Stories are powerful tools for presenting the truth.
As our mindset has become increasingly postmodern, a problem has arisen that undermines this valuable aspect of storytelling. Truth is no longer a defined standard, a rock-solid starting point for interpreting reality.
Instead, society demands a relativistic frame of mind. Truth has become subjective, based on personal feelings, preferences, and opinions. This is dangerous when it comes to telling stories in any medium.
The cultural river has picked up and swept stories far downstream, farther from any acceptance of Truth (capital T intended) and toward a land where my truth is as valid as your truth. My way of viewing the world is no more right or wrong than yours.
What practical impact does this have on stories?
Audiences approach a movie or book with relativism rooted firmly in their thinking, meaning no matter the intended theme presented throughout the course of the narrative, the interpretation is ultimately up to the individual.
Let’s take Aslan’s death in place of Edmund as an example. The Christian sees the beautiful message woven into that act of self-sacrifice, which points to Christ’s sacrifice for us. To an unbeliever, however, who lacks the guiding star of Truth, the event is merely done because Aslan is good, and that’s what good people (or lions) do for their friends.
Which is true but removes the deeper meaning.
The two popular approaches are mainstream and Christian. After looking at each of these, let’s explore how we as Christian creatives can best present Truth.
The Mainstream Approach
It amuses me when I see secular stories probing into themes such as sacrifice, loyalty, love, and redemption. They can’t help it. All stories are branches shooting off the trunk of the Great Story spoken of at the end of The Last Battle.
Granted, their conclusions are skewed, but as writers well know, nothing is completely unique and original.
Secular movies and books have no qualms about asking hard questions and exploring weighty themes. However, due to the postmodern grayness of today’s thinking, these themes are unmoored from the anchor of Truth and run the risk of losing their potency.
In Mockingjay, we’re left with an empty feeling bordering on despair (kudos to the movie for an ending that contained a glimmer of hope).
Inception boldly delves into the murky waters of the meaning of reality. The answer it reaches? According to Christopher Nolan:
“The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb—he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care anymore, and that makes a statement: perhaps, all levels of reality are valid.” (emphasis mine)
Despite themes that lean toward Christian principles, secular stories fall short, built as they are on the shaky grounds of societal acceptance. Like a reflection, they hint at the reality without truly presenting it.
The Christian Approach
On the Christian side, we have stories that do equal damage. The message becomes the central pillar around which everything revolves—often to the detriment of the actual plot and character arcs.
To paraphrase Eomer in Two Towers, “I don’t doubt the good intentions of Christian authors and filmmakers, only the execution of their stories.” This isn’t intended to be an article bashing Christian storytelling or complaining about the lack of diverse, worthwhile entertainment in the Christian industry. We’ve ridden that carousel in circles for years.
However, the bunny and flowers tactic has problems. Forget the obsession with a rosy-colored unreality, the insistence on being clean (whatever that means), or any other elements that make your pet peeve gauge swing into the red.
Christian fiction is too forceful. In seeking to present the Truth, such stories are too eager to use the two-by-four approach—running up and down the street smacking people with God, miracles, conversion experiences, moral demands. The list goes on.
At the end of the day, how we present Truth is just as important as actually doing it justice in the first place.
The Ideal Approach
As Christian creatives, which approach is best for us?
I suggest a combination of both. Story trumps message, but like a solid foundation, a compelling message is what upholds the story.
The message should arise from and flow out of the author’s worldview, a river that waters the garden plot of the story instead of a deluge that drowns everything because if we don’t put God and a “Christian” theme in every chapter, we’re somehow failing.
Think Tolkien and Lewis, for whom I have great respect because of their ability to present Truth in a potent and skillful way. Their stories resonated with Truth without throwing it in your face. The foundation was there, hidden, yet vital to the story. This is the type of excellence we should strive for.
Does that mean we can’t use obvious portrayals of God in our stories? No.
Does it mean we should carefully consider what Christian elements we include, how they fit within the framework of the story, and what they contribute? Yes.
Because what’s more powerful than a riveting tale whose tapestry is woven with the golden threads of Truth?
What do you think is the best way to present Truth through the vehicle of storytelling?