The use of story in expressing a Christian understanding of bioethics

For several days last week I participated in the Global Missions Health Conference in Louisville, Kentucky along with 30 undergraduate students from Taylor University interested in professions in health care and several thousand others who are involved in or have an interest in medical missions. One of the lessons I came away with was how important the use of story can be as a tool for teaching.

One missionary physician and his wife told about how they used a technique of telling, discussing, and retelling of stories from the Bible to teach the gospel to people in an oral culture in East Africa. They also related how effective the technique can be with literate groups as well. Beyond that they also shared how the same type of storytelling and group discussion had been effective in promoting community health by telling stories like one of a young mother who decided to try solely breast feeding her son, instead of following the cultural practice of giving the child supplemental (contaminated) water and found that her son thrived and did not have the diarrhea that plagued most children in her village. Discussing the story in village groups and having the group members retell the story to each other and to those they knew led to acceptance of a more healthy way to feed their infants.

A public health nurse shared the story of how she and a group of Maasai warriors who were concerned about they could help prevent the spread of HIV among their people had developed a video based on a story known by everyone in their culture to help their people understand the need to change their behavior to prevent the spread of HIV. The story was about a foolish man who was told that a fire was coming and refused to move to avoid it and lost everything. They likened HIV/AIDS to the fire and the need to change sexual behavior and the sharing of circumcision knives to moving out of the way to avoid a fire. She then presented data that showed a significant impact on the behavior of the communities where the video was presented.

Stories cam be used effectively in bioethics as well. Many of us learned clinical ethics by listening to the stories of ethics consultations told by Dr. Robert Orr. Case-based learning is closely related to story telling. Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen use the story of Noah, a frozen embryo rescued from a hospital during hurricane Katrina and born 16 months later, to illustrate the moral significance of human embryos.

Jerry Risser and Jon Holmlund both refer in their recent posts about the need to use narrative to communicate to our post-modern society. Storytelling meets that need, and we should use it to help our society understand the value of human life.

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Stephanie, RN BSN
Stephanie, RN BSN
7 years ago

As a bioethics student, I often find myself using narrative case-writing as a tool to help both my readers and myself connect the more abstract philosophical ideas of ethics to the gritty reality of the healthcare enviroment. I believe bioethics (at least when applied to healthcare) is a discipline which becomes rather anemic when removed from the enviroment that gave it birth. Story-telling helps me to remember the importance of bioethics to people in crisis situations.

Story-telling can also help a bioethicist to step into a situation and see different angles of perspective and nuances of emotion which may be vital to communicating ethical truths effectively.