Hello and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
For the past few weeks, we've been talking about why Christians are afraid to tell more mature, adult oriented stories. When it comes to stories, most Christians tend to think that the goal is to be non-offensive, especially when it comes to things like sex and language and violence. But the problem with this standard is that it only describes a void. It doesn't give us any creative guidance. It also limits the types of stories that we're even allowed to explore.
So, right out of the starting gate, the possibility of telling a story that contains content specifically geared for adults, is forbidden. Stories, therefore, such as The Shawshank Redemption or Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan or Magnolia, some of these great stories that have been told, they embody spiritual messages and adhere to strict Judeo Christian biblical moral worldview tenants, and yet, they would never be told by Christians because this limiting criteria absolutely forbids those types of stories to be explored.
So, instead of dealing with the types of raw issues that we humans tend to wrestle with on an almost daily basis, and dealing with the real questions about God that that brings up in our spirit, and the real pain that we're experiencing because of all of these things, all that's left to us is typically the fluff. No wonder we've turned out so much embarrassing content. Things like Fireproof or God's Not Dead, these are not good movies. Those types of stories or films are truly horrifying examples of subpar Christian art.
And while some might argue that hey Fireproof, for example, explores a deep issue of man's struggle with pornography. It does so in a very contrived, banal and unrealistic way. This kind of story just can't be the goal for us as Christians, it just can't. It was trite, predictable. It had saccharine dialogue, underdeveloped characters, pedestrian acting. It was preachy in its content. It was a predictable story that never really got past the surface level. It certainly didn't deal with the real stuff underneath all that. And in fact, portrays a false worldview, that tells people that might be dealing with that very real issue, a superficial solution that probably won't work for them. And therefore is causing damage. It is not what we should be doing.
So, it can't be the goal for us as Christians. Even though it lacked sex, and it lacked language and lacked violence. It wasn't a good movie because that's not the stuff that makes a movie good. A movie or a story is great because of what it offers, not because of what it lacks. Entertainment is a positive, not a void. And it is good insofar as it truly represents the world as God actually created it. And human beings as we really are, when we explore the true things about how all of this works together. Now we're getting to the meat, and we're not just drinking milk.
So, it's time for Christian storytellers to take some radical action. We need to discard these limiting parameters that we've adopted, and adopt new criteria that would actually give us the freedom to explore the real things that need to be explored in order for us to make a difference and to reach mankind, our culture, on a much deeper level. We want to compete for the hearts and the minds of the people. But we're never going to do that if we keep turning out these trite, banal stories. We need stories that go beyond the lightweight. We need stories that go beyond family friendly. We need stories that go beyond the non-offensive variety if we want to have any hope of challenging and dominating narratives and the marketplace of ideas. But this means we have to broaden our horizons. We have to think beyond the stifling restrictions.
So, if a Christian story is not a story that lacks sex, language and violence, then it begs the question, what ingredients should we be looking for to identify any so called project or story "Christian"? Which again, I have problem with that terminology, but I'm not going to get rid of that. I'm not going to die on that hill just yet. I'm going to say, okay, it's a Christian project or story if it contains a certain number of criteria, which I'm about to list for you. So, I have come up with seven guidelines that I believe we need to be looking for as we select what stories to publish if we're in Christian publishing, or what movies to make if we're Christian producers, or what stories to write if we are Christian writers. All right? So seven criteria that ought to be present in any of those stories, which can serve to guide us as we go about selecting which stories to tell.
Number one, a commitment to truth telling. I've said this before, this is our number one criteria. This is the foundational thing that we must stand on. This is it. Now I've said the same before by Barbara Nicolosi, who said, "I would rather see an R-rated truth than a G-rated lie." But what I want to talk about is Flannery O'Connor, who said, "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it." Isn't that true?
The problem with showing sex and language and violence in stories is not that we show too much. It's usually that we show too little. We need to show the full consequences of the sin or the choices of the character's actions. We also need to be honest about our humanity, our sin nature, our depravity. How can we show redemption if we don't show depravity, right? What is there to be redeemed from if there's no darkness that the character is wrestling with? So, we ought not fail to show the true depths of human depravity, but we also have to balance that out with the fact that they're in dignity too.
But nevertheless, sanitized stories avail nothing. What if God had left out from the Bible the story of King David's sin with Bathsheba? King David, a man described by God as a man after his own heart. And yet because of his sin with Bathsheba, it subsequently led to him murdering, planning—premeditative murder—of Uriah the Hittite. Wow, pretty bad, right? Pretty bad. This story contains sex, language, violence, conspiracy, betrayal—I mean, some really dark stuff. And yet God did not shy away from having it included for us to learn from. It was included in the narrative.
There were things He wanted us to learn from it. And notice that God tells the whole truth. He doesn't sanitize it. He doesn't stop short of telling us that David premeditatively decided to kill Uriah the Hittite to cover his own sin. He lets us know that. Even though it's King David, that everybody else maybe wants to honor, right? God tells us the truth about the man. And yet, God also describes David as a man after his own heart.
So, notice that we learn more from David's sin. And we learn more about God. We learn more about our own humanity. We learn more about everything from David's sin than we ever could have learned from David's righteousness. And yet, if we took out the context of the Bible, and somebody presented a story like this in the real world, Christians would never, ever touch it, because it naturally would be forbidden and shunned on the basis of the inclusion of sex and language and violence. This would be a rated R story. So, a vast majority of the stories in the Bible would be rated R, when you tell the truth, most of the time, it would be rated R. Thankfully, God used different criteria when selecting which stories to include or exclude.
The first rule of thumb, however, comes back to this principle: always, always tell the whole truth, not a sanitized version of it, if we want our stories to resonate with others and impact culture. Because guess what? We know when it's not true. We know when it's false. We don't believe it. It's an issue of credibility. So, we have to start with the truth. That is the foundational issue of all our stories. It is principle number one. It isn't about whether or not we show the bad stuff, we must show the bad stuff. The question then becomes how to show the bad stuff in such a way that it doesn't violate or harm our reader or our audience.
Which leads me to number two, we need to execute our stories in a way that doesn't harm our reader or our audience. Frank Sheed once wrote the secular novelist sees what is visible. The Christian novelist sees what is there? What does that even mean? What let me tell you what I think it means. Again, we already know that we must tell the truth, the whole truth about our character–his world, his choices, all those things—or we won't be succeeding in affecting the audience towards real change. Because we won't believe it, it won't ring true, it won't, therefore, resonate with our hearts.
However, in telling the truth, I believe we must be more creative than secular storytellers because we are morally obligated to protect our audience from harm. And therefore, we must find ways to tell the truth that don't violate our viewers. But also, not only do we have to be more creative, but we also have to be more in tuned theologically and psychologically with the truth. Because we can inadvertently violate a biblical moral worldview, if we're not really careful with what we're actually conveying. At the very least, this means we should never include gratuitous sex and language or violence. But nor should we show any of these things in a way that diminishes our dignity as human persons or glorifies our depravity.
So, for example, I had a student recently who turned in a scene about a dystopian world where these two brothers have to go out on patrol because there aren't enough policemen to try to maintain the order in this dystopian world. And so they are civilians who go out on patrol and try to, you know, protect people from crime. So, the story opens, the scene opens where these two brothers are out on patrol. And lo and behold, they come across this group, this gang, who is holding up this young black man. And they're robbing him of his shoes, his backpack, his belongings, that sort of thing. They're holding him up, and they're taking his things. So, these brothers are like strolling up upon this crime. And they're like, oh, we have to stop this. And they come up and they say, "Hey, guys, what's going on?" Very casually, no big deal. And then, I don't remember what happens. But something minor happens, and they end up killing all of the bad guys—the gangbangers—and giving the kid back his stuff. And that's the end of the scene.
And I said to my student, "This doesn't work. This violates a biblical moral worldview." The secular novelist sees what is visible, which might be this chain reaction, this cause and effect, whatever. But the Christian novelist needs to see what is there, which means all of the things behind it and bigger.
So, here's the truth. In a Christian worldview, one of the problems with this particular scene is that these brothers killed the people that were doing the robbing, but that's not justice. Justice only wants what justice is due. All those guys were doing was stealing the kid's shoes and his backpack. Now, that's bad. That's a crime. And yeah, justice should be done. But killing those guys isn't justice. See, it exceeds the crime that goes past the crime. This is why by the way, the Bible talks about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It's trying to limit our excess. We cannot take a person's life, just because they took a piece of bread. It isn't fair. Justice wants what justice is due. These guys surpassed that.
Now, it doesn't mean that the characters can't surpass that. What it means is that the writer has to have an awareness that it has surpassed it. And they have to show that to the audience, so that the audience understands these guys went too far. But if there isn't that understanding, now we're conveying something false. Because now we're somehow conveying the idea that that was justice, and it isn't. So, it's a false and twisted moral worldview.
And by the way, these are supposed to be the heroes, which means they should be aware that justice just wants what justice is due and that they've surpassed that. So, what if they come across the scene, "Hey, guys, what's going on?" And then the gangbangers, "What do you want? Get out of here?" "Well, you know, we can't do that. Why don't you give the kid back his stuff and let 'em go?" So, now they've presented an opportunity. They've given the characters a choice, and there's probably this elevated tension, right? Because these guys don't want to shoot these guys. Good guys don't want to kill people. They're not out there to do that. But they want to protect the little guy.
Now, maybe, you know, these guys are strapped for bear. Right? So, that means they know they look pretty tough. And maybe some of the gangbangers are like, "Come on Leonard. Let's just go. Let's, let's get out of here." But maybe it's Leonard's pride that flares up. "I'm not letting these two tell me what to do. This is my territory. You guys get out of here and you'll keep your lives." "Man, Leonard, I'm afraid we can't do that. But, you know, I'd really recommend you get going." And they put their hand on their guns and they're taking it up, but they're still not really—like they're not doing this because they enjoy it, right?
And now there's that moment where Leonard has to choose between his pride or getting out of there. And let's say Leonard starts reaching for his gun and now look guys, the good guys, the heroes, are like, "Hey, Leonard, come on, man. You don't want to do that. Don't do it. Don't do it. Man. We'll have to put you down. Come on, you can live to see another day. You just got to get out of here, buddy." Now they're heightening it because they don't want to do it. They don't want to do it. They're given them every chance in the world to walk away. And Leonard's hesitating and maybe one of Leonard's guys, his own crew is like, "Come on, man. Let's just get out of here." And Leonard finally says, "Oh, I'm not— no! These guys are mine!" And now he takes out a gun, and he points it at the good guys. And of course, now the good guys have to shoot him. And then the rest of the crew, they get out their guns. And so the next thing you know, the brothers have to take them all down. And the next thing you know, they're surrounded by six dead bodies.
Well, now they have to respond appropriately to that. They just took six lives. They know it's unjust. They know it's unfair. They didn't want to do it. Probably the appropriate response is something like, "God dammit! No! Shit!" That is appropriate. Anything less than some sort of huge outburst in the face of that heinous outcome is a lie. Even though they were trying to do the right thing, they've just taken lives and there is a cost.
A Christian novelist or writer sees what is actually there, which means it is bigger. It can't just be casually dealt with. It can't just be light hearted that they just killed some people. You have to feel the full weight of it. Now, maybe even later in this story, you're going to show an evolution of the progression of this kind of weight on someone's soul, right?
So you get to a point in the story where the character doesn't feel anything anymore. He's kind of become a psychopath. He can just kill without any repercussions. But see, the point is you, as the writer, have now shown us a world that's not how it should be. So, when that character gets to that point, we know it's because of the cost—it's too heavy for him to carry. And what he's done is he's had to kill pieces of himself along the way until he finally—he's less than human now.
So, now justice has been perverted anyway because this guy doesn't even feel anything at all. And we feel that. So, you can still have the same type of actions. But the key is you've communicated in a way that it still exemplifies a moral worldview. We have to understand as an audience, that that was not justice. But that also means that we have to have the characters responding and acting appropriately. Whatever is happening there should match whatever is wrong in that world. Because that's what we're trying to show. We're trying to highlight what's wrong. That's the whole point of living in a fallen world is that we have to understand this isn't the way it ought to be. So, we have to truly represent that to our reader, to our audience. At the very least, this means we should never include gratuitous sex or language or violence, it should only be because it's absolutely essential.
See a lot of times in our freedom, then once I say this, "Hey, you know, it's a prison scene." And so then we'll see a Christian writer come along, who has them cussing up a storm. All these things, cuss, cuss, cuss, cuss, cuss. But now they're being gratuitous. It should only happen when it's absolutely essential for the thing that's being represented. And then you can't leave it out. Because if you leave it out, you're lying. And truth is our goal.
So, we should never be gratuitous. Nor should we show any of these things in a way that diminishes our dignity as humans, like this example, that diminished the dignity of the human people in that story, because it wasn't justice. It wasn't true. It wasn't the righteous outcome that we needed.
We should also never glorify the depravity. So, this is where you might have two characters that are supposed to be heroic, but then they do something that isn't good. But we actually think it's great that they did it. They betray somebody, because that person is a bad guy, but they gave their word that they wouldn't.
Now there are exceptions to this, depending on the crimes that are being committed, right? Like if you have a child molester, who is in interrogation, and the police says, "If you tell him where he is, I'll give you five more minutes with him where you can do whatever you want." Now, that's a manipulation that is warranted because a child's life is at stake. So, the stakes have to be worth the deception, or the lie.
These are the types of things you're trying to think through. This is why you have to be into theology and you have to understand psychology and humanity. And as writers we would never want to cause our audience or our reader to lust for example, simply by reading our book or watching our film. But nor can we leave out certain things if doing so would violate our commitment to tell the truth.
So, it's a question of artistry and stylistic expression, how we tell the truth, since we already know we must tell the truth by virtue of rule number one. So, it's scary and dangerous to be handed potentially harmful subject matter. We know that we mustn't harm the audience. So, to ensure that we don't, we give up telling the kinds of stories that contain potentially harmful material. But ignoring this type of content is not noble. It's actually cowardly.
The time has come for us to be brave. The time has come for us to be bold. We have to be willing to explore the content that matters. We have to be willing to dive deep into the difficult adult oriented issues that really affect us. It necessitates that we be good enough at our craft to find ways to navigate that truth and non-violating ways.
A film violates the audience, when sex language and violence are used gratuitously and for the wrong reasons and convey the wrong message. It also violates the audience when it mistakes morally good things as bad and vice versa. When a film does either of these two things, it ceases to be an honest exploration of the truth.
Rule number one must exist in the context of rule number two, and vice versa. So, we start by telling the truth, and then we find a way to tell that truth, so as not to harm the audience. But in our efforts to not harm the audience, we must avoid the temptation to water down the truth or sanitize the truth. Because the number one rule is to tell the truth.
These two rules are interdependent of one another, they rely on one another, you cannot have one without the other. And in the end, these two rules are the foundation of all the other rules that are to come. And they are dangerous, because they don't come with specific incontrovertible instruction as to how to accomplish each or both requirements. They only dictate that both requirements are met in tandem with the other.
And while these two dictates are the foundation of every good story, there are other requirements that must also be adhered to, in order for a story to fit within the parameters of a biblical moral worldview. And those are what we will discuss next week on The Storyteller's Mission.
In the meantime, if you've enjoyed this episode, if it is causing you to think deeply about the kind of content that you're creating, or that you're thinking about creating, if you are a Christian producer, or if you are a Christian publisher, and you're thinking about these things, I want to call you to boldness.
We live in a day and age where we can no longer hide. Well, we can no longer play it safe. If we want a seat at the marketplace of ideas, we have to grow up. And we have to start creating content that actually resonates with the real life struggles that people are going through.
So, I want to challenge you. As you think about the kinds of stories you're seeking, in order to produce or publish or the kinds of stories you're thinking about telling. Does it speak to adults? Really? Does it really speak to adults? Or are you playing it safe? Because I would wager that you're really just afraid. You might even be a coward. And now is the time to be brave.
All right. If you've enjoyed this episode, even though I know it's a little challenging, and maybe a little controversial, can I ask you to please share it with another artist that you know that might need to hear these things? And if you yourself are following us, would you please subscribe to the show and rate us and leave us a review on either Apple podcasts or on YouTube, one of the places where this is available. We would love to hear what you think of the show and it helps other people to know if this is a show that they should listen to.
Thank you so much for joining me on The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.