Towards a Cultural Solution: A Proposal for The Story Institute

Towards a Cultural Solution: A Proposal for The Story Institute June 27, 2013

This is what I would do if I won a really big lottery.

“A culture can not evolve without honest, powerful storytelling.”
(Robert McKee)

The Problem: For over a century, the undisputed engine of global storytelling, Hollywood is now in a crisis. The box-office numbers are holding up but the declining number of theater-goers is masked by the constant hikes in ticket prices. The demographic span of the audience that goes into theaters is at its least diverse in Hollywood’s history. Most grown-ups rarely go to the movies any more. Fewer and fewer films become beloved of the broad cross-section of peoples and places that used to be the hallmark of Hollywood’s golden mystique. The Los Angeles-New York based entertainment industry has not only lost the love of the country and the world beyond, but more often, their offerings are met with derision and disgust. Everywhere I go people ask me, “Why don’t they make good movies any more.” The answer is, “They don’t know how.” The truth that is obvious to everyone inside Hollywood and out is that 21st Century culture has forgotten how to tell good stories.

Bad storytelling is more than just a problem for a handful of artists and media elites. Good stories provide the journeys that lead all of us into wisdom and solidarity with others. Their subtext is always that men have a transcendent destiny, and that what we see is never all that we are. Aristotle noted twenty-five hundred years ago in his Poetics that it is through stories that men acquire compassion and the healthy fear of evil. A society without good stories has no conscience, no heroes and no dreams.

The crisis in storytelling has been brewing slowly over the last century because of philosophical and theological errors. Proximately, it is due to failures in the educational system which have disconnected our young writers from their own cultural heritage and from the rhetorical and intellectual dicipline that would enable them to think critically about the problems of the day and respond with provocative and potentially healing parables. The vaunted “democratization” brought about by wide access to modern storytelling technology hasn’t helped either. Now anyone with a keyboard and a camera-phone thinks they have a right to an audience, regardless of whether they have talent, training or something wise to share.

Remotely, the loss of good stories can be attributed to the pervasive cancer of cynicism that has infected the increasingly secular creative class. As artists pursue materialism and celebrity and move away from spirituality, their source of authentic creativity dries up. This is why Christians could play a unique and powerful role in restoring understanding of the artist’s true place in the heart of the family of men as prophets and ministers of God’s ongoing revelation. We still believe in God. We still believe that men have a spiritual side that animates everything in their material lives.

While the world of theater and publishing is also suffering from bad storytelling, the most egregious harm has come through Hollywood. As the greed-driven blockbuster movement took hold in the entertainment industry in the late 20th century, the essential storytelling elements of plot, character and theme were trumped over and over by spectacle and celebrity to such an extent that it is all too rare to see a well crafted, worthy tale on any screen today.

Contributing to the problem is the near complete absence of Christian storytellers in the mainstream culture. As a secular journalist noted to me years ago, “Even if you people are wrong, we need you in this business because you bring a note of hope.”

Unbelievably and quite tragically, there is no Christian university which is adequately equipping young believers to assume positions of clout in the arena of mainstream visual storytelling. Where there are programs in this area in faith-based arenas, they are generally commandeered by career academics with little experience in the craft. The emphasis quickly becomes a race to buy cameras and equipment so that the students can start making movies for the programs to show off. Most of the fruits that come from these abortive and ill-conceived programs are generally unwatchable and embarrassing. The error is mistaking visual storytelling as a primarily technical pursuit. In the last few years, a new error has emerged in Christian cinema programs which is the weird and embarrassing desire to gear students toward making movies intentionally for the faith-based audience. The Christian sub-culture is the aberration not the goal. It is an arena that is too often defined by its lack of artistry, professionalism, and depth. Christians are irrelevant in the mainstream culture, and that is completely due to our failures to speak to the world in the way it loves – through beautifully crafted, powerful stories.

Stories are equipment for living.
(Kenneth Burke)

The Solution: What is needed is a serious academy-based training program in Christendom which will become the global center of discussion and learning about dramatic story telling. Basing ourselves on the successful artist guilds which eventually produced the Renaissance, Christians today need to strategically and intelligently aid playwrights and screen storytellers in finding their power again in a 21st Century society that desperately needs the hopes, challenges, courage and wisdom that good stories are meant to give. We need to help writers to identify and hone their God-given talents. We will need to prepare them with ethics, theology and philosophy to make their stories rich and responsible. We will need to nurture in them a vocational spirituality to understand and embrace their honorable and vital role as storytellers for the family of men.

We won’t get anywhere with a mechanical, trade-school type program. Hollywood is stuffed full of people who can use machines. These people tend to linger “below the line” and very rarely affect content. We need to form storytellers in a novel, inter-disciplinary, Humanities-driven, Socratic tutorial, writing-heavy, elitist program. I could write a chapter about each of those qualifiers and if anybody with a lot of money wants to hear more, call or write. The point is, most, if not all of the cinema programs now struggling to buy more equipment at faith-based colleges all over are foolishly barking up the wrong tree. It isn’t equipment we need but prophets.

I’ll say it again, it isn’t equipment that will soothe the aching hearts of post-modern men, it is apostle artists.

Our writers need to have a sense of philosophical history to know the how and why of modern confusions, and a deep enough spirituality and theological formation to know the right medicine to offer. They’ll need lots and lots of literature so as to hone their storytelling instincts. And damn if they won’t need rigorous English grammar and even Latin to correct the terrible wounds inflicted on them by the debacle of our modern educational system.

In addition, our Storytelling Institute could reach thoughtfully into the secular storytelling community. In the way that the Church always blesses and baptizes the best things in culture, the Institute could highlight the best that is in the cultural marketplace. As She has historically done in Her posture of Patron of the Arts, the Church needs a place to hone her pastoral care for creative people, to challenge artists, to inspire them, mentor them and hold them accountable.

I find that most people know what a story is –
until they sit down to write one.
(Flannery O’Connor)

Mission of The Story Institute:

– To create a factory system to pump into the mainstream culture, talented and hirable Christians to write new and wonderful stories for the stage and screen.
– To be the place that Christians think of when they want to become the best storytellers for the stage and screen.
– To be on the cutting edge of educational methods to identify, form, mentor and integrate young storytellers for the mainstream professional environment.
– To be respected in the non-Christian arena for the visionary and effective programs we offer.
– To up the level of global storytelling on the stage and screen in the 21st Century.

This desperately needs to be done. It could be a great source of hope for the people facing the certain traumas of the ongoing cultural collapse. We know what needs to be done. All we need are a few “princes” from the Church to step forward and commission the work the way Christians in ages past commissioned Notre Dame and the windows at Lyon and the statue of the David in Florence. If we start today, we can be making a profound difference in the global cultural marketplace before the middle of the century. If we start today.

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