Storytelling is a spiritual gift capable of uplifting, encouraging, and truth-telling.
Tell me a story!
Is there someone in your life who begs this of you? Over the years, I’ve played storyteller to my little brother, then the twin boys I babysat for. These days, my five-year-old daughter regularly asks my husband or me for a bedtime story. Sometimes I respond with, “What kind of story?” Often, she’ll request a story based on actual events from our childhoods, or “injury stories”—we think she’ll go into the medical field! However, her favorites are the imaginary tales we tell.
And there was about a three-week window in our home last fall when my husband (a hard-working and loving dad to our girls) started asking a robot to generate bedtime stories.
In his defense, our one-year-old was severely taxing us in the sleep department (as one-year-olds like to do), and by bedtime, it was growing more difficult for our tired brains to conjure up brand new stories in the way our older daughter would like. So, understandably, he decided to try the easy way out on this particular part of our nightly routine.
Let’s establish a bit of background information. When I say “robot,” I’m referring to a recently developed chatbot, ChatGPT. ChatGPT and similar types of artificial intelligence (AI) are becoming much more widely available and usable to the average person. When employing this software, you choose a topic; maybe a few parameters and a piece of writing can be instantly generated.
For example, “Tell me a bedtime story that includes a princess named Amelia, a dragon named Draco, and teaches a lesson about kindness.” Boom! You are instantly delivered a block of text that you can read to your tucked-in child when you only want to crawl into bed yourself. It is actually quite interesting to play around with these chatbots, and certainly, there will be time saved and some good work accomplished as a result. But without talking much more here about the more significant implications of widely available AI technology,1 I will say the fact ChatGPT was telling my daughter bedtime stories irked me beyond reasonability.
As I’ve established, we are talking about a tired man who had worked hard all day. His daughter was a limitless sponge for original stories, and it was just a quick shortcut, right? No rule says every parent needs to tell bedtime stories to their children at night. So why did this feel so disturbing to me? What was the big deal? Why did this bother me so much?
Here are a few plausible reasons why I might have been anti-robots-at-bedtime, and I’ll discuss whether or not they held up as the source of my angst. Perhaps I was disgruntled with these stories’ writing quality or even the subject matter. Or could it have been the lack of overt spiritual themes in the stories? Maybe I subconsciously thought the stories were a poor choice simply because they weren’t Bible stories. Let’s start by exploring the latter proposition.
The quality of writing exhibited by an AI source could be better. If I am being honest, though, many of the books my daughter has been interested in at the library are much more lacking in the departments of style and descriptive, rich language. Yet, I would not have been perturbed in the slightest if I discovered my husband reading library books aloud at bedtime. And as you can see from the excerpt below, a robot can perfectly insert enjoyable details (fiery eyes, delicious pastries) into its formulaic responses.
Taking a deep breath, Amelia approached Draco cautiously, her voice filled with compassion. “Mighty Draco, I have come not to slay you but to understand you,” she said, her eyes sparkling with sincerity. Surprised by the princess’s peaceful demeanor, the dragon regarded her with curiosity.
“I have brought some pastries,” Amelia continued, holding a platter. “Would you care to share a meal with me? Perhaps we can find common ground.”
Draco hesitated, his fiery eyes softening as he sniffed the delicious pastries. Slowly, he extended a massive claw, accepting the offer of friendship. As they sat together, the princess and the dragon exchanged stories, fears, and dreams. Amelia discovered Draco’s menacing behavior stemmed from years of loneliness and fear. In turn, Draco learned of the princess’s unwavering kindness and genuine desire to understand him.2
Okay, my grounds for objection would not have held up if based only on the assumption of poor writing quality. Was it a lack of overt spirituality in the stories, then?
No—I don’t think it was. Without taking away from my love for the most extraordinary story of all time, that Jesus told in the Bible, I have always considered forms of fictional literature and story to be something worth spending time on. As mentioned, I would spin elaborate yarns for my brother and young charges. I was a voracious reader and creative writer in my childhood and teenage years, and I am still a lover of imagination. In the book Habits of the Household, the author says something about this topic that I wholeheartedly agree with.
Without a Christian imagination, what would we do with verses about mountains breaking into song and trees clapping? How can we imagine captives being set free or a rescuer of the world riding in on a white horse? We need big imaginations to handle the big visions of the Bible, lest they mean nothing to us.… A capacity for fiction is as important as a knowledge of history.3
I don’t think it would be a stretch to say my love for God’s story has been strengthened and aided—not subtracted from—in my encounters with storytelling and reading fictional and fantastical works.4 As a bottom line, I am perfectly okay with my daughter being told imaginary tales. I don’t think this is what was troubling me on this occasion.
What troubled me was simply that the storyteller was not human.
I want the stories that my child hears to be infused with something more, something beyond a formula and pretty princess names. No matter how well-designed a robot is, it cannot speak from its heart; it doesn’t have one. That’s the difference. Robots, while undoubtedly cool and interesting, are created by women and men. But we women and men are created by God. We are keepers of a divine spark of creativity—even at our most end-of-the-day frazzled, tired selves.
Much later, after I had already worked through some of these thoughts, I read something that struck me on the ChatGPT web page. Under a column of limitations, the developers of the software note:
ChatGPT sometimes writes plausible sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers. Fixing this issue is challenging, as… during RL [Reinforcement Learning] training, there’s currently no source of truth.5
No source of truth, huh?
There may be one more layer here. We may possess creativity by virtue of being human. We may impart truth by knowing and befriending him, who is called “the way, the truth, and the life.” We can tell stories about anything. But I think for those of us who are Christ’s, living a new life and telling the story of death and resurrection in our everyday lives, we can’t help but infuse the story of Jesus in every story we tell in some small way.
For those of you who love to craft stories, who write creatively for fun, whose imaginations have not been dulled in the years since childhood, what a blessing you possess! To be childlike is one of the best ways to have your great imagination sanctified and taken captive to Christ! I’ll share one more quote from the Habits of the Household chapter on “Play.”
Our fallen world has a way of dulling our imaginations and training us to accept much less than the glory of the kingdom God is building through Jesus and his church. Therefore, we must see that training and exercising the imagination are as righteous as training and exercising the body or the mind. The primary means of this exercise is the story. Especially imaginative stories.6
Storytelling is a spiritual gift capable of uplifting, encouraging, and truth-telling.
Dear friends who are storytellers: please, keep telling stories—to kids and to your fellow adults. Tell us stories that will make us wonder and delight us with hidden gems of beauty and truth. Consider storytelling (if you haven’t before!) to be what it truly is: a spiritual gift capable of uplifting, encouraging, and truth-telling. Just think about the stories of Jesus.
Was there a man with two sons, one of whom went to a far country?
Was there a woman who lost a coin and did the most extreme tidying up her house had ever seen while trying to find it?
Was there a treasure hidden in a field that caused someone to sell all they owned to raise the necessary funds to purchase it?
Trick questions? Perhaps. My understanding is that they are fictional stories with real power.
Let’s wrap up our conversation about the robot bedtime stories. As you have seen, I couldn’t put my finger on the reason for my annoyance at first. I understand the appeal of a shortcut. At the end of a long day of changing diapers, preparing five (usually more if I’m being honest) snack or meal times, trying to put things back where they belong, maybe folding some laundry so that my baby can pull it off the couch and play with it in a pile on the floor, my creative juices aren’t flowing as much as I would love for them to be. But, deep down, I believe I should still be trying.
“Can you tell me a story I’ve never heard before?” Yes, it’s a challenge. But is it impossible? Not usually.
Here are the things that come out for my husband and me when we try.
- Stories about Millie the Mouse and her family, who (allegedly) live in my daughter’s door and closet in secret places that are impossible to find, and come out to have mischievous interactions with my baby daughter, to the delight and uproarious laughter of her older sister.
- Stories about Peter, Beatrix, and other friends with magic powers who go on journeys and overcome obstacles together.
- Stories about princesses Cora, Rayna, and Emeralda, who learn about nature, butterflies, flowers, and trees from the older members of their royal families.
I want to be my child’s storyteller. And not just me, but my village. I want her to hear stories from the hearts of people. People with a source of truth.
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA
- In the time between when I started writing this article and when I finished it, Google Documents (where I typically create my written drafts) offered me a new tool called Workspace Labs and now asks me if I want help writing and offers me prompts similar to the model used by ChatGPT.
- Excerpts taken from a ChatGPT generation, using the parameters described on the first page of this article.
- Earley, Justin Whitmel (2021). Habits of the Household. Avodah, LLC. Page 166.
- Ibid., page 166.
- Of course, there’s a point at which anything can become a distraction and a detraction from our discipleship, but that’s an aside and doesn’t take away from my point here.
- Ibid., Habits of the Household, pages 165-166.
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