The Importance of the Stories We Consume

1950s family watching TV

There are few things I admire more than a gifted storyteller. It could be an author, a skilled songwriter, the guy who fills in the word bubbles in comic books, or even a team of movie or TV script writers, whatever the medium, I have great admiration for this art form. I admit I’ve been know to binge watch shows on Netflix, bury my face in a novel or comic book, attend opening night premiers of movies, and own a fairly large vinyl music collection. I’m a sucker for a good story, and I feel this is something most of us can relate to; because God has given us a hunger for stories. After all, God’s own Son is the greatest storyteller we have had the opportunity to read.

Jesus was known for his parables, we still discuss them today, and they are a master class in storytelling. However, God’s love of telling stories didn’t start with Jesus. As we look at the Old Testament, we see a book like Song of Solomon, a scandalous book of erotic literature that no Sunday School teacher wants to touch. And while the movie version of this book certainly wouldn’t be shown on basic cable, we are given a passionate analogy of the love and union between God and his people. David uses metaphors throughout the Psalms. Job, though based on an actual account, is written as a grand epic tale of loss and redemption. Even the prophet’s in both the Old Testament and John’s final vision use analogies to get the point across. Perhaps this is why Revelation is one of the most debated books in the Bible. Jesus, in his telling of parables, like John’s vision, leaves us searching for answers. Isn’t that the point of all good storytelling?

I love talking to my daughters about the classic fairy tales, and as a kid I loved the short animated “Aesop’s Fables,” these stories were never written simply to entertain. They have a moral that they are preaching. Every book, TV show, movie, and song that is written has the same intent. The “author” has a message they are trying to convey, a world view they are pushing. Not all of these are healthy, but every thing that is created is telling a larger story. After every parable Jesus told, people needed clarification. They were left thinking. Even Christ disciples would take time to ask, “What did that story mean?” This is a question we desperately need to start asking ourselves.

The stories we “consume” mean something. Now, I’m the kind of guy who sees God in everything, and I know not everyone is like this. I’m not saying that you have to see things this way, but if you watch movies or TV often, we should never do it passively. Consider the way James Harleman puts it in his book “Cinemagogue.” If you are going to “entertain” company this weekend, you do not invite your friends over to the house and simply sit across from them staring blankly at them for hours on end. This would be awkward. When you “entertain” guests, you interact with them, you engage. Yet when we think about “entertainment” we often sit in front of a screen, turn our minds off, and stair blankly for hours. This act in it’s self is never what we were intended to do. If we are not engaging with what you are consuming, we have a serious problem.

By “engaging with what you are consuming,” I mean we should be constantly digging at what the writers intent is, what the redeeming qualities of  this intent may be, what morals can we carry with us when the story has concluded, and which thematic ideas should be outright rejected. Do not run past the final thing in that list. Do not get the idea that I’m saying that every idea preached from Hollywood, a recording studio, or keyboard is something glorifying to God. We must learn what to receive and what to reject. But we can’t let that cloud the idea that God is a diverse creator, who gave his creation the ability to create art forms that reflect who the creator made us to be. Human creativity speaks from the depths of our souls; a lot of times, even we do not realize what the Creator is saying through us. After all, if God can use a donkey to get his message across in the Old Testament, don’t you think he can use a jackass (See what I did there. Wink.) in a writers room in some TV studio office.

I ran across a quote from Marshal McLuhan in David Dark’s book “Life’s too short to pretend you’re not religious,” that puts what I am talking about very plainly.

“When we distinguish entertainment from education we only demonstrate that we don’t understand the first thing about either.”

I was recently having a conversation with some friends about movies and a man from my church overheard us and joined in. He admittedly hadn’t seen many movies, and wasn’t a huge fan of cinema in general, however, he regularly watched movies the local big box store labeled as a “Christian Film.” He had been a little confused about a movie he had picked up and it’s relation to Christianity, but once he watched it he found it to be one of his favorite movies. It seemed the story resonated deeply with him. He was still confused about what the movie was about. It was a children’s fantasy story that in his mind, ripped off the redemptive story of Jesus. Clearly to this point in his life, my friend had never thought of the stories we read and the movies we watch as analogies.

The movie my friend had picked up was the 2005 Disney big screen adaptation of “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.” I remember when the movie came out; there were Christian friends of mine who refused to even have a conversation about seeing the film. After all it had the word “Witch” in the title. I went to see the movie on opening day. The source material for the movie had always been one of my favorite books (and still is.) The author C.S. Lewis has done more for spiritual walk than any other author outside of Scripture. Lewis always had a specific intention with creating the world of Narnia.

When Lewis was asked point blank by a young reader about Aslan’s (The Lion from the Narnia series) true identity, Lewis responded the same way Jesus often did, with a question.

“I want you to guess. Has there never been anyone in this world who (1) Arrived at the same time as Father Christmas (2) Said he was the son of the Great Emperor (3) Gave himself up for someone else’s fault to be jeered at and killed by wicked people (4) Came to life again (5) Is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb… Don’t you really know His name in this world?”

Other times Lewis stated that he longed for children to understand the weighty concepts on display in “The Lion the Witch and Wardrobe,” so that as they got older it would help them to understand the depth of what Christ has done for us. As a father of a 6 year old, I can’t think of a better “parable” to help my daughter understand the biblical concept of “Substitutionary Atonement” than of Aslan giving his life for Edmund. Yet I love how Lewis encouraged the reader to “work it out” for themselves, this is what Jesus often did with his stories.

So far most of what I’ve mentioned has come from outside of Scripture, so for the sake of staying “biblical” with this post, let’s turn our attention to Paul in the book of Acts. While Paul would agree that not every book, TV show, movie, or album that comes out is beneficial for us as Christians, I think he understood there was beauty and God honoring narratives in existence that needed to be pointed out in order to change lives. For me, there are several areas I draw lines when it comes to media consumption, the first of which being what I would call “Possession Horror.” I’ve grown up around church and have seen enough to know that there is a powerful force at work opposing God. I don’t need to sit down and watch a movie about a little kid being possessed to know this is a reality, so I skip it (I once walked out of a theater during the previews for one of these). Another line I draw is anything explicitly sexual. Another thing that seems to make most people’s list of “media I do not watch,” are topics that are attempting to deny God’s authority, or as some might put it, “sacrilegious” content. While I will not argue that you should watch things of this nature (I shy away from it, too), Paul seems to have thought that even art forms praising other gods could be used for God’s glory.

In Act’s 17 Paul quotes from a poem by Aratus, the quote is speaking of the Greek god Zeus. Paul stands before a group of people and the best idea he can come up with to share the Gospel is to quote something that everyone will be familiar with. When Paul spoke the words “In Him we live and move, and have our being,” the crowd was used to this idea, but had always attributed this concept with their god. What Paul was effectively saying is, “There is a truth that you know from the things you’ve read, but it is only true when seen through the light of the Living God.” Paul knew that even a non-Christian poet was preaching a message to his readers. Paul was able to see what was underneath it, and was able to use it to point to Christ.

As I attempt to bring this post in for a landing, I want you to know I’m not asking you to run to the movie theater and watch every movie coming out this weekend, or to binge watch any and everything on Netflix. We have to learn to watch with spirit lead discretion. If you are watching something and the Spirit tells you to turn it off, then do what God is asking you to do. I am simply pointing out to you, that the things we watch are sending messages into our brains, and we need to be mindful of these messages. Most of the things we enjoy, if we examine them we will find, there is a deeper longing as to why we are drawn to a concept. God is speaking, are we listening. Jesus used stories to relay simple truths, and He still does.

  • Superhero movies are popular because deep down we know we need a savior.
  • Show’s like Lost and movies like the Hunger Games are popular because we all want to believe we can survive impossible odds, if they are thrust upon us.
  • A book like The Road is a best seller because we all hope we can endure the blackest and bleakest of nights. (Which is only possible if we “carry the fire”)
  • The X-Files can return to TV after 14 years because we all think we are being lied to by “big brother” types, yet we  “Want to believe” that “The Truth is out there.”
  • Fantasy and Sci-fi are popular because we want to believe there is somewhere better than our current reality.
  • We still read and watch Tolkien’s stories because we have been created for adventure and to wrestle with our human desire for created things such as dragon’s gold and magical rings.

These desires inside of us were placed there by God, and He’s using modern day storytellers to point those desires back out to us, because we have forgotten them. We are too busy just “consuming” instead of learning to “entertain” these concepts and use them to help us grow. He is speaking loudly through so many things (This list is just some of the ones I love.)

To end, I want to hopefully be helpful by giving you what might serve as a guide to “Entertaining what we consume.” This is a list of rules I try and follow; you might have your own. Let God show you what you need to watch.

Rule 1: Why am I watching what I am watching? Why does the content in this movie, book, TV show, or album seem attractive to me?

We shouldn’t read, watch, or listen to anything without considering the answer to this question. If you don’t have a reason, think it through while you are watching. This answer will be telling.

Rule 2: Does this contain content that will lead me directly to sinful thoughts or actions?

If the answer to this question is “Yes.” My answer to you would always be, “Then don’t watch it.” If it invokes lust in your heart, Christ said it’s as dangerous as committing the act itself. If you are prone to violence and a violent movie, book, TV show, album, or video game will cause you to want to be violent, turn it off. These are just two areas where the answer could come back as a “Yes.” Regardless, if the content will lead you to sin, it is never going to be beneficial.

If you get through these two questions and begin to “consume.” Here are a few important questions to ask as you do, and once you are done.

Question 1: What was the writer/author’s intended message? What was the theme?

Like I said before, for better or worse, every writer has a message.

Question 2: Is this message something I can fully accept, is it a message that has redemptive qualities that God is speaking through, or is it a message that I should outright reject?

Question 3: Is the message that I am accepting or redeeming, based on Scripture?

Understand me when I say, as Christians we can never accept a truth simply because it “sounds good.” Or it was told in a beautiful way. We have to base it all on the Authority of Scripture. God may be using our stories to share His story, but he will never use our stories to change His story.

Once we begin viewing the things we call “entertainment” through these lenses I believe we will find more and more truth. There will be things that we enjoy that God will call us away from as well. The one thing we can not afford to do is simply sit at the buffet of our media driven culture and blindly consume.

Grace and Peace to you.

For further reading check out a book that opened my eyes to how I watch things:

“Cinemagogue: Reclaiming Entertainment and Navigating Narrative for the Myths and Mirrors they were Meant to Be” By James Harleman

Or Check out Jame’s site:

Cinemagogue.com

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