I will never forget the day Neverland shut its doors to me. The sun lazed between the Bob-Ross clouds that late afternoon before I started eighth grade. Like nearly every summer before, I’d donned my homemade leather armor and taken up arms against the imaginary monsters that marched through the Pennsylvania fields behind my house.
For years I’d plunge into a world of pure imagination. I’d stride over broken corn stalks to meet my foes while the real world faded behind me. For those moments—hours really—I lived and moved in a completely different plane of existence.
But that day in late August with the robins singing their farewells to summer, I couldn’t pry the doors to Neverland open. Try as I might, the leather hanging from my shoulders and the stick in my hand simply wouldn’t morph into my fighting gear, and the corn rustling in the wind stubbornly refused to fight back.
Tears streaked my thirteen-year-old face at the frustration of it. I sensed something had died. I feared Neverland had closed its doors to me forever.
My fears proved ill-founded, it turns out. Story is to the human race what water is to fish. Every day, we tell stories—describing to coworkers the previous evening’s activities with a dramatic flair or recounting an escapade from our childhood to our peers with all the suspense of a great novel.
And when a person sitting next to us on a plane simply refuses to read their copy of a magazine, we respond to their question, “What do you do?” with a story.
We can’t get away from it. When we turn off the lights and close our eyes on the stress of the day, our brains tell themselves stories for hours. Bizarre though they may be, those dreams stay with us well into the morning.
Like Our Creator
We do it because God made us like him, and God’s primary playground is the imagination. Once he started telling stories, there was no chance we—being like him—could stop. We may become rusty in telling and enjoying narratives, but the gates to Neverland never actually close.
When our Creator—the designer of the human mind—set out to reveal himself to the humans he created, he chose to do so not in bulleted lists of facts or lengthy doctrinal exposition, but in story.
Genesis begins like any good book—at the beginning. It introduces us to a Creator who plays with creation. There’s a childlike joy in the opening pages of the Bible as God speaks and spins the world into existence. G. K. Chesterton once described God like children playing in Neverland:
“It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”[note]G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1959), 61.[/note] For Chesterton, God’s home is Neverland.
But the Neverland of Eden didn’t stay perfect for long. The great Dragon seduced infant humanity to self-worship, and darkness squeezed onto the page (Gen 3:1–7). Rather than lecture the human race with data, however, God began an adventure that started with a man named Abram (Gen 12:1–3). Along the way, the Creator told his story—the story of beauty lost, warring with darkness, and brilliant light of hope. And God commanded that his people tell his story to each other over and over and over again. Why? It’s part of how he made us.
Created for Story
In the center of the brain there’s a bundle of nerves called the corpus callosum. It’s the bridge that ferries information back and forth between the left and right brain hemispheres. But for some people that bridge has fallen down—whether due to tumors or surgical practices used to stop seizures.
In a series of experiments done in the 1960s, a man named Michael Gazzaniga found, with the help of these split-brained people, the storytelling part of our brain.
Each subject looked at an instruction—like “walk”—with only their left eye. Their right hemisphere processed it, and they’d start acting on the instructions. But the left side of the brain controls speech, and with the corpus callosum snipped, information that the right side knew got stuck. Gazzaniga would ask the test subjects why they walked across the room.
The left brain didn’t know. It couldn’t. But without missing a beat, subjects would answer in a lie: “I wanted to go get a Coke.”[note]Michael Gazzaniga, The Ethical Brain (NY: HarperCollins, 2006), 149.[/note]
Over thirty years ago that neuroscientist proved what God knew from the beginning: If humanity doesn’t have a story to tell, it will make one up and believe it’s completely, 100 percent true.
I’ve seen it in my own life. Instead of orcs and castles, I invented fantasies about my relationships and career. Often those stories included explanations for my personal vices. I recited them to myself over and over again until they evolved into my complete reality.
I’m not alone. When we tell ourselves whatever story we wish, fallen humans will inevitably end up doing whatever’s right in our own eyes (Judg 21:25). As an antidote to these self-absorbed fantasies, thankfully, God chose to reveal himself in story.
From the beginning of their nation, the Israelites were a people of narrative. The Passover was their own Genesis—the beginning of a new story wherein God’s people walk free of the chains of darkness. Down through the generations, the bleeding neck of the sacrificial lamb burned itself onto the retinas of Israel’s young children. And whenever they wondered, “Why do we do this?” their parents told them a story, Once upon a time, we were slaves in Egypt (see Deut 6:20–21).
Israel went astray every time they stopped rehearsing God’s story. In the wilderness they entertained notions of their own greatness back in Egypt. In Canaan they told themselves the stories of Baal and Marduk. In the end they forgot their God because they replaced his story with one of their own making.
Shaped by Story
Whether we know it or not, the fantasies we choose to tell ourselves shape us.
Neuroscientists have piled up the research showing how narratives change our brains. We’ve all experienced it—whether at the campfire or in a movie theater, a scary story well-told often leaves us checking under the bed and behind the closet door.
We experience stories at the neurological level as if they actually happen to us—so much so that the chemistry and cells in our brains begin to mirror the characters we connect to. Infamous Adolf Hitler fell in love with the opera. From a young age he developed a particular fascination with Richard
Wagner’s Germanic epics. Historians credit the fantasies spun in the vaulted opera houses with setting Hitler on his course to German nationalism and, later, genocide. But he started as a young boy who listened to a story.
It’s little wonder, then, that God chose to reveal himself to us not only in facts but in the fantastic details of narrative. If we become—at a neurological level—like the character we love in our favorite stories, then it would follow that by telling God’s story, we’d become like him.
In his recent book, A Concise Guide to Reading the New Testament, David Nienhuis speaks frankly about the dismay he encounters in Bible students who, when reading the Word of God for the first time as a literary whole, find themselves utterly lost. We need to get back to the Bible as story, he argues. Because, “stories, it turns out, are ‘irreducible’: they cannot be distilled down into a purer, simpler, ‘truer’ form.”[note]David Nienhuis, A Concise Guide to Reading the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 13.[/note]
Do we struggle today in knowing our God because we’ve lost sight of his story? Reading plans for the Bible have us jumping from passage to passage, book to book, testament to testament. We strip the story of its power, turning it instead into a homeopathic soup for the Christian soul.
Like the Israelites bringing their wounded animals to the Temple (Mal 1:7–8), we make our obligatory offerings and ignore the grand drama playing out in front of us. We reduce God to a list of character traits, rattled off at the nearest hint of a Sunday school question, and then we flip on the TV to watch a rerun of Friends. Our lives change, yes, but to reflect the self-absorbed escapades of late nineties tweenagers.
Return to Neverland
If we take the time to steep ourselves in the story of our God, we will quickly realize that we do not exist as the hero.
Throughout history God continued to proclaim his story to his people—through kings, through prophets, through his Son (Heb 1:1). Jesus’s advent among us brought the drama thoroughly to earth. He pointed to the Old Testament because it told the story of his Father reaching out to us. Jesus steeped himself in the story of his Father and proclaimed it to his people (Luke 4:16–19).
And when Jesus ascended with victory in his hand, he left us with a single command: Tell his story (Acts 1:8). After all, a witness is little more than a storyteller. In our minds we tend to throw witnesses up onto a courtroom stand and squeeze them like a lemon. We prepare to live as Jesus’s witnesses in the same fashion—arming ourselves with facts, details, and charts.
But in reality, Jesus asked his people to share his story—to take the whole drama of God that had unfolded up to that point and tell it to everyone. To whisper it on the street corner and laugh along with it by the fireside. To huddle next to the decaying in the catacombs and feast on the story of the hero-God who came to his people.
Through centuries of persecution and prosperity, God’s people have told his story. Now it’s our turn. God calls each of us to play a part in the drama that still continues to unfold around us. The cover hasn’t closed; the last pages pile up ahead of us. As the writer of Hebrews points out, all those who have gone before us wait eagerly for us to do our tiny bit before all of us can return to the heavenly city—to Neverland (Heb 11:39–40).
In his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis put it this way: “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. . . . But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”
We need to put aside our desire to categorize our faith in bits of data and learn to imagine again. Only then can we watch God dance across the water’s surface before light-shattered darkness. We can weep with him over the breaking of the earth under human hands. We can smile with him when the promised-boy-called-laughter squealed his first breath to the sky. On and on through the story we can join him in his work, sleeves rolled up, and promise on the horizon.
Our Neverland home lies over the horizon. We march homeward armed not with leather and sticks, but each with our own story. The story of a God who reached down to us, redeemed us from our sin, and infused us with the life-giving Spirit. As we go, we play our part—making disciples who follow Jesus. He is, after all, the hero.