We know who we are by the stories we tell. Better stories lead to better living.
If I tell a lot of stories about how busy I am, busyness defines my identity.
If I tell a lot of stories about how badly treated I am, the actions of others and my hurt feelings defines my identity.
If I share memories of great times with old friends, depth of friendship defines my identity.
So, the personal stories I tell about my life determine what is important in my life and how I am experiencing these aspects of my life. The same is true of the stories we are immersed in.
My wife and I watched the first ten episodes of the TV show Gotham, fascinated by the backstory of the Batman. It has compelling characters and is well-written, but the relentless darkness of the show caused us to quit it. As much as we identified with several of the characters, we found the heavy weight of the show’s overall darkness to be a lie.
Similarly, those who watch a lot of TV news end up with a negative, fearful view of life. There is always a political issue to be frustrated about. There is always a health scare to be worried about. There is always a social issue to be agitated about. That’s because these are the stories and the angles on these stories that TV news focuses on.
It doesn’t matter if the stories we encounter in books, movies, and TV are fictional or reality-based, they shape the way we view the world and how we live in it. They set our imaginations.
To help myself understand how the stories I am taking in affect me, I have four questions that I evaluate them by.
1. What does it mean to be human in this story
This question takes some time to get the feel for. But once you do, you start getting the hang of it and you start noticing its huge influence on your worldview.
If you’re watching Quentin Tarantino movies, you will conclude that to be human is to be violent and vengeful.
If you’re watching any of a vast number of talent-oriented TV shows like The Voice or Dancing With The Stars, you will conclude that to be human is to be wonderfully talented but subject to harsh scrutiny.
If you’re wathing a family-oriented drama like Parenthood, you will conclude that to be human is to determined by family relationships and that though there are plenty of joys in families, they are mostly filled with drama.
If you’re watching a comedy like How I Met Your Mother, you will conclude that to be human is determined by the quest to find a romantic soul mate.
Being aware of how these stories shape the way we think about what it means to be human is important, because we find ourselves affected by and adopting their worldviews without even noticing it.
2. How does this story imagine the world we live in?
This may include some specific culture critique or simply a general view of the world at large.
Some view the world as environmentally doomed. Some view our culture as run by heartless corporations. Some view corruption — political, police, religious, corporate, etc. — as the basic reality of life. Some view the world through a Darwinistic lens of endless competition. Some view the world as meaningless. Some, like the supernatural thrillers, view the world as a cosmic spiritual battle between good and evil (with evil always on the verge of winning).
3. Is there a God in this story? And if so, what is this God like?
Many of our stories are effectively God-less. Not only are characters prayerless, they have no orientation toward an over-arching meaning to the events of the world. There is no larger story that their smaller stories fit into, no bigger story of God.
But even stories that reference some God-like being don’t necessarily include the biblical God. And too often, we assume that any God in any story is the biblical God.
For instance, in Bruce Almighty, Morgan Freeman does a wonderful job in his portrayal of the divine, but it’s still far from the biblical vision of God. First of all, in all of his power, he is overly limited in his ability to affect individual lives. But beyond that, he isn’t a Trinity. He’s a single monad. Not only does this limit him as a character in the film, but it constricts our view of God by eliminating Trinity from our conception of and interaction with God. He is more about power than relationship.
Whenever there is a divine element in any story we encounter, it’s always helpful to consider the characteristics of this “God” to see which ones dominate and which biblical characteristics are set aside.
4. What images and/or distortions of the gospel are in this story?
Just because there are biblical echoes in a story doesn’t mean that the gospel can be found in the story. And just because there are no biblical echoes doesn’t mean that the gospel is very much present in the story.
Just because the movie Evan Almighty is based on the Noah story doesn’t mean that it accurately represents that story or that this is telling a gospel story. In fact, it’s so far off, it might as well have been telling the Epic of Gilgamesh story instead.
In the final episode of the first season of Daredevil, Wilson Fisk retells the story of the Good Samaritan in surprisingly accurate detail. And then he walks through the characters in the story to locate himself within it (which is a helpful way to engage with the Scriptures), landing on a surprising conclusion. While the conclusion is anti-gospel, it brings up all kinds of considerations which point to the gospel. Sometimes, distortions can point to the truth.
In The Matrix, Neo has his Garden of Gethsemane moment when he is put into the Construct and asked what he wants. He replies, “Guns. Lots of guns.” This is in direct contrast to Jesus telling Peter to put away his sword, saying those who live by it will die by it. Neo shows himself to be sadly unimaginative, falling back on violence, which empties his later death and resuscitation to an empty echo of Jesus’ voluntary death and glorious resurrection.