Several years ago, I was asked to speak at a bible camp in southern Michigan. It wasn’t my first time speaking there, and I’d been a youth group leader at our local church for years, so my talk wasn’t vetted before I was allowed to speak to a couple hundred teenagers. And no, I didn’t actually do or say anything that was inappropriate – but my talk affected me far more than any of the teenagers who heard it. Because I inadvertently deceived them. All of them.
If you’ve been given the opportunity to speak to groups of people, you probably know that using stories is one of the best ways to engage an audience. Stories reveal our humanness, and bridge gaps in our experiences. Even if you haven’t experienced the same things I’ve experienced, when I tell a story, you get to join me in my joy and pain and ultimately in my life. For the brief moment when I tell you a story, you become me, you walk my path, and my experiences become a part of who you are too. Really, stories are amazing.
Fictional stories can do this too. They really can. Just like you can live my experiences if I tell you my stories, we can all live experiences told in fiction, and better understand the human condition in scenarios that never actually happened! Heck, Jesus himself did this with parables. There was no actual woman who lost a coin and then partied when she found it. It was fiction. The important part though, is that people understood Jesus was telling a fictionalized story. He didn’t say, “My Mom Mary lost a coin once, and oooh boy did we have to search for it…”
The Three-armed Sweater
So back to Bair Lake (the camp I where I was speaking). I honestly don’t remember the particular lesson I was teaching, but based on context, I’m guessing it was a lesson about grace and kindness. And as a young(ish) youth group leader, and a speaker known for being fun and animated, I decided to tell a story about a funny situation regarding a Christmas gift. I was a pretty crafty writer and storyteller at the time, so this story was almost certainly funny and engaging, while driving home whatever point I was tasked to teach. And heck, I was using a parable, just like Jesus! The talk was bound to be legendary in the annals of Bair Lake history. Sadly, I made a fatal mistake.
My “parable” was about a sweater I received one Christmas from my beloved aunt. My aunt (whose fictional name is lost to me now) was in mental decline, but spent a large portion of her time knitting sweaters for all her nieces and nephews, so she’d have Christmas gifts for all of them. As her mental acuity waned, the sizing and consistency of sweaters declined as well. One Christmas, the sweater I received from this beloved aunt had a third arm. I don’t remember the details, but I’m sure the fictional me was gracious, and appreciated the time and thoughtfulness knitted into the garment which I’d never be able to wear. Heck, there was probably even a situation where I had to wear the sweater, and somehow honor the aunt while also protecting her from ridicule. But it’s not the story I remember about that summer. It’s the effect it had on the teenagers.
See, it worked. I’d managed to teach my lesson, and pull their heartstrings, and even offer them a glimpse at the joy which only comes from serving others. They learned to be gracious, and kind, and in turn they were kind and gracious to me. They asked me about my aunt. They wondered if I had pictures of the sweater, not to mock, but so they could share in the story even more. One of the other leaders asked if they could share my story with their own youth group back home, because it resonated with the group of campers so well.
But it was all a lie, and I was the only one who knew it.
Fiction Can Teach Truth, But a Lie is a Lie
I didn’t set out to deceive anyone. Truly. But like I said, I was a fairly good storyteller, and the story of my aunt was compelling. It honestly never occurred to me that someone would think the story was a real situation from my life. I crafted it like a parable, or so I thought, and just like there was no actual prodigal son who slept with swine, there was no Aunt (Gertrude? I honestly don’t remember) who knitted me a three-armed sweater. But I told the story as if it were true. So people believed me.
It’s possible the story of my aunt is still being told by people at that bible camp who were particularly moved. And for them, it’s a story that works. For them it’s not a lie, it’s a story. It’s a story they once heard, and its basis in fact is no longer what matters. But for me, it made for a terrible week of camp. Because every time someone came to me and asked about my aunt, I had to tell them that I didn’t really have an aunt who made sweaters, it was just a story I made up to illustrate a point. And they were crestfallen. A story that gave them hope and clarity, helping them to understand grace and kindness instantly turned into them feeling duped and betrayed. All because I didn’t frame the story correctly.
Good Stories Can Be Fictional, but They Can’t Be Lies
That experience still haunts me. I’d like to think it made me a better person, but the cost was painful. Stories are what bind us together as humans, and with good intent, I broke whatever trust those campers had in me. Rather than learning the lesson I intended, those who found out it was made up learned I was a scam artist. I’d fooled them with my storytelling skills, and they felt dumb for believing me.
Could there have been a follow-up lesson on forgiveness? You bet. Heck, it probably would have been a pretty great talk about consequences from unintentional wrongdoing. The speaker could use my situation as a way to explain how forgiving someone benefits you as much as the person you’re forgiving. But it’s not a lesson I could teach, because for that group, I was the guy who lied about the sweater.
Stories are powerful. Fictional stories can be just as powerful as real stories. But even fictional stories have to be honest. Because while truth doesn’t have to be true, it does need to be honest.