Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Story of Reason and Emotion

I recently took economist Steve Landsburg's blog, The Big Questions, off my blogroll out of protest for his harsh critisim of this story:

The criticism focused on the fact that although the speech was captivating, it had no specific evidence. Not only do I disagree with Mr. Landsburg's complaint, I think the that personal stories are an important part of any debate. A while back I posted on the balance between our reason and emotion. My conclusion was that both are important for decision making. Later I shared an example of how even our emotions can make the market more efficient and more accurate. Recently a friend reminded me of Tyler Cowen's TED Talk I shared a while back when I gave fictional support to my factual call to legalize drugs:

In this talk he affirms the idea that fiction is a powerful source of persuasion. He warns that stories can be overly simplified and used to mislead. Although I agree with Tyler's worry, I think stories are more than tricks for our rational brain. They're information for our emotions. If our logic and reason are conscious thought. Our emotion is unconscious thought. Both can be improved, just in different ways. Our emotional brain craves stories. This is why there is only short list of narrative possibilities. Tyler lists a few: a stranger comes to town, rags to riches, voyage and return, etc. This is shown beatifically in the ongoing video series Everything is a Remix. Part one is about music, part two is about stories:

Stories are useful ways to to condense information. Narratives are memory tools for our emotional brain. It is important to use stories as a way to learn and grow. This topic came up in my church last Sunday when the pastor talked about how of the three ways we interact with the world (reason, emotion, action), our emotion is the most underused in our understanding God. As someone who is overly in their head, I couldn't have agreed more. But as he explained the ideas in an intellectual way, I couldn't help but ask him how we could improve our feelings directly. My question led him to blog this:
I was stumped Sunday morning. Admittedly, I don’t like being stumped. There is a small part of me that wants to always have an answer for any question that someone can throw at me. But then reality hits you in the face, you get flustered and give nonsensical round about answers. I have to smile a little when this happens because really it is good to be humbled and reminded I am human. I’m nowhere as smart as I would like to be. I simply offer what I have learnt in my journey with Jesus.

I spent 45 minutes making an argument for how, as Christians, we can just focus on thinking the right things (orthodoxy) and doing the right things (orthopraxis) but that it is just as important to work on feeling the right things (orthopathos). I was trying to show my flock that God cares about our feelings, and wants to use and redeem our feelings. Then someone basically asked me in Q&A, “This church is very intellectual so how do we work on feeling the right things?" Good question. A very good question. I really should have been ready for this question because it is the question that is begging to be asked. But I didn’t have the foresight to expect it. There is something very ironic in trying to get people to work on their emotional health by giving them an intellectual case for it. Can you really “right think” people into “right feelings”? The short answer is “no.” But that is where you start when your church’s culture is to emphasize the mind. Nothing wrong with that. Some churches emphasize the mind, some emphasize actions, and some emphasize feelings. You hope that all churches seek some balance between those things at the same time.

But back to the question that stumped me. I have been thinking about this question since I was asked it. On one hand, it is a very easy question to answer. On the other hand, it is a very difficult question to answer. The easy answer is, “Emotional health is ultimately an individual’s journey that starts with a person being willing to explore their emotional life and bring it honestly to God for redemption. Where God takes that journey afterwards is different for each person.” The reason why this question is easy and difficult to answer is because the burden IS on an individual to do the work towards emotional well-being and the things that can be done on a corporate level are limited.

On a corporate level, we can start talking in a way that acknowledges that feelings are important. We can stop giving over-spiritual answers that imply believing in Jesus gets rid of all the ups and downs of emotions. We can model emotional well-being by seeking it in our own lives as leaders of the church. We can provide training to small group leaders that open the door for both the leaders’ and the members’ emotional well-being. Even just those four things are actually a tall order for any church. And the thing is, even when a church can do those four things well, it still comes down to an individual’s willingness to delve into, what can be for many people, the murky and scary waters of emotions.
He goes on to give five practical ways to solve the problem. Although helpful, I think the main item missing from the list is the power of stories. Every so often our church has a member give their testimony (Christian word for story). In my weekly small group we've been taking turns giving our personal biographies. In my improv team we did an exercise creating characters through personal beliefs. Whether in a religious, relational, or educational environments, stories are powerful. Non-fiction is important, but so is fiction. This is the power of art. Sure they can also be used to distort truth, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to use music, paintings, movies, or even improv as "lies to tell the truth".


  1. Nice post, H. I agree that stories and emotions are powerful forces fundamental to human nature and we ought to try to use them beneficially rather than fighting them.

    (But I still agree with Landsburg that using emotional stories in a courtroom is a bad idea.)

  2. Anonymous9:40 AM

    Humbled that you would copy and paste and large portion of my blog. Well I certainly agree with you that stories are important conduits for teaching and learning truth. Harrison, were you not there for the last 10 minutes of story via CS Lewis?! =) I think the reasons you stated in your blog are the very reason that Lewis wrote in fiction along with other genres to convey truth. The predominant genre in the Bible is actually narrative. And of course a certain person/God named Jesus was fond of telling stories. In Lewis' own story, the power of myth, fairy tale, and story was a major reason why he embraced Christianity. The atheistic thought that he was educated in basically crushed the place for myth in life. Ultimately, the existence of myth or story in life is what brought him to faith - in that only the existence of God and the Christian God specifically made sense of the longing we experience in story.

    The last practical piece of advice I gave in my blog (because it was the last thought I wanted to leave people with) was "Look into your own story"!!! I tried to state in an accessible way but I ultimately believe there can be no redemptive emotional healing until we look into how our personal stories have shaped us. Until we have, we either live in conformity to or in reaction to, the messages we have received from our story. To desire to have our personal stories redeemed and to live in freedom FOR Christ requires looking specifically at our personal stories and asking God to heal us from the sinful message we received.

  3. Sorry if I misrepresented your thoughts Didi. I'd forgotten about that part of The Great Divorce you read.

    I love the idea that the Bible is mostly narrative, I'd never considered that before.

    Yeah I wasn't sure what exactly you meant by that last point, but it's one of the things that drove me to push the whole idea of story.

    Here's my summary:

    Fact(fiction) feeds our conscious thoughts (reason) and stories (non-fiction) feeds our unconscious thoughts (emotion).

    I wonder how many agree with this.


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.