My daughters and I were watching what should be the most innocent of television shows: DuckTales, in which Scrooge McDuck and Donald Duck and younger ducks engage in harrowing adventures of all kinds. I was, I have to admit, into the story. That seems immature, but the arch-narrative was very compelling. Each episode featured a somewhat gripping plot which fed into the greater plot of the entire series. My daughters, obviously, liked it as well.
In this particular episode, one duck or another was competing in some kind of competition against others her age. She climbed, dived, jumped, crawled, and ran her way through obstacles of all kinds to victory and, in the end, took part in a medal ceremony. But there, next to some other anonymous child-duck competitor, were two adult male ducks, each wearing a shirt with an arrow pointing at the other: I’M WITH DAD.
Narrative snapped. Plot crushed. Meaning corrupted. Characters overshadowed. It was all over. As far as I could recall, no other character in the entire episode wore clothing with words of any kind until then. I had been lost in the story, belief suspended, ushered forward by narrative drive, until that moment. Any effect that the story had had or was having was entirely lost, flushed down the drain; allegory and meaning were replaced by the kind of literalistic woke preaching that has plagued much of our culture’s storytelling as of late. Never would we watch again.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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What for years was a joke in Christian media circles (just think about what the phrase “Christian films” has come to mean and symbolize: preachers go to the pulpit to preach the actual meaning of the film, etc.) has finally plagued popular culture writ large. I need not cite any of the countless examples, but I will: Jungle Cruise, Lightyear, Strange World, Big Hero 6: The Series, Blue’s Clues, Velma, to name a few. These stories all, along with countless other efforts by our nation’s most profitable and influential culture creators, commit the mortal sin of storytelling by literally preaching what they want to teach in a way, at best, tangential to the storyline.
What would the narratives of the Book of Genesis, for example, be like if an arch-narrator was there at every turn to literally unravel the senses of Scripture, dealing out moral conclusions and allegorical takeaways? If you want to walk uprightly with God, then trust Him when He gives you a difficult task…by the way, what Lot’s daughters are doing here is immoral. The stories would be rendered unnecessary, then the senses themselves detached from story. And when lessons become detached from story, they remain purely ideological; and it isn’t often that the purely ideological converts anyone deeper into the heart of truth. Rocky truth, truly, has no soft heart, but people do.
People, our fickle hearts latched onto real life, need narrative, and we need it to be both didactic and evangelical—not literalistically, but in itself, story qua story. When we engage in story, we suspend belief (if necessary, as in fiction) and psychologically enter in, putting ourselves in the place of the characters themselves—a sort of quasi or temporary autobiography. This is where the change comes in: What would I do in this situation, if that were me? Am I a coward like him? Am I superficial like her? Would I be strong enough to get through that? And on and on.
The meta-narrative of the ungodly is rather soul crushing. (Once upon a time, a primordial green slime magically birthed a single-celled life, which became people, who float for a time on a tiny rock through space, eating, drinking, and making merry, for tomorrow they die). How can we begin to counter this narrative arc, to re-present the truth of the human person as a complex, mysterious, purposefully-crafted, male or female being making his or her way through both conscience and moral sense in the eyes of God through a difficult, yet beautiful world? It doesn’t begin at the pulpit, but in story, biblical or otherwise, because we all recognize naturally what the West has inculcated over millennia: each life is a story, desperate for meaning.
This is why a good story needs great characters (because they are believable, like real people), great plot (because that’s where the real characters then psychologically engage the audience in difficult, virtue-testing situations), and great theme (the meaning of the story, as manifested through plot and character), all of which is shattered like glass when the lessons become literalistic.
A lot could be said about theme, but let’s consider this: the theme or meaning of a story is where the narrative touches meta-narrative; where a smaller, more finite world latches itself to the cosmos, the meaning of life, and the application of virtue across time and space. In a good story, the audience is the lacuna, the intimate space between narrative and meta-narrative. A literal, narrative-snapping, plot-crushing, preachy story (whether liberal or conservative, godly or atheistic, etc.) widens the gap in the attempt to close it. This is where Christians need to begin to do some Western recouping, a reclamation of narrative while most of the great stories of our culture’s wonderful tradition still dustily rest, at least for now, on library shelves.
[Image Credit: Disney]