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Nine Marks Of Widescreen Stories, Part 4

After a two-week break, I’m back to the series on what I consider Nine Marks of Widescreen Stories — speculative, epic-minded works of fantasy/sci-fi/whatever works for awesome storytelling. As we keep moving away from the original don’ts I find I […]
| Nov 15, 2006 | No comments |

After a two-week break, I’m back to the series on what I consider Nine Marks of Widescreen Stories — speculative, epic-minded works of fantasy/sci-fi/whatever works for awesome storytelling. As we keep moving away from the original don’ts I find I keep writing about, I’ll hope to focus even more strongly on the dos.

One of the greatest advantages Christ-following authors have over “secular” authors is access to a wealth of incredible themes that preempt just about anything they can come up with. For example, by writing about science, or law, “secular” authors are accidentally plagiarizing the Bible, I wrote back in part 3.

The same is true when we write about moral struggles, virtues or the lack thereof, and the battle of good versus evil. “Secular” authors have secondhand access to the truths of goodness and virtue; whereas Christians, in direct contact with the Source of that material, can portray these themes much more directly. I say “can portray,” though, because of course some books I’ve seen were evidently authored by those who have opted instead to broaden the moral themes, and follow after the “secular” conventions once again …

4. Focusing on deeper, more-timeless themes

The other night my sister and I were doing some research into whatever Pixar Animation Studios has been up to the past several months.

Yes, it seems that after watching Cars, we were further interested as to the themes of their 2007 release Ratatouille, which revolves around the adventures of a rat who dreams of being a chef in a fine Paris restaurant. One primary location to find this information is the Internet Movie Database; the other, Wikipedia, where volunteer authors have affixed the Disney/Pixar press release:

Remy finds himself torn between his calling and passion in life or returning forever to his previous existence as a rat. He learns the truth about friendship, family and having no choice but to be who he really is, a rat who wants to be a chef.

First I must heartily disclaim: I love Pixar!

As far as I’m concerned Pixar Can Do No Wrong.

If Pixar made a movie about living talking pots and pans trying to find a way out of Dishwasher-Land, it would be fantastic.

And yet at least the Disney/Pixar marketing here, anyway, rings the cliché bell. As my sister remarked, “When do we get a movie that’s not about friendship and family and following your dreams?”

Those themes have indeed been done multiple times — to the point where I know already that friendship is very important, and so is family (although “family can mean anything” according to a few movie outputs I’ve seen) and that it really doesn’t matter what others say so long as you follow your dream with all your heart and believe very strongly, etc., etc.

Hacking away at hackneyed

More recently I’ve seen some films “break out” of these common messages. Spider-Man 2, for example, played off the following-your-dream theme and instead reminded viewers of the powerful truth: “Sometimes, to do what’s right, we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most — even our dreams.”

And perhaps because a few “secular” storytellers are striking out in this direction, the Christian storytellers won’t be far behind, following as usual (as I complained just a little in my last installment).

But so far, it’s hard to see the same conventions going away anytime soon in Christian fiction, where the chief themes are often the same: family, friendship, following your dream — only supplemented by some specifically Christian virtues such as forgiveness, and of course the Gospel message and salvation.

Of course these should be nonnegotiable hallmarks of Christ-centered creativity. But perhaps more publishers, anyway, would do well not to act as though books about such topics somehow stand out — among all those other books that perhaps promote division in families, enemies, and making 180-degree turns away from your dream.

It’s like a politician who claims he strongly advocates the best health care and clean water and happiness for all — as opposed to the other candidate who, by implication, sincerely wants everyone to be miserable.

Fact is, Christian novels that “teach” important virtue like love, faith, family and forgiveness have already been far overdone — and again, while those elements are crucial, they are also naturally occurring for the Christ-following writer.

Speculative fiction encompasses these themes, of course, but they should be naturally occurring, not presented as though they are some hallmark of this particular story. If anything, the story itself should rise above and beyond any particular Take-Away Value some editors or marketers may try to assign to it.

That is why “simple” stories such as The Chronicles of Narnia work so well: you can’t stamp A Lesson in Self-Esteem on the front like you can with a VeggieTales DVD because Narnia just isn’t like that. A VeggieTales DVD can be about Self-Esteem, but what happens when you ask about the theme of The Silver Chair? “Well, it’s — it’s about two children, who are called into Narnia, and they have to learn — they have to obey Aslan, and — they meet some giants, and then Puddleglum put his foot in …”

Isn’t that great? The themes are so embedded, so deep and epic, that one cannot in good conscience say It’s A Story About Following Your Dream. The same is true of just about every timelessness-proved work of literature: you can’t pin down its Take-Away Value.

Time-release revelations

This is perhaps no more true than with the Bible itself — the Book that in my last installment I suggested is our “ultimate source material” and thus available for creative quasi-plagiarism. I think people often pick up the Bible with this mindset, asking, what is the Take-Away Value for me? On TV, we find brightly smiling motivational-types reading selections and snapping out the Lesson right away. It’s a lesson in Self-Esteem! It’s a lesson in Forgiveness! It’s a lesson in Following Your Dream!

Guess what: a Biblical passage might just be all of those meanings. Perhaps the meanings will occur naturally to the growing, Christ-following reader, in a form of Holy Spirit-guided word-search puzzle over the months or years.

If you’ve read the Bible — and any good book — multiple times, you probably can’t count the even greater amount of times this has happened. You’ll be reading the same passage again, and suddenly a hidden meaning leaps out at you. Incredible! This stuff has onionlike layers — except that, “unlike an onion, the inside is always bigger than the outside.” And the more you read, and the more experiences you may have had in the meantime, the more meaning one can glean from the passage, as its buried truths are finally unearthed like time capsules.

But of even greater importance is the idea that everything in Scripture, or any Christian story, must be read with a single lesson in mind, a Take-Away Value for us, about friendship, or forgiveness, or …

To that I would quickly answer: No. The Bible is primarily about God, not about us. Any messages we receive from it about our life applications are secondary to what we can learn about the nature of God and His plan for the universe.

That’s widescreen. And I believe our fiction should focus on that more strongly: God’s plans, what He has done, what He is doing, and people’s present and future role in His sovereign will. If secondary moral themes do find their way into the story — then they can imbed themselves naturally, just as our presentations of the Gospel should get in there on their own and not from propagandistic intention.

Most people already know anyway about friendship, family, faith and other fullscreen themes that are portrayed in countless made-for-TV movies. Therefore, for epic-focused, Christ-centered fiction, let’s expand the view even more!

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor of a nonfiction book about parenting and popular culture (title TBA), to release spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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