“Narrative is our culture’s currency; he who tells the best story wins.” — Bobette Buster —
As Christians we follow the greatest storyteller of all time. Jesus of Nazareth taught a simple bunch of disciples and, frankly, changed the world with stories that delivered a message so radical we’re still working to digest it all. As His modern followers, we have worked hard to do the same, with a wide range of success.
“We are living in a time in history that is in many ways defined as “the story wars.” People, organizations and companies are competing for mind space and brand allegiance, and their primary tool is compelling narrative. As Christians we talk a lot about how we can share Jesus with others, but if we are honest, in an increasingly hostile world, it can be hard to feel like the Gospel is good news for us. We used to live in a world where it was impossible to doubt, but we now live in a moment where certainty seems out of our grasp. It’s increasingly hard as a follower of Jesus to remain resolute about who is the author of the world’s story and who we are trusting to narrate our own.” (Tyson, J and Grizzle H, A Creative Minority p. 26)
This excerpt is from an important little book called A Creative Minority, challenging Christians to understand and own our impact.
“We live with the tension of believing the gospel is the good news to bring healing to the world and feeling profoundly misunderstood as hateful bigots.” (A Creative Minority, page 50)
As a professional storyteller, it challenges me to engage in the narrative of the meta-story that is told about Christians, as well as the stories we tell as Christians. Do they all add up?
My role in the world of business and marketing is to clarify a brand’s strategic truth; to help form the core, most compelling story for my clients. The process to construct a powerful story begins with deep truth paired with a daringly specific audience. We must define each in relation to the other. Tension is imperative, and it is in this tension that Christians often get muddled.
Hollywood as the Antagonist
It’s long been documented that the force we know as “Hollywood” is unfavorable to sweet stories of Christian redemption, and this is primarily why Christian filmmakers for many generations have forged their own path. Unfortunately, the separate pathways have created isolation and disdain between the two worlds. Decades ago, Christians abdicated our positions in the decision making and creative roles in the cultural force that is Hollywood (and Netflix, Hulu and Prime Movies) in favor of more friendly confines of our own financiers, talent, reviewers, and streaming services. Even among the celebrity culture, those known to be Jesus followers don’t usually cross the line between the faith-based movie industry and major studio productions. With few exceptions, celebrities must choose one path or the other.
The result is a Christian version of Hollywood, complete with all the trappings of red carpets, award shows and politics; an alternate universe.
The faith-based producers get to make films that glorify God and tell real stories of transformation through the power of Jesus’ triumph and His Holy Spirit within us, while Hollywood continues to spend hundreds of millions on films that ridicule our faith and often show us at our worst.
Bob Briner explores this in his famous book Roaring Lambs: A Gentle Plan to Radically Change Your World.
“The Christian church, which had some time ago abandoned the motion picture industry as a place of ministry and outreach, now, for all practical purposes, abandoned the medium itself as a way to communicate the message of Christ to the world at large. When the church and its people are absent, when there is no preserving salt and no roaring lambs, the same thing always happens. It is just as sure as a law of physics. When a vacuum is created, it is always filled. When good departs, evil always fills in behind it. If you remove the salt, the meat spoils. It rots. This is what happened to the movies. To think that my children and grandchildren could be better people by ingesting a steady diet of movies today the way I did as a child would be ludicrous. Once again, Christians left the scene, and, again, the scene was an important one.“
So, while Hollywood goes on about its agenda, we bristle and go back to our friendly territories to toil over the next slate of Christian films to release by Christian filmmakers and financiers, for Christian audiences. We succumb to the fact that our work is for Christians who want to support this work and enjoy a satisfying, predictable experience, and we decide to be comfortable that we have done a good thing for the world. But have we actually done anything for “the world?” Maybe not.
It’s ok, we know, because we do need (and deserve!) to create our own God-glorifying content. The result, however, is the narrative of a Christian life in the big studio productions is left to the understanding and expression of people who don’t know us. The most powerful storytelling machine in the world is representing Christians (and thereby representing Jesus?) without the Holy Spirit; without people who love Him.
Is our goal to try to force Hollywood to represent us better? At this moment in history, when we have created an infrastructure to support Christian storytelling, we must continue to discuss how to be salt and light. We mustn’t be satisfied with serving only a receptive and believing audience. We must work seriously to make films that reach culture. Without a credible offering, we will find no reception for our storytelling outside of our own backyard.
What’s Gone Wrong?
Whether we’re creating books, movies, theater, fine art, or photography, our art is our expression of a story we want to tell. So why is it so difficult to tell the stories of a Spirit-transformed life so that non-believers will be drawn in to ask “how”? Is the deepest truth that makes our stories of transformation and redemption so powerful the same thing that makes them difficult to tell on a secular stage?
As a writer and film reviewer and publisher, I have worked to tell my own story of my before-and-after life so that it will be seen as excellent and meaningful to the secular world. Chapter after chapter I find myself having to make a choice in strategy; or trying to find a compelling, external way to illustrate a deep internal transformation. In the end writers must weigh the tension honestly between story and its audience. Telling a great story has to be the only goal.
Why are the independent Christian filmmakers’ stories received so poorly? Perhaps we’re working to answer a question they’re not yet asking. Ironically, most critics identify the root of the issue as a story problem – and how it’s told.
As with any brand in crisis, we need outside help. If we truly want to reach farther into cultural influence, we need to reach beyond the comfortable clique we’ve created and seek counseling from the ones who make us bristle. We must be willing to detach ourselves from our personal bias long enough to develop the craft with true excellence. That’s our tension. We are carrying a life-changing message, to be sure. But Christian storytellers must be comfortable in the tension between the message and the truths about how to truly move an audience through storytelling. This might mean challenging our biases. It definitely means stretching our comfort zones.
If Hollywood is guilty of getting the easy audience through gratuitous sex and violence, let’s take a good look at the faith-based formula of getting the easy audience through feel-good sermons delivered as cinema. If we are to truly shepherd culture toward the more glorious truth of God’s love, we must stand in the tension of an unfriendly crowd.