Reclaiming Storytelling

by Barbara R. Harrington

The great philosopher, Aristotle, regularly rustled up the ancient equivalent of a coke and a bowl of popcorn, settled into a comfortable stone seat, and immersed himself into whatever play was all the rage at the local amphitheater.

Aristotle’s resulting treatise, The Poetics, remains the benchmark manual for writers who not only want to weave a riveting tale, but also seek to impact the world for good. Aristotle held the unshakeable conviction that it is impossible for men to live together in harmony without good stories.

Tragically, Hollywood, as modernity’s preferred source of storytelling, has nearly lost the art. It’s as if the studios that once entertained and enlightened the world have forgotten how to weave a good tale. Part of the blame goes to the general cultural loss of rigor and discipline—the doorways to the beautiful—and the rest goes to pervasive cynicism. In addition, too few young writers steep themselves in the tradition of classical storytelling that would allow them to create engaging and enlightening stories.

For all these reasons, Hollywood needs a new generation of storytellers. And more than ever, Christians must support what the entertainment industry is doing right so that they will do it more and better. We should consider it part of our discipleship to promote and celebrate the industry’s best productions, encouraging others to aspire to higher standards. Instead, the entertainment industry often hears only our condemnation that, “It’s all garbage.” The truth is, it’s not all garbage. Some of it is very good.

How could anyone watch 15 minutes of anything Pixar has produced and dismiss it as irrelevant or dangerous? Think of the opening sequence in Up—profoundly communicating the power of relationship and marriage without a single line of dialogue. What about the amazing human talent on This Old House and Iron Chef America? Or the fun, new ways of exploring history on American Pickers and Antiques Roadshow? How could anyone watch the remarkable documentaries available on PBS and the History Channel and conclude that they are worthless?

Unfortunately, the majority of today’s films and television programming fall into a gray area that mixes the good with the bad. AMC’s Mad Men illustrates this point. It’s a weird combination of outstanding acting, writing, and production values interjected with moments that objectify human beings by magnifying the confusions of modern life. It’s not garbage; it’s complicated. Today’s Christians must recognize that media discernment plays a major role in discipleship. It’s long past time for us to get involved in our own time.

We need to roll up our sleeves, intelligently enter culture, and make it ours. In our pursuit of the beautiful, we should be willing to make all the sacrifices for our faith that the pagans do for money so that our stories get the widest audience possible.

Because Jesus taught through parables, Christians embrace the prophetic role stories play in society. Prophecy should awaken us and make us uncomfortable in our complacency. ­­­Prophetic projects in this vein would include movies like Of Gods and Men, Hotel Rwanda, The Hurt Locker, and The Lives of Others.

So why do believers so often rally around stories that the rest of the world dismisses as lightweight, banal, and irrelevant? Great storyteller and Christian, Flannery O’Connor, called this pursuit of “the safe” among the people of God as, “an over emphasis on innocence.” Naïveté, cluelessness, and aloofness represent poor discipleship and have little in common with the wisdom of serpents and guilelessness of doves to which Jesus calls us.

Christian storytellers before us were made of sterner stuff. What is safe about lustful Dimitri’s dream in The Brothers Karamazov, in which a child is left to starve? What is safe about Dante’s blaspheming bishops stewing in the seventh circle of hell? For that matter, what is safe about the biblical stories of David, the murdering adulterer; the sexual abuse of Tamar; or the crucifixion of the Lord? Nothing. As C.S. Lewis said of our Master, “Aslan is never safe. But He is good.”

A new generation of profound, professional storytellers who understand their vocation in a Christian light will not just spring up into the culture by accident. In response to the distressing signs of the times—depression, moral confusion and relativism, the loss of meaning and belief—the 21st century Church must recreate the artist guilds and training programs that produced the stunningly beautiful sacred art of the Renaissance.

Living as a disciple right here, right now involves a complex process of discernment and gleaning, but also of creating our own masterpieces to coalesce the wisdom we have to share as a gift to future generations. We were chosen for this moment, and we are charged to be yeast in this culture—not just “out there” in the culture, but important in the culture, which means telling our stories undiluted, unapologetically, and without fear to a world desperate to hear them.

Barbara R. Harrington is executive director of APU’s Galileo Film Studio, cinema professor, a Hollywood script writer, and founder and chair emeritus of Act One, Inc., a Christian organization for training aspiring scriptwriters and producers starting out in Hollywood.

Originally published in the Fall '12 issue of APU Life. View all issues.