Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mixing Message and Story - Learning from the Classics


Something I’m chewing on as I begin writing my next project and will keep in mind on all future projects…

I started reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I bought this book for my mother a couple of Christmases ago and when she began reading it, she was telling me not only about the book itself, but the reaction to it at the time, and I found both fascinating. So, I decided to read it for myself.

The book’s preface talks about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s legendary encounter with Lincoln (after the unprecedented success of her book), in which he is alleged to have remarked “So, you’re the little lady who started this great big war.” She was a guest of honor at numerous events, including a dinner in London, where she sat across from Charles Dickens. That got me thinking about his wonderful works as well.

Those two authors (and others from the era) were masters at blending message and story in a way that did not exclude artistic, critical, and commercial success. Nor did it exclude positive controversy-the kind that not only gets people debating the issues, but drives people, out of curiosity, to see what all the fuss is about.

I don’t know much about Dickens’ personal worldview, but the message of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was obviously motivated by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Christian convictions about slavery.

Many speak as if message, in and of itself, were the Achilles’ heel of all creative [Christian] endeavors; that message cannot help but impede story, which in turn impedes audience reception, which in turn impedes commercial success. I disagree. However, I do think the wrong message is an Achilles heel of all Christian creative endeavors. And I think a lot of Christian creative endeavors send a…I couldn’t say wrong, but rather…an incomplete message.

Modern American Evangelicalism is fixated on personal and relational well-being. It permeates everything we hear, teach, and sell. The concept always seems to be that if you embrace and implement such-and-such theological truth or Christian concept, the result will be a dramatic enhancement of your personal and relational well-being. The concept in question can be anything from “Biblical masculinity” to substitutionary atonenment.

But, Dickens and Stowe shed light on the underbelly of society to expose social injustices. In Stowe’s case (and possibly Dickens’ as well), this was motivated by Christian conviction. Furthermore, the authors seem to assume that

  1. The reader likely is a Christian (because Christianity is the predominant religion of the author’s culture)
    2. The reader has absorbed Christian convictions via his/her culture (because Christianity is the predominant religion of the author’s culture)
    3. The vast majority of people will not be able to help but agree with some Christian precepts and convictions (because Christianity is actually true -John 1:9 & Romans 2:14-15)

With these assumptions, Stowe and Dickens never take a combative “you disagree because you’re lost and/or ignorant and/or evil” approach. They seem to be saying, “You know what’s right and you know what’s good. It’s self-evident. Stop repressing it and ignoring it.” (Romans 1:18)

To top it all, it seems Christian characters in these stories struggle both with and against the social ills. And in so doing, we get a active demonstration of what it means to be a Christian (not just in word, but in deed and in truth). It isn’t simply taking the fire insurance and improving your personal well-being. It’s actively combating real, tangible, oppressive evil in the world!

Largely as a result of their works, social ills were brought to light and eventually eradicated.

Why don’t more Christian films do this???

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