[00:00:00] 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.
[00:00:11] Last week we started talking about ethics, and in particular, I was reviewing with you some of the things that Jeffrey Sweet has to say from his book on playwriting.
[00:00:21] Now I want to continue talking about some of the things that he has to say about ethics and the moral responsibility of storytellers and artists in our society, because I think it absolutely pertains to our particular discussion.
[00:00:38] But also I want to talk about what is happening in the world at large today, and some of the adjustments I've had to make in my own mind about what shall I do next? What does this mean about what I am doing? And I had to kind of work through some of these things and you might need to do that too. So I wanna share that with you also.
[00:01:02] So let's just start by way of review. We're talking about how Jeffrey Sweet, who is not writing from a Christian perspective. He's a playwright, but he's talking about how playwrights ought to have some training in ethics because by virtue of the medium itself, we are informing people of what is moral.
[00:01:24] Because very much a part of any story is watching human beings behave, and therefore there is a responsibility put on the audience to have to interpret that behavior, the merits of it, positive or negative. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it honorable? Is it corrupt? Is it beneficial? Is it harmful? What sort of behavior are we seeing? And then they interpret that and therefore then they apply it to their own lives. It is just a process of story. It simply is.
[00:01:58] And as a result of this, what Jeffrey goes on to argue, is that we have an onus then to tell the truth. Which again, if you've been following my podcast for a while, you'll know that this is the hill that I die on. This is the number one virtue of any good storyteller is that we tell the truth. We tell the truth. And of course, I believe that writing from a Christian worldview is the only way to tell the truth, because it's the worldview that represents the truth of the world as we know it. It accurately reflects reality.
[00:02:33] And that's really what it comes down to is what is reality. We need to know what reality is, and we need to try to reflect that to the best of our ability in our stories.
[00:02:43] And so according to Jeffrey Sweet, this means that among other things, when we have a character behaving in a certain way, they ought to be behaving in a way that is consistent with whatever moral worldview they're engaged in.
[00:03:01] Inconsistency, undermines credibility, among other things. It can also just bring hypocrisy. But what I love about him is he doesn't stop there. It's not just about what the characters in the work are doing and how they're behaving. It's about the playwright or the storyteller, themselves. As he pointed out, this was one of the things that really got Woody Allen into trouble.
[00:03:25] You know, Woody Allen made a lot of his fame and a lot of his impact and influence in society by being a moralist and by presenting a character that is having angst over all of the moral ways in which he's pulled. And so the audience connected with him in modern times, feeling that angst over the different sorts of what's right, what's wrong to do.
[00:03:51] I mean, it's kind of funny, but it also is a very serious thing. But then he ended up taking up with his ex-wife's daughter, adopted step-daughter. And it really undermined his credibility. As particularly because he doubted himself as a moralist. It undermined any of his moral credentials, and it really almost ruined him. It took him years to recover from that blow.
[00:04:19] So we know the importance, even if it's on a subconscious level, we care if a person is consistent with the worldview they tout. And by the way, this is why we rightfully chastise and, and want to see justice happen to say preachers or pastors or anybody in a religious authority situation who sexually exploits or abuses somebody under their authority. It is a travesty to us.
[00:04:53] We feel that injustice because they are morally responsible for the wellbeing of that person, and it's the height of hypocrisy.
[00:05:05] I believe that there are some people that are called to a higher standard of morality and writers are one of them. We should be reflecting a higher standard of morality in our lives.
[00:05:19] And this is where it gets tricky because unfortunately what happens is, especially if you're in Hollywood, what happens is there's so much glitz and glamor. There becomes so much permission. There becomes so much opportunity for hedonism as you gain success that suddenly your artistry, which has gotten you there, becomes a license for licentiousness. And that is a problem. We don't want that. We should never give into that.
[00:05:54] In fact, I remember one time having a conversation with a friend of mine, Scott Derickson. You're probably familiar with some of his work. He did. Dr. Strange, uh, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, to name a few things. Okay. So one time we were engaged in an email conversation and he said to me, "you know, Zena, what is far more difficult than dealing with failure is dealing with success." He said there is nothing harder on a Christian artist than having to deal with success.
[00:06:29] Because all of a sudden all of these doors of opportunity are open for you and there's nobody who is exercising restraint, or there's nobody who is making you restrain. You have to practice restraint yourself, and the temptations that come with success are really unfathomable.
[00:06:47] It reminds me of something GK Chesterton said once. And he basically was talking about how it's not having limitations or boundaries put on us that makes life difficult. What makes life difficult is when we don't have those things.
[00:07:00] Going back to Jeffrey Sweet again. What he talks about then is that as storytellers, we ought to embody a certain sort of morality in our real lives that are consistent with the sorts of morals that we're purporting.
[00:07:15] And by the way, I think he also means that what we're purporting ought to be in line with reality. It shouldn't be a distortion, it shouldn't be a twisted, ugly thing that we've made it to try to justify terrible things, which I think we see happening today. I do think we see that happening today.
[00:07:35] It is the duty of a writer to not grossly distort or misrepresent important matters, whether they be fictional ones or whether they be non-fictional ones.
[00:07:51] We simply must not do that as Jeffrey Sweet himself says, he wants to balance his fidelity to entertainment with his fidelity to the facts.
[00:08:01] Okay, so the point is just because we're trying to entertain people doesn't give us a right to create terribly immoral things. I just don't think that that's a justified reason.
[00:08:16] There's a wonderful Faulkner quote, and people say this all the time. People I think have adopted this. When Faulkner makes the statement, "the writer's responsibility is to his art." And what I love is that Jeffrey Sweet calls that to task. He says, that's a terrible thing. The minute that you subscribe to this victim, this credo, it means that you are putting an artist in a special place where they have a license for hooliganism.
[00:08:44] All of a sudden they can disobey all society's rules. It doesn't apply to them. They now belong to the elite. And by the way, this is what's happened again in society where there are two groups sort of being established, if you will. And the people that are in a position of power really think that they are in this special group and they have a license to behave how they want. That they are special, and that is not true. That is not true. That is not okay.
[00:09:16] So I think when you're in a position of power, it means that you are in a heightened place that demands even higher fidelity to truth and to live according to a higher standard. Same thing as a storyteller to whom much is given, much is expected.
[00:09:33] It is, if you will, the whole Spider-Man credo. With much power comes much responsibility. And those that are in leadership in our government, they should be held to higher standards of morality. Those of us that are in storytelling, we ought to reflect a higher standard of morality. Certainly pastors ought to reflect a higher standard of morality.
[00:09:59] If we have nurses and doctors who were advocating for treatments that are harmful, which I think we do have today, it is a travesty. It is an —carriage of misjustice because we expect those people to be making decisions on the basis of what is the best for their client, what is the best for their patient, what is the best for the people.
[00:10:23] They even swear a vow not to harm and yet, I think what's happening is we have a completely corrupt system of healthcare where things are being advocated that aren't actually healthy.
[00:10:36] If you happen to see the new food pyramid thing that came out, it's absurd. It's absolutely absurd. It's actually saying it's better for us to eat processed foods.
[00:10:45] Well, they had to have been bought out. That just cannot be true. And I know this because I know that God created the world and he created all the things that we need to be healthy. And therefore, I know that anything that we eat that is natural is going to be better than anything that we process at the store and all those preservatives. It's just impossible. It's illogical otherwise, right?
[00:11:08] So we have to look at these types of things and see that those types of people should be held accountable. Same thing with people in media. See there's a higher standard that ought to be met with people in me— media. They ought to be objective. They ought to be able to detach from their own viewpoints.
[00:11:27] They ought to allow freedom of ideas, the exchange of ideas, and yet when they are censoring them, that when they are willingly censoring them and when they are willingly speaking out, they have violated their their own credo. And that is a miscarriage of justice. It's an absolute twist of the system in the way it should be.
[00:11:48] So when you are in a certain position of authority, it carries with it an injunction of a higher standard and everything is topsy-turvy right now it seems like.
[00:12:00] The point is that as storytellers our fidelity to morality, our ethical concerns don't end when the story does. They carry on into our actual life.
[00:12:16] You know, think about what happened in the indulgence era, right? This is why Martin Luther attached his 95 thesis to the door of the Catholic church because he wanted to protest what was happening, this selling of indulgences.
[00:12:32] Because what was happening? Well, what was happening is that people that had money could buy forgiveness of sin if they could just do these indulgences. The indulgence system gave rich people the luxury of believing that as long as they could pay and give sizable sums to the church that they could keep living as immorally as they wanted, that they weren't going to be held to account for that, and that they had a place assured for them in heaven that they were going to end up there anyway.
[00:13:04] It was a total violation of the order and the morality and the sanctification that God meant for us.
[00:13:11] And by the way, Martin Luther didn't mean to split from the Catholic church. He just wanted to reform it. And instead he was kicked out because that was making the church a lot of money and they didn't wanna stop that practice. It was making the church very powerful and very, very rich. And power and money corrupt. And so he was right to want to reform the church at that time. Unfortunately, it didn't happen and he was kicked out, and so he started Lutheranism.
[00:13:40] But the point is, is that anytime you have people in these high positions thinking that they are given a license to sin or a license to do things that are outside of a certain moral boundary or structure, then we've got a flawed system and we ought to be held to higher account.
[00:14:00] So how many times have you heard people say for people that are, say, in the entertainment industry, "well, yeah, of course. The guy is a scoundrel" or, "yeah, he raped somebody." Or, "yeah, he is a sexual predator, but man, did you see his new movie? It was so good."
[00:14:16] That is a terrible, terrible thing because having even uttered those words, we have now given them license to behave in bad moral ways, and we're echoing that sentiment that somehow great artistic ability somehow gives people permission to behave in abominably sinful ways. And it really just ought not do that. We should not have crummy behavior.
[00:14:41] So standing separate from society, holding the different standards, marching to different drummers, that sort of thing. I mean, we can do certain things as artists simply because it is the artist's duty to challenge certain societal norms.
[00:14:56] But when it comes to an area of morality, it should not invoke special behavior or special rules of morality for the artist. We should be adhering to all the moral rules and then some, if you will, because we are held to higher account. Because we're the ones teaching the masses what is good, what is true, what is noble, what is right, what is worthy, what is praiseworthy, what is beautiful, all those things.
[00:15:21] One thing that I love that Jeffrey Sweet said about all this is that some of his friends insist that since artists are subjected to all the same temptations that all the rest of mankind are, that it's unreasonable for him to hold artists to a higher degree or a higher standard of morality than other people.
[00:15:39] And he maintains that there are certain jobs that carry with them heightened responsibilities such as cops. We're mortified and dismayed when we read about corrupt cops because it is their job to uphold the law.
[00:15:54] So it goes fundamentally against what they were designed to be. Same thing, as I said, with the people in the medical profession. Same thing with people in the pastoral position. We expect them to uphold certain values because it's their job to do so, and they should be even more stringent in that.
[00:16:11] Similarly, as storytellers, since we have been put in an authority position to set up dramatic situations through which we are giving values to society because of the behaviors of our character, it is not unreasonable for us to expect that storytellers themselves uphold a higher level of moral living. They should at least uphold standards consistent with those that they apply to the characters in their work.
[00:16:52] And by the way, this is one of the reasons I get so angry at a lot of Christians in art because what this implies is that it would be unseemly for us to, in our work, espouse good things like being fair and being honest and all of these things, and then turn around and try to screw our collaborators out of their share of the money.
[00:17:13] And yet, this is something that I see a lot of Christians in the entertainment industry doing. They behave towards each other abominably. I have been exploited and ripped off and abused by more Christians in the entertainment industry than by my secular counterparts. Now mind you, it's not because my secular counterparts are more moral, it's that they're more likely to follow the rules, the legal rules that are in place because they expect to be sued if they don't.
[00:17:42] But Christians will often get away with it because they don't expect to be sued by other Christians because they expect those Christians to abide by the rule of not suing them. It's this crazy thing, and yet then they will turn around and abuse you and this is just horrible. It just is something that really, really, really, really bothers me.
[00:18:01] Art is meant to be a celebration of life. It is not an alibi to live life however you want in a licentious fashion. We ought to adhere to truths that go beyond our own personal preferences.
[00:18:23] So I realized that everything that we've been talking about today has got to be overwhelming. It's got to be kind of scary, and maybe it even seems a little crazy. However, I hope that it has given you a lot to think about because we're going to continue talking about this stuff. I hope that you want to, because I do think that we cannot separate craft from these sorts of issues. It just all goes together.
[00:18:50] We don't even know what stories to tell if we're not taking seriously the climate of the times, because it really is informing what stories I ought to tell, that some of the things I need to tell now are different than what I might have told five years ago, simply because of what's happening in society.
[00:19:10] So that's really important. It's really important that we don't try to see this as two separate things or that I'm going off on this weird tangent of morality and ethics and the craziness of the world, and it has nothing to do with story. It has everything to do with story. It's all interrelated. And that's the point. We cannot separate it. It's all together.
[00:19:33] So I hope that this has given you a lot to think about, and I would love to hear from you. If you have questions, if you need direction, if you need someone to talk to about this, I would love to be that person for you.
[00:19:47] You can reach out to me at [email protected] You can go to the website and I have a form you can fill out to request a consultation, a free 30 minute consultation. And I can see if I can help you on your current project or give you direction of where I think you could go, depending on what would be most appropriate for your endeavors. I would love to be of service to you because I believe in storytellers and I believe in you, and I wanna help you on this journey.
[00:20:17] It is so important for all of us to stick together and to have clarity. So please do reach out to me and let me know if you have questions about. That we've been talking about as of late.
[00:20:30] In the meantime, I wanna thank you 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.