Storytelling should not be preaching

Brandon Ambrosino, writing for Vox, asks, “Why are Christian movies so painfully bad?” He’s writing specifically about the recently released movie, “Old Fashioned,” though he mentions a few other recent examples. The full article is worth a read, but I want to focus on a couple of points:

As Daniel Siedell, Art Historian in Residence at The King’s College in New York City, notes, “For [Evangelical Christians], culture is a tool, a more effective way of getting at political realities, or winning the battle of ideas in the public arena.”

Siedell uses the following analogy with his students to explain what he means.

Imagine a gorgeously wrapped gift sitting under a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. The presentation of the package, while pretty, is nowhere near as valuable as what’s inside.

Now, he says, extend that idea to Christian art. The artistic qualities of a work become the unnecessary wrapping paper. As such, it doesn’t really matter how good or bad they are.

That’s why it doesn’t matter that Old Fashioned is often very boring. It doesn’t matter that the script bursts at the seams with overwrought dialogue, or that the actors (outside of lead actress Elizabeth Roberts) offer phoned-in performances.

Ambrosino eventually disagrees with this point, but I don’t think he does so as vehemently as he should. Quality is not just the packaging. Quality is an inherent property of the entire work of art. When you think you can make a work of art and treat the artistic qualities of the work as superfluous, you are not making art. Period. I understand the mind set of the evangelicals, believe me! I was raised in that sub-culture, and once people noticed I had what they considered Talent, everything I wrote and did was evaluated through that lens of whether they felt it was proclaiming the message of Christ.

I tried to make one of Ambrosino’s points at the time: if the quality of what we produce is a turn-off, it doesn’t matter how important the message is. People will never listen to your message if they are bored by your story/movie/what have you. But it always fell on deaf ears.

Part of the problem with both my argument then and Ambrosino’s now is that we’re conceding something that we know is wrong. In order to try to make the argument that they should try to be better at making art in order to get their message across, we are buying into the fallacy that art is merely a means to deliver a message. It’s their argument:

Brian Godawa, Christian screenwriter, thinks it’s important to note that Christian films aren’t the only ones that are explicitly preachy. All films, says Godawa, “have messages to some degree or another, and writers and directors know full well they’re embodying those messages in their storytelling.”

I’ve written before that it is impossible to create art that is true to yourself without your values informing the work. That’s not the same thing as a message. I know that I’m a big believer in hope, so my stories, even when I write things I considered very dark, always have some hint of a glimmer of hope. But that isn’t the same as a message. I don’t write a story because I wish it will make other people feel the same way about hope as I do. I write stories because the stories want to be told. My own perspective will always be to look for that glimmer of hope, so I see the stories that way.

But each reader will have his or her own perspective, as well. And even though I am the storyteller, it’s their story, too. Their interpretation of what the story means (to them) is just as valid as mine.

And while I often have very strong opinions about the stories, art, and music I love; I understand that they are my opinions. I may think that your opinion about that particular piece of art is utterly wrong, but I will defend your right to express it. I may debate you about it, but I expect you to argue back.

That’s the difference between trying to send a message and letting your belief inform your artistic endeavors. I don’t consider it a failure if a reader doesn’t agree with me at the end. I don’t even consider it a failure if some readers don’t like the story at all. I especially don’t consider it a failure if a reader feels compelled to tell me just how much they hated one of the characters, or that they are angry at me about how the story ended.

Because in order to hate a character, you have to believe in the character. In order to be angry about how the story ended, you have to become invested in how it ends.

Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing from readers who tell me they liked something, or that they found a particular character adorable. Someone told me that recently about a pair of characters in one of my stories, and I just about died from pure happiness. But you know what? A few years ago when one reader wrote to tell me, in regards to a particularly ruthless character I had written about, “I don’t trust him at all!” and others wrote to tell me how much they loved the same character, I just about died from glee.

The people who are delivering messages want one and only one reaction to their story. You must agree with them. If you don’t agree with them, you have failed to learn the lesson they are so desperate to teach you.

And that’s completely backwards from how it ought to me.

2 thoughts on “Storytelling should not be preaching

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