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What’s The Difference In ‘Inspirational’ Stories?

Replace “follow your dreams by believing in yourself” with “follow your dreams by believing in Jesus”; does that make a story Christian?
| Apr 14, 2011 | No comments |

You’re sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, and likely about eight years old, and you pick up a children’s magazine. Remember those puzzles inside, based on two nearly similar drawings and the challenge: Find the Differences Between These Two Pictures?

If I weren’t already occupied putting together tomorrow’s interview with Blood of Kings trilogy author Jill Williamson, I might draw some actual pictures here. But try this:

Picture One:

He had it all. (Name), an aspiring (select one: dancer, singer, athlete, reality-television contestant, immigrant), is close to reaching his life’s ambition. Then (insert catastrophe or tragedy) occurs and that amazing destiny seems dashed. Follow along as he finally learns to pursue his dreams, no matter the cost, and believe in himself!

Picture Two:

He had it all. (Name), an aspiring (select one: dancer, singer, athlete, reality-television contestant, immigrant), is close to reaching his life’s ambition. Then (insert catastrophe or tragedy) occurs and that amazing destiny seems dashed. Follow along as he finally learns to pursue his dreams, no matter the cost, and believe in Jesus!

Answer key: only the last word is different.

Now for the questions I’ve been pondering: does replacing himself with Jesus make that story a Christian Story? Second, even if that is a Christian Story, is this the best kind of story a Christian writer or film director could offer? Third: should we support that kind of story with money and word-of-mouth just because God’s or Jesus’ Name is somehow included?

I doubt I can answer all that here. Instead I have a few reminders while exploring the issue:

1. A Christian’s main story is not simply “fulfill your dreams with Jesus’ help.”

Last December I wrote more about Pelagianism in fiction (one definition: humanism with Christian labels). Those came after I was disappointed by a certain highly anticipated film.

In short: two popular ideas of why God does all things — either because He has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life or He Kept You From Going to Hell so You Can Tell Others — are both true in some senses. But they are partial truths without the far better purpose told in Scripture: God saves people, and does all things, for His own glory. Knowing that can help His people worship Him with even more amazing art forms, and have the freedom to tell new and unique stories that needn’t be constrained by some kind of Motivational Moral.

2. Still, not even the Bible tells its own complete story in every chapter or book.

Maybe knowing this can help keep a God-glorifying author from feeling he must include a Study Guide in the back, so readers don’t miss anything, or give a direct Gospel presentation, start-to-finish-with-John-3-16, somewhere in the pages.

The Psalms alone remind Christians: God-honoring art, inspired by God Himself, includes some tricky parts, and may only hint at the complete Gospel message. Rather it’s His full body of work, all of Scripture, that reveals the main story. And similarly, one should not expect any Christian-made song, book or movie to say everything about God, Christ or the Gospel; instead, an author’s full body of work should point to that complete Gospel account.

So if I am bothered about a movie or book labeled as Christian or Inspirational™, and its main message is only “fulfill your dreams with Jesus’ help,” I don’t want to be a jerk and overcorrect. Jesus does give us blessings in this life. And He can indeed, and often does, fulfill our dreams, if for no other reason than God will give us new and even better dreams:

Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

— Psalm 37:4

3. Nevertheless, why act as if these are the best kinds of stories we can offer?

I’m not as concerned about stories that include Gospel results as I am with the evangelical market’s evident obsession with only these stories as if they’re the greatest. And in response, thousands of evangelical readers or film viewers, eager to support Good and Decent Faith-Based Products in the Secular World, ignore compassionate-critical thinking (if they do find anything to criticize!) and simply go along with it.

One of the better Christian movies? It did include the complete Gospel.

I love some Christian films, such as Fireproof. For what it set out to be, it was great. I saw it with my girlfriend on opening night: Friday, Sept. 26, 2008. (The very next day I proposed as planned — not wanting to sit through a movie about Christian marriage without trying it!)

Yet is that all Christian-made movies can offer? Do we not have better stories to tell? Yes, I’d love to see more God-glorifying speculative films, though I know they’d need bigger budgets. But why not at least try for more artistic assaults in less-expensive genres that point to Gospel roots, not just fruits?

Otherwise, when yet another story comes along with the same “fulfill your dreams with Jesus’ help” theme, it’s not that much different from yet another “beleaguered team / family / music star makes good, thanks to Faith and the Human Spirit” story. It gets a little old.

And when so many other kinds of stories available, based on the Greatest Story Ever Told — the holy and loving God saves sinners for His glory and delight — I can’t help but think we’re being just a bit myopic and predictable.

Therefore, perhaps what I need to do is simply Believe in Myself and reach for new heights, be all I can be, write that different God-glorifying story, make that epic film, climb every mountain, ford every stream, until I find that dream thanks to Jesus’ help and His love in my life based on the promises of John 3:16, Jeremiah 29:11 and Philippians 4:13!

Or maybe I should instead apply my own thoughts consistently, and keep on doing what I think God wants me to do. Perhaps I can trust Him to know, better than I, when American Evangelical Pop Culture finally will turn to seek more of those greater stories.

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Morgan Busse
Member

“Therefore, perhaps what I need to do is simply Believe in Myself and reach for new heights, be all I can be, write that different God-glorifying story, make that epic film, climb every mountain, ford every stream, until I find that dream thanks to Jesus’ help and His love in my life based on the promises of John 3:16, Jeremiah 29:11 and Philippians 4:13!”

I’m going to go further than just books and movies. My husband just recently lost his job as a pastor (after being laidoff 3 years ago and having to make a hard decision to leave another church when it came down to choosing his family or the church). You can guess what everyone is saying: Well, God has something better planned for you guys. You’ll see 🙂

I thought about that. And I don’t see any evidence in the Bible that because something bad happens that God’s going to bring around something good. Don’t get me wrong, I know that Romans 8:28 says all things work together for good, but sometimes I think we begin to think that means a better paying job or a better house or something. If you look at those who followed God, both in the Bible and later on in history, you see a lot of people who died for their faith, were ridiculed, and impoverished.

Not really the “God has something better planned” kind of thing most of us would think of lol. But there is one thing these people did have, and that’s God. They had God’s forgiveness, God’s love, God’s peace, God’s hand as they walked through those valleys of darkness and death. They were a light for people to see God.

I think perhaps we need more stories like that 🙂

Kaci Hill
Member

That was gorgeous. *hugs*

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

Morgan, what a great comment. This is so full of truth and so beautifully put. Thank you.

Becky

Sally Apokedak
Guest

Great post. You made me chuckle at the end.

And great comment by Morgan, too. Those stories about how God makes life better here and now can be very discouraging to people who are suffering the after-effects of earthquakes or personal tragedies. Thanks be to God that the maturity that comes with perseverance through trial is way better than a nice house and a fast car.

I love this post because I think you have gotten to the root of our problems in the shallow church. Sometimes we don’t want Christ as much as we want the doting grandpa or the Santa figure. We can repeat over and over, “We want the giver and not the gift” like a mantra, and not even know that our hearts are deceiving us and we really just want the goodies.

It’s so often all about us and our comfort.

Kaci Hill
Member

Also wonderfully said. The first part begs the question, “So how do we comfort the mourners?” Course, we’re explicitly told to mourn with anyone who mourns. As for the second part, again, right on the head. *hugs too*

Kaci Hill
Member

Oddly, I took a few issues with Fireproof.

Answer key: only the last word is different.

Now for the questions I’ve been pondering: does replacing himself with Jesus make that story a Christian Story?

“Jesus had a little lamb, little lamb…”

Nope.

“There was a young man named Jesus who discovered a Ring….”

Nope.

“Now the Witch put the cold knife to Stephen’s throat, but Jesus gave a shout and came rushing through the trees…”

Hmm…

Okay, more seriously…

Second, even if that is a Christian Story, is this the best kind of story a Christian writer or film director could offer?

I don’t even think it’s entirely accurate. It’s really skewed, suggesting indirectly that only the Rich and Powerful have far to fall. It’s not that it doesn’t happen. It’s that we have plenty of examples of wealthy, powerful men and homeless vagabonds –both in desperate need of the Great Redeemer.

Jesus said it was hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom. He never said it was impossible. He had several people who helped with provisions, and he even had a treasurer (we’ll ignore the treasurer’s name was Judas).

Peter is a shining example of how you don’t have to be the Rich and Powerful to have a long way to fall. The guy probably did decently as a fisherman – he did have a family to feed. But the guy was still a born and bred fisherman, not the high priest or an elder, scribe, teacher of the Law, or anyone else of prominence. That role went to some guy named Saul who later changed his name.

Sorry. You threw me in to rant mode. 😛

Third: should we support that kind of story with money and word-of-mouth just because God’s or Jesus’ Name is somehow included?

There’s Job, who had wealth, power, and a legacy, but endured a massive catastrophe and in the aftermath received double what he’d lost. There’s Joseph, the favored son of Jacob, who went from favorite to slave boy in a prison to second in command in Egypt. I think he married the daughter of one of Pharaoh’s high priests, too. David. Saul. Actually, the entire Davidic line is almost wiped out at one point, but one of the queen mothers saved an infant prince and hid him for seven years. I think she was also married to a high priest. But after the high priest died, the king turned on those who saved him and wound up under judgment. (That’s all part of a very complicated systematic ending of the northern kingdom after Ahab and Jezebel’s…granddaughter, I think, married into the house of Judah. It was nuts, but the point was to distinguish between the two houses.)

Anyway.

I’m not as concerned about stories that include Gospel results as I am with the evangelical market’s evident obsession with only these stories as if they’re the greatest. And in response, thousands of evangelical readers or film viewers, eager to support Good and Decent Faith-Based Products in the Secular World, ignore compassionate-critical thinking (if they do find anything to criticize!) and simply go along with it.

And the overall criticism is that such stories, theology aside, have a horrific reputation for being contrived and cornball at best. (Cornball is my word. Get used to it. 😛 ) Frankly, no one cares about your theology if you can’t put together a good story. On the flipside, they’re willing to at least pay attention if your story is good, whether they agree or not–a note I think this bunch has adequately expressed in our Doctor Who discussions.

Yet is that all Christian-made movies can offer? Do we not have better stories to tell? Yes, I’d love to see more God-glorifying speculative films, though I know they’d need bigger budgets. But why not at least try for more artistic assaults in less-expensive genres that point to Gospel roots, not just fruits?

I’d rather view a Christian film and be blown away. I’ve read books that altered my perspective of the world, but the very best movies I’ve seen are markedly non-Christian at their core (notwithstanding novels-turned-movies or theater). In other words, the Christian themes weren’t necessarily intended.

I think there’s also this terror that to explore the gray on a public forum instead of the safety of fellow Christians is to say “this is how we’re supposed to be.” By and large, people are more forgiving than that as an audience. Spin it well, set your tone, and it’ll be understood. I disagree with a large proportion of what my characters do, even my favorites.

Otherwise, when yet another story comes along with the same “fulfill your dreams with Jesus’ help” theme, it’s not that much different from yet another “beleaguered team / family / music star makes good, thanks to Faith and the Human Spirit” story. It gets a little old.

Stephen, you missed the memo. Jesus is a vending machine.

And when so many other kinds of stories available, based on the Greatest Story Ever Told — the holy and loving God saves sinners for His glory and delight — I can’t help but think we’re being just a bit myopic and predictable.

*snort* That’s a kind way to put it.

Okay, so I really don’t like warm fuzzy stories, anyway….

Therefore, perhaps what I need to do is simply Believe in Myself and reach for new heights, be all I can be, write that different God-glorifying story, make that epic film, climb every mountain, ford every stream, until I find that dream thanks to Jesus’ help and His love in my life based on the promises of John 3:16, Jeremiah 29:11 and Philippians 4:13!

You crack me up. 😛

I think someone should do a story based on another verse from Jesus, one that reads, “I did not come with peace but with a sword.” Or, “he who rejects me stands condemned already.” (New Kaci Paraphrase Ed.)

Or maybe I should instead apply my own thoughts consistently, and keep on doing what I think God wants me to do. Perhaps I can trust Him to know, better than I, when American Evangelical Pop Culture finally will turn to seek more of those greater stories.

I think we should drop the Evangelical Pop Culture title and just call it Popcorn Christianity. Has a nice ring to it, sir, don’t you think? (Whoa, way too much Doctor Who.)

C.L. Dyck
Guest

Can we have “like” buttons on the comments? Or thumbs to up? There’s lots to like here.

Esther
Guest

FWIW, I want to make the point (not contrary to anything said here, but in addition to what has been said, which is all good) that:

Job came out with twice what he had had before: but nothing would replace the children who had died, nor remove the scars from his body, nor heal his wife’s stricken and unbelieving heart.
Joseph became ruler in a foreign land and eventually gained the worship and admiration and gratitude of his brothers: but none of that could make up for all those years he lived in the toxic dysfunction of his family, nor the humiliation of being sold as a slave and condemned to prison for a crime he didn’t commit–nothing would ever restore those years to him. They were still gone.
David became king, but he would never forget the years he dodged spears and spent living in caves to save his life.

We like to look at the ending and say “well, then, that’s alright, oh best beloved”. But I, for one, have lost much that will never be restored to me until Jesus returns. I trust and hope in Him for that which I have lost, and for that which I never knew I was missing. But it is important to realize that the happy endings are just that: happy ENDINGS. They still had their pasts to ache over.

Kaci Hill
Member

Good points. I’m not quite positive where I was going with that paragraph. It made sense when I wrote it. I think I wasn’t going for “happy ending” as much as “thread of hope” even through all that. Or something. Or I was baiting Stephen. No telling. 0=)

Best quotable: But it is important to realize that the happy endings are just that: happy ENDINGS. They still had their pasts to ache over.

Esther
Guest

Most likely baiting Stephen: it’s such fun. As I thought about it, it seems to me that the reason I wanted to say what I did as a comment on this article is this: most of the best stories I have read have endings that are, indeed, happy, but they leave you realizing that the end of the book is not the end of the story–it’s a happy ending, but not necessarily a happy-ever-after. The characters are deeper and richer by the end of the book than they were at the beginning, and you are confident that they have what it takes to face whatever their future holds, but they have a future, and it will be partly effected by what they have been through in the part of the story that you just read.

Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is like this: at the very end, everything is resolved, but the joy is not unmitigated. And when Sam says “Well, I’m back”, the reader knows that the story goes on after the writing is finished, and that Sam, scarred and traumatized but stronger and wiser on the inside, will be able to face it because of what he has been through.

The stories of the bible are the same way, but we tend to focus on the “happy ending” part, possibly because we want a “happy ever after”…and there is one, but it is not yet.