Over the last couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to talk with working scriptwriters and directors about just what makes for a compelling story. Specifically the TV series Dallas, the second generation. To paraphrase one of them “If you want people to enter a world you create week after week you have to create characters that people want to live with, to get to know, and to try to understand.”
He then followed up: “and the story must be universally relevant, a story everybody lives in.” After all, the television series Dallas is about the drama, tragedy, and hope of living in a family, something everyone knows.
Meeting these criteria would seem to be easy for Christians, given the material we have to start with. Yet somehow in the US we’re failing.
I suggested in my last blog that part of the problem is that our narrative is too small. It really isn’t universal and it doesn’t embrace a lot of life experience, especially the experience of living in an ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse society. The narrative provided by science, evolution, is actually both more comprehensive and broader than many Christian tellings of the story of God’s love for the world. And it is simply more in touch with human experience than those built around pitting a literal reading of Genesis against the work of geologists and anthropologists.
But that is the smaller problem. Where we really fall short is characters. Too many churches cannot draw people to Jesus because they turn flesh and blood into cardboard cutouts. Our theology turns Jesus from being the Son of Man into a set of moral illustrations, or a buddy, or a blood spattered victim, and from being the Son of God into a set of doctrines. They turn the rich and dangerous variety of human personhood into a collection of good guys and bad guys easily identified by their hats, their political party, and their stand on bellwether social issues.
Nor is it just sermons that weaken the narrative. Worship shouldn’t be a collection of ritual acts. It is the retelling of the grand narrative of the universe by humans, with Jesus at the beginning, middle, and end. In this story humans are neither spectators nor the stars, and our worship goes awry because all too often it puts us either on the sidelines or in the center or gives us walk-on roles that compel neither attention nor interest.
I still remember when Jesus Christ Superstar slammed into my 9th grade life. It was the first time I met Jesus as a compelling character, someone worthy of a second look. And it was the first time I had a desire to know Peter, Judas, and the rest of the disciples. Mel Gibson’s Passion was a bloody caricature by comparison, a mere reverse image of the “buddy Jesus” of Dogma fame. (A fellow blogger has written about character in relation to Jesus at http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Jesus-Drama-King-Peter-Wallace-01-22-2013.html)
And it wasn’t just production standards that made the difference. Two atheist/agnostics, Webber and Rice, did a better job of bringing the character of Jesus and his apostles to life than 90% of Christian preachers. They had created dramatic movement where most churches offered frozen piety.
So how do we tell a bigger story, with better characters?
First, find the drama. My screenwriter friends tell me that there must always be something at stake for the character. There has to be the danger of real loss. But that doesn’t mean death, or even physical pain. In our facile re-tellings of the story of Jesus we forget this. We think that the cross offers a spicy bit of pain and that the resurrection makes all things right. Nonsense. The reality is that with every conflict, every failure of Jesus to reach the hard-hearted along the path of his life, he and his mission were diminished. That is why he grieves for Jerusalem. Grieves! Because her destruction was not necessary, and it would happen because he had failed to save her. Just as he failed to save Judas, and saw Peter’s life hanging in the balance.
The story of Jesus is compelling only when we see that at every step the stakes were high, and that he keenly felt his failures. This is what Webber and Rice understood better than thousands of Christian preachers – that Jesus went to the cross knowing himself to have failed his God and his closest friends. A Jesus who bears our sins, but doesn’t know the sting of failure and regret, isn’t fully human, and isn’t worth our time and love. The Jesus of the gospels grieves because he knows that the tragedy could never be erased by his resurrection. And indeed this is the role of Gehenna in that narrative, not to scare people, but to remind us that, until the world is rebuilt, failure and tragedy lay always beneath our feet. Even on Easter Day.
Secondly, don’t exclude, and don’t caricature. Even here in Texas demographic research shows that 85% of the population lives in vibrantly diverse communities. If that diversity isn’t the story being acted out by your church then your are growing out of touch with the daily experience of young people whose work environment and friendships are richly multi-religious and multi-ethnic. If in our preaching we reduce the “enemies of the gospel” to cardboard villains then no one who has a colleague, or friend, or relative that disagrees with us is going to take our story seriously. If we reduce whole ethnic groups, or religious groups, or age groups to victims, or villains, or targets for our charity or evangelism then our story will be boring.
Why did people watch a show built around JR Ewing, almost the quintessential bad guy? Why watch a family drama about dysfunctional and often grasping millionaires? Because they were complicated. Because they were unpredictable in ways that reflect the reality we all live in. JR was interesting because he always had the possibility of being redeemed, but it was never clear how it could happen. And because he is surrounded in the story with possible agents of redemption, but we never see which one might save him and which might destroy him and which one’s he might corrupt and destroy. Those characters could be any of us. More importantly, they could be many of the people we know.
And it isn’t just how we tell the Christian story in a sermon or liturgy. It is the characters we bring into our lives as part of our congregation. Even mega-churches that seem to thrive on mono-chromal gatherings of safely likeminded people understand that the heart of commitment is born in cell groups and Sunday school classes where all the strange particularities of the human creature come out. And they still have a large back door. How many people want to attend a football game where only one team and one team’s fans fill the stadium?
Early in my ministry a large, unkempt gentleman walked into the back of the church. He looked at the booths on the side where the United Methodist Women were selling handicrafts to raise money. Before the ushers could stop him he came to the front while we sang the doxology and announced, “the money changers are in the temple!” Then he sat down. Listened to the sermon. Came forward for communion. Left during the final hymn. His character alone kept the congregation buzzing about that service for weeks. The presence of a slightly dangerous stranger transformed the worship experience into an actual story worth being part of.
I’ve seen the same thing in a small church that invites a sometimes unruly group from a nearby psychiatric care facility for weekly worship. With those unscripted characters present you could hardly have boring worship, even if it meant you had to improvise you lines.
“Characters welcome” is the motto of a major broadcast network. If we seriously want to effectively preach the gospel then they need to be welcomed back into our sermons, our liturgy, and our churches. Then maybe Jesus can get at least the ratings of JR.