Telling Tales

Everyone loves a good story. Today, perhaps the most powerful storytelling takes place on the silver screen. And 2014 looks as if Hollywood is casting its attention toward the Bible and Christian themes as never before.

Director Darren Aronofsky retells the Genesis flood story in his controversial movie Noah, starring Russell Crowe, released only a month after a more traditional and reverential Bible movie, Son of God, based on the Gospel of John.

A major motion picture on the life of Moses is slated for the end of 2014 starring Christian Bale, and popular actor Brad Pitt reportedly is contemplating a film about first-century Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate.

Christian commentators originally balked at Noah because early scripts departed substantially from the redemptive theme in Genesis and appeared more like a thinly disguised pitch for liberal environmentalism. Later Paramount, which produced it, scrambled to make some final adjustments.

How should Christians respond when Hollywood gets it wrong in telling such stories? Boycotts, which give these movies more unwarranted attention and box office sales than they deserve, rarely accomplish their intended result. Better that Christians champion with ticket sales the movies worthy of their support.

But how do we decide if a film warrants our support? Context is essential. Years ago I participated in a symposium in Hollywood with a number of movie directors. The subject was the role of violence in storytelling. My novels often contain a measure of violence. In fact, I pointed out that one of my favorite stories of all time includes murder, mayhem, and even a graphic incident where a man’s eyes are gouged out. I was describing Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear.

The point was that, contextually, King Lear neither glorified nor endorsed violence. Rather, its message lay in the fact that even brilliant, successful kings can be victims of the evil and frailty that are inherent in the human condition. If stories are to be truthful, even redemptive, one of the first steps is to explain this human condition. If sin and evil were merely a mirage, a psychological artifact, or the result of some type of social neurosis, then Jesus’ death on the cross would be meaningless.

But we also need stories that tackle the solution to this dilemma of sin. The 17th-century Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal noted that because man is naturally disinclined to believe in the God of the Bible, our job is twofold: (1) to show there is a “cure” for this condition by making faith “attractive, [making] good men wish it were true,” and (2) “then show that it is.”

The second part is the domain of apologetics, preaching, theology, and evangelism. The first part can be a province of the creative enterprise: telling a good story that makes people “wish” for a “cure” for the darkness of the human heart and misery of the human condition.

I disagree with those who dismiss movies as merely entertainment and therefore trivial. Cinema has become a primary means of transmitting certain values and worldviews to millions of people. It shapes the culture. But even more important, storytelling is something God Himself takes seriously.

Jesus communicated some of His most well-known truths through parables, using all the standard components of good storytelling: interesting characters, compelling storylines, and an enduring message at the end. God is a communicator, and His method of transmitting truth can teach us something about how we should approach modern storytelling.

The Lord chose to communicate the greatest story of all time by inspiring His followers to write the 66 books of the Bible. Just think of the dramatic arc of this nonfiction story: God creates a perfect world and plan for mankind. Enter the malevolent Satan. Man and woman succumb to temptation and break from fellowship with their Creator. From a human perspective, all looks lost. The world is now in the grip of a sinister prince of darkness and corrupt human hearts.

But there is hope. Throughout the long march of human history, God faithfully pursues rebellious humankind, telling and retelling the story of His love. Eventually, God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, comes into the world to redeem it. But He does the unexpected: He does not conquer by force. Instead, the perfect, flawless, divine Son gives Himself up to His enemies and dies a sacrificial death so that we—the rebels who betrayed and disobeyed the King who loves us—can be pardoned and enter the gates of His realm.

What a story! What an amazing God! And how amazing is His grace!

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