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01 November 2007

Talking about... Storytelling

Talking about... Storytelling

Whether we are talking from a pulpit or over a garden fence, Fiona Stewart helps us to give relevant answers to the big issues raised by contemporary popular culture...

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. Everyone loves a story. Whether it's an account of a brave, independent girl whose attempt to rescue a friend leads to the discovery of deception, as in The Golden Compass, or a morality tale like Mr Brooks, about an exemplary citizen living a double life as an undetected serial killer, a good yarn has the power to captivate.

A great storyteller draws us into the narrative, engaging our attention to such an extent that we finish the book or leave the cinema with a sense of returning reluctantly to the real world. Whether or not we like the main characters, we are invited to journey with them, confronting their dilemmas and sharing their struggles. And in a good story, the experience is transformative.

The Golden Compass is based on the first novel in the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, who said, "There's more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy... All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by."

Searching for values

Of course, in biblical terms, a good story will enhance our understanding of God. We are told by Paul to think on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy (Philippians 4.8), but keeping this in mind when queuing at the local multiplex can be tricky. The search for biblical values in a film cannot mean merely measuring its quality by the amount of swearing, violence or sex it contains. Judging a work by the morality of its central characters will often result in disengagement from our culture.

All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not

We can no more expect characters who do not profess Christian faith to act according to Christian morality than we do our real-life friends who are not Christians. As we battle to avoid being "of the world", we must avoid the temptation to migrate to another planet from our non-Christian friends and neighbours. In storybook terms, fear of disappointment, or of catching something nasty, leads us to avoid all contact with kissable frogs.

In The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker asserts that everything written can be distilled into seven storylines. The idea that the richness and diversity of our cultural heritage can be condensed into a formula seems simplistic, yet there is something appealing about Booker's claim. As Christians, our worldview is rooted in the Bible. We find purpose and meaning by joining the big story of creation, fall and redemption through relationship with Jesus Christ.

In his prologue Booker writes, "The plot of a story is that which leads its hero or heroine either to a 'catastrophe' or an 'unknotting'; either of frustration or to liberation; either to death or to a renewal of life."

Sound familiar? When we come to examine our culture's stories, we find reflections of the Gospel that challenge and deepen our understanding of it. After all, even filmmakers are made in the image of the creator God. The skill, then, is in learning to spot these reflections, and in remaining open to the possibility of transformation.

Identify the voice

Take for example The Lookout, a straightforward story about a bank heist. Chris Pratt (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young man left brain-injured by a car accident. Unable to hold down a more demanding job, Chris is employed by a bank as a janitor. One night he meets Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), the ringleader of a gang that plans to stage a robbery. Gary promises Chris wealth, power and independence if he helps them gain access to the bank.

As Gary manipulates Chris into doing what he knows is wrong, we hear echoes of the persuasive voice of the devil. The skill in watching the film is to identify the voice as that which seeks to persuade us that we are better off living without dependence on our heavenly Father and to be challenged by the reminder.

Similarly, Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford's film about the war in Afghanistan, confronts the viewer with the stark statement that "if you don't stand for something, you might fall for anything". The film explores responsibility and apathy through the tale of two American soldiers (Derek Luke and Michael Peña) who choose to "fight to make things better" as their fate is determined by a slippery US senator.

The task for the discerning viewer is to celebrate the good while rejecting the false

As Christian opinion is increasingly marginalised, there is value in us engaging with the question of what it means to stand up for what is right and in reflecting on how we discern truth from falsehood.

A less comfortable challenge lies amidst the beauty and imaginative scope of a film like The Golden Compass. The lavish tale is set in a world that is subtly different from our own - a world where people's souls, or "daemons", take physical form and where rumours of other worlds are whispered in Oxford colleges by academics who live in fear of the Magisterium, the arbiter of orthodoxy. Pullman is avowedly anti-Christian, and the film has subdued the book's obvious parallel between the Magisterium and the Church. Yet even in this atheistic environment, we discover expressions of courage, truth and sacrifice. As we watch it, the task for the discerning viewer is to celebrate the good while rejecting the false assertion that humans are better off when they have no need of a higher power.

Learning to watch with discernment and appreciation may indeed prove to be the way to live happily ever after in our culture.Fiona Stewart

  • www.ToolsForTalks.com provides a one-stop shop to help teach the Bible in the language of contemporary culture. The site contains quotes and illustrations taken from the latest films, music, magazines and TV - updated weekly.
  • Fiona Stewart is a managing editor for the Damaris Trust.

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