Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Power of Story

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."  "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." "Call me Ishmael."  "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."   "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."  "It was a pleasure to burn."  "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."  "The year Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette."  "It was a dark and stormy night..."  "Once upon a time..." "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."  "Space, the final frontier."  "Come sit right back and you'll hear a tale..."  "Here's a story of a lovely lady..."  "Everyone loves Raymond."

I hope at some point as you read the above, the words fired your imagination.  We have triggers in our brains the familiar words begin a cascade of memories.  These memories, these triggers are attached to stories.  Whether we remember them as books, plays, movies, or television shows, it is futile to argue the power stories have upon our minds, our emotions, or our perception of reality.  Because most of these works draw from a worldview that opposes the truth of God's word, Christians ought to learn to identify the negative and positive messages both patent and latent appearing in stories.

As we consider stories, we must begin with some element of general philosophy.  Since the advent of the post-modern mind, human thinking has largely rejected the presumption of what contemporary writers call the "metanarrative."  To understand this concept, we must return to the days of the medieval Christian consensus.  At that time, the consensus held that knowledge of the world could only be rightly understood through the lense of Christianity.  Theology was the queen of the sciences.  Without a right understanding of God, the universe would be incomprehensible.

With the destruction of the Christian consensus, human thought freed from the "limitations" of theology was thought capable of discovering independent truth.  New theories of the universe were proposed and critiqued.  Christianity was considered anti-intellectual and anti-science due to the history of Copernicus and Galileo.  Human reason without God endeavored to discover a new theory of the universe, a new creation story.  The enterprise endeavored to create a humanist consensus, a story without God that most people would accept.  The project failed.  The modernist age failed to produce an agreed upon story.

Post-moderns, disappointed by reason and science, left the rigid constructs of logic and physical exploration in the quest for a theory of life.  Instead, they returned to myth and story to reveal truth.  Knowing humanity's inability to form a consensus, they rejected any attempt to form a universal story, a metanarrative.  Each person wrote their own story, drawing from other stories they found personally informative or compelling.  They pick and choose what story they want to believe, even what parts of a story they like best, without dealing with the logical inconsistencies inherent in such a task.  We then end up with everyone writing their own story without any larger story into which their story fits.

When we examine this process from the perspective of the Bible, we see some points of connection.  The Bible is filled with stories.  Consider the stories that come to mind when we hear the names: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Ruth, Samuel, Saul, David, Bathsheba, Solomon, Jezebel, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Mary, Joseph, Paul, Peter, John.  All these people lived different stories.  However, we see that they all fit into the larger story, the metanarrative of the person and work of Jesus.  They all tell the story of creation, fall, redemption, and glory.  The Bible tells one story which explains all reality.  Previously, we looked at the Bible as one book, by one author, to one audience.  It is the "one book" assertion that leads to this truth that the story of redemption encompasses the entire Bible.  It is the story of what God is doing in the world into which all the other stories fit.

Here is the place where Christianity meets the philosophical need of the time.  The world has no reason for assuming that any of their individual stories matter.  At the end of the day, they will die and their story will be forgotten.  Thanks Ecclesiastes. (Ecclesiastes 2:17-23, 9:1-6)  Their story may matter to them, it may matter to someone else, but eventually, their story will matter to no one.  Consider the stories of the following individuals that we may consider great.  JFK, Lincoln, Washington, Edwards, the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Calvin, Luther, Huss, Anselm, Augustine, Athanasius.  Do you know their stories?  Do they matter to you?    Do people care about these stories?  What about other ancillary individuals whose names are lost to history?  Did they matter?

The Bible teaches us that our lives do matter.  Our stories matter because they are part of God's plan of redemption.  We matter because He matters.  Even our tears are recorded. "You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.  Are they not in your book?" (Psalm 56:8)

Because of the world's attention on personal individualistic stories, storytellers have risen in prominence.  Stories are often judged by how relevant they are to the present situation and how well they accord with people's own experience.  The best story is one that speaks to you, that you can add to your own story.  For this reason, we need to understand the message that these stories convey.

The first thing we ought to notice is patent depictions of Christians in stories.  How are Christians portrayed in these stories?  Are they commendable characters or objects of ridicule and scorn, images of hypocrisy?  For fans of Austen, consider the depictions of Philip Elton, William Collins, Edward Ferrars, Henry Tilney, and Edmund Bertam.  The least objectionable among them was Mr. Ferrars, and some could criticize his inability to confront his family.  A more modern example is MASH's depictions of Major Frank Burns and Father Mulcahy.  The former is depicted as reading the Bible while married and carrying on an affair.  In comedy, Christians are held up to scorn.  In drama, Christians are portrayed as out-of-touch and often flummoxed when they cannot reconcile their belief with the reality of modern life and thought.  Believers should be wary of how the gospel and Christians are portrayed in contemporary stories.

In early days of television, episodic series often were fairly blatant about the message that was intended.  Consider the Any Griffith Show.  It would be hard to miss the point of Opie killing the bird.  However, one cannot assume a message in the story of the goat who eats the dynamite.  Some shows were merely written to entertain while others had a more serious purpose.  More contemporary storytellers focus on entertainment rather than message. (with a few notable exceptions)  Thus, we must consider latent messages.

The vast majority of stories follow well traveled paths.  The normal dramatic arc recurs frequently in these stories.  They proceed from introduction, to escalation and tension, to confrontation, to denouement and conclusion.  Experimental writers try to adjust this formula to their own peril, and mostly fail.  There is a reason why this arc works so well.  It seems part of our humanity.

Within each genre, we may observe common messages throughout the genre.  This is not to suggest that the storytellers consciously intend to send these messages.  They are often so entrenched within the genre that one cannot think of that genre without the message.  Whether intentional or not, Christians should identify the message, for it will be there.

Perhaps the most easily observed is the romantic genre.  In romance, the most common message is, "love conquers all."  In romantic comedies, this is often seen in mystifying ways.  A ruins B's business, but they still end up together. (You've Got Mail, Hitch) A make B fall in love with him/her for some motive other than attraction, but they still end up together even after this horrible truth is revealed. (Sabrina, How to lose a guy in 10 days)  A and B are separated by years and death and only communicate through a mailbox at a lake house, but still end up together. (really?)  A calls B a horrible person, but they still end up together. (most Austen books)  People watch endless hours of television romance where the obvious pairs are often put together then ripped apart multiple times before they finally end up together. (The list is too long, but you can certainly think of many examples.)

This philosophy holds more sway in our society than we might think.  Consider the video the company Google put out for a review of the year 2016 entitled, "Google - Year In Search 2016". (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIViy7L_lo8)  One character from a long running television show summarized the philosophy of this love in this way. "[L]ove doesn't make sense! I mean, you can't logic your way in or out of it. Love is totally non-sensical. But we have to keep doing it, or else we're lost, and love is dead, and humanity should just pack it in. Because love is the best thing we do."  In a very powerful way, our society has made a god of love.  It confesses not the biblical statement that God is love, but the humanist confession that love is god.  This god, they believe will conquer all.

The Bible teaches us that God is love and that His love conquered all.  The facade of love that appears in romances cannot hold the weight that these stories require.  This is why they often face the ridicule of reason.  For a true all-conquering love, something more like God's love is required.

Action stories vary between question of morality and the journey of self-discovery.  Some stories question what can the hero do to defeat the bad guys and still be a good guy.  Others portray a person in a process of self actualization.  In these tales, the hero determines his destiny or morality.  This clashes with the Christian mindset that God determines what is right and who we are.

I can't say that I am in any way a devotee of the horror genre.  The frightening imagery and normal violence within the genre do not appeal to me.  However, there is something in that genre that connects to the Christian ethic.  Horror films often resemble medieval morality tales.  In these ancient stories, the actors placated to the church by telling stories aimed at promoting moral behavior.  Good people were rewarded and bad people suffered.  This also appears within the horror genre where those who do bad things are consumed while the morally upright survive.  Naturally, the world will use relative categories for "good" and "bad."  These definitions will probably not match those delineated by the Bible, but the underlying moral tone often persists, even if it does draw more from a karmic view of morality than a Christian view.

The mystery story has suffered much over the years.  The stories of Sherlock Holmes have not, perhaps, aged well, but the quality of their writing still stands above most of the genre today.  Mysteries and police procedurals have devolved into tasteless pulp, with few notable exceptions rising above the fray.  The quality of the mystery is in the inventiveness of the storyteller and the setting of the mystery.  Good mystery stories still surprise through their ingenuity or uniqueness of setting.  Often, these stories provide commentary on morality.  Take for instance this quote from "The German Woman" from the series Foyle's War, set in WWII.  Within the episode, the question of war, murder, and the death penalty swirl around.  Why investigate murder when the country is training its young men to kill?  Why execute "valuable" member of the military service in time of war for murdering a german woman?  At the end, the detective says, "Murder is murder. You stop believing that, and we might as well not be fighting the war. Because you end up like the Nazis."  Naturally, his foundation does not refer to scripture, but to basic notions of humanity and our relation to the law.  However, we can easily make biblical analogies to this same position.

Of all the genres mentioned, perhaps science fiction is the most flexible and susceptible to latent message signaling.  The Star Trek series repeatedly tackled the questions contemporary audiences were asking.  More recently, the revival of Battlestar Galactica addressed the topics of abortion and vicarious atonement.  The genre often finds itself attempting to answer the question, "What does it mean to be human?"  Most, if not the vast majority of the answers and reasoning that is propounded in these stories either ignore or contradict the Bible's construction and conclusion, but they regularly ask important question that the Bible often answers more simply that the world.

It remains for the Christian to understand how the method of telling the story influences our perception and reception of the narrative and its point.  We may generally categorize the means of transmission in three groups: oral, written, and visual.

The earliest form of storytelling involved oral communication.  We told stories.  Often, this method involved the ballad, a story told in song.  This lead to early narratives appearing in verse, even in print.  Poetry, rhyme, and rhythm aid the speaker in memory and performance.  As often, these stories were not reduced to writing, these verbal aids facilitated the transmission of these stories through the ages.  In addition, the use of song and music amplified the emotional component of these stories.

In the modern age, audiobooks have become the contemporary analog to the oral storyteller.  They allow our imagination to provide the images, and allow us to experience the story in our mind.  This has the positive impact that these stories exercise the imagination, but also, as our mind is engaged in experiencing the story, it also facilitates our ability to contemplate the meaning of the story.

With the invention of the printing press, books became more popular and convenient.  Stories began appearing in books, entertaining the people who read them.  With written stories, it is much easier to analyze the narrative.  If you are listening to the story, in some way, you are at the mercy of the reader.  You often can't tell him to stop an repeat an earlier passage.  Even with technology, this often proves a hassle.  With a book, you can flip back to a section you remember and see how it compares with another portion of the book.  You can put it down and think about the content in an analytical light.

Oral and written storytelling has waned in popularity in the modern west.  Visual storytelling has rocketed into popularity.  In truth, visual storytelling predates the printing press.  The play appears in virtually all ancient civilizations, african, european, and asian.  Because of the antiquity of the play, they often shared commonality to the individual storytellers, with the use of meter and music.

Technology has rapidly expanded the ability to create and consume visual storytelling.  The twentieth century saw the development of film and television.  The twenty-first has seen the emergence of streaming services and production.  It is altogether possible for a story to never appear on anything other than digital media.

With visual storytelling, we may consider three forms in modern use: the play, the movie, and the personal screen.  The play is the most subjectively influential of the three.  There is something powerful about sitting in a theatre witnessing actual people performing.  The actors also sense this and respond to the effect their performance may have on the audience.  The viewer cedes control to the players.  You enter into this place, take your seat, and stay there for the performance.  You experience what the players want you to experience.  You witness the story at their pace.  You cannot hit "pause" to reflect on the story.  The best you may do is reflect on the story afterward.  As a Christian, this ought to influence our choices and how needful it may be to spend time in reflection afterward.

The movie shares the many of the same experiences as the theater, with the exception of the personal presence.  This is not to be ignored, but with the advance of technology, the movie you see in the theater today will be available to stream often before a year has passed.  This allows the opportunity for review and critique.  It still bears noting how powerful the movie experience can be.  There is an intimate environment between you and the screen.  The players are larger than reality.  The dominate the vision.  The room is too dark to see anything but the screen.  Normally, the sound is amplified so that you can hear nothing else.  Environmentally, the theater is set to discourage any attention but that on the screen.

Environment changes our perception.  Consider the same movie shown in the theater as opposed to that movie see at home.  Even when the characters on the screen may appear larger than reality, you can often stand up and be higher than they.  You determine the lighting and volume.  You determine if you want to keep watching, pause, or take a break.  In most streaming services, you even get to vote of whether you liked the movie/show.  Control plays a large part in our perception of the story.

The ease of production has dramatically changed the way stories are told and their length.  One of the fascinating studies have been the analysis of the average length of a shot in movies and television.  In the early days of film and television, when the production was basically a play and a camera, (imagine a parent filming their child's school play) long shots were the norm.  Even when people started writing for television and thirty minute programs, (over twenty-fire even without commercials) the average shot lasted 20 seconds.  That may not seem a long time, but in comparison to the present average length of less than five, observers have noted how this change plays into people's present inability to pay attention, our shortened attention spans.

The length of the story has also changed.  We noted how commercial broadcast television in the early days often offered over twenty-five minutes of content per half hour.  In the present, some content has diminished to less than twenty minutes for a half hour.  Not only do we need rapidly changing images, but shorter stories.

Or do we.  Enter the streaming service and the advent of bingeing.  People began watching all the episodes of a series in a few sessions.  This phenomena fostered an approach to storytelling that was already appearing and growing in the industry, lower episode counts, better quality writing, and story arcs lasting the entire season.  Before the turn of the century, commercial broadcast television producers normally ordered a season run of over twenty episodes.  This covered the fall and spring schedule at approximately one episode a week.  This approach is still powerfully attached to broadcast television.  Cable channels began experimenting with alternative scheduling and production.  With less resources than their commercial cousins, this approach arose in some way out of necessity.  In 1999, HBO began airing the series, "The Sopranos".  In 2001, Fox began airing "24".  The commercial success of these experiments laid the groundwork for much of the storytelling of the modern streaming service.  It told storytellers that there was an audience for television to tell lengthy stories in episodic form.  Consider that where before, most long visual stories lasted for little more than two hours, now long-form storytelling can last in excess of 10 hours.

This longer form also poses a challenge to the Christian's duty of analysis.  We can lose the forrest for the trees in our tendency to binge.  This tendency to get caught up in the present without reflection, without considering the messages that lie behind the story, require a Christian to think critically about the stories of the world.  Some have value.  Others present ideas diametrically opposed to Christianity.  Knowing the means by which we experience stories guides us as we seek to live Christian in an unchristian world.

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