INTRO: 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.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: Well, I am so glad that you've joined us today on this episode. We are in the middle of a very important series that is discussing (A) why Christians traditionally have been so afraid to tell rated R stories, but (B) what the new criteria ought to be for a biblical Christian worldview in story. What does that look like?
Because the church and storytellers within Christendom have typically adopted a false criteria, is what I'm arguing, which is no sex, no language, no violence, and it has to have a happy ending. Those are the things that we have basically said, if those things are present, then yay, we have a Christian story. And I strongly oppose that. I strongly reject that as being the foundation of what makes a good story.
So, if that is not the criteria, the question then becomes, what is? What sorts of things ought we be looking for if we're trying to evaluate the merits of a story either as a storyteller, or as a consumer of story? And so far, we have gone over four principles, right, and there's seven total.
RECAP: So, just by way of giving a brief recap, we started out by talking about, you have to have a commitment to truth telling, you have to tell the truth no matter what.
And number two, you need to commit to not harming the audience or a story ought to not be harming the audience in the way that it's told. So however it portrays that truth should not damage the audience of the reader.
Number three, the story should present a worldview where there is indeed a possibility for redemption. Human agency, human choice matters. So a character must have the chance to choose the good. It can't just be foreordained that it's all going to end badly or else it ceases to be a true biblical Christian worldview.
Number four, there must be an accurate portrayal of good and evil, we cannot be guilty of showing things or saying that some things are good, that are actually evil, and vice versa. And this is happening a lot in secular storytellers, for sure. Because they don't have a good grasp on what is good and what is right and what is true. They don't know even what is true all the time. And so they're guilty of offering a false morality.
But it's not just secular artists, Christians are just as guilty of it. And we shouldn't be. But it's because we're not thinking clearly about these things. So I have Christian artists all the time, that will show me a world that they've created in story. And they are presenting a worldview that is patently false, that doesn't reflect a biblical moral worldview at all. And this is a problem. This is why, as Christians, if you're a storyteller, you need to have a good theological foundation, from which you're jumping into story.
PRESENTATION: Okay, so today, we're going to discuss number five. Now, I hinted at this, I mentioned this in another point, because remember, these are all intertwined. They all overlap. So number five, thank you, Lulu. She is snoring. There must be a demonstration of true repentance. Now, I'm going to unpack this for us. But the first thing I want to say is that this is actually a point that is true in real life, just as much as it is in story. And you'll see what I mean in just a minute.
All right. So Flannery O'Connor said, “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration."
And one of the things that is demanded in the redemptive act is a demonstration of true repentance. So, in another point, I tried to explain how we in the church have violated what should, I think, be the proper order for forgiveness. We have demands on us to forgive people who are unrepentant. But when you forgive someone who is unrepentant, they actually don't experience the natural outcome or the pain or the suffering that should be accompanied by their sinfulness so that they can come to true repentance. We're actually negating that. We're taking it away from them prematurely, so maybe they won't come to full repentance.
And now they have a distorted perspective of God and the way the world works. And now they feel they're entitled to be forgiven. They're entitled to these things because they never had to experience the full consequences of their choices. We mitigated it by prematurely forgiving them.
So, that's one of the problems. The other problem, of course, is that it violates what God has put into motion in terms of the protocol of forgiveness.
And it also puts a demand on us, that is beyond our capacity to give. See, forgiveness is a really big deal. When you offer somebody forgiveness, what you're really saying is, I agree to bear this. Because you can never take away the sin. Whatever's been done to you, whatever they've done to you can never be fixed. It's done forever, eternally, that act has happened. There is no taking it back. It's there. It happened. So, what you're actually taking on and agreeing to, when you offer forgiveness, is you're willing to not hold it against them any longer. You are willing to bear the pain of that wrong against you. You will bear it and not hold it against them. You will not demand restitution for the wrong that they have done. You would just simply bear it.
That is a huge ask, which is why there should be a marker, which is why there ought to be evidence that makes it worthy of you to take on that burden. And the marker, the evidence, is a demonstration of true repentance. If there is no demonstration of true repentance, then you ought not do it. And scripture says this, by the way, right? That there ought to be fruit in accordance with repentance.
Sometimes we have bad endings, but when we do, it's because the characters were not repentant. At some point in the story, they had an opportunity to repent, but they didn't. They dug in, they got stubborn, they did it their own way. And now, they're experiencing the fruit or the consequences of their sinful choices. That is a good thing to demonstrate in story because it's true in real life.
Now, even if they repent at the end, even if they repent, sometimes we repent, but we have been so stubborn in our ways that we still have to experience the consequences. Repentance doesn't mean that it takes away all the consequences. But it does mean that you can handle it and live with it differently. So even if there is an unhappy ending, because of certain consequences there can still be relief. There can still be a freedom. There can still be something happy in the midst of it because of the fact that the character is genuinely repentant. But that's why repentance is really important.
So, characters make choices. And we need to be honest about the consequences of those choices. You can't take a series like Ozark for example, and suddenly redeem those characters in the end. It would be a lie because they have consistently gotten deeper and deeper and deeper. And now it would be a horrible thing to suddenly redeem them when that isn't consistent with a biblical moral worldview. You reap what you sow. You reap what you sow.
But that means that when a character is redeemed, when we actually redeem a character, that means we better have a vivid, profound demonstration of true repentance.
If you have, for example, a character who gets separated from his wife, and he goes around and now he becomes a womanizer. And he's finding himself in that and yet he's exploiting these other women. Well, you have to show that. The minute he becomes aware that what he was doing was selfish and disgusting, he has to repent from it. He's caused who knows how much damage in the lives of all these women that he's womanized. He needs to be repentant. He needs to demonstrate true repentance.
How does a character demonstrate true repentance? They take action. The minute that they see their sin for what it is, they must do something. They must act to try to set things right. Otherwise the redemption is false. See, true repentance means you own it, and you're willing to face the consequences of your sin. Right? That's what the character has to do.
So, a character though, must try to set things right immediately or else the redemption is false. And then we are teaching a lie about the way God works or the way the universe ought to work or what's required for atonement or for forgiveness.
Okay, number six. In storytelling, we need to have a limit of voyeurism in favor of connection. Now, what am I talking about here? The whole point of story is to create a bond, a bridge between the reader or the viewer and your character. They have to relate. They have to be able to relate on some level, they have to connect emotionally to that character, partly because otherwise they don't emotionally commit to the story.
And when audiences don't connect emotionally to the story, guess what? Now they're just watching from afar. Now, they're just watching that story without any emotional connection. They don't actually care what happens and you've taken them into voyeurism.
This is why it is so important to create great characters, so that you're not guilty of creating voyeurism. Because voyeurism is the opposite of empathy.
Voyeurism is what happens in pornography. Voyeurism doesn't create a true insight, a true connection, true emotional intimacy, between the person watching the pornography and the person making it. It promotes a false intimacy, a fantasy, where it isn't real, where the people are exploited, where they become objects. We take away everything about them, except this one small piece, which is their sexuality, and we make that about all that they are. But that is damaging both to the watcher and to the creator.
It is a destructive thing. Voyeurism is destructive in all its forms. We never want our audience to be able to passively stay detached from our character, or else we might be creating voyeurs and voyeurs have no empathy.
I am convinced that there is a connection between narcissism and voyeurism. And being a sociopath or a psychopath, and voyeurism. Whenever you can enter into the vein of voyeur, you don't see a human person. You are taking from. That's what a voyeur does. They use. They exploit. They take it for themselves.
See, whenever we see story, we ought to see ourselves. Even though we may be reading or watching a movie about somebody from an entirely different culture. This is what I loved about the movie Babel, right? And Babel, you've got these five different storylines taking place in five different cultures. But what is the issue that binds all of these humans together? Suffering. Suffering is the thing that makes us all human. So even though they have different experiences, and drastically different things happen, they are sharing a common human experience, which is suffering. And the suffering is the bridge. So, we should be connected to the human suffering. If we're not, then we become voyeuristic.
And by the way, you can also commit this crime, if you will, through your characters. And that's where the characters don't have a true, honest, appropriate or proper reaction to the types of stuff that's happening in the story. So if a heinous crime is committed, and the person is blase about it.
This is one of the things that is so remarkable about what Quentin Tarantino accomplished in Pulp Fiction. On the one hand, he has this casual sort of disregard, if you will, this casual occurrence of heinous violence where the kid in the backseat gets his brains blown out. And yet, the characters are grossly violated by that. And yet, because they're these bad guys, they're not as maybe violated by it, as they should be. But there is, you know, a real problem there.
But then you take something like the Bruce Willis situation where he's got Ving Rhames after him who's going to kill him. And yet when they get in the troubling situation that they do in Pulp Fiction, even Bruce Willis can't leave poor Ving Rhames to that outcome. He can't do it. He has to go and help him even though they're enemies. And it's what squares them, right? It squares their situation, but that is empathy. That is empathy.
He could have, Quentin Tarantino, could have made the choice, where Bruce Willis is like, well, he's getting what he deserves. And now, that's horrible, because now, it's voyeuristic. It is judgment. It is—it makes him a heinous character. But instead, he has Bruce Willis's character, not be able to do that. He's disturbed by it to the point that he has to help this guy because they're the same in a lot of ways. They're working under the same rules of their society, right? Of their group, if you will. So, now he has to do something about it.
And so it was a fine line that Quentin Tarantino walked. And it was good because the character doesn't dismiss something that's heinous. This is why you have to have a proper moral worldview, and know what is good and what is bad so that you don't accidentally undermine it, if that makes sense. All right. So number six, limit the voyeurism in favor of emotional, intimate connection. And isn't that what we want in real life, too?
All right, finally, number seven. And this was a little more difficult for me to categorize like, how did I want to say this, because it encompasses so much. But what I'm trying to say is, we have to allow for the mystery. Now, I have hinted at this in some of the other points.
There's a great line written by Edith Stein, where she said, "I am not a book to be read and understood. I am a man with all his inconsistencies." What we're talking about here is depth. This is the depth of character, right, the three dimensionality, but also the complexity of the human being, the fact that we are depraved, and have inherent dignity at one in the same time. We are a mystery. There is a paradox here. And there is a mystery in every human person. Same is true in our characters.
So the weirdest thing about Christians is the way that we can hold both terrible suffering and joy in our hands at one and the same time without any sense of contradiction. Right? Christians are the only religious group that seems to believe that suffering should not be avoided at all costs. But there is merit there. There is worthiness there. There, in fact, is probably the greatest path, the biggest thing to embrace because it's what gets us closer to our Jesus, who suffered and died for us. It is the most Christ like we can be when we're suffering.
Good Friday, is both the worst thing that ever happened in human history and the best thing that ever happened in human history, at one and the same time. The Christian dramatist then, needs to portray sin with the same intensity as does a purely secular dramatist because, as the great Christian novelist, Flannery O'Connor noted, "Redemption is meaningless, unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live."
What is the point in redeeming our characters? If there's nothing to be redeemed from? Why should somebody who's basically good think that they need salvation? Christ came for those that needed a doctor. He came for the sick, not for the well.
Unfortunately, the current criteria that we use tends to undermine the great mystery of this struggle between our innate human dignity and our depravity. Mystery. Keeping complicated things complex, not trying to simplify it.
Too many times, this is what is happening when people pull out Bible verses in a story. I guarantee it, you're trying to simplify something that is complex and bigger, let the bigness stand. Let the bigness stand. Don't try to answer all of those questions by throwing out a Bible verse and dumbing it down. You're ruining it.
It is the bigness of it that hits our heart, that blows us away, that impacts us on a level that we could have never imagined before, that slides past the brain and goes straight to the heart. Keeping complicated things complex is one of the most important things that you can do as a storyteller. And trust that in doing so, you will tap into the deeper truths of this universe as God designed them to be and therefore, you will be reflecting a true biblical moral worldview, which is always and forever our goal.
CONCLUSION: Okay, so these seven guidelines are all we need to know to help us engage storytelling as an art form with a biblical Christian moral worldview. We don't have to be afraid. We can be free. We can be free to tell the truth. And we are challenged to become even better and more creative as artists in doing so. Which gives God all the more glory, doesn't it? I think so.
He is well pleased with those who seek excellence. And He's the creator and author of artistry. He loves it when we are revealing things through some sort of artistic means. He's not afraid of it. He's not afraid of metaphor. He's not afraid of visual images.
Dostoevsky said, "Man will be saved by beauty." Beauty. But beauty presupposes truth plus form, doesn't it? It is in the execution of it as much as the content. It can't just be the content. It's also the beauty of the art form. And we're trying to be artists. That means that we have to have the craft. We can't just tell the truth, or else it lacks, or it ceases to be art. It's truth plus form.
So, we follow the example of Jesus, who was in the world, but not of the world, who hung out with sinners and told parables and stories, so that those sinners might find him. And we do this not by writing "Christian stories", but by writing stories from a biblical Christian moral worldview. And we do this by writing adult material suited to our maturity level and not dumbing it down for children. Tell the truth and let it be appropriate for the audience, the mature audience. I don't mean the Christian audience, I mean the mature audience. Grow up. Let's grow up.
So, my hope is that Christian storytellers will be major players in Hollywood, and in mainstream secular publishing all over the world in the next 10 years. Not because they are writing Christian stories, but because they are telling great stories, true stories. True with excellence. If we can follow this criteria, we will be well on our way to changing the world for the better through story.
I hope that the last three episodes have been helpful to you in terms of understanding what ought to be present in the stuff that you're consuming, and in the stuff that you're creating, to evaluate where it fits in terms of a biblical moral worldview.
This is it. This is the stuff we should be looking for this should be our criteria, not the other stuff that we have been slaves to for so long. We have to let it go. We are in a time of our lives when we have to be bolder, and we have to be courageous and we have to be brave. And that is what we will continue to be talking about in the weeks to come.
CALL TO ACTION: So, if you've enjoyed these episodes, I ask that you would please share it on social media or by text or email or however else you would like to share it. Find other artists who need to hear this stuff. And then also rate the show and subscribe to the show on the podcast app of your choice or on YouTube where we now are. You can find the link in the show notes below.
OUTRO: Alright, in the meantime, I want to thank you so much for joining me for another episode of The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.