Getting to the Heart of the Stories We Tell
When I was finishing up my Th.M, I chose to write about movies for my thesis. Because of the academic nature of the project, my thesis was mainly theoretical, looking at the foundations for watching movies responsibly from a Reformed theological perspective. What I did very little of was actually apply the method to real-life TV shows and movies.
Unlike my writing efforts on the topic, Mike Cosper’s book, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth is mostly exposition with sparse, but when it appears, substantive interaction with other literature on the topic. As such, it makes for a very practical book on reading pop culture responsibly and further applications can be easily made.
Cosper’s introduction unpacks the way our world is full of stories. He says,
“In what follows, I intend to explore our addiction to these stories. In particular, I want to look at their common threads, and I want to explore why we keep telling them, over and over again. I believe we’re watching because TV and movies are both echoing and forming our desires, and I want to delve into what those desires really are (p. 23).”
He then notes,
“I believe the gospel has given us a framework for the whole story of history. I want to explore the way our ordinary, everyday stories intersect with the bigger story that God is telling, and I want investigate what these stories reveal about being human, being fallen, and longing for redemption (p. 23).”
Ultimately Cosper will be “less interested in debating the merits of watching content” than “in understanding what drives it (p. 24).” Cosper wants to get to the heart of the stories we tell through TV and movies. He says that “the motivation for our stories is deeply connected with the gospel, and by thinking about that connection, we can more deeply appreciate both (p. 24).”
A Theology of Story
Chapter 1 is kind of a short theology of story and storytelling. Cosper explains how from the Christian point of view, the world is not only full of stories, but all these stories are part of one larger overarching story. Christians also hold that people are created in God’s image. Being made in a storyteller’s image leads to being storytellers ourselves.
Before getting farther into his analysis of the stories we tell, Cosper asks “How far is too far?” in chapter 2. This is certainly a perennial Christian question when it comes to culture in general and movies in particular. Cosper sees this as the wrong question, rooted in either an “overanxious teenager” or “church lady” mentality. One wants to know the line to bump up to it as close as possible; the other to ensure that there is a line and others observe it. Cosper then explains:
“The question itself is simply the wrong question. Those who ask, how far is too far?— whether at the movie theater or the youth group— have, in a way, shown their hand, revealing a heart that misunderstands what it means to be a Christian in the world. Our engagement should be motivated by neither the thrill of sin nor the thrill of religion, but by the thrill of the gospel. (p. 42)
Ultimately, instead of simply deploying “freedom in Christ” as a license to watch any and everything, Cosper models a willingness to engage as well as a willingness to pull back from certain content that he now sees differently.
Chapter 3 covers three interconnected themes. First, Cosper examines stories that look back to an idyllic time now lost. Second, Cosper looks at stories that take place in what seems like an idyllic environment, but in reality have a darker underbelly (The Truman Show for instance). Lastly, Cosper looks at stories where humanity tries to play God and it invariably goes wrong.
Chapter 4 looks at the search for love through the lens of shows like How I Met Your Mother and 30 Rock. The former of which would have been more interesting had Cosper written his analysis in light of the show’s series finale. Cosper also examines reality dating shows, specifically, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?
While his analysis is thought provoking, I came away feeling like much more could have been done with the topic of both of these chapters. Specifically in chapter 4, the point could be made that the Gospel itself is a romantic comedy, and our desire to watch essentially the same story over and over again shows an innate longing within us. Cosper examines this longing well, and in the end does foreshadow the Gospel (p. 90), but he could have taken his analysis deeper by pointing out all these stories teach us ultimate fulfillment is found in another person and from the Christian point of view, that person is Christ. Romantic comedies aren’t wrong in the essence of their story, just the object of their affections.
A potential downside to the book, depending on your viewing habits is that chapters 5 and 6 are off-limits unless you watch Mad Men and The Wire, respectively. If you don’t plan to watch either, you can read through the spoilers (Cosper is kind enough to warn), but if you’re not that familiar with either show, those chapters won’t be as familiar. I ended up skipping both chapters because I want to watch those shows first. In a similar vein, I generally avoid horror movies, but I had seen enough X-Files to read chapter 7 with some interest.
Chapter 8 split time between Dexter and the films of Quentin Tarrantino, mostly Pulp Fiction. I’m not a fan of Dexter, but my wife was and so I saw enough episodes to follow Cosper’s analysis. On the other hand, I enjoy a good Tarrantino film, so I was more engaged with what Cosper had to say.
Cosper points out that Tarrantino’s films “have a strong moral thread that unites them: sin, judgment, wrath, and resurrection” (p. 167). He is also a playful filmmaker who wants to have fun with his audience, blend genres, and generate discussion. His films, because of their often over-the-top character, help to present a story where vengeance on wrong-doing is executed and the happy ending is achieved, but in a way that isn’t sappy or corny. Our enjoyment of films like this points to our hope that one day all wrongs will be made right, a hope that only Christians legitimately have.
In chapter 9, Cosper draws a connection between the archetypal hero stories and the story of Jesus in the Gospels. The recognition of the archetype was developed by Joseph Campbell, building on the work of Carl Jung. In comparing ancient hero myths, the stories were strikingly similar, and so Campbell worked out a kind of blueprint for these sorts of stories. Specifically, it looks like this (Jesus’ action in parenthesis):
- Called Away (Incarnation)
- Tried and Tested (His temptations and ministry)
- Into the darkness (Crucifixion)
- Out of the darkness (Resurrection)
- Home again (Ascension)
He then compares it to Frodo’s journey in Lord of The Rings, and Superman’s journey. He also charts how this journey is reflected in the stories of Katniss Everdeen, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter (p. 189).
Keen Cultural Analysis
When it comes to the final chapter, provocatively titled “Honey Boo Boo and The Weight of Glory,” Cosper offers some keen cultural analysis. Especially now in the wake of the show’s cancellation, his insights are worthy of our attention. Before getting to Honey Boo Boo, Cosper examines the connection between reality TV and narcissism. Predictably, Kim Kardashian figures prominently. At the opposite end of the Kardashian family sits Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a show which “thrives on featuring the saddest elements of this family’s life” (p. 202). What Cosper picks up in his analysis is savagely satirized in a recent Onion article. We have a “vulture-like attitude” in consuming and ridiculing the life of this backward family from the Deep South. We look. We laugh. We move on.
Cosper then shifts the discussion by connecting our fascination with reality TV to our obsession with social media. We’re fascinated with self-broadcasting and the rise of reality TV stars is just one way that facet of our culture manifests itself. We have the opportunity to glory in ourselves and bring an audience along for the ride. Cosper then notes that “Christian and non-Christian alike feel the dull ache of faded glory” (p. 209). Our drive for glory isn’t wrong, merely misplaced, as C. S. Lewis has helped many understand.
This provides, I think, a fitting conclusion to the book. Cosper does offer a brief epilogue that includes a word to aspiring Christian filmmakers. But, by closing on a topic that other books on TV and movies might overlook, I think he shows that something that seems banal and not worthy of a second thought can be a pointer to deeper spiritual truth. In essence, Cosper’s book throughout is taking the everyday stories we encounter and probing their foundations to see what evidence they provide that the world we live in is the kind of world we would expect with Christian presuppositions. It provides a powerful case for what we believe but also models a way to open conversations with the wider culture about things that count.
Counseling and Stories
Often, counseling involves connecting the story of the counselee to the story of Scripture. From that angle, Cosper is counseling the culture by connecting the stories we see on the screen to those we read in Scripture. As such, it provides a helpful model in action for one could possibly utilize wisdom from pop culture for driving home the wisdom of Scripture. While you wouldn’t want to major on counseling from the culture, there is some benefit to being able to recognize cultural appropriation of biblical truth and helping others to recognize it as well. Cosper’s book may well serve as a starter manual on how to do that more effectively.