In Search of Story

This is a random question I’m pondering today: do we have a thresh-hold for story?

I ask because I seem to be able to take in less at a time than others: Karen, for example, devoured two television episodes, a movie, and chapters from two different novels before going to bed last night. I managed the continuing plot of two consecutive television episodes, and was done. I attempted to share one of the novel chapters with her, but was mentally logged off.

Perhaps I move more slowly through unpacking a story than she does, or perhaps I’ve been ruined by being forced to read far too much non-fiction (and I don’t mean creative non-fiction) through my grad school days. Perhaps a good story is just like great food for me: I want to savor every bit of it. I don’t want to watch it or read it too fast…I want to catch the nuances, all the potential meta-message that may lie within the plot.

Karen does the same thing, just at a much faster pace.

Either way, I think it’s a good problem to have as there is simply too little appreciation for story in Western culture. Particularly, the overly religious among us tend to flee from it, apparently afraid of it’s power, afraid of being uncomfortable or being made to think by surrendering to a movie or play or novel for a few hours. I listened to Dr. Jerry Root recount today how he was raised thinking that if Christ returned while he was in a movie, he would be passed by.

This is fundamentally (pardon the pun) odd to me, as the most effective way to communicate an idea tends to be through story, whether personal narrative or fiction (such as the parables of Christ). Yet, so many great thinkers choose to communicate their concepts without the use of story. Perhaps that’s why theology becomes so potentially convoluted.

So my points here are that:

1) Every theologian should employ a ghost writer.
2) All of us should learn to return story to its proper high place in our personal and family cultures for the sake of perpetuating thought.

I doubt we’ll be fortunate enough for number 1 to happen, but I’m strongly optimistic for number 2.

In The Words of Another

I didn’t want to write an obligatory Christmas post. Rather, I wanted to leave something of an offering here, something to relate where I’ve ended up this season, pondering and attempting to get my head around this Incarnation that has forever altered history. Last night, as I was passing time, I stumbled upon a reading of Karl Barth’s 1958 Christmas sermon, “He Stands by Us.” This, I think, encapsulates where I’ve been taken this Christmas:

“My dear brothers and sisters, let me get to the main point without delay. Who is he who was born the son of Mary, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger? Who is he? I do not ask who he was. Christmas is not the birthday celebration of a man who lived long ago, then died and passed away, and whose centennial we solemnly commemorate. True, he once lived and then died–and how he died!–but he also rose from the dead; he is present and lives among us now, much closer to each one of us than we are to ourselves. Still, who is he? The answer to that question is the good news of Christmas.
Today, let me say simply this: He who was born in the stable is he who stands by you, stands by me, and stands by us all. I do not say one who stands by you, but he who stands by you. For only one, only he who was born on that first Christmas day, can stand by us in utter unselfishness and with ultimate authority and power…This is the good news of Christmas. He who stands by you and helps you is alive and present! It is he who was born that Christmas day! Open your eyes, open your ears, open your heart! You may truly see, hear, and experience that he is here, and stands by you as no one else can do!”

(You can find the entirety of the sermon re-printed here).

Blessings to all, and to all a good night.

Collaboration or Dilution

In an age where “community” has become the latest pop-culture buzz word in our faith…umm…communities…there seems to be this sense that the more minds you have working on any given project, the more ideas will flow and the better the project will be. I’m not sure that’s always the case.

For the past few years, I’ve been privileged enough to attend a very artistically minded community of faith. I’ve produced and contributed a significant amount within this community, from writing copy for press releases to writing and directing dramatic sketches. While I’m in love with the fact that Western churches at large are no longer fleeing in terror from the arts, I’m continually amazed by the detached nature with which creative projects are approached.

Certainly, group brainstorming and strategy sessions are critical and productive, depending upon the task at hand. There’s a time, however, when the more hands that are in the project, the more diluted the final piece becomes. The piece begins to be seen as a commodity as opposed to a passionately crafted creation. I’ve actually been told, “I like what you wrote…I went ahead and changed some things in the last paragraph…I didn’t think you’d mind.”

And what would have given you that idea?

I watched a panel discussion this afternoon from the American Theatre Wing podcast…an old panel, from back when I was working on my undergrad (not at that school, just the same time frame). It’s interesting to watch professionals discuss issues that were heated topics at that time. In this case, it was film vs. theatre, and America’s unfortunate obsession with the former to the degradation of the latter. One panelist stated that “in Hollywood” the emphasis was on the visual, the appearance of the final product, and that the writer was thus devalued to an extreme. In theatre, however, the attitude was that the writer knew best, because what took place on the stage was about language.

This is a concept that I see sorely lacking in church environments. I’m not talking about a writer (for example) not being open to feedback; after all, he is essentially writing his article or sketch or press release for a client. I’m talking about the liberty that others feel to take with the writer’s work…something the writer has crafted and left of piece of him/herself in, to completely re-work it in the name of editing. Re-writes upon request are one thing…having someone “make some changes” to your last paragraph is quite another. Perhaps I’m being narcissistic here, but I see and feel an attitude that everything must bow to the end result, and that the process of getting there isn’t important.

I think that’s because it’s viewed as a product, not a piece…a nasty little side effect of what C.S. Lewis discussed as the deification of science. In other words, the church sees what the artist generated for that Sunday morning as a product (or worse, they see the entire Sunday morning as a product), approaching it with an attitude of expendability toward the process and those involved within it, removing the individuality from the piece, and absorbing it into their collective whole, somehow viewing this as acceptable. In other words, the contrived concept of community that thrives in American church culture is one in which everyone must toss everything that they’ve created into the mix and let everyone else have at it, so that it is morphed into an homogeneous thing instead of a piece of art.

There is a place for collaboration…certainly theatre, for example, is an extremely collaborative art…and the artist who is not open to others’ ideas and feedback is likely one destined to produce pieces of little meaning. That said, permitting anyone and everyone to have their hands on every aspect of every piece produced robs the piece of the artist’s individual style…a style that, as Believers, we assume that God has permitted that artist to develop. The end result is a diluted and weak piece of art, something that Christ-followers should abhor, especially when something so much better is possible.

This has something to say about the fact that our industrialized Western culture is obsessed with valuing a human being based upon what he or she can produce. We view the role of the church as producing instead of creating, of churning out quantifiable and visible results instead of following less measurable impulses.

In short, our communities of faith are approached as organizations instead of organisms, corporations instead of families.

We see the detrimental effects of this, among other places, in “Christian art,” and in a lack of authentic relationships amidst an abundance of “community.” Certainly, we should see it in our reflection when we look into the eyes of the unbeliever, for, if we viewed ourselves through their eyes, it would take little to imagine how cold, alienating, and hypocritical we must appear.

All because of our push for a finished product.

In Search of Character

I avoid prime-time television as much as possible, primarily for reasons of quality. I’m amazed at the mediocrity that permeates the air-waves. Guarding against mind-sucking white noise has become easier since Karen and I stopped having cable piped in. The fact that cable television is a dinosaur, however, and that all of the content we would have watched is just as accessible to us via the Internet (yes, we do everything legally), leads to some occasional exposure to this stuff, however. 

So, I maintain a list of about four to five shows that I watch weekly. I’m picky…at least I like to think so. I commented again as we sat down Friday night to watch a new episode of House, however, that there’s really nothing amazing about the plot from week to week. Sure, there’s the sub-plot of various relationships and interpersonal conflicts that carry from week to week…that’s the making of a good serial. But, ultimately, you know what’s going to happen by the end of each episode. 
Another of our favorites, Bones, leads to the same conclusion. Following the relationships is somewhat unpredictable, but you always know the crime will be solved by Brennan’s amazing intellect after 45 minutes. So I’m left wondering: if my standards are as high as I like to think (I mailed a perfectly good anime film back to Netflix in disappointment the same night, after all), then why am I drawn to media that’s so glaringly light on plot? 
And I’m not alone. I can think of an actor and two professors I know that are just as drawn to one of these shows or the other. So, have I digressed into the brainless desire for entertainment that afflicts most Americans? Has my artistic diet become so saturated by junk food that I no longer desire a well-prepared meal? 
I don’t think so, and this is why. I didn’t go into either of these shows with the expectation of riveting plot. There are those I do go into with that expectation: Heroes, for example. What draws me to House and  Bones, however, is character development. Bones’ realization of her confinement within her own genius and House’s willful succumbing to his own narcissism are irresistible storytelling. The development of their characters is played out in repetitious scenarios, which, considering their respective professions, is realistic. Truly compelling characters tend to be conspicuously absent from most of our media on most evenings of the week, and these, therefore, are a joy for me to watch from a storytelling perspective, even though overall story of the night may be overtly predictable. 
Or, perhaps I really am guilty of wanting some vacuous entertainment during the course of my week. 
No…I like the first explanation better.