Use the “show-then-tell” approach

If there is a rule in writing fiction, it is this: Show, don’t tell. John Updike impressed that principle on me many years ago in an essay on writing short stories. More recently, I ran across the same principle at http://www.storiform.com in an essay by M. Talmage Moorhead titled, “My Show-Don’t-Tell Obsession.”

Showing rather than telling, Moorhead explains, provides the reader with “I get it” moments, which more profoundly connect the reader to the work. Descriptions (as opposed to explanations) bypass the linear reasoning of the brain’s cerebral cortex and energize the limbic system, where emotions are processed.

A good story invites the reader in intellectually and emotionally. It doesn’t just teach the reader; it touches the reader, brings the reader into literary union. This cannot happen by the declaration of information alone. Telling the reader that it is raining leaves him outside the story, looking in. Showing him the raindrops as they run down the glass and join in shimmering rivulets opens the door and invites him in.

We certainly see this penchant for showing rather than telling in the teaching of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.” The stories he told allowed the disinterested to pass by undisturbed (at least on a conscious level), but invited the seeker in.

When it comes to storytellers, God has no peers. He is forever telling one, great story, in which the appeal to intellect and emotion is perfectly balanced. His story is of course more complex than the stories even our best authors tell. (He literally gives his characters a life of their own, which complicates the story immensely.) But like any good author, he wants us to see and feel the beauty and power of his story, so that we will enter into it willingly.

This is surely one reason for the incarnation. If God could have brought us into his story – that is, if he could have saved us – by sending us an instruction manual, he certainly would have done so. (And some people insist on approaching the Bible in just this way, to their constant frustration.) But that would be like telling us it’s raining, rather than showing us the shimmering rivulets. It would not have invited us in. The incarnation brings us into the story.

This is apparent in the careful wording of the ancient Creed of St. Athanasius. There the Church clarified that the incarnation was accomplished “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the manhood into God.” The incarnation is the greatest example of God’s “show-don’t-tell” approach to revelation. It is his primary method of inviting us into the story.

The Church is forever struggling to implement the “show-don’t-tell” (or better yet, the “show-then-tell”) approach into its proclamation that “Jesus is Lord.” We find it easier to say in words than to express in action – easier, but less effective. When we merely say it with words, we may help people be Christians in their cerebral cortex but we will leave them pagans in the rest of their lives.

Perhaps this is why Jesus told his apprentices that they were to be like salt and light rather than telling them they were to be like textbooks and lecturers. Of course we need to answer, explain and persuade. There is a place for words, but it is not in the place of deeds. Words augment deeds; they do not replace them.

Jesus told his followers, “…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds” (not hear your fine speech or read your eloquent words) “and praise your Father in heaven.” Talk about God is like the dialog in a movie. Actions are like the soundtrack. The dialog can be passionate or wise or clever, but it’s the soundtrack that opens the way for the words to go beyond the mind and reach into the heart.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/6/2014

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