A line of New Yorkers throttles a Greenwich Village block. It's hard to tell where the queue ends, but it's clear that anyone who arrived less than an hour early won't be among the 250 who fit in The Bitter End. The bar once provided a stage for Bill Cosby and Bob Dylan, but now settles for run-of-the-mill singer-songwriters and bands. Occasionally, however, the bar's old magnetism is revived, like with tonight's appearance of "The Moth." There's no celebrity name on the marquee, no up-and-coming band on showcase. Instead, a few names will be drawn from a hat and the winners will come forward to tell true first-person stories.
In an age of flashy technologies and star-studded stages, The Moth—real people telling real stories to a live audience—has not only revived the old tradition of raconteuring, but turned it into a cosmopolitan pleasure. While similar storytelling organizations are launching throughout New York in numbers that seem to rival the city's stand-up comedy scene, the nonprofit organization has developed a national following, with storytelling events in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Detroit, and has plans to open in five more U.S. cities and possibly even in Europe within the next year. About 21,750 people attended a Moth storytelling event last year, including 11,250 at New York's 48 shows. Meanwhile, the organization has launched MothUP, a satellite program encouraging fans to start mini-Moths in their own living rooms—85 of these groups launched in 2010, from Britain to South Korea. The Moth's online audience is even larger: an average of 1 million recordings from its shows are downloaded each month, putting it consistently at the top of the iTunes most-popular podcasts. The Moth Radio Hour, which debuted in 2009, is now on more than 200 stations in its third brief season, making it one of the most successful public radio show launches in years.
But New York remains Moth's center, if only in how carefully the events have been designed to combat the phoniness, flash, and isolation endemic to the city. When poet and novelist George Dawes Green (The Caveman's Valentine, The Juror) moved from St. Simon's Island, Georgia, to New York City in 1997, he pined for the authenticity of his friend Wanda Bullard's porch, where he spent many muggy summers listening to his friends' tales.
"You go out to cocktail parties and New York is filled with these giant egos so you try to tell a story with any subtlety and you have about ten seconds before you're interrupted," Green told Christianity Today. "There was a certain shallowness at these parties, even parties with really interesting people. I wanted to get more from them. I wanted a sense of depth and sharing." Green invited some friends over one evening for a night of stories, and the first Moth meeting convened in his living room. As rumors of Green's mesmerizing story nights spread, The Moth quickly outgrew Green's apartment and filled larger and larger venues. Now it hosts three kinds of events: its open-mic Story Slams, Grand Slams (in which audience favorites from the Story Slams compete against each other), and The Moth Mainstage, curated nights in which novelists, actors, scientists, and others are preselected to tell their stories. The rules stay the same: No notes are allowed, it must be a story with a beginning and an end (no standup routines or rants), it must relate to the night's chosen theme, and (most importantly) it must be true.
The Moth's success has resulted in dozens of spin-offs invading New York City. "A critical mass was reached," observed Ben Lillie, the founder of The Story Collider, which gathers people to tell their true stories involving science. "There's so many people running their own shows that a community has grown up around it and it's just taken off."
There are over 30 outlets in New York City alone for live storytelling. Risk!, one of the larger forums, was created by Kevin Allison of the legendary MTV sketch comedy troupe The State to form a bridge between the standup comedy and storytelling worlds. "It is a place where you are going to be as candid and intimate in your storytelling as you would be with your closest friends. There's no censorship," Allison told Christianity Today. "We're encouraging people to try something new and go somewhere on stage that it wouldn't occur to them previously to go." (Like The Moth, Risk! combines live shows with a podcast; Allison's has had 1.5 million downloads in the past year.)
Other shows include Andy Christie's Liars Show, which presents four storytellers: three are telling the truth, one is lying, and the audience must pick out the liar. Many of these outlets meet at coffee shops and cafes throughout the city and are attracting their own devoted audiences. Though they each have a unique spin on live storytelling, "in essence, they're all the same: personal, unscripted stories that come from personal experiences, and that's where their power derives," Green said. "I love them all."
Why are New Yorkers willing to pay—and stand in line!—for the most basic form of recreation? What is the appeal of hearing strangers talk about themselves? Why are people willing to divulge the intimate details of their lives to people they've never met? Or as Augustine asked in his Confessions: "Why let others overhear my testimony, as if they could treat my symptoms?"
The simple answer is because we are "storytelling animals," to use Green's term. "A hunger for stories is built into our DNA." Or as Allison put it: "Oral storytelling is so hard wired into the way we make sense of it all and how we find the meaning in our lives."
That might be true, but it isn't enough to satisfactorily explain why public personal narrations are "New York's hottest and hippest literary ticket," as The Wall Street Journal described The Moth. Novels, movies, plays, and musicals are also about stories, so what is it that sets live storytelling apart? Its explosion is indicative of something larger than entertainment, but what?
The Moth and other venues are meeting a basic need that is increasingly being left unmet: the need for real-life community. As endless, impersonal technologies pose new challenges to flesh and blood reality, it is actually no surprise that people, especially young people (the average age of an audience member at The Moth is 23), might be craving something personal, and even be willing to pay for it.
"It's just getting out into real environments where the audience is looking right at the storyteller and everything is happening in real time. There's nothing virtual about it," Green said.
For many New Yorkers, community is a distant ideal. Because of the isolation that city life breeds, many suffer from a deficit of an accumulated narrative with people around them. Thus, the desire to share a part of themselves and listen to others is a large, if unacknowledged, part of what drives them to events like The Moth and Risk!, places where they can know and be known by a larger group, even if only for a night.
"We love the idea that storytelling instantly creates community," Allison said. "That when we listen to another person telling a story, it's hard to hold prejudices against that person, because even if you disagree with them on some level, politically for instance, there's a connection that starts forming because you respect the fact that they are taking that risk and being honest with you."
The power of storytelling to tear down prejudices is strikingly evident in the fact that Green was asked by the government of Iraq to bring The Moth to Baghdad . The hope is that it could be a way for Shiites and Sunnis to peacefully come together through the telling of simple personal tales.
Green was recently in Turkmenistan for The Moth. Even there, the line wrapped around the block, but this line mostly included women in burkas. They had come to tell their stories because it was one of the few things women are allowed to do. "It was a beautiful, peaceful exercise that people could share," Green said.
Stories can penetrate even the thickest prejudices and distances, whether they are religious, political, or gender-based. As Roland Barthes, the twentieth century literary theorist and semiotician, put it, "Narrative is simply there like life itself … international, transhistorical, transcultural."
Considering one another, asking "Who are you?" and "How did you get here?" or "What is your story?," is an essential part of forming community. What George Green, Kevin Allison, Andy Christie, and others are rediscovering—a mix of confession, testimony, and subtle exhortation—is actually an art that has long been present in the Christian tradition and shaped much of its identity.
Though true personal stories take many different forms, one thing that is constant in autobiography is that it is always about change. "It narrates a series of transformations," the scholar Carolyn A. Barros argues in her 1998 history of the genre. It's true of even proto-autobiographies like the apologia, the ancient world's formal response to an official accusation. (Paul uses it repeatedly, such as in Acts 26:2 when he tells King Agrippa, "I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews … ." See also Philippians 1:7, 16 and 1 Peter 3:15.)
Today's apologies—admissions of guilt and requests for forgiveness—derive their name from this Greek word. And Augustine's Confessions (the very title implies an admission of guilt) is considered the first Western autobiography ever written, or in other words, the first public personal revelation. As in much of Christian first-person literature that followed—Hildegard of Bingen's visions, Martin Luther's Tabletalk accounts, John Newton's "Amazing Grace," Charles Wesley's journals, C. S. Lewis's Pilgrim's Regress—Confessions combines declaration, admission, and revelation all under an awning of transformation.
It isn't too much of a stretch to say that this is very much what is happening in live storytelling across New York City. Whether the stories are funny or sad, they are always personal and they always contain a narrative arc, some sort of transformation. And because the stories are live, the audience is a participant, learning as much about themselves as about the storyteller. Furthermore, to call stories in which people detail their often-R-rated comedy of errors or sexcapades "confessions" or "defenses" doesn't feel like an overstatement either.
Mike Daisey, who is referred to as "the master storyteller—one of the finest solo performers of his generation," was raised Catholic. When Allison, who also has a Catholic background, first saw Daisey perform, he couldn't pinpoint why Daisey was so effective. "What is it about the beautiful music, the rhythms and volumes and tones of his stories?" Allison asked himself. "And then I realized it's a homily! It's in his blood, in his upbringing."
A homily—the sermon or commentary that follows the Scripture reading in Catholic Masses—is a way of forming a kind of narrative, even if it's through expositions, in order to help the congregants understand the Bible. In Protestant services, the sermon itself is also a type of hermeneutical narrative, frequently scattered with personal stories that enlighten the text.
Stories help us make sense of things. This is why so much of Scripture is narrative. This is why Jesus used parables to help his disciples understand the new reality he was inaugurating. "There's no better way to convey a dense packet of information than to tell it in the form of a story. That's what we respond to," Green said.
Historically, evangelical churches have often made good use of personal testimonies, especially at revivals and baptisms. In the days of American Puritanism, for a person to become a member of a church, he or she had to tell his or her personal story of salvation. The story was evaluated by elders, pastors, and the congregation, who scrutinized it for marks of God's grace. "There was an art form to narrative of personal conversion in American Puritanism," said Scot McKnight, author of Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy. It's also interesting that even though women were not allowed to speak in these Puritan churches, an exception was made for these tales of transformation.
Today, storytelling is still very present in many evangelical churches. As McKnight said, "The essence of American evangelicalism is a personal conversion story because to be an evangelical is to say I have been born again and I have a story to tell." Christians share their personal stories publicly at Bible studies, small groups, social events, baptisms, or for church membership. "You only need to tell your story one time and then it's a part of the lore of a community," McKnight observed.
Many liturgical services also include a public confession of sin in which the entire congregation delineates the trespasses that have characterized the arc of their lives, their weeks, their days. Then they ask for forgiveness—the moment of transformation that results from the public recitation of their sinful autobiographies. Corporately and individually, church members take time to consider one another, to learn who they are and where they've come from.
This is one of the reasons Augustine wrote his Confessions. In answer to his own question about why he should bother to share his story, he concluded:
People want a transgressive knowledge of others' lives, but are blissfully ignorant of what might change their own. … Is there, in fact, any way they can learn about themselves except by listening to you [God]? … This then is what I hope for in testifying not only to my former but to my present condition—giving testimony, that is not only in private, with my own 'fearful joy and hopeful sorrow,' but giving it within the hearing of Christian people, companions of my joy as they are sharers of my mortality, members of the same city, on our pilgrim's way to it, all of them who have gone before, or will follow, or presently accompany me.
Augustine suggested that by listening to others Christians learn about themselves, because the Lord instructs through testimonies. The most obvious example of this is the array of biblical testimonies: Moses', Joshua's, Nehemiah's, and the prophets', not to mention the narratives written by biographers: Ruth, Esther, Job, and Jesus, for example. Christians are not to keep their stories to themselves but to share them so that others can "rejoice with those who rejoice, [and] weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15).
Evangelicals have a shared narrative of redemptive history from the Old Testament to the New, but they also have their own unique stories. "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith … ," Hebrews 12:2 says. God is the author of a person's faith, and so his or her individual story is sacred, newsworthy, and artful. These vibrant tales of individual redemption should not get lost in the corporate narrative.
"What we need is better and more responsible and more coherent personal stories, not the complete subsumption of all personal narrative into group narrative," Alan Jacobs writes in Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life. He goes on:
It is important that [Walter] Benjamin says this of the true storyteller: "It is granted to him to reach back a whole life time. … His gift is the ability to relate his life; his distinction, to be able to tell his whole life." I contend that it is the central task of the Christian church to cultivate the kind of storytelling that Benjamin celebrates—and laments the decline of.
In short: what is currently needed, it seems to me, is a narrative theology … that emphasizes what Augustine and the Puritans understood to be key: thinking narratively about individual lives.
Put another way, "We need to have a more fundamental story convention to our faith," McKnight reiterates. "We have a witness. We have a story to tell of our experience of Christ. Furthermore we have a story to tell about Christ." Simon Peter issued the same charge, saying that Christians must always be "prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect … " (1 Pet. 3:15). When Paul gave a defense of the gospel in Galatians, he did not simply enumerate a set of propositions or tell the story of the church. No, he appealed to narrative theology and, in chapter 1:11-2:12, told his own story.
"The chief role of a Christian is to tell a better story," Donald Miller has repeatedly said, and has now made this the theme of his most-recent book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Alan Jacobs agrees, "I do not know whether human beings naturally or instinctively make their lives into stories; I only believe that this is something Christians are obliged to do. But we are obliged to do it properly." Christians must know their stories and tell their stories, but they must be good stories.
No simple moral to the story
Telling a good story is not always easy, and is not necessarily instinctual. Looking back on earlier Moth meetings, Green said, "In the beginning, people would try to affix a moral to the ending because they thought you can't tell a story unless it serves some moral purpose. What people began to learn quickly is that you didn't need to affix a moral because whatever moral is in the story should be revealed within the story. The story carries its message within it."
Evangelicals can similarly see their stories as anecdotes or object lessons for more didactic lessons—failing to realize that the story and its message are inseparable. Personal tales of transformation are a conduit of theology; they are what sets theology into motion. If Christians believe their beliefs, they ought to narrate their narrations, and do it well.
But what makes for a good story? The characteristics are universal whether it's told at church or at The Bitter End.
"A good story reveals the storyteller's vulnerability," Green said. "Stories about ordinary people and their failures and their struggles and their doubts. People really respond to that."
It's one of the reasons that celebrities—who are often invited to perform at Moth Mainstage events—often struggle to tell a good story. "It's hard because celebrities are so used to talking about their triumphs and they don't want to talk about their failures," Green said. "When they talk about how well they have done at something, the audience just doesn't care. But as soon as they start talking about how they screwed something up, then the audience is completely receptive."
Andy Christie of The Liars Show agreed. "The elements of a good story are high stakes. There is something very important at stake," he said. "Life and death or a crossroads in life."
A Christian's story is not about his or her triumphs, but about his or her failures and Christ's supreme victory over them. If told honestly and artfully, that story possesses the power to spur other tales of transformation while fortifying community. But first, that story must be shared.
Kristen Scharold is a writer living in New York City.