I grew up with Bible “stories.” I heard them in Sunday School and youth programs. I read books about Bible “stories.” I was taught about Bible “stories” for years and years. People have compared Bible stories with other stories and fictional movies like the Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Aesop’s Fables, or Star Wars. I even talked about Bible “stories” when teaching in the past.
But all that changed.
One day I made a comment about the evolutionary “story.” I had a man come up to me, and he was clearly not happy. He was very upset that I had called evolution a “story,” because to him, it wasn’t a “story” but the “truth.” He was okay with me calling biblical accounts “stories,” because, as he put it, ”the Bible was full of myths and fictional accounts so they could rightly be called stories.” But how dare I call evolution “a story” in his view.
The Definition-of-Story History
Story no longer means history.
At that moment, I realized that the word story no longer means what story used to mean. Ken Ham, apologist and founder of Answers in Genesis often points out that story now means fairy tale or fiction.
A story, to the common person on the street, means movies like Shrek, Cinderella, Lord of the Rings, or your own personal account of what happened with your own “not-so-true” embellishments! That type of story doesn’t necessarily recount what actually happened in the past.
So, story no longer means history. Even a top definitional hit for story reads:
“an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.”1
Synonyms include tale or spiel, which doesn’t necessarily convey a truthful recounting. Dictionary.com defines it in four ways below:
- "a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.
- a fictitious tale, shorter and less elaborate than a novel.
- such narratives or tales as a branch of literature: song and story.
- the plot or succession of incidents of a novel, poem, drama, etc."2
None of these definitions necessarily indicate a truthful historical account. Definition 1 could, but it would need to be explained. This doesn’t mean that a story can’t be true, as indicated by the definition, but in our common vernacular, story doesn’t immediately mean a true historical event unless it is spelled out.
Webster’s Elementary School Dictionary of 1925, like many older dictionaries, gives the main definition of story as:
- "A connected narration of past events; history,
- An account of some incident, a report, or a statement."3
The third definition by Webster’s 1925 is specifically for literature being a fictitious tale, and the fourth definition is falsehood.4 But notice how these first two definitions in the classic Webster’s dictionary are essentially lost and now the fictitious definitions dominate our modern culture. Even the modern Webster Dictionary (Merriam-Webster) has reduced history to an archaic (no-longer-used) definition of the word story. See the screenshot5 below:
The point is that the word story no longer means a true historical account, a true narrative, or a record/statement of actual events of the past. If you want to use story to mean an actual historical event, then you need to explain it each time you do, which defeats the purpose of even using the word!
Why Is This Relevant to Sunday School, Christian Textbooks, and Christians?
If we continue using the word story regarding biblical accounts, then many listeners or readers will automatically think the Bible is nothing but a collection of fictional events.
The relevance of this discussion should be obvious. The Bible records actual events as true history (e.g., Psalm 119:160; John 17:17). If we continue using the word story regarding biblical accounts, then many listeners or readers will automatically think the Bible is nothing but a collection of fictional events.
As Christians who stand on the authority of God’s Word as the absolute truth, we need to make sure we are conveying the proper message clearly. We want the truth of God’s Word to be taught and preached to listeners and readers so that they can better grasp the meaning of the text of Scriptures. And the Word of God doesn’t come back void (Isaiah 55:11). So I suggest we avoid putting such an obstacle for those we are teaching to grow in the Word of God (e.g., 2 Corinthians 6:3).
So What Should We Say?
Many have shifted how to talk and write about biblical accounts. For example, I just used the word account. Did you notice that?
I also use words and phrases like biblical history, true history, narrative, events of the past, record of events, chronological account, biblical records, past events, chronicle, history, and so on. If or when I do use story (yep, sometimes it slips out!), I caveat it and make sure the reader or audience knows what I mean each and every time.
The True History of the Bible Doesn’t Change, but Language Does
In the Old Testament, the sons of Issachar had an understanding of the times to know what Israel needed to do. In a like fashion, we too need to understand our own times (1 Chronicles 12:32). In our current times, the definition of the word story has changed. This happens—definitions sometimes change over time (e.g., consider the meaning of the word "gay"- meaning happy and carefree just 50-60 years ago- with its meaning now). We need to be able to recognize these definitional changes and adjust if necessary.
Although this may seem trivial to some, the importance of this cannot be overstated. The last thing we want to do is be a stumbling block to someone who says, “Why should I believe the Bible when you Christians just think it is stories (i.e., “fiction,” “untruths”)?” Such a problem is easy to deal with using better terminology.
A Final Request
To Christians who are teaching or witnessing, I humbly suggest being mindful of this when speaking in Sunday Schools, youth programs, out on the street, seminars, or even the pulpit. And when drawing analogies from stories (I really do mean stories this time!), like fictional movies, be sure to clarify the difference. Writers of VBS, Sunday School curriculum, Christian school textbooks, Christian films and documentaries, Christian newsletters and books, and so on, please be mindful of this as well. As Christians in unity, we want people to understand that the historical accounts in the Bible are true, and therefore, the message of the Gospel, founded in that same history, is also true.