What’s the Story with “Story?” by James K. A. Smith, PhD

We need to sort out the different sorts of claims that are made about and for “story” in these discussions 

Jonathan Gottschall seems to claim that “Story” makes us empathetic.  In reply, Jacobs effectively asks: “Really?  Does the story embedded in Grand Theft Auto do that?”

by James K. A. Smith, PhD • Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College

“Story” seems to be the new black.  Or the new magic.  Or maybe the new black magic.

Our attraction to story  points to the unique formative power of narrative for good or ill.
Human attraction to story points to the unique formative power of narrative for good… or ill.

This is Alan Jacobs’ concern in his recent Books & Culture essay, “Just-So Stories.”  His primary target is the “just-so” stories about “story” that are now the darling of “evocriticism”–those (allegedly scientific) accounts that “explain” the power of “story” by explaining them away in terms of reproductive fitness and evolutionary adaptation.  According to these sorts of just-so stories,”story” is important because it teaches us empathy, or trains us to have a theory of other minds, or equips us to be able to make predictions–all of which enable members of the species to avoid getting killed and thus find the time to reproduce.  Jacobs’ rightly targets and questions such accounts.  (I would also recommend Jonathan Kramnick’s essay, “Against Literary Darwinism,” as well as the follow-up symposium in Critical Inquiry.)

But Jacobs’ argument gets a little fuzzier when he turns his critical attention to those Christians who have turned “story” into a bit of a cottage industry.  (And I suppose I felt myself a bit of a target here, given the centrality of story for my argument about “how worship works” in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.)  So I’d like to extend the conversation a bit, on just this point, precisely because I think Jacobs raises important questions and advances the conversation.

A little set-up: Jacobs’ criticizes Gottschall’s Storytelling Animal for treating “Story” as an identifiable abstraction; that is, Gottschall “too readily assumes that there is some general thing called Story, rather than considering the implications of the fact that there are many different kinds of stories.”  So Gottschall seems to claim that “Story” makes us empathetic.  In reply, Jacobs effectively asks: “Really?  Does the story embedded in Grand Theft Auto do that?”

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