Show and Tell

kinnon —  September 16, 2010 — 4 Comments

As hard as it may be to believe, your humble servant majored in writing (and radio) “back in the day.” I’ve taken numerous writing courses since. Perhaps one day their impact will magically appear in my prose – I wouldn’t hold my breath, however.

One of the key writing truths drummed into me, whether by Dr. Bob Gardner @ Ryerson, Roy Williams, Chris Maddock or Jeff Sexton @ Wizard Academy, or in books like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is “Show, don’t tell.”

I occasionally think of this as I read the Scriptures – there’s a lot more showing than telling (especially in the New Testament.) I think of how John’s Gospel ends, (in Peterson’s paraphrase),

There are so many other things Jesus did. If they were all written down, each of them, one by one, I can’t imagine a world big enough to hold such a library of books.

Why don’t we have more of what Jesus did written down? We would then be able to more easily practise an “if, then” Christianity; if X happens, then do Y. Systematic Theology would have been sooooo much easier.

Instead, the New Testament spends a lot of time showing us the Gospel in action – telling us stories of the Kingdom of God being at hand. Yes, we are “told” lots of thing – there is instruction – but not enough to answer all the questions Christians ask – which (I believe) is why Jesus said this,

“I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t handle them now. But when the Friend comes, the Spirit of the Truth, he will take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is. He won’t draw attention to himself, but will make sense out of what is about to happen and, indeed, out of all that I have done and said.”

What point am I attempting to make (feebly or otherwise)?


We spend far too much time promoting an IF/THEN version of Christianity. The latest gurus, whether mega, missional, missional-mega, mega-missional, young, old, restless or otherwise offer us keys to unlock the secrets of “growing the church/solving the world’s problems.”

Listen to me. IF you’d just do this, THEN it would work out the way Jesus wants it to, eh!

It’s all TELL with very little SHOW.

When my kids were little (rather than the adults they are today) they used to ask me to “tell them a story.” I didn’t begin with; “the protagonist in this story is the Little Lion. The antagonist is the Littler Lion. The Littlest Lion is the 3rd gravitating body – providing intrigue and delight. The purpose of this story is…”

I told them stories about the Little Lion, his brother, the Littler Lion and their sister, the Littlest Lion. (I was never going to be an award-winning children’s author.) These stories were more or less about them – about adventures they’d had – trying to make sense of their world for them – or adventures they might have – exciting them about what might be.

I’ve said it here too many times, but we are wired for stories. (I love this line from Jeff Jarvis: “Gore hits the same points with different words again and again, not knowing which will stick so he keeps throwing. Bono, instead, tells a story.”)

Please. Tell me a story about how God is moving in your midst. Allow the Holy Spirit to show me His Truth and what He wants me to see in the midst of your story.


If you don’t have a real story to tell – simply prognostications based on your theories – please sit down and make room for the story tellers. We all might learn something.


Aside: Some of this is a result of the struggles I’m having in the editing of Imbi’s Documentary on Church Leadership for the 21st Century – the need to balance theory and practice. (Imbi conducted and I shot over 40 hours of interviews – while shooting many more hours of B-roll.) I need to be careful not to reject the prophetic because it sounds like theory – but also, not to accept that which claims to be prophetic when the “prophet” stands above and apart.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

4 responses to Show and Tell

  1. Could it be that the If/Then paradigm has so many followers because we’re scared of change, chaos, and insecurity? And yet, could it be that the reason so many of us resonate with Tolkien’s *The Lord of the Rings* is that it refuses the modernist If/Then uniformitarianism that expects only certain outcomes are possible because That’s The Way The World Works – when Tolkien and the pre-modern/holistic post-postmodern mind give place for what he called “eucatastrophe” and the providential insertion of surprise. If/Then may treat all things as science, but providential surprises spin all things into stories.

    Such surprises do throw me off, but I must say, those very twists certainly do make for some show-stoppin’ themes that turn people’s gaze toward the bestest Creative Writer of ’em all …!

  2. This is a great point. My wife was reminding me of the same thing in our ministry – less preaching and more sharing of how God is working in our lives. As Angus Buchan has said, one miracle is worth a thousand sermons. My hope is that most Christians truly want to follow Christ, and an if/then approach just makes it easier to understand. But we are called to rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It takes a bit more surrender, a bit more commitment and a lot more dependence on God – why is that so hard to understand?

  3. To add to the topic of the value of storytelling, here is a quote at the end of Andrew Dunn’s article: Comment.

    “Purposeful storytelling that goes straight to the heart of an audience brings about much more effective change than any laborious elaboration of evidence and research. … “Stories stick in the brain in a holistic way, much better than charts, numbers or concepts,” says change management guru John Kotter. If you want to be a great storyteller, tell stories!”

    (Jill Kayser – Candour. May 2010. p. 8. The Power of a Story)

    The article by Carol Grant entitled Storytelling, had many good thoughts. Here is an excerpt:

    “When we tell a story we stand on holy ground. When we listen to a story we are standing on another’s holy ground. As Christians we listen to stories of discovery as people share their faith journey with us.”

    I was impressed and energized as I was reminded by that insight.

  4. Bill,
    I read your post, watched Chris’ TED talk, and something bothered me. I’ve been thinking about this for several days.

    It drew me back to a book I read this summer about the moral and cultural impact of World War I. I want to quote some from Modris Eksteins: Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (BTW, he taught at Univ.Toronto- Scarborough. I apologize for the length, but there is a point here that applies to the church and all the cultural influencers today.

    Though he is writing about the Nazi’s, I believe he could be writing about virtually any political/ religious/ ideological movement in the 20th century.

    “Nazism involved, perhaps first and foremost, a love of self, not the reality of the self but the self that is reflected in the mirror. This narcissism was projected into a political movement and eventually came to encompass an entire nation. The reflection in the mirror, the image of Nazis had of themselves – blond, blue-eyed, strong as Krupp steel, eternally youthful, with a Nietzshean will to power – that was the myth. Behind the myth, though, was a total inability to define self in any conventional terms. Yet in the narcissistic complex, existence becomes a matter of aesthetics, a matter of turning life into a thing of beauty, not of right, or of good, but of beauty. Walter Benjamin pointed in this direction when he said that fascism was the “aestheticizing of politics.” But fascism was more than just an aestheticizing of politics: it was an aestheticizing of existence as a whole. “The German everyday shall be beautiful,” insisted one Nazi motto.

    Nazism was an attempt to lie beautifully to the German nation and to the world. The beautiful lie is, however, also the essence of kitsch. Kitsch is a form of make-believe, a form of deception. It is an alternative to a daily reality that would otherwise be spiritual vacuum. It represents “fun” and “excitement,” energy and spectacle, and above all “beauty.” Kitsch replaces ethics with aesthetics. Kitsch is the mask of Death. (end quote)

    This isn’t just about the Nazi’s. They are just the easiest illustration to point to. This is about the world we’ve lived in for the past hundred years.

    My point is that a lot of the push for visuals and stories is to distract us from the real issues. Those issues are intellectual and moral, and not just human interest features. If all we have are your stories, my stories, our neighbors stories, the stories of people we don’t know, and there is no moral ground for those stories to be interpreted and understood, then we are just the latest most sophisticated generation of kitsch merchants.

    While I believe there can be a moral ground that informs these stories, I also believe that those who are most influential in global culture do not want the critical mirror of moral principles to be placed in front of them. A last quote from Eksteins.

    Nazism was the ultimate expression of kitsch, of its mind-numbing death-dealing portent. Nazism, like kitsch, masqueraded as life; the reality of both was death. The Third Reich was the creation of “kitsch men,” people who confused the relationship between life and art, reality and myth, and who regarded the goal of existence as mere affirmation, devoid of criticism, difficulty, insight. Their sensibility was rooted in superficiality, falsity, plagiarism, and forgery. Their art was rooted in ugliness. They took the ideals, though not the form, of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth century avant-garde, and of the German nation in the Great War, and by means of technology – the mirror – they suited these ideals to their own purpose. Germany, the home of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), of many of the greatest cultural achievements of modern man, became in the Third Reich the home of Richter und Henker (judges and hangmen), the incarnation of kitsch and nihilism. (end quote)

    Much of your complaints about the church can be described in Ekstein’s description of Nazi kitsch. Much of the political and ideological movements of our day are no different. There is a nihilism at the heart of much of this that is hidden behind flashy visuals and clever story telling.

    I’m not saying that we should not tell stories and use visuals. I am saying we must be clear about the point we are making in telling stories and using visual media to communicate ideas.

    Our stories may be personal, but once said they are both moral and public. We are not just telling a story to entertain, or to fill up sound and light space, but to make a point. The question that we in the church need to reflect on is “What is the point we are trying to make?”, and “What is it that our listeners should think and do as a result?”. For in the end, the moral nature of our stories is about how we are to live, and, therefore, it is vital that we understand the moral ground upon which we make the claim that our stories have merit and value, and hopefully, influence and impact.


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