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Monday, July 14, 2014

"The Stories We Tell" (Mike Cosper)

TITLE: The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth (Cultural Renewal)
AUTHOR: Mike Cosper
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2014, (240 pages).

In an age of multimedia entertainment, TV and movies have become mainstream in the shaping of culture. Many are watching more TV than before, with more watching online via the Internet. Watching a movie is one way for people to relax after a long day's work. With video streaming, access to movies has risen sharply. Not only are TV and movies attractive, people are also increasingly addicted to them. What can we learn from movies? How do we go about discerning the narrative it projects? What kind of stories are they telling? How are they shaping the culture we live in? Are they just telling a story or is there a deeper implication behind the story? These questions and many more are probed through the lens of Mike Cosper to help us understand popular culture. Cosper is Pastor of Worship and Arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisvilled, Kentucky. He vividly remembers how his family first had a 48-inch rear projection TV and a satellite dish. Raised on Hitchcock, Twilight Zone, progressing to Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, Cosper knows what it means to be a TV junkie and how such programming can get inside one's head. So much so that the stories we watch can influence and change us in a way that we least expect. He gives some insights that are worth noticing.
  • TV can shape us in a way that we can be unaware of
  • Storytelling don't aim at our heads or hearts. They aim at our imaginations
  • Stories do not just report the facts. They reside in our heads long after the movie is over.
  • Rationality is weak against the power of images and stories.
  • Even shallow movies can connect with our emotional core even when we brush it aside as slapstick
  • ...

In trying to frame a Christian lens on movies, Cosper uses the biblical narratives of creation, fall, fear, faith, redemption, consummation, glorification, and to use gospel perspectives to help us watch TV and movies. The thesis of his book is that there is a strong connection between storytelling and the gospel. In other words, the many stories TV and movies try to convey are part of the Big Story of the Gospel. The stories we tell reveals who we are, our sense of place, our relationships, through personalization or allegory (creation). Repeated plots and sequels continue to be popular because they all follow through the same cycle of creation-fall-redemption-glorification.

Cosper shows us that asking the wrong questions will not enable us to appreciate movies as well. For example, in asking "How Far is Too Far?" one's motivation for watching or rejecting movies flows out of fear rather than "a thrill of the gospel.' He helps us to reframe not only by putting aside bad questions, but in appreciating how the Bible often tells stories that are quite similar. More critically, one needs to recognize that stories can shape our thinking on "love, marriage,  sex, children, war, peace, nationalism, and more." He warns us of a "cumulative, life-shaping effects" TV and movies have on us, and because of the Fall, we need to be discerning as well. Thankfully, there are many good ones as well. Writing this book has sharpened the author's discernment.

There are movies that depict the Fall, the lost paradise, pain and suffering due to sin. Movies like the Truman Show depicts a manipulative producer who uses illusion and deception for profit. Pleasantville shows the ugly side of sexual repression, fear, and promotes a kind of rebellion that leads to self-satisfaction. Jurrasic Park demonstrates the follies of playing God. Movies also parallel the gospel through the search for love. TV shows like The Bachelor works on people's desire to see romance and love and often disregards the actual feelings the contestants feel.

Stories include tragedy such as horror flicks like Alien and Prometheus which turns people's desire for knowledge into a discovery of tragic circumstances. The TV show Lost is a "fall story" and the effects of original sin. For movies that have good endings, there is also a sense of frustration when movie goers come out of the theater thinking: "If only life was like that." Some frustrations come through movies that have good characters being punished for doing the right things. In The Wire, obeying the code and rules of conduct leads to frustration rather than fulfillment. Is that not what Ecclesiastes tell us too? Many other stories of different genre are covered. There are stories that reflect our fears; stories that uses violence to bring about good; stories of heroes and messiahs; and stories of the final destination of glory and goodness perfected.

So What?

Cosper's repertoire of movies is very impressive. After all, he is a self-confessed movie and TV addict. What I appreciate most is that Cosper does not just tell us, he shows us. Using many movie themes and illustrations, and then linking them back to the overall gospel, he is convincing in telling us that TV and movies are actually part of the bigger story of God. As people tell the stories through movie making, we can learn about their perspective of what life is all about. Having said that, there are bad productions out there as well. Learning to tell the good from the bad can come through personal experience or guidance of conscience and community.

There are ample warnings about the subtle messages. For instance, even when some movies are deemed too simplistic, people still watch them and become emotionally connected to them. Why? That is because stories connect beyond the head. I like what Cosper says about movies trying to capture our imaginations as a way to hook us and to reel (pun unintended) us in. Popular culture is a moving target. We need to be constantly refreshed about the latest movie offerings. Yet, the underlying narrative of the gospel is something that has not changed much over the years. While Cosper has given us an updated framework to interpret the TV and movies, I believe he has contributed something more important. He is sowing the seeds for encouraging Christians to watch movies not simply by a binary system of good or bad, but via the yardstick: "How accurate is it when compared to the truth of the gospel story?"

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Crossway Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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