At WhiteFire we believe that stories change the world. It’s a bit of a foregone conclusion from our point of view – one that we’re entirely sold out to. But because its important to understand why a thing is (or, some would say, because I tend to overthink things) I found myself wondering why stories change the world.
But why isn’t really the right question, is it? It really does seem obvious that we’re creatures of story. We learn things better when they’re told in that form, and we’ll spend endless hours listening, watching, reading, and telling them.
Maybe the right question is how do stories change the world? That question naturally leads us in two different directions, depending on how you interpret the word how. (Has the world now lost all meaning for you?)
It breaks down like this. One question means “What are the methods by which stories change the world?” That one’s pretty technical to me, as a publisher and wannabe storyteller (I’m a complete hack compared with our authors – if you’re just here for this article and what I’m writing, you’re doing it wrong – go over here and check them out). I tend to think about this a lot. Previously I wrote on emotionally connecting to the audience, and for one of my next articles I’m considering writing on character driven stories and why I think they’re so powerful. But that’s still not the how I want to focus on this week.
The how I want to talk about is “In what way do you want to change, or at least influence, the world?”
That one’s much more fun, right?
So how to answer?
For the better.
So how do we go about doing that? It turns out that this is a very hard question, especially in the Christian space or even just from a Christian point of view. Even if you’re not coming at story from that angle, it’s still an important question. If we really believe that, (1.) Stories have a profound effect on society, and (2.) that we’re, in some way, accountable for the ways we’re changing the world, then we’re responsible for making sure the end result is positive.
One thing we do as Christian writers/editors/publishers/producers is talk about not doing harm to the audience. This isn’t necessarily the same thing, though, as a positive end result, and it’s a massive question for me. And I think its also the wrong one. I, personally, think that doing harm is absolutely fine sometimes. You have to break your audience to change them (I personally felt harmed seeing the movie Unplanned, but I hope that that harm was good and necessary).
So, I’m OK with harming the audience – if it’s for the right purpose and done in the right way. Another argument that gets thrown around a lot is that it “damages our witness.” This one feels like nails on a chalkboard just to type, it bothers me so much. What kind of things damage our witness? Drinking? Smoking? Infidelity? How about lying, stealing, cheating? What do we call those things? Right – sinning. It’s a strange thing that we’re afraid to portray those things to the outside world. Guess what – they know Christians sin. They’re not surprised. What they find foolish is that they don’t understand (1.) Why we view certain things as sin and (2.) Why we care to cover it up.
On number 2 I agree with them wholeheartedly. In a previous post we were talking about making characters relatable to the outside world? One of the things I listed was struggle. There are things we all struggle with. One of the powerful tools of Christian storytelling is having those outside the church see us struggle with things they don’t. It makes them curious, and we become a puzzle they have to figure out. This can play out over and over and in a multitude of different ways. Embrace the dissonance.
But as Christian storytellers, we do take things out, right? Language. Sex. Stuff like that. Why? Should we put it back in because its true? After all, Christians do swear and have sex (sometimes with people other than their spouse!). There’s an argument to be made that we should show this sin in all its disgusting, broken, heartbreaking mess. It’s an argument I’m tempted by. But I always ask myself two questions – and they aren’t “does it do harm” or “does it damage my witness.”
Instead I ask why I’m doing something. Is it for shock value? If so, then is there a better way? I really don’t want to emotionally counterfeit the audience. Can I make the audience dread the sin? If they don’t want it and it happens anyway, then that affects them deep down. I also try to use the most powerful tool in a storyteller’s tool bag – the audience’s own imagination. If I can get them to wonder and imagine the most horrible things, then I’ve connected them emotionally to the characters. And if I can change the characters (convincingly) through the story, then I have a chance to also change the audience.
There, see, isn’t that better than not doing harm or worrying about my reputation? Also, you can’t hurt Jesus’ reputation. He hung out with sinners and was crucified as a criminal, and He’s doing ok. Remember, though, that if you open someone’s heart emotionally, you do have a responsibility to help them close it again. Healing and catharsis play key roles in stories changing the world for the better.
Which brings me back to the first question once again. How do stories change the world? One really powerful way is to open people up emotionally and then leave them alone. This is something that has become quite popular in the post-modern world – tearing something down for the sake of tearing it down and replacing it with nothing. I believe that this is one of the sins of storytelling that we really need to avoid. This is a question of real, true harm. If you break someone emotionally, you have a responsibility to put them back together.
Like with everything else, though, there are exceptions to the rule. One such example is Bach’s St Matthew Passion. It’s traditionally performed on Good Friday, lasts for hours, and is designed to break down the listeners. It ends, unfinished and unresolved, with Christs death. It’s a breaking down without a building up. The audience is left to go home and meditate on what they experienced. Bach doesn’t try to build them back up again. That’s not his job. But they will be rebuilt – by both the contemplation that Bach and Good Friday calls us to (that is, of Christ’s sacrifice and our redemption) and the soon to come celebration of the Resurrection.
So what happens if (1.) You don’t do it or, worse, (2.) Do it wrong? If you don’t do it, you’ve opened people up emotionally and they will fill that gap up with whatever they can find. Sin is usually pretty good at this kind of filling. There’s a chance that the Church, God, and the Spirit can fill that gap (as is the case with Bach’s Passion). Always leave room for these to work in whatever story you tell. If you wrote a story where this can happen, that’s awesome (in the best sense of the word). But don’t count on it. Remember the old adage – “you break it, you bought it.” You own you audience’s emotional and spiritual brokenness if you were the cause of it.
So why do I say doing it wrong is worse than not doing it at all? When someone has an injury, we work hard to keep the wound clean, right? But if you don’t do the hard work to clean out a wound and bandage it up tight – if you put a band-aid on a deep, wide cut – the audience might feel better temporarily, but eventually that band-aid comes of, the wound reopens, and they don’t trust the band-aid anymore. And what happens to them when they think that the Gospel message is just a band-aid? They don’t trust it.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a message preached, or a story told, and I was caught up in the flow of the argument. It seemed true. But the more I thought about it, the less true it rang. The more flaws I found. Even if that message ended in the right place, but got there through bad, untrue reasoning, I found I didn’t trust the destination. This is another kind of Counterfeiting. Where we give the real thing, but we do it in a way that makes the audience doubt it.
If you put your faith in something that lets you down or comes off as false, you’re much less likely to believe it later.
Christian storytelling is a multifaceted exercise in spiritual warfare.
And so, as storytellers, it isn’t just important that we open our audience’s heart—we have a responsibility to heal it again. Not just to slap a bandage on it, but to offer genuine, authentic truth. This is how we change the world…for the better. Doing ultimate good, even if it causes temporary emotional harm.
(This is the opinion of the author – it doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of WhiteFire Publishing or any of its authors)