The Stories We Tell: Chapters 5-9

9781433537080Beginning in chapter 3, Cosper surveys many of the types of stories we tell in our cinematic arts. We have stories of paradise lost and playing God (chapter 3), of the search for love (chapter 4), of original sin and falls from grace (chapter 5), of the frustration and futility in a post-fall world (chapter 6), of fear and mystery (chapter 7), of violence vengeance and judgment (chapter 8), and finally of heroes (chapter 9). As you can see, Anchorman references do not figure prominently.

A potential downside, 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 haven’t started Mad Men yet, but I plan to, and when I do, I’ll come back to these chapters.

I generally avoid horror movies, but I had seen enough X-Files to read chapter 7 with interest. The money chapters for me though were chapters 8 and 9, so that’s what I’ll focus on here. I’ll circle back to chapters 2-3 and in the next post.

Chapter 8 split time between Dexter and the films of Quentin Tarrantino, mostly Pulp Fiction. I’m not a fan of Dexter, but Ali 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” (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 acheived, 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.

Chapter 9 is still kind of working in this vein by tackling hero stories. Cosper draws connection between the archtypal hero stories and the story of Jesus in the Gospels. 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 (189):

Stories We Tell Chart

Now one of the reasons for these similarities is that it just makes for good storytelling. Beyond that though, screenwriters are actually taught to do this explicitly. Building even further on the work of Campbell, Christopher Vogler spells out a more detailed hero’s journey in The Writer’s Journey (a book for screenwriters). As I previously pointed out, here are the stages in the first act, called Separation:

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the Threshold
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach

In the second act, which can be split into two parts itself, Descent and Initiation, there is the single stage:

  • Central Ordeal.

In the last act, called Return, the stages are:

  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • Resurrection
  • Return with Elixir

Though I won’t elaborate on it here, you could use this grid as well for Katniss, Luke, and Harry. With a little help from Vern Poythress here is you can apply the above grid to Christ’s life and ministry. In the initial act (Challenge), Christ is in heaven (his Ordinary World) and is sent by the Father to redeem the world, which is a Call to Adventure that lacks a Refusal of the Call (Galatians 4:4-5; 1 John 4:14). At the outset of Christ’s public ministry there is a Crossing of the Threshold (Matthew 4:1-11). From there Christ makes Allies (the disciples) and Enemies (Satan, the Pharisees) and amidst the many Tests (challenges from Pharisees and demons) he breaks away often to meet with his Mentor (God the Father). All the while, Christ has set his face to Approach Jerusalem (for this emphasis, see Luke’s Gospel). In the second act, it is not a stretch at all to see Jesus’ crucifixion and death as the Central Ordeal of the gospel story (Matthew 26-27). In his death which is the start of the final act, Jesus was vindicated and received the Reward, completed the Road Back and was Resurrected from the dead. He then returned to his Ordinary World (heaven) having accomplished redemption and made the Elixir available to all who would believe (1 Timothy 3:16; Philippians 2:8-11; Romans 4:24-25).

As I see it, even though it happened in the middle of history, the Gospel is the archetype for all stories with a redemptive trajectory. Film is no exception, and Cosper makes that case as well in his writing. He wraps up the book with one more chapter, which along with chapters 3-4, will be the focus of my next post.

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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