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“Don’t tell me the moon is shining,” Anton Chekhov once said, “show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Show, don’t just tell, is a maxim to which every writer tries to adhere. Professor Jennifer L. Holberg provides a master class in the art of getting her points across via the use of good stories–“nourishing narratives.” What could have been an academic treatise reflecting on the importance of stories is elevated here by Holberg’s own life stories as well as those told in great literature, poetry and, of course, the Bible. Scripture flows through this book as Holberg connects the stories that shape our lives with the greatest story ever told.

“We are all profoundly story-shaped people,” Holberg writes, even from the beginning of our lives when our parents told a certain narrative with the names they chose for us. So much “identity resides in each name,” she says, citing the powerful effect of her church speaking the name of each and every member at the communion table. “We are still absolutely beloved of God who calls us by name,” she writes.

What are “nourishing narratives,” as opposed to those stories stuffed with empty calories, so to speak? The narrative of God’s abundance feeds us with faith and hope, while the scarcity mindset that plagues many people deprives us of those things and produces fear and angst. It’s not a new story that humans buy into, says Holberg. “When the Israelites are in the desert, the story they tell themselves becomes one of lack, one in which God is failing them,” she writes. For the Israelites and us, it’s key to flip that skewed script and start believing the manna God sends each day is enough–more than enough. “How then do we shift our mindset away from ‘going back to Egypt’ and being self-sufficient, and instead, find narrative models that are grounded in the conviction of God’s plenitude?”

Another strengthening story is that of being a good friend in a Christian culture that elevates the family unit above all else. “We still lack a robust way to talk about friendship,” says Holberg. An example of this is how obituaries tell the tale of “what relationships are included as essential.” Most obituaries list only family members and their spouses (a fact that was brought home to me when an aunt wouldn’t speak to me for a time after I went rogue in the writing of my dad’s obituary, mentioning his life rich in friendships and books and excluding the usual list of relatives). 

“When was the last time you heard a sermon exhorting you to be a better friend?” Holberg asks. It’s a good question, and I can’t remember. Yet we were created for friendship by the friend who “sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). She offers examples of sustaining friendships, such as that of Lady Jacoba and Saint Francis of Assissi. Lady Jacoba was a widow who was more than Francis’s wealthy patron. She made him his favorite almond cookies and was the only one who could talk him into taking better care of himself.

Holberg delights the reader with a sense of humor that lends lightness and charm to otherwise weighty ideas. For example, in describing a non-Christian friend’s desire to join a church community, because she had the idea that people brought you “casseroles and cakes when there’s trouble,” Holberg says her friend somehow knew these acts were church-related, not “just a band of random middle-aged women roaming the streets in a hospitality gang.”

Bookish souls will love the glorious array of literature woven into the book, as befits a book written by an English professor passionate about teaching books, poetry and stories. She mentions poets as diverse as Christina Rosetti and fellow Calvin University professor Jane Zwart, who in a poem describes the wind as being an “argon sarong;” and classics old and new from Dante’s Inferno to Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. 

As readers close the book, they will begin to spot stories everywhere and be equipped to discern which ones are beneficial and nurturing and which ones are unhealthy. They will embrace the underlying idea of Holberg’s book, that a nourishing narrative is one that tells “all the desolation of the broken world but also the deep assurance of the God who redeems it all.” (IVP Academic)

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