The average American watches five hours of TV—every day.

We collectively spend about $30 billion on movies—every year.

The truth is inescapable: we are story-addicted creatures. No wonder Redbox and Netflix aren’t hurting for business. Like it or not, TV and films are ubiquitous in their reach and powerful in their ability to shape—and echo—our deepest desires. In his new book, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth, Mike Cosper explores the connection between the stories we tell and the one great Story, helping us to better grasp the longings of the human heart and to thoughtfully engage with the films and shows that capture our imaginations. The book is published in Crossway’s Cultural Renewal series edited by Tim Keller and Collin Hansen.

I corresponded with Cosper, pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, about how he became invested in this topic, holiness and legalism, which TV show comes closest to telling the “truth,” and more. 

What’s your personal history with regard to films and TV shows? How did you become so invested in this topic?

The answer here is actually pretty boring: I grew up watching a lot of TV. Most of my childhood memories—especially of the summertime, when my older siblings were away at band camp or church camp—I spent in a darkened living room watching movies on VHS, laser disk, and satellite TV. 

My dad loves movies, and we grew up appreciating the classics: Hitchcock, the Marx Brothers, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra’s films, and more. I had a voracious appetite for it too. I’d spend all day in a La-Z-Boy watching movies. I still could, if I wasn’t careful.

About the time I got to high school, I saw a few movies that opened up whole new worlds for me. Stephen Soderbergh’s Kafka and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil were two of them. I’d find a movie randomly on IFC, and then I’d go the video rental shop (remember those?) and start watching everything that director made.

How do television and movies echo our desires? How do they form them?

There’s a fascinating book called The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall that looks at why stories affects us from a naturalistic perspective. And while theories abound (stories help us remember where we live, where to find food, or stories help us attract mates, and so on), none is terribly clear or compelling. The fact that humanity obsessively tells stories is a bit of a mystery.

I think it’s rooted, to some degree, in the heart of God and in the fact that redemption has been his plan since before the foundation of time. To make us storytelling animals allows us to be receptive to his story, and it roots us in a sense of history. Without stories, there’s no way we could live in the midst of the “already/not yet” tension of a broken world.

What storytellers do, then, is try to provide some sense of meaning or hopefulness to our experience in the world. When I say stories “echo” the truth, what I mean is that our storytelling efforts are almost all a statue to an unknown God. We celebrate victory in war movies, or love in romantic comedies, or we highlight fallenness in tragedies—and all of these stories thrive on borrowed capital. Their breath and bread is borrowed from the bigger story of creation (the world was once perfect), fall (the world is now broken), redemption (there’s a way of restoration), and consummation (one day all things will be made new). While the gospel is the “truer, better” version of any of these stories, the stories themselves open us up to new ways of thinking about or seeing the gospel.

The danger, of course, is in letting the tail wag the dog, which I believe is where most consumers of entertainment are. Stories are powerful and, consumed mindlessly, have a formational effect on us. Watch nothing but rom coms for a week and see how it affects your desire for romance. If you’re married, you may feel drawn to your spouse in an ultimate, exaggerated way, or you may be so dissatisfied that you start wondering about romance elsewhere. Watch war movies and see how it affects your emotions during the nightly news. And these are obvious, superficial examples. Much could be said about entertainment’s more subtle effect on our feelings about money, power, sex, race, and more. I think advertising is particularly powerful in its ability to cultivate desire and dissatisfaction, but to even start to unpack that point would vastly exceed my word count.

How can Christians discern between being convicted about what they’re watching and falling into legalism?

The only way forward, I believe, is community. You need to be open about your viewing habits, and let those you trust—wiser older folks especially, but peers too—speak into your life. You need to cultivate a sensitivity to how your habits affect you, and you need to be humble enough to listen when someone points out how your habits might be harmful.

At the same time, you need to be humble enough to recognize that drawing lines is a matter of conscience, context, and maturity. Some folks will draw them different places, and while it’s good to ask questions and seek to know why they’ve drawn lines, it does no one any good to become a finger-wagging church lady, hell-bent on shaming those who draw lines in different places than you do.

Why isn’t there a wealth of Christian contribution in film and TV like there is in other spheres (books, music, and so on)?

Three thoughts here:

First, I think there’s a practical limitation that hinders so-called “Christian” visual media. It’s much cheaper to produce books and music than it is to produce good visual media. A great record can be recorded for less than $50,000. Rarely will you find a great indie film that was cheaper than $250,000. And Hollywood blockbusters cost a hundred times as much or more. Christian filmmakers can’t compete, and certainly can’t fundraise to operate at those levels.

Second, I think there’s a theological problem. Most North American Christians have no problem with mainstream media, but once you attach a “Christian” label to something, their expectations change. They’ll watch dramas on network television that are rife with bad language, substance abuse, and sexuality, but if they’re watching “Christian” entertainment, they expect it to be safe for the whole family. In media that obeys these rules, the characters come off preachy, wooden, and unbelievable, and ultimately, the story fails. In media that don’t obey these rules, the mob rises up and critiques it to death (see: Blue Like Jazz).

Third, I just want to say that I don’t know that this question, as a whole, is entirely true or fair. I’ve been really surprised, while working on this book and talking to people about it, to discover how many Hollywood screenwriters, directors, and producers are Christians. Their work is mainstream Hollywood, but there are redemptive themes woven throughout. It’s been encouraging to get to know some of them.

How do films and TV shows differ in regard to particular benefits and dangers (for example, something one medium is good at that the other isn’t)?

The advantage TV has is ability to stay with characters for long, long periods of time. Think of The West Wing, for instance. Around 22 episodes (roughly 40 minutes each) for seven seasons. That’s 102 hours. That’s 50 movies’ worth of content. Obviously the character development and the emotional attachment available to the viewer is much more intense.

For movies, though, the box office and DVD revenues still generate ungodly sums of money, which allows filmmakers to take us to ever more dazzling heights with effects, sounds, and visuals. I love both for different reasons.

The dangers question is interesting. It’s hard to say. Obviously, TV has an addictive quality, but often the themes TV and movies are exploring and the hopes they’re reinforcing are similar.

What kinds of films and TV shows interest you most personally and why?

I have a hard time accounting for any of my preferences. On TV, my tastes tend towards fast-paced, edgy comedies (Seinfeld, Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Veep), and stuff that’s more dark (The Wire, True Detective, Mad Men).

For movies—I’m not much of a film snob. While I love Terrence Mallick and Terry Gilliam and Quentin Tarrantino, I also love John Hughes and will watch almost any buddy-cop comedy with total delight. I love stuff that provokes and makes me think for days (like The Tree of Life), but I’ll also probably watch The Expendables 3 when it comes out and will be fully entertained watching everyone goof around and borrow each others’ one-liners. (Which, incidentally, was a schtick first used by Billy Wilder in his amazing movie One, Two, Three).

What TV shows come closest to telling the “truth” about the world?

The Wire is a powerful viewing experience, and as far as dramas go, it’s the stick by which I measure all the others. The show managed to level the playing field and show the deeply broken humanity of all of Baltimore: criminals, cops, union bosses, kids, and crooked politicians. It’s heart-wrenching, and it’s a brilliant deconstruction of life in a broken urban environment.

The other show—an odd choice, probably—is 30 Rock. On the surface, the show is very funny, but if you diagram its plot, you discover incredible sadness, loneliness, broken families, and addictions. What holds the show together is the community that forms between the characters. The bonds of friendship are central—Liz and Jack, Liz and Jenna, Tracy and Kenneth . . . even Lutz, as unlovable as he seems, has friends who embrace him when he needs it. 30 Rock, ultimately, was a show about loneliness and friendship, and how community makes suffering something we can endure.