Earlier this month, Mike Cosper’s book The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth released. You can get to know him a little better and find out what’s on his book shelf here, as well as read an extensive interview on the book here.
Over at Christ and Pop Culture, his book is part of the rotating bundle given away to members. You can read my write up to get a 30,000 ft. overview and join Christ and Pop Culture to get the book for free. You can also read this rundown of 20 Truths from The Stories We Tell (half of which are in the introduction and first two chapters).
A couple of weeks back, I started some interaction with Cosper’s work. The plan was to resume Monday with chapters 1 and 2. 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. Cosper says:
There is nothing new under the sun, and our stories— no matter how fresh and new they might feel— are all a way of “playing in the dirt,” wrestling with creation, reimagining it, working with it, and making it new. Our stories have a way of fitting into the bigger story of redemption that overshadows all of life and all of history. Because that bigger story is the dirt box in which all the other stories play.
The storyteller’s raw material is the stuff of ordinary, everyday life: relationships, conflicts, love, loss, and suffering. Behind that raw material is the bigger picture of which we’re participants. We live in a world that was meant for glory, but is now tragically broken. We hunger for redemption, and we seek it in a myriad of ways.
And so we tell stories that reveal the deep longing of the human heart for redemption from sin, for a life that’s meaningful, for love that lasts. We tell stories about warriors overcoming impossible odds to save the world. Stories about how true love can make the soul feel complete. Stories about horrific, prowling villains carrying out a reign of terror, only to be vanquished by an unexpected hero. Stories about friendships that don’t fall apart. Stories about marriages that last. Stories about life, death, and resurrection. (33-34)
Cosper then explains how we tend to tell the same kinds of stories over and over again. Ultimately, our stories are our hopeful attempts to reckon with whether or not every sad thing will become untrue. In that light, Cosper says:
This is a book about stories and how they reveal the heart’s longing for the gospel. In particular, it looks at how this deep desire is evident in pop culture. It’s common to argue that The Odyssey or King Lear reveals depths about the human heart; I happen to think the same can be said (though in different ways) about Dexter and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
The overarching story of redemption history— the old, old story— can be told through the framework of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation . God made the world, sin corrupted it, Jesus redeemed it, and one fine day, God will ultimately restore it. That’s the story of the Bible, start to finish.
I believe that the stories we tell can be examined and understood in this light. The creative impulses of the human heart are always probing at these elements of redemption history because they are our story and they are our hope— even if it’s the misguided hope of one writing a poem to an unknown god in Acts 17 or of one believing that a win on American Idol will satisfy his soul. Throughout the book, I’ll use these movements of the old, old story— creation, fall, redemption, and consummation— to look at the ways we’re telling our stories today. (37-38)
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. (42)
Cosper, in good triperspectival fashion, works through three aspects of the gospel: the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel of the cross, and the gospel of grace. In the middle of those three, he circles back to the original question (how far is too far?) and says:
In the light of the gospel, we can see that all that’s good about TV and movies belongs to God (the gospel of the kingdom), and much of this book will look at the good. As suspicious as I am of television and movies, I believe there’s a lot of good in them . The stories we are telling are indeed forming our hearts and minds, and not all of that formation is bad.
That said , the gospel also tells us that the world is a fallen place (the gospel of the cross), and the stories we tell are no exception to that rule. Enmeshed with the good is the bad. If we tell stories (as many argue) to know who we are, then our stories reveal that we are indeed creatures of glory and depravity. Our world desperately needs a Savior willing to sacrifice everything for us. (51-52)
Then in relation to the gospel of grace he says:
It calls us, most of all, to a kind of thoughtful, mature engagement. We should think deeply about the media we consume because it will have a long-term effect on the way we look at the world. We should think about the way entertainment exploits real people— both trained actors and also the subjects of “reality television,” turning their plights, struggles, and vices into cheap entertainment. We should think about the reasons we are laughing or crying, about the ways that our stories are promising redemption, salvation, and “the good life.” (53)
After laying this kind of groundwork, Cosper tackles the question of conscience and community. He notes that together, they “can go a long way to guarding your heart as you step into the theater or turn on your TV. This kind of thoughtful engagement requires us to make connections between our media consumption and our hearts. Cultivating a sensitivity to your conscience will lead you away from much trouble, and community will be there to guard you from blind spots and self-deception (54-55).”
As he closes, Cosper makes an important admission regarding his own conscience that is worth taking to heart:
I confess that in the months that have passed since proposing this book, researching it, and actually beginning to write it, I’ve experienced a personal transformation in how I think about TV and movies. Author Harold Best once remarked to me that as he got older, he simultaneously became more convicted of his freedom in the gospel to engage culture, and his own sinfulness. The result was that while he believed in a great and wide freedom in Christ, he exercised his freedom in a far more limited way than he had when he was younger.
Researching this book has had a similar effect on me. Examining why we tell stories and thinking about the formative effect they have on our lives has caused me to be less enthusiastic about certain shows and movies , and more enthusiastic about others. I’m more sensitive to what I think is exploitive and dehumanizing, and less enamored with certain writers, directors, and actors. (55-56)
To me, that shows someone who is thoughtfully engaging with the world of stories, but is sensitive to how the Spirit may be working in his own heart. 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.
I’ve seen my own attitude change in this regard as I’ve grown through my 20’s. There are certain shows that I don’t watch anymore that I once did and there are certain shows that I’d like to watch, but just don’t feel like I should. I’m not obligated to engage everything, I’m just obligated (I think) to engage thoughtfully with what I do watch. As we move on in Cosper’s book, we’ll get plenty of food for thought for doing just that kind of engagement.