends, most of whom have found it very helpful. (BTW, Taylor produced this book himself, and if you want many, you can write directly to him, and he’ll make a bit more money; the book’s a bargain @ $14.95 on the web; but he only gets a portion of that.)

  • Dr. Donny

    But how does one determine if one’s own story is true or not? And does it matter? I sure as heck know whenever I tell my story, I don’t tell the bad parts. This is especially true of my faith story. So it is not obvious that this methodology is better, at least for my internal skeptic.

  • One way to view the church, the ekklēsia, is a group of people called out to live a different story (ek-klēsiaekkaleō = “to call out”): the gospel. Can it actually be lived? I like the tension George Herbert describes in his A Dialogue-Anthem:

                                  Christian, Death

    Chr.   ALAS, poor Death ! where is thy glory ?
              Where is thy famous force, thy ancient sting ?
    Dea.   Alas, poor mortal, void of story !
              Go spell and read how I have killed thy King.

    Chr.   Poor Death ! and who was hurt thereby ?
              Thy curse being laid on Him makes thee accurst.
    Dea.   Let losers talk, yet thou shalt die ;
              These arms shall crush thee.

    Chr.                                                 Spare not, do thy worst.
              I shall be one day better than before ;
              Thou so much worse, that thou shalt be no more.

  • Ross

    I suppose we each live our own story. For some it’s a very black and white story and we feel safe when hedged in by the “rules”. For others we see many more shades of grey (and hey, maybe colours). It can be very difficult to relate to those who’s story seems quite different to ours (particularly when they want us to see the black and white or maybe all the other shades).

    I agonise how to reconcile my story with that which seems quite different to mine, particularly if it seems to want to hurt mine.

    However, maybe Jesus/God/Spirit, is with each of us in these stories. Living along with them.

    That seems a bit equinimible (possibly not a word), so I must throw in that we must allow our story to be shaped by him who is. If we don’t then maybe that is a large problem.

    No-one’s story can be quite like any one else’s and nor should it be. Maybe we need to tread very warily when trampling over someone else’s story. If we are to influence it, maybe we need to do it with love and care.

    Or is that what Daniel said and I’m just repeating it?

    I still can’t quite get to the point of not spitting bile when I meet someone with a black and white story though, particularly when they say I should be on the same page as them!!??!!??