A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the question of what it means to engage the culture. I proposed that, if we want to be shapers of culture, we must tell great stories. The current cultural landscape seems not only to have abandoned almost every virtue that Christians hold dear but to have abandoned God almost entirely. To impact the culture, we must be culture creators and we must retell the stories that draw people to Christ. We need to tell good stories, both in the sense of being virtuous and of being excellent. That means we must become storytellers and collectors of stories.
Most of us don’t think of ourselves as culture creators or storytellers. While it’s true that most of don’t write books or create movies or music, storytelling is a trait common to all people. It’s the way we learn best. It’s how we relate to one another. It’s how we convey what’s import to us. We may not be “culture creators” in that we’re not professional storytellers, but we are all sort of ruminating in the culture, interacting, pushing back, being shaped, and trying to shape the culture day in and day out. Being grounded in good stories helps us shape our culture rather than be shaped by it.
Those who want to engage the culture must walk a fine line to be informed and aware without being submerged in the culture they wish to change. If we are altogether ignorant of the current culture, we won’t speak a language that our audience can understand. If we are totally submerged in the culture, we won’t be grounded in the truth from which good story comes. It’s no easy task to walk this line, and it needs to be approached with wisdom and skill.
Creating culture looks very different superficially today than it did even 10 years ago, but the heart of a good story stays the same. To be good storytellers, we need to be immersed in good stories. And primarily — though certainly not exclusively — we need to be immersed in old stories. C.S. Lewis wrote about the need to read old books primarily because they do not contain the errors of our own age, although certainly they will contain errors. But there is another reason to read old books: These stories have lasted have lasted for a reason. While there are bad stories that do slip through the cracks to be labeled “classic”, the overwhelming majority of stories that survive are good stories. They’re not always morally good, but the story itself is well told and compelling. That’s not because the only good stories are those that were told “once upon a time,” but because time is a relentless critic, separating the wheat from the chaff.
Old stories help to shield us from the errors of the age. If I had to name the errors of our age, at least when it comes to storytelling, they would be mockery and anger. Everything is fodder for derision, our hero stories are too often quests for vengeance, we are snarky, and we are — as Lewis so aptly said — flip. From The Screwtape Letters:
“But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armor plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”
We have most definitely mastered the technique of laughing at virtue as though it were inherently amusing. We need stories to push back against the flip and the vengeful. This isn’t to say that sarcasm has no place in storytelling, or that we shouldn’t cheer lustily when the bad guy gets his due. One of my favorite examples of sarcasm comes from the Bible when Elijah was challenging the prophets of Baal to a God-off. After hours of screaming and chanting and cutting themselves to no avail, Elijah taunts the false prophets by saying, “Yell louder, maybe he’s pooping.” Sarcasm has its place, but we seem to have developed an all-snark, all-the-time culture. We need joy and beauty and wonder in our stories, and we need stories that fight against being flip.
If you want to be a culture creator that has a positive influence, but your diet consists of only what the culture offers, on what source will you draw to tell your stories? Where will you find your great themes and timeless truths? “But we have to be informed of the culture in order to have an impact on it.” I don’t disagree with that thought, but I do think it has its limits. If we are only anchored to the current culture, it is a very weak anchor indeed and we’re liable to be pulled away with the strongest current. Second, there are some things in the culture that are blatantly sinful: they have no redeeming value; there’s no benefit in the medium; they’re just rotten through and through. The command to be “in the world but not of it” is a difficult one, and we tend to either wall ourselves off or get soaked to the bone by the culture’s flood. Again, it’s a fine line that must be walked with wisdom and skill.
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“But we have to be able to engage people who do consume these things.” To be sure, but we don’t merely have to parrot back what they say and do. We fail to be culture creators when we merely mimic; we succeed when we engage people with good story. I don’t know that there is a bright-line test for what we should and shouldn’t consume or to what degree and in what manner we should engage the culture, but this is my guiding principle, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
There’s another biblical truth: there is nothing new under the sun. The manner in which we tell stories has changed drastically, but good stories are timeless. Have you heard the story of the servant who received a message from a supernatural messenger that he would replace the current king? He then proceeds to kill his king and his reign is marked by violence and injustice. Macbeth? Yes, but it’s not the first telling of this story. We first read this tragic tale in II Kings.
There are few truly novel stories, but a myriad of new ways in which we can tell them. We must become masters of new mediums to tell stories from grand epics to the light and fleeting jokes. But the themes and heart of the stories we tell will be as old as the hills.