Michael Metzger

Great leaders and organizations start with why. Great stories don’t, however.

Simon Sinek is renowned for his TED talk, How great leaders inspire action. He says high impact leaders and organizations don’t start with what or how. They start with why.

He’s right, but great stories don’t start this way. Great storytellers know if you explain something too quickly—give the why—you pull the plug on curiosity. The inexplicable drives inquisitiveness, a point Daniel Gilbert makes in his book, Stumbling on Happiness.

Explanations fill in the gaps in our experiences. But Gilbert says they also change the nature of those experiences. When our experiences are unpleasant, a quick explanation often makes us feel better. It ameliorates the unpleasant impact. But explanations also ameliorate the impact of pleasant events, he notes. This kills inquisitiveness.

Gilbert highlights a study of college students who believed they were interacting in an online chat room with students from other universities. They weren’t. The real students were chatting with a computer programmer simulating the “other students.” He had also secretly divided the real students into two groups. The first believed they knew much about the other students, including names. The second group knew less, including not knowing the other students’ names. Their identities remained mostly a mystery.

Researchers recorded how the real students responded when they received e-mails from computer-generated students indicating they liked that student best. The first group of real students was delighted to learn this. They immediately conjured up explanations for why the other students liked them. “Eva appreciates my values because we’re both involved in Habitat for Humanity.” When the real students finished explaining why, something happened. Their interest in the other students waned.

The opposite happened in the second group. The real students were happy to picked, but wondered why. Their curiosity didn’t wane, as it did in the first group. It was still strong fifteen minutes later. By knowing less than the first group, the second was more curious about the other students’ identity. The inexplicable drove inquisitiveness.

“Explanation robs events of their emotional impact,” Gilbert writes. Explaining too much gives us a false sense that we totally understand our experiences. We stop thinking about them. This might be why the Bible opens with statements it does not immediately explain. In the beginning, God created. Why? The earth was formless and void. Judgment. Why? Adam meets Eve. What they do is make love. But why? When did Adam and Eve learn why nuptial union is a picture of Christ and the church?

Maybe never. I’m not saying explanation is unnecessary. It just doesn’t have to be immediate. This is a challenge in today’s preaching. The Bible is the greatest story ever told. Yet James K. A. Smith is right when it comes to sermons. Most are too long, too didactic, and too lecture-like. Watch a TED talk. Masterful storytelling in 18 minutes. Contrast this with most sermons. They’re data dumps, evidence of what Smith calls “evangelical (and especially American) Christianity’s appropriation of Enlightenment notions.” We assume if we explain fully, listeners will reason rightly and act accordingly.

Blaise Pascal would disagree. “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” That pretty much describes my life. It’s a mystery why I do what I do. Ask my wife Kathy. Or look at the Apostle Paul. He didn’t understand what why he behaved as he did; “for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Paul was an inexplicable mass of contemptible contradictions. So am I.

Our Enlightenment approach might be why we see waning interest in the church. Bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert says she’s devoted her entire life to creativity. It’s based on “magical thinking”—the “supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the otherworldly.” Would she experience the inexplicable in Western churches?

I don’t know. But Gilbert would discover “there is a magic deeper still” if she read C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lewis was a masterful storyteller, often opening with a mysterious line. “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Why? Read the book. Or Gilbert might enjoy Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Curious why he wrote that? Read the book.

I’m stoking your curiosity. Christians operate with an audacious assumption—finite beings claiming to know the infinite God. The degree of difference is infinite. We know “in part” (I Cor.13:9) but not as much as we often assume we do. Why is there evil? Why did Lucifer rebel? Why were Adam and Eve duped? I only know partly. I am, however, pretty sure we’re better off saving our modest explanations for later in the story.


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  1. Good thoughts here, but I wonder…

    Why is it that many who are raising the greatest objections to Christianity specifically point out the “inexplicable” nature of faith as the stumbling block to their acceptance So they are ready for this “magical thinking” Elizabeth Gilbert seeks, just as long as it doesn’t bring them closer to the real source of real truth and joy?

  2. The multi-dimensions of author-ity. Our story continues in its uniqueness for each of us. Epistles of the Holy Spirit. Feeding chapter and verse can distract from our own discovery.
    Gardeners, then athletes, then soldiers. Praxis.

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