We find ourselves in a sequence of events that don’t seem to matter. A stubborn desire to find meaning doesn’t seem to leave, though, and so we’re left gasping for cleaner air on a submarine that isn’t going to the surface anytime soon. Being uncomfortable with our own chaos, we seek order wherever we can find it, and the most promising candidate is within the realm of Story.
We have rewards cards for movie theaters, Netflix queues, Hulu watch-lists, TiVo, and the Redbox App on their phones to satisfy the thirst for stories. Then there’s everyone’s Kindles, Nooks, iPad and bookshelves (if they’re old school) full of stories. We can’t escape stories because our lives, even though messy and disintegrated, cannot really be understood any other way.
The stories that keep propping themselves up on our screens and pages are never original, either. They all have a hero, a villain and some sort of conflict, regardless of the genre. Someone goes on an adventure; someone new comes to town. The ordinary is blown into the extraordinary; the mundane becomes epic. Sacrifices are required. Triumph or tragedy, every story beckons us to confront the mess with the hero because we cannot help connecting with them as they struggle (if the aesthetic is done well, that is; we all know those stories with bland heroes and plots). Perhaps it’s this craving for purposeful struggle that brings us back to these unoriginal narratives–a reason to fight?
To hear someone’s story is to see into their lives; the same is true with characters on the screen or page. So that’s why, when we’re uncomfortable to talk to others about our messes, we find solace in stories because the people in them give us a cloudy mirror with which to see into our own lives. Cloudy is how we like it. We see enough to satisfy our need for purpose, but not enough to expose our frailty.
Too many Christians think stories will save people, so they make God’s Not Dead with a sequel to boot. Stories were never meant to change someone’s worldviews outright, but to exhibit one particular worldview–the one of the storyteller(s)–in an attempt to express it in an engaging way. Christians may want to use film and literature as a medium for Gospel promulgation (Matt. 28:19-20), but there’s only so much that these mediums can do to the deep convictions of audiences. Too often, stories become just another way to give a sermon, but films and books cannot be Gospel tracts where we drop an over-simplistic answer into people’s messes. The quality of the medium must be emphasized as much, if not more, than the message.
Stories plant the seeds, but people tend to the growing plant with the intention of cultivating fruit. People are always needed to wipe the cloudy mirrors clean.
All stories can do is present real issues with a fictional coloring (unless you’re doing a biopic or documentary) with the hope that the coloring will give viewers and readers a chance to see their mess through a different lens.
People don’t want to leave the submarine. They want to linger in the depths because it’s safer than the surface where the light uncovers all their attempts to hide from their life’s mess. With their heart led by the Great Commission, many Christians think rational arguments and preaching about the surface-light, where the air is unlimited and clean, is the only way to make these submerged souls come to the surface. It may be true that they need the surface, and we all need to know rational arguments and sermons have their place, but nothing brings a submarine to the surface better than the danger of sinking. Wriggling a rivet loose is all that’s required. Start small, like Greg Koukl’s analogy about putting a “pebble in someone’s shoe,” which is a clever way to describe making someone uncomfortable enough to think through something. A good storyteller knows how to wriggle rivets.
Sounds devious, but remember how Gandalf rescued Théoden from Saruman’s spell? Dark spells require dangerous antidotes.
Perhaps with the right seeds planted, it might be easier to open up about our messes because we can use fictional characters as a way to illustrate our own issues.
What the Christian storyteller ought to aim for, then, is to make the audience engage with their mess in a productive way. Instead of hiding from the chaos, we want people to see themselves as redeemable in light of Christ. This is what evangelism is.
The heroes in the stories we love become preemptive strikes against our belief that our messes are permanent. Those characters, whether their roles end in tragedy or triumph, ultimately have a purpose: to confront the mess, no matter what. They must struggle if they want to triumph.
What about tragedies? Do they offer any hope?
They remind us that the struggles faced in life are serious. Our heroes can indeed fail, and although that fact may not give us hope, per se, it gives us reason to fight for the hope. The dangers on the road become the means through which triumph is desired.
So Christian storytellers must keep a fire of hope stoked, complete with seeds, missing rivets and pebbles. And we can’t pretend that we don’t like the submarine too. We must be honest about our messes, expressing them in our stories. Good stories with true-to-life struggles, triumphs and tragedies will keep reminding everyone that nobody is truly alone in their mess, and that there is a place for us in God’s Story, where a final triumph is promised. For if God could use the greatest tragedy (the death of Jesus) as a means to inaugurate the greatest triumph (the redemption of humankind), how much more would he be able to make our individual tragedies turn out for the better? This is the heart of the Christian faith; we’re not asked to have faith in how God will make things better, but that, if God is who he says he is, our triumph is as good as done.