Letter from the Editor: The Perfect Story

I’m guilty of wanting the perfect story. I can spend an hour clicking between Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix trying to figure out what show I want to start watching rather than ever starting one. I will Google and read lists of what shows I should watch, what books I should read—seeking something that will leave me with the ineffable sense of satisfaction that very few works of art ever actually have.

Though I cannot articulate what exactly I want in the story, I know what I want from a story. That deep longing for something perfect—an artifact through which I can find escape, comfort, hope, companionship. Which is undoubtedly a reflection of my ache for God’s redemptive story to be finished and fulfilled, for pain to cease, for tears to be wiped away, for there to be a new Heaven and new Earth. While we wait for that Great Story to be completed, we read, watch, and write, catching glimpses of Gospel truths in earthly tales.

In this issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine, we look to both the promises and perils that consuming stories create. Our feature essay authors turn us toward the possibilities that stories provide for us while we are on earth, but also remind us that we are imperfect creators and consumers.

Adam Shields interrogates his own practice of reading predominantly minority authors in the past few years as a spiritual practice in his piece, On the Come Up and Letting the Story Speak.” In reading Angie Thomas’s two young adult works, On the Come Up and The Hate U Give, Shields identifies the potential dangers of confirmation bias:

As a White reader, the potential damage I can do to the story is to heroize Bri or Starr (from The Hate U Give) simply because they are the subjects of books. I can read into the endings and imagine the successes each young woman will experience throughout her life because I have spent hundreds of pages getting to know her, and I want good things for her. The romantic threads of the stories, I presume, will play out in healthy marriages. Intelligence and drive will turn into successful careers. Traumas will be overcome and transform into fodder for community movements.

But these assumptions project my preconceptions onto the stories and threaten to alter the books that Angie Thomas has actually written. If I center myself as the arbiter of the novel, instead of the characters themselves as the center of the story, I miss the fact that Thomas’s books do not end neatly. If I continue to see them as examples of the meritocracy that disproves the ongoing reality of racism, then I have missed the thread of racism as a systemic destructive power that runs through both books. If I do not allow for the existence of racism as a systemically lethal force, I will not have heard the whole of Thomas’s message.

Despite the potential dangers of reading experiences unlike our own, Shields emphasizes that exposure to these stories is a key way to challenge our perspectives of the world.

Good stories point us to Christ—to who He is, what He loves, what He’s done, and what He’s yet to do.

In his feature, “Let the Story Live a Natural Life,” Josh Herring points out another potential pitfall of story creation and consumption: an overzealous love for the story that has come to its natural conclusion. Reviewing the television creations of Joss Whedon and Michael Schur, Herring points out shows that died before their time, the few that lived a perfect number of seasons, and those that went well beyond their natural end:

The easiest way for a show to go wrong is for it to live too long. Such shows begin with a solid core identity, but something changes in that identity. Instead of dying a natural death, the narrative limps along, sometimes with more effectiveness than others, but clearly different from the earlier life of the story. Such is where I would classify The Office after Steve Carrell’s departure…

…Our stories too have a natural life cycle; as much as we might wish to avoid death (both for ourselves and for others), the sovereignty and goodness of God demands that we accept His authorial choices, and look for the resolution of a life cut short in the consummation of all things. We are not the authors of the Great Story, but instead characters for the Author to bring forward or recess at His pleasure.

Eventually the story will end. Christ will return, and we will see that everything we have been, everything we have made, every story we have told is but the preface.

It is this Great Story, K. B. Hoyle reminds us, that is reflected in truly good stories. In her feature, “Christian Storytelling and the Upsidedown Shadowlands,” Hoyle uses C. S. Lewis’s idea of the Shadowlands (developed from Lewis’s study of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”) to point to the problematic demonizing of the outside world by evangelical subculture that occurred over the last several decades:

Good art in and of itself, stories crafted well—these things please the heart of God because they reflect the nature of God as Creator. The Christian as storyteller has the very great privilege of creating something so beautiful that it recreates out of the Fall. Our stories should invite people out of the Shadowlands to infinite, radical possibilities of the imagination. But the Christian subculture has, for many decades, been trying to keep people in a sort of upsidedown Shadowlands, one crafted by the church to keep the world out. It was a natural product of the culture wars. If the world is bad and the ways of the world are bad, then we must create a Christian subculture replete with our own books, movies, and music. But focused so heavily on message over medium, the Christian subculture was and remains a place filled with far too much bad art.

…Christian stories in this world should reflect, point toward, and compel people to imagine the New Heavens and the New Earth—and not as Evangelistic alter calls, but as expressions of art that are as naturally worshipful as the first bird call of the day or sunrise on a mountain. This is the purpose of a religious imagination.

Good stories point us to Christ—to who He is, what He loves, what He’s done, and what He’s yet to do. In them, we find camaraderie with characters, solace for our world-weary souls, and hope for when the day when the Great Story reaches its perfect completion.

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