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The Power of Narrative

19 Oct The Power of Narrative

By: Dan Dooley

Published: Oct 19, 2015

Dan Dooley spoke at Waverly/Wyevale United Church on Sunday, August 2, 2013 on “The Power of Narrative”.

Below you will find the transcript from this speech:

King Charles the First said “Rex est lex”. The full statement he made was “The King Is the Law; living and speaking”. Not just that the King was above the law, but that a King was a living, breathing law.

He was beheaded by Oliver Cromwell’s army; but the idea of the King being the law had persisted until then – centuries after King David ruled Israel or Judah.

Indeed, even as late as the 1970’s a former American President, Richard Nixon, could say to interviewer David Fort: “If the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.”

King David had taken another man’s wife. He arranged for the husband to appear as though he had been killed in battle. He was an adulterer and a murderer. And he was the King. He was the law. And for his own sake he needed to be comforted and condemned. But how to do it. No one would condemn the King – except the King himself.

What we learn with the benefit of hindsight is that in law school they teach you law. They don’t really teach you to be a lawyer. It is when you become a lawyer that you find out that the facts of any case are far more important than the law.

Indeed, many litigation lawyers learn only some years into their practice that presenting the case in a manner that makes the judge want to find in favour of your client is far more important than the law.

I think there is considerable truth to the suggestion that the judge will find, or at least apply, the law to fit the facts as the judge wants to find them, so that the party the judge wants to win will, indeed, win.

It is very comforting for a lawyer to be able to accurately say: “We are on the side of the angels”

Which is not to say that the law is arbitrary. Rather, it is to recognize that judges are human and that the law is flexible.

And so it is many years after law school that the lawyer learns that persuasion, or advocacy, is not just about facts or law in a vacuum, but how those facts are presented to put the client in the best light. To make the client the hero or the victim, as the facts of the case require for the client to be on the side of the angels.

Similarly, the lawyer wants the opposition to be on other than the side of the angels. The other side, if possible, will be the bully, the person who wants something for nothing, the person trying to take unfair advantage – the villain, in other words.

And so, the better advocates come to recognize that the best presentation of the facts – the most persuasive presentation of the facts – is by storytelling.

When I was not much younger, I wondered why Jesus told parables. Why didn’t Jesus just tell us what He was trying to get across?

I have come to believe that the clue is in storytelling. Jesus, of course, recognized what I did not – that in storytelling, rather than just telling, the audience was far more likely to get the message, to understand it on their own terms; to appreciate it in the context of their own lives.

Writers on advocacy advise lawyers that: “if we are to be successful in persuading someone, we must first recognize that the decision that is ultimately arrived at must be the listener’s decision”. In contrast with the way some people teach, the process cannot be from the top down. Effective persuasion is from the ground up – or from the listener up.

And so it has been written that if lawyers have a general problem in the art of persuasion, it is that they preach too much but persuade too little because they lack the moral authority so essential to effective persuasion.   They do not recognize that the movement toward a decision comes primarily from within the decision-maker, and not from the speaker

To be an effective advocate, one must be an effective storyteller, because storytelling has been proven to be the most effective way of trying into the listener’s basic values. We all grew up with stories and this is because it has been proven that we all have a psychological need for them.

The search for meaning is mediated through stories. Stories help to make sense of life. Some stories confirm existing beliefs and prejudices, while others expand the world view. Some movies, for example, are about entertainment. But the better ones are also about meaning.

The best storytellers do not tell the listener what to think. The listener will reach her or his conclusion on their own, and will hold onto it more firmly, if the listener can relate the story to their own life story.

In a good story, the narrator does not need to come right out and state the theme. It is much more effective to the listener if the theme is implicit in the story. The listener then arrives at his or her own conclusion. You don’t need to say: “this is a story about a bully”. The story, effectively told, will make it obvious that it is about a bully – and, as we know, no one likes a bully. Most people believe that might does not make right. And so, the bully violates our sense of moral order and we begin to root for ways in which the bully will be brought down

When David walks out to meet Goliath, is anyone cheering for Goliath? No – the story’s tension is in how David will triumph. And triumph he did. But he was a shepherd then, and now he is King. And he has lost his way – very badly. “And the Lord sent Nathan to David”. Nathan did not comfort or condemn. He told a story.

Remember that David has become King of both Judah and Israel. He has consolidated his kingdom. He was the law. He had renamed the capital city Jerusalem, he built his palace and planned to build a temple. He has subjected most of Israel’s neighbouring nations, including the Ammonites although he had not yet completely defeated them. They had retreated to their royal city. And as the time for war approached, David sent all Israel, led by Joab to besiege the city and bring about its surrender.

But David, the warrior who defeated Goliath with a slingshot, King David chose not to accompany the troops. He chose not to endure the rigours of camping in the open field outside the city. He chose instead to remain in Jerusalem. And as we read, he chose to have a nap.

And when David got up from his nap, he went to the palace roof, and he saw a beautiful woman bathing herself.

David was struck with her beauty and sent messengers to ask about her. They told David her identity and that she was married to Uriah. That should have ended his interest but it did not. David sent messengers to take her, bring her to his palace and there David slept with her. She then goes home. But she is pregnant and when David finds out he seeks to cover up his sin by ordering his commander Joab to send Uriah home on leave, purportedly to give David a report on the war. David tries to arrange it such that Uriah seems to be the father, but when this fails David sends Uriah back to Joab with written orders to Joab to put Uriah to death in a way that makes it seem like Uriah is a casualty of war.

Bathsheeba’s response to the death of her husband is as we would expect, and as we would hope. She mourns for her husband. David, on the other hand, does not even bother to go through the pretensive mourning. When other mighty men of Israel died, David led the nation in mourning. David, is not sorry, he is relieved. When Bathsheeba’s mourning is complete, David sends for her and brings her to himself as his wife.

The Lord sent David to Nathan. Nathan told him a story. “There were two men in one city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a great many flocks and herds. The poor man had nothing, except one little ewe lamb which he bought and nourished. And it grew up together with him and his children. It would eat of his bread and drink of his cup and lie in his bosom and it was like a daughter to him.

Now a traveler came to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take from his own flock or his own herd, to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him. Rather, he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.

Then David’s anger burned greatly against the man and he said to Nathan “as the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die. He must make restitution for the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion.”

And Nathan looked right at him and said: “You are the man.”

Nathan, like any good story teller, knew his audience. David had been a shepherd. Nathan told a story about a sheep and about a bully, and about a victim. And David identified with the victim and he knew a wrong had been done. And the King pronounced judgement on the wrongdoer only to realize that the wrongdoer was the King.

And he said: “I have sinned – against the Lord.”

Who would condemn a King, but the King himself?

King David was so blinded by his own power that he could not see his sin. It was only by means of the story of the slaughter of a poor man’s pet lamb that David was gripped with the immensity of his own sin.

But that, fortunately, was not the reason for the story. David had sinned terribly. But “the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to David”. The Lord was not idle. He did not abandon David when David fell into even the most grievous sin. And with God’s help, David recognized that he had sinned against the Lord. And David condemned himself. And thus, David would be forgiven.

“The Lord forgives you, you will not die.” The Lord is not idle and he does forgive. Thanks be to God.