Bret Lott once said that when someone tells him they’ve read one of his books, he responds with astonishment: “Really? You read that whole thing?”
I feel the same way. It’s been about eight months since The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Echo and Long for the Truth (Crossway) was published, and I remain surprised and encouraged when anyone says he or she actually took the time to read it.
Authorial intent is a recurring conversation with readers of my book. I don’t mean mine, but the intent of the filmmakers and writers whose material I discuss throughout the book. Is it fair to look at The Wire as a reflection of Ecclesiastes if that wasn’t in the mind of David Simon? Is it fair to see superheroes as messianic figures if Stan Lee, Bob Kane, and others didn’t intend that connection? These questions were central to a great conversation I had a few weeks ago with Alan Noble, Richard Clark, and Derek Rishmawy during a Christ and Pop Culture panel at TGC’s National Conference.
My first answer to that question is “no.” I agree with many Christian cultural critics who say Christian criticism too often seeks to turn every story into a Sunday school lesson. That was certainly not the goal of my project in The Stories We Tell.
My favorite example on this topic is one beloved by Christians: J. R. R. Tolkien. In the introduction to a later edition of The Lord of The Rings, Tolkien scolds readers who would turn his story into an allegory for the Bible or World War II. He acknowledges parallels but says his goal was to tell a story that stood on its own. Christian readers who argue Gandalf is symbolic of Jesus, Frodo and Sam are Peter and John, and so on are simply wrong; that’s not what Tolkein was doing with his story.
However . . .
More to the Story
I also believe there’s more to stories—or any cultural artifact, for that matter—than the intent of the author. The work of artists (at its best) explores what it means to be human. We are propelled by love and desire, by hunger for “the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” (to borrow a phrase from Douglas Adams). Stories can’t help but reckon with this sort of thing because they can’t help but be human.
As a result, we can talk about cultural artifacts in a way that lies outside authorial intent. A few years ago, Bruce Springsteen appeared on VH1 Storytellers, playing songs and talking about where they came from. He sang “Devils and Dust” and connected it, line by line, to his frustrations with national politics and the war in Iraq. Then he said something I’ll never forget: “Now, was I thinking all that when I wrote it? Nah. But I was feeling it.” It’s a perfect description for the dynamics of culture making. Creativity flows just as much from our affections, our longings, and our gut as it does our thinking.
In other words, when engaging culture, we can ask questions the artist or writer might have felt but never said. As someone who loves culture, I’m most interested in that territory. That’s where Christian theology and anthropology becomes illuminating. An eye for the desires that gave birth to cultural artifacts enabled Paul to show up at the Areopagus in Acts 17, see the shrine to the unknown god, and argue, “What you’re longing for is Jesus. Were you thinking that when you made this temple? Nah. . . . But you you were feeling it.”
There’s a fine line between talking about the intent or meaning of a cultural artifact (Gandalf stands in for Jesus) and the longings that might have given birth to that artifact (Gandalf reveals our longing for a certain kind of hero). Some may see that distinction as a semantics game, but I don’t. Engaging culture well requires both perspectives.
When we encounter a story or a song, we should start with this question: who created this artifact, and what did they mean to say with it? Failing to answer this question well means we will fail to answer the next question well: how does what Christianity reveals about the human condition illumine the desires and longings that gave birth to this artifact?
Stuff of Stories
All storytellers are working with the same raw material. We’re all creatures who were meant for love, glory, and community. Sin has shattered us and the world around us, and we long to know what can be done about it. We’re all asking the same question: will everything turn out okay in the end?
Good stories aren’t just bridges for evangelistic conversations—they’re pathways to loving our neighbors well and better understanding ourselves. If it weren’t for stories, I might not be able to empathize with the experiences of people whose lives are quite different from mine. The Wire might enable me to better empathize with those in poverty; Mad Men might enable me to understand the malaise of the wealthy.
Similarly, stories are a way to better understand ourselves. Reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest might have saved me thousands in therapy bills, and helped expose my addiction to being liked by others and being entertained. Countless other stories have held up a mirror to my life, exposing my longings, my hopes, and at times my pride and selfishness.
Good art doesn’t always provide answers to our questions. And when it does, it doesn’t always get the answers correct. But good art can never avoid the human condition altogether. So long as the human condition is the raw material of our storytelling, our stories will always leave breadcrumbs back to our broken hearts, our longing for healing, and our ultimate hope for a happy ending.