This blog post is an adaptation of a training talk I gave last week for The Austin Stone Story Team.
As our mission statement for the Austin Stone Story Team says, we “use creative storytelling to glorify the name and purpose of Jesus Christ, encourage the saints, and compel all people to gospel action.” We do this by telling the stories of how the gospel changes lives, but I also believe there is a deeper meaning to the idea of “gospel stories”. Ideally, our stories should not just describe how the gospel changes lives, they should reflect the gospel storyline.
Before we get there though, we should explore the artist’s place in God’s grand redemption narrative. I think it’s extremely important for us to understand how writers and editors fit into the church, and the lives of our fellow believers.
If I talk about literature enough, maybe 5 minutes or so-- I will get around to referencing J.R.R Tolkien. In his essay On Faerie Stories (which I highly recommend if you like fantasy fiction, but even more highly recommend if you think you don’t) Tolkien, a devout Catholic, used the word ‘sub-creator’ to describe the artist who creates another world in their work.
In his book Echoes of Eden, Jerram Barrs takes this idea of Tolkien’s and expands it to cover all artists. He explains, “We never create ex nihilo (out of nothing) like God, for we are always working with some aspect of what he has already made.”
The realization that our acts of creation are subordinate to God’s first creation should lead us to a place of humility, found in the recognition that all we can ever do with our art is hold up a mirror to the world that God created, and show people how we see it.
C.S. Lewis lights the way for us in thinking about the act of sub-creation when he says that, “an author should never conceive of himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom that did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.”
God shows us what sub-creation looks like, and how much he values it in the life of his people, in Exodus 31:1-6, through an artist named Bezalel (bezʹuh-leel):
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you.’”
These were part of God’s instructions to Moses to build the tabernacle. The tabernacle was the Israelites’ traveling temple while they wandered in the desert. It housed the presence of the Lord, and served as the location where the priests could offer their sacrifices. It also pointed to a time when Jesus would be present with us here on earth, and make the final sacrifice for his adopted ones. By equipping Bezalel and the other artists and craftsmen with intelligence, ability, knowledge, craftsmanship and the very Spirit of God, the Lord clearly set him apart for this service. Bezalel was not creating from scratch, God gave him the materials, inspiration, and mission. His creation was subordinate to God’s creation.
Of course, we won’t have our names recorded in the Bible for what we do, but God equips artists with gifts and talents, like he did with Bezalel, to serve him, and build up the church today.
If we properly understand the subordinate nature of being an artist we can approach our work humbly. If we truly see ourselves as sub-creators, then we know that God first conceived of the very mediums we work in. The nature and mechanisms of art were created by God, and given to us as gifts. He is not only the creator of story, but he is also the master storyteller. Which, finally, brings us to the intersection of gospel storytelling and plot.
I don’t know if you all remember this diagram from your middle school English class or not, but this is the standard plot structure that we all know and love, even if you don’t consciously think about it.
I have great respect for screenwriters. If you read a book like Story by Robert McKee, or Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, you will quickly realize that they have storytelling down to a science. If you look at most movies, except for maybe Terrence Malik films and other art house fare, you will find this structure.
Screenwriters refer to this as the three-act structure. Act One is the setup, where we are introduced to the characters and setting. Act Two is the confrontation, where conflict is established in what is called “the inciting incident” and obstacles are set up. The stakes are raised as the action rises and tension builds, leading up to the climax. The action of the climax launches us into the final Act, where we find resolution.
The gospel itself has a three-act structure.
In Act One, God creates Adam and Eve, setting them up in Paradise, giving them dominion over the earth. Act Two begins when Adam and Eve sin. They rebel against God’s only command, setting up the conflict between a holy God and mankind’s sin. For generations, Israel persists in a cycle of sin and repentance, demonstrating that man cannot defeat sin within his own power.
Then, Jesus shows up on the scene. He brings the sin of Israel into sharp contrast with his own perfect, holy life. Each conversation and confrontation with the leaders of the day raises the stakes until they have had enough. In one weekend, we have the climax of redemptive history. On Friday the Innocent One is found guilty. On Saturday he is in the grave. But on Sunday, history changes. God redeems his people in the most dramatic way.
From that point on, the victory has been won. Sin is already defeated. But, we live in a world where the final redemption of all creation has not yet come. Theologians call this reality “the already, but not yet.” Finally, we have the New Creation, promised to us in the Word. God will resolve the story with all glory and honor resting on him.
This overarching storyline is called the Biblical meta-narrative. It is the full story of God’s plan to redeem the world from sin, and display his glory in the person of Jesus. It is the storyline of the gospel.
I believe the three-act structure is present in the gospel storyline not because it is a structure we all relate to. Instead, I believe that we all understand and relate to the three-act structure because that is how God gave us the gospel.
Let me put that another way. The gospel is the original plot structure, and we tell stories in this way because they resonate with humans who were created to receive the gospel story.
I think there are profound questions for writers and editors to wrestle with in these truths. But today, our focus is on how we tell the stories in a way that reflects the gospel.
Every believer has a gospel storyline in our lives. We all have a creation, fall, redemption, and we will someday have a new creation in our stories.
But we also have them in our smaller stories and events. In an adoption story, isn’t the loss of a parent for an orphan a type of Fall? In a story of healing, isn’t a believer living in the ‘already but not yet’? After all, their body will still die someday, and their new body is coming one day. Finally, the Incarnation is the heart and soul of a 100 people story. The goer is emulating exactly what Christ did for humanity.
Here is my proposal: for a story to truly reflect the gospel we cannot pick and choose what parts we show. We cannot just show creation and conflict, because we leave out redemption. We cannot just show redemption either, because a picture of redemption without a background of sin makes no sense. We only need redemption because of our sin.
When we seek to tell stories of redemption and gospel change, I suggest that at a minimum, we must show conflict and redemption. If we can show more of the story, great. But if we cannot, the gospel story must have at least two things: our sin, and God’s grace.