Mike Cosper. The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long For and Echo the Truth. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 240 pp. $15.99.
The first thing you should know about Mike Cosper’s excellent new book, The Stories We Tell [interview | foreword by Tim Keller], is that chapter 10 is titled “Honey Boo Boo and the Weight of Glory.” I’ll refrain from expressing my hope that becomes the title of a dissertation somewhere. Regardless, that delightfully entertaining moniker is a clue that Cosper has a keen eye and a gifted pen for two topics: gospel theology and pop culture. The Stories We Tell, published in Crossway’s Cultural Renewal series edited by Keller and Collin Hansen, is a fresh and needed look at why cultural fixtures like cinema and TV matter for telling the gospel story.
Cosper, pastor of worship and the arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, loves a good story. In the first pages of The Stories We Tell he recounts how his interest and love for television grew during his childhood: “Those untold hours in front of that heavenly electronic glory filled my mind with a love of comedy, a love of movies and TV, and most of all, a love of stories” (17). Some Christians maintain a default position of suspicion and cynicism toward entertainment, perhaps even extending those attitudes to the very acts of television and movie-watching. Cosper makes it clear at the outset that he writes primarily for the sake of those who do (discerningly) embrace film and television (25), meaning readers should at least momentarily set aside intramural debates about the usefulness of TV or whether a movie theater is a place for saints. The Stories We Tell is not about Christian checklists, but about discovering where our culture’s storytellers have embedded the imagery of the gospel into their tales.
Why stories? Cosper cites Christian philosopher and author James K. A. Smith in arguing that our identity stems less from information stored rationally and more from the stories embedded in the human imagination. Our imagination, Cosper argues, is the “hook” that attaches us to images, narratives, and even actions that transcend rational argument (19–20). This explains, he points out, why corporations spend jaw-dropping amounts of money on marketing and advertisements. Companies eager to make a profit know a consumer won’t hesitate to purchase something she imagines will make life happier, even if the logic doesn’t quite add up.
World of Stories
You don’t need a philosophy degree or a robust knowledge of sociology to understand the power of stories, however. The Bible itself is one Story, a true tall tale with the triune God for its Author. The story of redemption is not just a story, but the story, as Cosper makes clear:
At the heart of our faith is the bold claim that in a world full of stories, with a world’s worth of heroes, villains, comedies, tragedies, twists of fate, and surprise endings, there is really only one story. One grand narrative subsumes and encompasses all the other comings and goings of every creature—real or fictitious—on the earth. Theologians call it “redemption history”; my grandfather called it the “old, old story.” (29)
Cosper recalls here not just biblical theology but J. R. R. Tolkien’s concept of “True Myth,” the notion (which Tolkien impressed on an atheistic colleague named C. S. Lewis) that all of the world’s greatest myths, legends, and fairy tales are fictitious but not false—since they echo a “true myth” that is both grand story and real history. Cosper’s powerful exposition of true myth is the fuel in the engines of The Stories We Tell, resulting in a far more illuminating and rewarding discussion of pop culture than if he were merely to hold up films and TV shows to Christian “worldview tests.”
After we understand why stories matter, we can discover how cultural storytellers have left signs in their stories that point to the One Story. Cosper uses the familiar rubric of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration as a blueprint to discuss how popular pieces of culture mirror the biblical narrative. He sees existential yearning for Eden and for home in films like The Descendants and Pleasantville; hears reverberations of Adam’s love song to Eve in the hopeful romances of How I Met Your Mother and 30 Rock; and recalls the biblical doctrine of the fall and our fruitless quest for self-determination in the stories of Mad Men. In these chapters Cosper demonstrates a crucial ability. He skillfully avoids sounding either like a culture connoisseur talking in “code” the uninitiated cannot comprehend or like an overtalkative friend retracing every scene of his favorite film while keeping you from lunch. This makes The Stories We Tell helpful for a broad audience and not just those with a personal inclination toward pop culture. Readers familiar with the shows and movies discussed will have their viewing greatly enhanced, and those unfamiliar will be able to appreciate the weaving of gospel story into such seemingly secular tales.
The book closes on two high notes. Lovers of superhero films and coming-of-age stories will be delighted to read chapter 9, “Heroes and Messiahs,” in which Cosper examines the common narrative threads that bind all hero stories together. The existential milestones of beloved heroes like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter mirror almost perfectly the unfolding of the life of Christ, a fact illustrated by Cosper in what I can honestly say is the only exciting spreadsheet I have ever seen in my life (189). In chapter 10, he does the seemingly impossible, using reality TV like Keeping Up with the Kardashians to illustrate the yearning for significance and eternal meaning bound up in the human soul. These two chapters stand out as especially rich in content that could spark authentic gospel conversations about entertainment.
Three particular strengths of The Stories We Tell stand out. First, the book covers an astonishingly wide breadth of TV and film, giving it a fresh and gospel-centered relevance to almost everyone in your church. As Cosper points out, Christian clichés about the dangers of “secular entertainment” do little to actually change most churchgoers’ viewing habits. That means that practical, on-the-screen engagement is necessary to communicate what the good news means in all these stories. It’s easy to dismiss a Christian critique of a movie when the commentator is culturally illiterate; it’s much harder when, as in this case, an author is both “plugged in” to pop culture and theologically conversant.
Second, at a little more than 200 pages, The Stories We Tell is a book that will be embraced not just by theologians interested in culture but by church members in the culture who need more theology to inform their habits. Cosper’s tone is conversational without being simplistic. Whereas some recent Christian efforts at the same topic tend to sound like edited university lectures, The Stories We Tell feels more like an after-show conversation with friends at Starbucks. That makes it a book more likely to be passed around among those who’d most benefit from it.
Last, The Stories We Tell is unremittingly pastoral and devotional. Several times throughout we are invited to worship our amazing God whose story is emblazoned on everything we create. Scripture saturates the book, and the gospel is explained frequently without devolving into cliché. This makes The Stories We Tell worthy of trust, a work that can confidently be given to unbelievers as well as seasoned saints.
This is a highly valuable contribution to evangelical conversation on pop culture. Whether you are a film buff or haven’t owned a television in years, your love and wonder for the One Story of Redemption and its Storyteller will grow through reading The Stories We Tell.