Tag Archives: Faith

Storytelling Lessons from Jesus

Doesn’t matter what you think of Jesus, gotta admit the guy could tell a story. Or the people who recorded them spiffed them up. Either way, Jesus often communicated (religious and otherwise) points through stories in ways that were not heavy handed yet still managed to tell a good story.

See, Jesus knew his audience. He knew that some people were inherently opposed to him and knew that there were occasions where he wasn’t gonna win anyone over if he started getting preachy (I’m looking at you, October Baby). So rather than constantly preachifying, he told good stories. His truth was in his stories (and messages can be found in arguably any story), he didn’t have to spell it out every time (October Baby, you again).

For an example let’s look at the Good Samaritan. Most everyone knows how this one goes, so let’s make like the movie industry and update it. Israeli’s walking through an alley. Bunch of guys jump him and beat the crap outta him; they steal everything he has and leaves the man bleeding against the bricks.

A man walks past, just another ordinary man. He ignores the pleas for help. A teacher of religion walks by and, hearing the man’s cries for help, turns around and finds a different route.

The bleeding man’s almost passed out when another man comes down the alley. This Palestinian sees the dying man and instantly stops to help him. He drags the man to his car and brings him to a hospital, paying for all the fees. Then they become best friends and fight crime [not actually in the Bible].

The point of the story is simple: help can come from unlikely places (and love others as you want to be loved). But there’s no beating anyone over the head with the point.

So Jesus did it. Who else?

Joss Whedon in Firefly! In the episode “The Train Job” Mal and his crew pull of a heist on a train. But when they find that it’s medicine a nearby town desperately needs, they eventually come to the decision to return it at cost to themselves. Understand, some of the crew are fugitives, some of them are very amoral, and most of them are not above thievery. Yet they choose to do the right thing anyway. What’s the message? Help the other one in need, do the right thing, don’t screw over those who are already screwed over. It’s understated, but it’s there and it works. Granted, Mal does later kick an uncooperative goon into Serenity’s portside turbine, but hey, he aims to misbehave.

Within the grand adventure of Thor is a simple lesson of humility. It’s his hubris that gets him thrown down to earth and it’s his learning to care for others that gets him back on his feet. Does Kenneth Branagh and his writers make it overt by someone saying “behold what your humility hath netted you!”? Nope. It’s there. Thor arrives on earth haughty and proud, but slowly comes to realize there’s more to life than glory and honor as he interacts with Jane and friends. We see the change in Thor’s actions and later in his conversations with his brother. It’s shown through a person and his journey, not having it told to us through some speech!

So let’s take another swig of this. A big one. In one of the finale episodes of Avatar, Zuko is reunited with his uncle. Understand that Iroh has been trying his best to lead Zuko to be a man of honor (unlike his family) but Zuko betrayed him at the end of the second season. Suddenly the prince has his honor back and everything he wanted, but he’s haunted by turning his back on his uncle.

When they finally meet again Zuko feels that he is not even fit to wake the old man from his sleep. It’s only when Iroh wakes up in the morning that Zuko begins apologizing, but his uncle cuts him off with a powerful embrace and says he was never angry with his nephew, but rather was so proud of him for getting this far.

There’s so much there! Forgiveness, love, and so on! It’s the parable of the Prodigal Son only with more firebending and world domination. The message isn’t obstrusive; it’s heartfelt and a longtime coming.


Look, I love a good story. And it’s awesome when stories have a point. The Lord of the Rings displays that no matter how little we are we can have an effect, Up tells us not to dwell on what’s lost and to find adventure everywhere, Tangled’s about having dreams, Zombieland reminds us of the importance of having a ‘family’. Yes, Zombieland. But the reason we don’t gag on it is because it’s done softly, gently. Like Jesus and his parables, good stories don’t try and force a point down your throat over and over again until you’re tired of it.

Granted, sometimes some things need to be made obvious, but if you’re breaking up the narrative (October Baby!) for the moral, you’re just not doing it right. When Jesus told his stories, the point evolved with the narrative. The message and story should be woven together seamlessly. Otherwise you’re just preachifying, and, as Phineas of Phineas and Ferb put it: “I think we all learned a valuable lesson today, but we all know what it is so why waste our time restating it?”

Also: buy my book In Transit! Just because!.

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Christian Movies Don’t Have To Suck

So October Baby came out and I ended up watching it with some friends. It was, well, okay. Well shot and edited and acting that actually worked. Plot was somewhat weak and quickly got rather tedious. Could’ve been improved by cutting a lot of content and adding a single overarching theme to bring it all together. And also by actually picking one message to get across rather than three very different ones. Point is: as it stands, October Baby‘s a movie that will greatly appeal to fiercely pro-life Christians upon whose hearts abortion lies heavily. Everyone else falls by the wayside. If they’d made those couple changes I listed, well, it’d be different, but alas.

But here’s the problem: as a Christian I’m supposed to give it props. ‘cuz, yanno, it’s got a Christian message (underneath the pro-life exterior there’s an earnest message of forgiveness; which they should have—bad Josh, stay on task!) and it’s pro-life which is Christian and you won’t see in the Liberal Lamestream Media. So if I say “yeah, that movie had some major flaws (like a molassesy pacing and a scattered focus) that prevent it from reaching a wider audience and relegate it to, fairly literally, preaching to the choir” I become a bad Christian who’s so caught up in The World that he can’t endorse Christian movies and their good Christian crews and Christian messages and Christian endorsements and Christian values and Christian Christianizing. Because who cares if it has flaws — it’s Christian!

Man, that is so jacked up. So so jacked up.

Somehow, somewhere, the Christian community has gotten this idea that their movies have to be sermons wrapped in just enough plot to justify it. Like The Expendables except instead of action it’s, well, sermonizing. Sermons are hard enough to listen to as it is, weak plots and poor character arcs don’t help.

Now there’s a movie coming out in April called Blue Like Jazz. It’s directed by Steve Taylor. If you’re me, you know this guy as one of Newsboys’ producers and the guy who directed their movie Down Under The Big Top. It’s a goofy, Dadaistic, very self-aware, and mildly post-modern flick. Is it amazing? no, not quite. But it’s fun and engaging. Aimed at a Christian audience, yes, but it’s not a sermon wrapped in a message; it’s a fun movie.

So what about Blue Like Jazz? I watch the trailer and I don’t see a movie with any really overt message. I see a movie about a kid trying to find out who he is and how God relates to all of it. Its universal in its existentialism. And that’s what will make it accessible: it’s honest, it’s real. It’s not a Christian going “look at me on my pedestal, look at how great Christianity is”. It’s someone saying “look, I’m a Christian, and I’m just as messed up as you“.

Ultimately, in art, we look for the humanity. In music and movies, video games and novels, we want humanity. We want life. We want heart. When Thor was being adapted for film the creative team chose to bring out the humanity of the characters because that’s where the story was. In Mass Effect 3 Bioware worked to ensure this apocalyptic war feel personal. Feel human.

We’re empathetic creatures at our core. We seek community. We relate by instinct.

I feel awkward ending a second post in a row with a request to go watch a movie. But on April 13th do go watch Blue LIke Jazz. It’s a movie by Christians about Christians but it’s not just for Christians. It’s for anyone.

Maybe that disqualifies it from being a Christian movie.

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