If you want to be an effective communicator of the Christian message, remember that ours is first and foremost a story. Become a great story teller, and don’t think that when you’re “presenting the gospel” you are supposed to shift in to didactic theology mode, and you’ll be well on your way.
Telling stories well usually means being able to read and understand stories well. This explains half of my advice to undergrads who would be biblical scholars: Double major in (English) Literature and Classics. Classics so you understand the world and languages of the New Testament, Literature so that you can cultivate the skill of reading and the art of interpretation.
This is also why learning how to watch and interpret and talk about movies can be an important part of engaging the twenty-first century North American world.
The short films we watched were “The Little Gorilla” and “Kavi.” Both were about children who were faced with opportunities to overcome obstacles that stood in their way: internal and external. Both raised significant issues about family and its ability to help or hinder the realization of a child’s potential. Kavi also opened the audience’s eyes to the horrors of modern slavery.
But the things that I took away from the film were less about the films themselves than a few conversations that ensued afterward.
One line of conversation that developed was prompted by the messy ending of one of the movies. It’s not all neat and tied together. The deliverer does not deliver a full redemption. In response to this observation by an audience member, Chap Clark spoke for a few minutes about how that is not only what “life” is really like, but that is what the Christian life is like as well. We too often present the gospel, especially at camps and to young people, as though accepting the gospel is the end-point that ties all the loose ends together.
But that’s not reality. And we need to learn to be comfortable with the loose ends and to think about how we tell the story such that it matches up a bit better. How do we tell our story? And do we tell the story as well as these film makers?
Another line of conversation was opened up by someone asking about the spate of spiritually-interested Hollywood films. Ralph Winter spoke about this being a long-running theme in the entertainment industry, but one that’s getting more press right now. He talked about the opportunities that are opened up for us to address spiritual issues by the films and TV shows that serve them up for us.
But what I really wanted to know was not so much how we as Christians can sponge off the great stuff already being done. I wanted to know what he thought we as Christians needed to learn in order to make better movies and write better shows. Why is it that the Coen Brothers make the best Christian movies in Hollywood even though they aren’t Christian?
His response was spot on, in my opinion:
Christians think the most important thing is content. The entertainment industry only cares about telling a good story.
The way that Winter explains Christianity’s failure in the entertainment industry parallels what I would say is its failure, overall, to understand itself. We have too often forgotten that our faith is a story. It’s not a statement.
We think that to tell about Jesus we have to give an atonement theory. The early Christians thought that to tell about Jesus they had to narrate his death: in Gospels, in a meal, in a baptismal ritual.
As Winter suggested, we should be the greatest story tellers of all. But before that will be true of us, we have to really start believing that the story’s the thing.
Once we do that, not only can we, perhaps, make better films and write better fiction. Perhaps we can even engage good stories, stories without the particular content we would have put in, and see there the stories, or even the Story, we wish to tell.