At the intersection of plot and the gospel

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.

[caption id="attachment_61" align="aligncenter" width="1020"]The traditional, three-act plot structure The traditional, three-act plot structure[/caption]

 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.

[caption id="attachment_60" align="aligncenter" width="1008"]The storyline of the gospel matches up to a traditional plot structure. The gospel storyline[/caption]

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.

 


Review: God in the Gallery

God in the Gallery is exactly what the subtitle claims, ‘a Christian embrace of modern art’. Daniel A. Siedell embraces the contemporary art world, and will bring the willing reader along with him.

I am a layperson when it comes to contemporary art. I have no training or degrees, but I love to engage with modern art and artists.  I am a big fan of abstract expressionism, I love the aesthetic sensibilities of the Futurists, and pop art, With Warhol in the lead, is a fascinating and fun world. But my true art love is the paintings of Mark Rothko.

I love Rothko’s work. His later paintings speak to me deep down, down to my bones. To me, they are an unbridled, raw emotion and experience. Reading Siedell’s book helped put that love, and my whole understanding of contemporary art, into a Christological context.

Siedell places Rothko’s work, and much of contemporary art, in context as modern-day icons. Icons to be experienced and to commune with, icons that show us light, the real Light. As Siedell puts it, “as Christians we can name this ‘real light’ even if, tragically, neither Rothko nor his paintings could.”

Siedell goes into his thinking on the subject in-depth, casting a Christian view of contemporary art in terms of the “economy of the icon”. He is upfront about how foreign this concept is to American Protestants, including me, and spends a worthwhile amount of time in the first chapters outlining how the icon was universal in the early church and affirmed universally up through the Second Council of Nicea. Using the icon as the intersection of physical and spiritual realities, Siedell invites the reader to view modern art as transcendent iconography.

This book was a challenging read for me. It is well written and clear, but I am merely an enthusiastic layman when it comes to the subject. Many times I felt like I understood about 80% of his intent, simply because I am not steeped in the culture of the art world. However, this should not deter anyone. It was an extremely intriguing and beneficial read. I would heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the topic.

This brings me to my one criticism. The book, released in 2008, suffers slightly from too much engagement with the ideas of the emergent church movement. At the time, the movement (justifiably) looked to be very influential. It is now clear that the movement’s promises could not be delivered on as the category became clearly split in the ensuing years between a those who turned out to be repackaged mainline liberals, and those who now call themselves “missional” evangelicals. When it comes to the emergent church, it turned out to be a patchwork of folks asking questions of cultural relevancy, who all turned out to find very different answers. As a result, Siedell’s legitimate references to many of the ideas in the movement now feel dated and misdirected.

That should not take away from the work Siedell has done though. His best achievement in this book is that he refuses to answer the questions for the reader in the simplest terms. He does not define “good” or “bad” art. He does not engage in clear and acrimonious splits between Christian artists and secular artists. Rather, he constructs a clear framework for his readers to think through contemporary art—for themselves. And that is exactly what the church in America needs when it comes to the arts.


The magic of Story

I'm stuck in the tense space between authorial intent and reader response. And that’s okay.

<Well, there go any non-lit geeks. If you're still here, hang with me, I promise I am going somewhere.>

'Reader response' and 'authorial intent' are two different schools of thought in literary theory. Unlike most things that have to do with literary theory, they are almost self-explanatory. 

Adherents to the authorial intent theory hold that the real meaning of a text is in what the author intended to say, the meaning he intended to communicate. Reader response types believe that meaning is in the mind of the reader, their 'response' if you will. These two schools of thought are often thought of as polar opposites, as two different approaches that contradict each other. In some ways this is correct. 

The disciples of each will adamantly speak of “true meaning” in a real sense. Proponents of authorial intent will say that the author creates a singular meaning as he crafts a text. They argue this is the one, true meaning. Someone who believes in reader response will say that true meaning can only be found in a single reader’s response to a written work, and that this meaning is valid for that person, and is not duplicated in another’s response. Currently, reader response holds sway in most university English departments, but the traditionalists have no intentions of going away any time soon. The argument goes on and on, and frankly I don’t have a dog in the fight.

I don’t pick a side for one reason, because when it comes to human literature I think they are both true. I do not think they are opposing ideas. I think this is a metaphysical paradox which shows us something important, yet not fully understandable about the nature of God’s truth. In short, I think something very special lies between authorial intent and reader response.

Magic.

Yes, magic. 

In this no man’s land of literary criticism I think we see the real magic of stories, and storytelling.

No one who has ever read a novel that deeply moved them can deny that something special goes on in our heart when we are moved by a character, their struggles, and their victories or tragedies. In a great book that we connect with, like Les Miserables for me, there is something deep, profound, and dare I say, personal. The Jean Valjean and Monsignor Bienvenu of my Les Mis are just that, mine.

But at the same time, Victor Hugo had a compelling vision when he wrote that book. He had a specific intent, and specific point of view and story that drove him to tell this story. He was concrete in his words and work, and his intentions are not only valid tools to understand the story, they are the keys to understanding it. As an artist this is also clear to me. My work, and it’s meaning, is profoundly mine.

So how can these two experiences, that artists and patrons alike confirm, stand shoulder-to-shoulder? Again, I say to you: it must be magic. The magical alchemy of story.

We can have conversations about God, objective truth and subjective reality all night long, and it will not take away our basic experiences. There is something magical in the way we consume stories. Somewhere between the intent of the author’s mind and our response in receiving their story, there lies something special, mystical and metaphysical. It truly is magic.

As a storyteller I want to contribute to this magic. As a reader I want to revel in it. As a believer I see God in it. And when that story is one of a redemptive gospel, I want to live it.

Stories are magic. We just have to see them that way.


Tolkien on the love of an artist for their art

This is an older post from my tumblr. I am reposting it because it fits well with stuff I am currently working on.  On my tumblr I post links to things I'm reading and gathering, as well as things things too long for twitter, but not suited for the blog. You can subscribe to it in your RSS reader here.

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Then Manwë spoke and said: ‘Hearest thou, Fëanor son of Finwë, the words of Yavanna? Wilt thou grant what she would ask?’

There was long silence, but Fëanor answered no word. Then Tulkas cried: ‘Speak, O Noldo, yea or nay! But who shall deny Yavanna? And did not the light of the Silmarils come from her work in the beginning?’

But Aulë the Maker said: ‘Be not hasty! We ask a greater thing than thou knowest. Let him have peace yet awhile.’

But Fëanor spoke then, and cried bitterly: ‘For the less even as for the greater there is some deed that he may accomplish but once only; and in that deed his heart shall rest. It may be that I can unlock my jewels, but never again shall I make their like; and if I must break them, I shall break my heart, and I shall be slain; first of all the Eldar in Aman.’ 

The passage above is one of the most moving to me from The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien.  As someone who has been wired to be a “maker”, I get what Aule and Feanor are feeling. They both understand the love a maker has for his creation.

How we see the art of others

When Tulkas cannot see how anyone could not crack open the Silmarils that Feanor had crafted he was seeing the utility of the jewels. He saw them as backup of the light within them, not as unique pieces of craftsmanship on their own. The idea that the Silmarils may have some value to Feanor beyond the sum of the parts seems to be foreign to him.

But Aule is different. Being a Maker himself he understands the draw of the work of the artist. He understands what it is like to look upon something that did not exist before you made it. This compels him to show Feanor grace. Sure, they need an answer and it is probably the best idea to take the light from the Silmarils to bring the Trees back. But he did not push Feanor. He counseled the other Valar to give him time, because he knows how brutal this decision is. This reminds me strongly of the biblical image of a loving Father looking down on us.

How we are taken in by our own art

But now we turn to Feanor. He loved his art, but in the end he loved it more than he loved the Valar and his fellow elves. He took the Silmarils and ran, and eventually they end up in the hands of Morgoth. Then, the Valar and the Elves have neither.

This is what greed brings us. As sinful, fallen humans we will always be disposed to love our creations too much. To claim ownership, to set them on a shelf to never be used nor shared. This is wrong and harmful. In contrast to the gracious view we see in Aule, here we see the selfish love of man for his own creations. Think the golden calf from Exodus. 

Tolkien gets it

As a committed Catholic and artist Tolkien is perfectly positioned to understand this and pass it along to us. There is great beauty and truth in the Silmarillion, even if reading it can be a bit of a slog at times. 

If you are an artist, I suggest picking this book up and taking another (or your first) spin through it. I think you appreciate the artistry and the point of view.


Gospel storytelling requires conflict

Conflict is the engine of good storytelling. As Christians, we should also understand that conflict is at the heart of the gospel. The proclamation of Christ’s victory over sin and death is good news precisely because mankind is locked in mortal conflict with sin. Without our sinful nature we would have no need for the mercy and grace Jesus’s victory secured. As the church, we need to remember this conflict honestly in order to rightly celebrate our deliverance.

Gospel storytelling is the work of kingdom artists sharing stories of human sin and the redemption, healing, and response of God’s people through the gospel of Jesus Christ.  When kingdom artists seek to show how the gospel changes the lives of believers, conflict must be front and center.

What is conflict, really?

Dramatic conflict can be defined as the thing (or person) that prevents a character from getting what he or she wants. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo seeks to destroy the ring of power but Sauron’s quest to find it stands in his way.

 As fallen creatures saved by grace, conflict is the Christian’s constant companion. Everyday we fight sin through the power of the Holy Spirit. We strive to be more like Christ, but sin stands in our path. Even the way Paul describes this tension is Romans 6 is replete with the language of conflicting powers:

“We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” Romans 6:9-12

“Let not sin therefore reign” is a revolutionary battle cry against our sinful natures. Paul calls us to fight sin, to overthrow it’s reign over our hearts, because Christ has won the victory already. This is epic language. It’s language of kingdoms and heroes, life and death. Paul frames redemption and victory in the language of conflict to remind us that in this life, our battle is not over yet.

Why must gospel stories show conflict?

The meta-narrative of the Bible has four main plot points: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Without an understanding that the fundamental conflict of this story is the rebellion of man and the subsequent pervasiveness of sin, the rest of the plot does not make sense. In God’s grand historical-redemptive plan the conflict between man’s sin and God’s glory is the driving force.

For this very reason, when storytellers frame a narrative of gospel change we must give the story’s conflict its due. For the fallen human mind to understand the beauty and truth of redemption we must show the ugliness of rebellion. Only when the darkness is understood will the need for the gospel be clear. Perfect people do not need a savior, and stories with no conflict do not require redemption.

Conflict and grace

Gospel storytellers should not shy way from sin, conflict or suffering. To tell the stories of our churches with integrity and fidelity to the gospel, artists must be honest about the sin and rebellion in our subjects and their stories. We must present the truth of the story in a compelling way. But we must do so with grace and love.

For artists who seek to tell stories of gospel change we must always be mindful that the story is never more important than the characters. We must never treat believers who want to share their story as nothing more than raw materials. We cannot exploit them by digging deep mine shafts into their hearts, extracting our few precious gems, and then withdrawing to leave a hollow shell. We must treat our fellow believers with love and care. We need to be more than just writers, filmmakers and photographers, we need to be true brothers and sisters in Christ.

Conflict, in its proper place

Finally, we must always keep one thing in mind: darkness is defined only by an absence of light. The light of the gospel is primary. 

We must never glorify or idolize the conflict and sin in a story of gospel change. We should never place sin and rebellion in the spotlight of center stage, anymore than we should ignore it. Conflict in gospel stories has one very specific task, to illustrate our need for Jesus. We must always ask ourselves if the conflict in our stories point to our need to a Savior. If it does not serve this goal, then we have missed something important.

Visit the Storyframes Collective website and checkout our films, photography, and the written and spoken stories. There are many talented artists contributing to the Collective, and I think you will find real encouragement in the stories.