Storytellers Change the World: A Theological Review of “Lincoln” by a Well-Known Theologian

Whether you have or haven’t seen the new Spielberg film, “Lincoln,” you should read this theological analysis of it. You will no doubt benefit from it and there are no “spoiler” alerts, as it were. I plan to see the film now after reading this review. I trust the same can be said about many of you. I look forward to your comments.

Leonard Sweet (my esteemed co-author of Jesus Manifesto and Jesus: A Theography) and I recently had a phone conversation. During the call, Len told me that he saw the new movie, Lincoln. He then shared some of his reactions and impressions of it. I was impressed. So much so that I encouraged him to write a review of the film and promised that I would publish it on my blog. So here it is . . . enjoy and share it with your friends using the share buttons below.

lincoln

How do you measure a life? The same way you measure a nation. By the power of its story.

Some of the most beloved stories of our nation mythologize one of the nation’s greatest storytellers himself: Abraham Lincoln.

The Great American Story is the Story of the American Dream. But the most difficult chapter in that storybook is the one that united a divided country. Lincoln knew the power that story could wield, and he used his own stories to heal and guide a nation, long after his own death. With narrative wit, and cunning wisdom, Lincoln wove the metaphorical flag that would represent the new United States of America.

Lincoln’s stories were not stock aphorisms or standard tales; they were organically grown from grass roots and apple seeds found on the land of common people who toughed it out with sweat and blood just as Lincoln himself did on the midwestern frontier.

Lincoln’s story begins in Kentucky on 12 February 1809. Two women gave birth to sons on that same day: one in a one-room, 16′ by 18′ cabin in Kentucky, the other in a finely furnished house called “The Mount” on the edge of Shrewsbury in Shropshire, England. The latter became the greatest scientist of the 19th century, who wrote more than 6 million words in his lifetime and is often cited as “the greatest Englishman of the 19th century.” The first, born from the most common beginnings, became the greatest president in US history, whose short speeches steered the country through the “Second American Revolution” (James McPherson) and is often cited as “the greatest American of the 19th century.”

Lincoln Poster

Besides a birthday, what both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln shared in common is how they won over the world. It was not by sheer biological smarts or political savvy. Neither Darwin nor Lincoln was a “born leader,” or worked to make themselves a “leader” in the fields of science or politics. The greatness of Lincoln and his English contemporary stemmed from the power of their narratives and metaphors (‘narraphors’) which they used to communicate their conclusions and convictions. Evolutionary theory was more than freighted with metaphor; it was formed by it. So too was the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Without Lincoln’s mastery of narraphor, there never would have been the successful passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

When I walked out the door of the theater after sitting breathless for two hours watching Steven Spielberg’s latest film about the 16th president, I didn’t think of Lincoln’s greatness in terms of his mastery of leadership skills. I didn’t think of a “success story” whereby “the least qualified man ever elected, perhaps ever nominated by a major party,”1 became president. Rather, what galvanized my mind, both when I saw it and to this day (weeks later) is how Lincoln ‘governed’ by means of story.  Lincoln drew people into a unified storyline by using consummate story-telling and story-catching skills. Lincoln astutely diagnosed the human species as story animals. Like heat-seeking missiles, humans are story-seeking creatures. To that end, Lincoln learned the story of everyone around him, and pulled their story-strings together. Lincoln’s use of stories helped not only to capture attention and mesmerize hearts, but his sharp wit and humor brought laughter and needed relief even into the darkest days of the Civil War.

Clarence Jordan, farmer, Greek scholar, and founder of Koinonia Farms and Habitat for Humanity, once made an interesting suggestion for the etymology of the word “diabolos” or “devil.” “Diabolos” comes from “dia” meaning “around or through” and “ballo” meaning “to throw.” Our English word “ball” comes from the same source. In other words, “diabolos” means “the one who throws things around” or “the one who tosses things about” or “the one who makes your head spin” from confusion and disorientation.

Jordan needed to take his insight one step further. Our word parable comes from para-ballo, which means to toss around, like a ball or “hot potato.” In other words, Diabolos, “The Great Confuser,” is no match for Parabolos, “The Great Storyteller,” who fights fire with fire—stories with stories, the diabolic with the parabolic, confusing confusion with the truth.2

Lincoln’s success was based not on the power of his stem-winding speeches and spellbinding reasoning. Rather, Lincoln trusted the story. Lincoln believed that narratives and metaphors are the most strategic weapons at our disposal against the principalities and powers of the world. Lincoln did not just fight flesh with flesh. He fought image with image, story with story. The side, not with the greatest army, but with the greatest story, wins.

A work of stirring power, Spielberg’s Lincoln is not without some blathersome blotches. The opening scene of two soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address back at Lincoln was a schmalzy mis-step that almost ruined the film for me. There exists one extant photo of a hatless Lincoln giving what is now celebrated as the most popular speech in US history (it’s only competitor, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech). But this photo reveals that for those present at its delivery, greatness passed by without anyone recognizing it. All through the short speech of 272 words, the edges of the crowd kept walking, and people did not stop talking. Lincoln barely got polite applause when he finished. It took Édouard René de Laboulaye, the French poet and anti-slavery activist, to recognize greatness in the Gettysburg Address, and to conceive in its wake the idea of the Statue of Liberty.3

Most bothersome, however, was any serious portrayal of the uneven narrative of Lincoln’s life, especially amid the alarums of war. Here was arguably the last president who had unsentimental, non-romantic views of human nature and its weaknesses, which may have been the mainspring of his genius in mixing idealism and realism.

The film did however brilliantly reflect the Doris Kearns Goodwin thesis about Lincoln’s use of a “team of rivals,” something which Frank Viola and I wrote a whole chapter about in Jesus: A Theography except we called it Jesus’ use of “harmonious difference” for his team of twelve. Jesus had three years in which to save the world, and how did he spend it? He invested in a team. A team of “like,” who liked one another? No, a team of radical difference, even opposites, but a team of difference he harmonized together around common images and stories. Lincoln used to say that a man’s legs should be long enough to reach the ground. He didn’t care whether a person was tall or short, Democrat or Republican, black or white. What mattered to Lincoln was whether or not you could get those legs on the ground and get something done.

What I missed most in the film Lincoln were the signs and stories of Lincoln’s own inner struggles. Some believe that Lincoln himself relied on stories to assuage his own grief and depressed moods. Yet in the film, there was little sense of the man’s mercurial moods, mordant mind, and sulking spirit.  Although showcasing his decision to postpone meeting with the Confederate delegation to insure passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the viewer was not shown him brooding about the heavy cost of life incurred by this decision to prolong the war. Deeply flawed physically himself, with frayed nerves, fatigued body, a face “as homely as a hedge post,” and a rasping, high-pitched voice that issued in slow, staccato monotones because of permanent lesions on his vocal chords, Lincoln could be unsparing of others’ physical limitations. He reportedly refused to appoint a qualified candidate to a government post because he didn’t like the man’s looks, justifying the decision by retorting that “every man over forty is responsible for his face.”4

Forgiving of others, even traitors, Lincoln would harbor secret resentments against his own family members. Whereas other members of his Cabinet couldn’t move on and sought retribution, Lincoln moved beyond the trauma toward healing of the wounds of war. Yet when it came to his father, he could never come to terms with what Jacques Derrida once called the “unexperienced experience” (whatever it was). Lincoln refused to respond to his father’s pleadings to see him one last time during his final illness, even though his father was only 70 miles away. Lincoln finally put his father’s repeated requests to rest with a curt note to his stepbrother, saying that he was too busy to visit and that it was enough that he and his father would someday get together in heaven. Lincoln dissed his father’s funeral.

Yet Lincoln used these inner struggles as sources of energy and endurance. Lincoln suffered severe, at times suicidal, bouts of depression. When asked by his dear friend, Kentuckian Joshua Speed, why he never did what some of his dear friends feared he might do, Lincoln replied: “I have an irrepressible desire to live until I can be assured that the world is a little better for my having lived in it.”

The film portrayed brilliantly how Lincoln moved as fast as timing would allow (without losing the Border States and northern Democrats) from a war to save the Union to a war to emancipate the slaves. Frederick Douglas and many other abolitionists lashed out at the author of the ‘House Divided’ speech as a two-faced, double-tongued moral relativist. But Lincoln only absolutized ends while he pragmatized and relativized means, which helps to explain his attempt to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. Lincoln wasn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty with the pots and pans of politics because it was the meal that mattered, and not the utensils.

Finally, the film reminded me, perhaps more than any film I have ever seen, of the major irony of the life of faith: that those who have been sent by Jesus into the world don’t cease being ordinary people, vessels of clay, even though entrusted with a gospel of gold. We comport a glory that is not ours, with the greatness found in the gift and Giver, not the bearer of the gift. When we live God’s story, we live out our own story authentically and powerfully in the world.  And in Lincoln, the poor boy from Kentucky, with roots and faith in the Lord’s providence, carried that gospel of gold all the way to his grave.

As with the “real” Abraham Lincoln, missing from the Spielberg Lincoln, people are not categorically good or evil, with good coming from the good and evil from the evil. Good can come from evil, and evil from good. No one is wholly good, or wholly evil. There are no unmixed motives. Goodness, wherever it comes from, glorifies God. The critics of Christianity are right: some of history’s “worst” (hatred, lies, injustices, tortures, killings) have come from religion’s “best.” But while the perversion of the “best” yields the “worst,” the “worst” can’t stop God’s “best” from making its way in the world and revealing God’s glory.

God’s mission does not need supersaints. Re-read the Bible. It’s never happened. The great “cloud of witnesses” is a rogue’s gallery. God’s mission does not need the “right moment.” Re-read the Bible. Those who waited for the “perfect moment” never got off the ground. We create the perfect moment. God’s mission in the world is to do “greater things” (John 14:12) than Jesus could get done in His lifetime. Jesus set the captives free,5 but Lincoln freed the slaves. God needs only flawed people to say “Yes, Lord. I’m yours. Release your Holy Spirit in me.” Lincoln may have had many flaws, but this master storyteller carried a nation on the wings of the greatest Story ever told.

The Gettysburg Address

Delivered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
November 19, 1863

On June 1, 1865, Senator Charles Sumner commented on what is now considered the most famous speech by President Abraham Lincoln. In his eulogy on the slain president, he called it a “monumental act.” He said Lincoln was mistaken that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Rather, the Bostonian remarked, “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.”

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


1.  According to William Lee MillerLincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (Knopf, 2003).

4.  The same sentiment would later be echoed by a dying George Orwell (who, aged forty-six and on his hospital bed, decided that it was at fifty that ‘every man has the face he deserves’), as well as by Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the ‘judge-penitent’ protagonist of Albert Camus’s final novel, The Fall.” Constantine Sandis, in review of Steve Pyke’s Philosophers (Oxford UP, 2012), in Times Literary Supplement, 06 April 2012, 26.

About Frank Viola

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  • Ben

    And Lincoln never freed a single slave … nor did he, if you read his actual words, ever have any intent to do so. The Emancipation Proclamation freed nobody. It applied only to the States that had exercised their founding right to withdraw from the union, over which Lincoln, as president of that union, had no jurisdiction. There were as many slaves inside that union, but the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to them. Why not? Chew on that for the truth of the real Lincoln. The “new” 13th Amendment (Lincoln threw away the original 13th Amendment – the Titles of Nobility Act) was not Lincoln’s either (look at the dates), and it was not legally ratified, as Southern states did not have the right of free conscience to ratify – they did so at the point of a gun.

  • Ben

    Lincoln was but a force of evil that brought about the division that he is falsely credited with healing. He destroyed the last vestiges of republican government in America. He did not end slavery; he extended it to include almost all Americans. He was a traitor. We do our children great harm by teaching them to venerate the man.

  • HIP OP

    BEWARE this 6th? —7th? Lincoln, yet again with Sally Field.

    FACT IS in 2012, with what’s undeniably unfolding, the ONLY
    urgently relevant aspect of the Lincoln legacy yet to be treated,
    or even mentioned by Hollywood was his very possibly —-FATAL—-
    diss of the Global USURY bank monopoly over finance of the war.
    Altogether omitted from Spielberg’s PC moral alibi for ‘things unfolding’.


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