People love stories. Radio shows and podcasts that feature original storytelling remain popular year after year. The industries of television and movies have tremendously evolved over decades. We don’t ever seem to get bored of them. Well, maybe. But not enough to tune out completely. We just change the channel or surf a little deeper into the Netflix catalog foraging for a good story to entertain us. Did you ever wonder why people love stories? I used to think a good sermon was a theological exposition that distilled doctrinal truth from the less important story form in which the Bible passage was originally packaged. But then I noticed that people remembered the sermon illustrations—the stories—best. I found this even true of me. Story is a way to make sense and remember truth. It just might be the best way. That just seems to be the way God made us.
In his book, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth (SWT), Mike Cosper contends that all our TV and movie watching is not just a waste of time. And it doesn’t have to be an escape from real life. If we contemplate the themes and underlying assumptions of what we’re watching, we may discover that many of those well-written, well-acted, and well-produced shows that draw us in are giving us glimpses of foundational truths woven into the fabric of creation. Even Honey Boo Boo has something to offer! (At least that’s what Cosper says.)
SWT is simply a great book, and quite fun to read. There is something for everyone here—I dare say even for the cultural elitist who shuns the popular storytelling of the boob tube and the silver screen. Cosper begins by explaining why we tell stories. He makes the case that, from a Christian perspective, because we are created in the image of God, we can’t help but see life as a story because God is weaving a Grand Narrative in history of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Re-creation. Since we live in his world, it is only natural for us to see our lives as reflecting (in whole or part) certain aspects of history’s big story. We long to see how the individual stories of our lives fit into the larger narrative. For this reason the stories we tell are pregnant with meaning as they compare, contrast, and image the big story.
Christians sometimes object to what we may watch. Cosper addresses the question, “How far is too far?” in chapter 2 with a few pointers. He suggests we must avoid the two polar extremes of the “Overanxious Teenager” and the “Church Lady.” The overanxious teenager is ready to cast off all restraint and moderation and gorge on everything he can watch. At the opposite side of the spectrum, from her holier-than-thou perch on high, the church lady sees Satan in everything and redemptive value in nothing. Both stereotypes are judgmental. The Overanxious Teenager mocks his naysayers as intolerant bigots, while the Church Lady slings insults at the worldly sinners, equating them with media whores and whoremongers. The author’s via media identifies how the gospel and culture intersect, and how the gospel is bigger than we might think. It is the gospel of the Kingdom, of the Cross, and of Grace. He draws from these three truths that the gospel relates to all of life under the sun, it trafficks in the dark places, and shines light in the darkness to bring redemptive grace out of evil. These observations boil down to choosing what to watch and allowing which stories to shape you by living and being accountable in a gospel community. Mistakes will be made along the way—not just in choosing to watch an unhelpful story, but also in choosing to abstain from a story that could be helpful—but God is able to guide us by the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and the wisdom of the church into the light.
After the first two chapters, the book examines all kinds of TV serieses and movies by categorizing them into the broad themes of the big story. Chapter titles include:
3. The Ghosts of Eden. Our longing to get back to paradise. (Creation)
4. The Search for Love. Our longing for intimacy and romance wrapped in innocence. (Creation)
5. O, How the Mighty Have Fallen. Tragedy in our lives. (Fall)
6. Frustration. Enough said. (Fall)
7. Shadows and Darkness. Looking at the dark side of life. (Fall)
8. Redemptive Violence. Our longing for righteous vengeance and judgment. (Redemption)
9. Heroes and Messiahs. Our longing for someone to save the day. (Redemption)
10. Honey Boo Boo and the Weight of Glory. Our longing to be a star. (Recreation)
Each chapter has more than enough material to present a tightly-edited argument. This is obvious from the inclusion of brief sidebar articles that illustrate the main point of the chapter. Rather than distracting, they serve to illustrate the chapter theme by mediating and analyzing a particular TV series or movie. They are example of how a Christian might find biblical truth in a story where it might not be obvious at first glance.
I’m not a big TV or movie viewer these days. With a big family and a wife who is usually tired out by the time the kids are in bed, I just don’t have time in my life to watch a lot of stories on my TV. But that doesn’t mean a book like this is useless to people like me. There is great profit in reading an astute observer share this thoughts on the stories that the masses are viewing. It’s good exercise for evangelism, apologetics, cultural discernment, counseling, understanding human nature, and even horizon-stretching Bible reading.
Even though right now I lack the time to watch the shows I’d like to view, now I have two things I didn’t have before. One, a list of new shows and flicks on my ever-growing watch-list. Two, something to say when my family, friends, and neighbors starting talking about the latest must-see event.
Conversation with the author about the book:
The Stories We Tell (Parts 1 & 2 of a talk):