Do you remember the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Do you remember the little kid who shouted out the King is naked? That kid was Seth Worley. All of us who have watched Seth grow up, knew he would have a unique place in our world. He is smart, insightful and in some ways, he is wise beyond his years. I am glad the little boy who I met as a friend of my own sons, has now become my friend. He asks hard questions. He isn’t satisfied with pat answers. He keeps me honest. I like having him around…most of the time.
Deus Ex Machina:
How bad storytelling stunts our spiritual growth
About a year ago, a group of my friends started getting together once a week to watch the first five seasons of LOST, scheduled strategically to lead straight into the final season. A lot of people hated this past season, specifically the finale, and Jesus loves those people just as much as he loves the rest of us. But if you were at Neil and Shannon Hoppe’s house that final Sunday night, you witnessed the entire range of human emotion on sickening display. Grown men weeping. Things no one should ever have to see.
I am still recovering from that finale. I’m serious. The entire thing worked for me on every narrative level. My mind immediately goes to the unbearably epic cliff fight that begins with Jack and Locke charging toward each other at full raging speed (one word: jumppunch), culminating with Locke standing over Jack with a knife to his throat, threatening him with something worse than death:
“I want you to know, Jack, that you died for nothing.”
It’s a bloody, primal, emotionally and thematically saturated moment.
LOST has always been a blatantly spiritual show. It’s the closest thing to a live-action Bible story I personally have ever seen, in a world full of terrible live-action Bible story videos. It’s got plenty of trendy philosophical and spiritual elements and references, but the ultimate theme of the show — the concept that emerged and wrestled in every episode — was the dilemma of rationality versus faith.
But that’s not why we watched it.
We watched it because it was viciously good storytelling. We saw ourselves in these characters, and we went on this huge and epic journey with them. And in the process, we grew with them as they did.
There are two common approaches to writing a story, be it a novel, screenplay, or one-act: writing from theme, and writing from character. Every book and professor and starving screenwriter will tell you that a story’s movement must be determined by character. Every twist and turn should be generated by the character’s motivations and desires.
But what I currently do for a living (make “Christian” movies/videos) requires me to write from theme. I’m given a Bible study with a theme, motif, and corresponding Bible verses, and I have to craft a story that’s movement is determined by those themes. The danger in writing from theme is that it’s very easy to contrive completely unrealistic characters that make completely unrealistic decisions in order to meet the given thematic requirements. And when characters are unrealistic, they’re unrelatable, and your story is the deadest dead thing ever dead.
That’s arguably why so many Christian movies are unfortunately mediocre.
We’re Christians. And we LOVE theme. Theme is the meaning, the moral of the story. And our primary goals revolve around telling every boy and every girl the biggest greatest moral of THE story. But without the actual story — the movement of characters from one state to another — all we have is the moral. And that’s fine. Sort of.
But the people who wrote the Bible, people who literally sailed through the same storms as Jesus Himself, weren’t lazy storytellers. Aside from the letters and songs, a large portion of the Bible is narrative, which consists of people and the choices they make and the repercussions of those choices (movement produced by character). And it’s within the movements of these characters that we see the personal involvement of God, His constant work to redeem these choices we make into something that means something (movement produced by theme). The people that wrote the Bible went out of their way to tell us what happened and why it happened, but our instinct is to skim the what in our quest for the why. And that’s why for the longest time I was confident I knew every theme and lesson in the Bible, while I didn’t have a clue who half the people in it were.
There was a moment a few years ago when I suddenly realized that Job was a person. Someone somewhere had somehow figured out a way to get me to sit still for longer than 30 seconds and actually read the Bible. Much to my surprise, these verses, when read in sequential order, formed paragraphs and chapters. And so I read some of them.
My favorite part about Job? God was angrier at Job’s friends than anyone else. The whole time, you think his friends are actually making some valid points to Job. You kind of wonder if Job really is being a bit of a whiner.
But God unleashes a lecture on Job’s friends, and reading it, I realized something significant and pivotal about relationships: presence. When someone we love falls into a hole and can’t get out, our instinctive reaction is to try to get them out. When that fails, our next approach is to try and figure out how or why they fell into the hole. What caused it? But what God seems to teach Job’s friends is that it’s likely our only responsibility is to jump down in there and maybe potentially crawl out together, or more likely just sit and wait together.
I’d say that this is a good example of how I need to be reading the Bible. Rather than standing on the edge, looking for the reasons and why, I need to be down in the pit with these characters and these stories, relating to them, and growing with them, like I did with the characters in LOST. This is why good storytelling is so important! Bad storytelling can stunt our growth. We stand apart from the story and are untouched.
I just told you the theme that I got from the story of Job. You may find something else in it. Or you may find proof that I have no clue what I’m talking about and have no place typing meandering paragraphs on Mike Glenn’s blog. But the conversation you and I could have after reading Job has a great chance of resulting in the discovery of a handful of other themes, not to mention what we might discover about the character of God.
I watched the first 5 seasons of LOST, for the most part, by myself. And before that I regularly wrestled with the spiritual themes that are part of the show’s fabric (like I assume every other pretentious and arrogant kid in his 20’s does). But nothing compares to the experience our group has had over the past year, experiencing the show from start to finish, together.
Think how cool it is that we have a Bible full of stories even more compelling that we can experience that same way. From start to finish, together. What would happen if we did?
Seth Worley blogs regularly at SethWorley.com and Jumppunched.com. He is a filmmaker whose work includes the independent feature film “The Time Closet.”
Seth is the Visual Media Producer for LifeWay Training and Events including Fuge Camps, Centrikid Camps, Living Proof<Live (Beth Moore), Going Beyond (Priscilla Shirer), Deeper Still, Festival Of Marriage, and the LifeWay National Youth Workers Conference. He is the creator of many successful video series produced for LifeWay Fuge Camps, like “Duncan and Mike,” “Milo’s Garage,” “Pulaski High Blanks,” “The Kitchen Bink,” and the “Adventure Now” trilogy