The word story has deep roots; the Bible opens much like a book “In the beginning” it’s a classic opening to the best of novels. Everyone has a story, some of us just tell it better than others. But we “can learn how to tell our story, how to live a better story, how to preach God’s story, and how to share the stories of others” (Weiseth).
The very first means of the student christian organization and its storytelling was direct, communication face to face and in groups. But the need for faster communication that could be done from a distance led to the development of new storytelling methods. As technology progressed so to did storytelling, what was once face to face became third party messengers, literature, radio, tv, movies, blogs, and the explosion of the story. I would encourage you to start by watching this video to gain a better perspective on the importance of storytelling and it’s history.
Large portions of the Old Testament are written in narrative form and told as a story. Biblical stories center on the “truth” in the experience, whether of a moral, spiritual, or psychological nature. Stories exist primarily to teach us about the human life and the many ways in which human beings interact with their human condition. Modern Christianity has adapted it’s own Christian bubble of storytelling and art. “We have our own family friendly radio stations, wholesome book stores, and Christian movies that try their gosh darnedest to compete with the stuff that secular culture puts out” (Barr). Read what my colleague Anneliese Santhouse had to say about literature written from the Christian perspective.
But the problem with our explicitly labeled and created Christian artistry is in that it’s largely impotent in reaching anyone outside the Christian cultural bubble. And although the quality of Christian story making has drastically improved, our stories are still missing the mark. It’s more than just the notion of “How can a story be Christian, it has no soul.” The primary reason why Christian stories are no good has a lot more to do with a poor understanding of the gospel, evangelism, and discipleship, which is shown by these ideas:
1 | They don’t aim to entertain, but to save.
2 | They are overly marketed to just Christians, who should do no.3
3 | Are portrayed as evangelism tools, to bring your lost friends to (which doesn’t work because of no.1, and people know when they are being sold something).
4 | They seek to be a replacement for mainstream stories, rather than part of.
5 | They rarely show true reality, where someone accepts salvation and things still go wrong.
“The problem is that we’ve shackled family-friendly and faith-based together, and in the process we’ve cut ourselves off from being able to make really good drama. Only a non-Christian can really tell our stories well, and then we get upset when they don’t tell them the way we want them to be told” (Fleming). Read what Nate Fleming learned from 40 days (and nights) of Christian Media .
We have created a storytelling all our own, a method of storytelling that has been proven ineffective at creating art that is an honest representation of the human condition. “Much of Christian art is a way of keeping ourselves hidden away in a fantasy Christian world, where the very real, gritty world can be cleaned up and made palatable” (Barr).
The prevalent Christian storytelling culture has exchanged true, honest, biblical based storytelling for wholesomeness; hard questions for easy answers; reality for cute and happy endings; all that is grey for black and white. The story that gives us sentimentality is “akin to the painter Thomas Kinkade who explicitly aimed to paint the world without the Fall” (Woodlief). But this is only a cheap, knock-off of the world, painted to represent an inconsistent reality of our worldly condition, a world painted without suffering and pain.
Why do all our Christian stories tend to end perfectly in a near Disney-like “happily ever after” moments? Why does all our media shy away from forcing it’s characters to make lose-lose situations? Are we simply to scared to portray the reality that Christians are big sinners like everyone else and likewise just as steeped in human depravity? Are we concerned that society might remove us from the pedestal we deem to possess. When in fact this very pedestal ostracizes us from the secular culture. Perhaps this osterization is a direct product of our storytelling; we have created a perception and idea for how perfect and “holy” we are through storytelling.
But the problem that arises from our perfect worlds and happy endings is that there becomes no need for desperate faith and redemption. Our perfect storytelling makes the Bible irrelevant, Jesus’s sacrifice simply an action with no redemptive qualities, and Christianity at it’s best an ill-fated prosperity gospel. Because poor understanding of the Gospel, evangelism, and discipleship, our storytelling has cheapened grace into something that deters us from the true depravity of our worldly condition. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.”
It’s no coincide that those who come to Christ from darker paths and struggles have a deep understanding and worth placed in the grace they’ve received. They understand the depths from which they have traversed into a priceless redemption. Their story of meaningless and suffering has been transformed into one of purpose and forgiveness. But these stories remain largely missing from christian storytelling.
If Christian media must be stripped of all sexuality, profanity, reality, and critical messaging, all for the sake of sparing us the scandalous, uncomfortable feelings and critical questioning. “Theology is the knowing of God, we have to ask in turn why so many Christians know God so weakly that they need such wholesomeness in order for their faith to be preserved” (Woodlief). It continues to come back to a poor understanding of the Gospel and a lack of properly interpreting it’s instructions for evangelism to the world.
The first problem in Christian storytelling begins with the need to be safe. When was the last time a R rating was given out because true depiction of sin was shown in a “faith-based” film? We as christian’s don’t want to sin in the course of making our films, or encourage sin, but this has handcuffed us into depicting unrealistic portrayals of real life. “If you are a Christian, when was the last time you saw a Christian film that truly challenged your faith? What was the last Christian film that asked questions without giving answers? Does the greater Christian culture allow for that” (Fleming)?
The second problem facing Christian storytellers is that by their very nature Christian stories tend to be entirely predictable. Christian protagonists and antagonists usually always act a certain way, and when they don’t the story often isn’t received well. “The non-Christian needs to become a Christian, and the Christian needs to find ‘victory’ of some sort” (Fleming). Popular Christian stories like “Facing the Giants”, offered an incredible opportunity to show how Christian’s deal with failure, but instead the filmed turned into a direct reflection of prosperity gospel. It was easily predictable, and the film was widely successful within the Christian subculture. If you have some stories that you would like to share, feel free to contact us.
The third problem within Christian storytelling lies in the need for our stories to preach to the choir. “When was the last time a film made by Christians received substantial praise from non-Christian film reviewers” (Fleming)? For example, the 2014 film God’s Not Dead had a good box office – earning a respectable 60.8 million, but how much of that was from the pockets of non-Christian wallets? While the film on Rotten Tomatoes had a poor 16% rating and reviews from the Wall Street Journal had this to say. If the Wall Street Journal accuses our Christian stories of committing in essence the worst storytelling sin “Whether or not one one believes in God, the contrived premise of God’s Not Dead is anything but credible” (Puig). It’s clear that Christian stories have a problem in both their methods and impacts.
The incredibly popular, well-written, cinematic executed, and stunningly compelling Breaking Bad show took TV by storm. It’s grippingly realistic portray of what it might be like to become a Methamphetamine cook and dealer had us all watching and wondering week to week how the exploits of antagonist “Walter White” would play out. But the examples within Breaking Bad illustrate directly how a fictional story can most logically play out in reality. Read Christianity Today’s article on the Moral Logic of Breaking Bad to gain a better perspective.
Breaking Bad brought us face to face with the Biblical teaching that choices and actions have consequences. Though Breaking Bad is definitely dark, it’s morally ordered. Most other TV storytelling to date has been essentially amoral. Tending to depict moral considerations as either irrelevant or simplistic, suggesting that life is too complicated to be constrained into categories of “good and “bad.” Breaking Bad treats it’s characters directly as moral beings – not exclusively as products of their backgrounds.
We need stories like Breaking Bad; Walter is us, and that message hurts. “It hurts to be awakened to choices you didn’t know you were failing to make, or making poorly” (Cuidon). Breaking Bad is a great example of how our Christian storytelling can be morally ordered and can teach a moral lesson about our own life’s choices and consequences. Biblical stories like David and Bathsheba, Judah and Tamar, Sampson and Delilah, Absalom, doubting Thomas, Gideon invoke the same messages in our life (perhaps that’s why we struggle to read our Bible’s regularly, it’s makes us face ourselves in the mirror and see all the similarities).
We as christian’s need to leverage Biblical characters and their stories that already show us humanity from the very beginning and who we really are. The tragedy and reality of the Bible makes for a great narrative that fits naturally with the ugliness of humanity, begging you to look and to look away, to provoke you into responding and struggling with an idea, because engaging it is just as much a choice as anything else.
But that’s why these “raw” emotional stories impact and relate to our human struggle. When the Bible pertains to our situations most of the time we assume that a direct line of connection must exist between the situation then (in the Bible) and the situation now. This is why we so desperately need our “Christian Storytelling” to give us a realistic Biblical picture painted in a modern setting. A setting that matches our culture, our modern issues, and contexts.
Our storytellers must be careful to practice proper hermeneutics in telling stories that parallel Biblical lessons. Biblical stories don’t sit upon one side claiming to be wholly sacred, nor do they make a point of telling their stories as an ode to secular acts. They tell the story truthfully and tastefully, what would be defined as explicate is clearly stated and portrayed as such. Biblically we are given an outline for any situation and guidelines for our actions. Though they may not always be black and white, they are insightful and dramatic.
But in looking further at Biblical stories we are left with a wonderful example in how to tell utterly human, tragic, and messy stories. The truth is told, the choices laid out for our characters and the consequences made and shown clearly. It’s not a happy ever after novel, nor a obedience always leads to blessings. It’s truth and it’s the human condition from its very birth, to each who decides to follow God or take his or her own path. Much like Breaking Bad the Bible shows the consequences of choices for positive or negative ends.
Show a world with imperfection, a world with scars and bruises, a world in which we see our own reflection played out and the Gospel suddenly becomes a necessity. We are ever at war with the cheapening of grace and our storytelling has done nothing but denigrate grace. This grace came at a great cost to Jesus (1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Although it may be free, it comes with a responsibility, and it is not free. Cheap grace – What is it?
Stories can transport us from our current situation, give us new ideas, show us a different world, takes our emotions on a journey of joy and sorrow. Carefully craft a story that shows me the depths of depravity through a financial turmoil, an unwanted pregnancy, an unrelenting addiction, the loss of a child, the death of a close friend, the fleeting pleasures of sin and the following consequences. Weave back into that the ever present ideas of hope, grace, redemption and the Biblical principles that actions have consequences. Show me true change that doesn’t simply turn into blessings, upon blessing being poured out in a sense of perfection. Show me a story that relates to my sinful condition, and brings me back to the ever present need for grace.
Christian storytelling should adopt a new method of practice in developing stories parallel to the Bible to be not only more impactful but also more realistic. If we truly desire and wish for our stories to initiate conversations, change hearts, and bring forth deep thoughts we have to begin to understand the Gospel and how it instructs us to reach out and to tell stories. Our appeal to be safe in our stories needs to instead become an appeal to reality. Predicability, must be morphed into plot twists, moral failings and nail biting situations that leave us on the edge of our seats. Preaching to the choir, needs to become appealing to the masses through a compelling narrative. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine that the story behind your favorite book, tv show, or movie has a redemptive side. That redemptive side leads directly or subtly back to the source of redemption… Jesus.