‘Whatever is True…’: The Apostle Paul’s “Great Commission” to Artists and Writers

In 2009, Maverick Books published John R. Erickson’s Story Craft: Reflections of Faith, Culture and Writing from the Author of Hank of the Cowdog. With permission from the publisher, we’re posting in our Saturday Series a chapter each month through January. Here’s a chapter titled “The Christian Writer,” which starts with a quotation from Philip Ryken’s Art for God’s Sake: “Christian art is redemptive, and this is its highest purpose.” —Marvin Olasky

The Christian Writer
Let us return to St. Paul’s “Great Commission” to artists and writers: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things … and put [them] into practice” (Philippians 4:8 NIV).

Yes, that covers it pretty well. “Although this verse has wider implications for the whole Christian life,” notes Philip Graham Ryken, “at the very least it outlines a set of ethical and aesthetic norms for the artist and for art.” When a story resolves the conflict and drama of the plot, we want the reader to think on the things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, and worthy of praise.

But we should notice that the qualities listed by St. Paul are the finished products of a Christian life. He speaks as a man who has already been redeemed, and in his role as preacher, he is saying, “This is where you want to be at the end of your spiritual journey.”

Preachers can tell us that, but storytellers must show it. You can’t begin a story with the ending. You can’t start a story with the finished product. You can’t reach a resolution without tension and conflict. To put it into Christian terms, you can’t have redemption without the Fall, or resurrection without the crucifixion. It’s bad theology and it’s worse storytelling, because it departs from the basic template of story structure: a story begins, moves, and resolves.

If we view St. Paul’s life as a three-act screenplay, his letter to the Philippians would fall near the end of Act Three. To get the rest of his story, we must go back to Act One. There, we see a very gifted, literate, articulate Hellenized Jew named Saul. In Act Two, we find him watching as Stephen is stoned to death, and using his talents to “breathe out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1).

Then he is blinded on the road to Damascus and hears the voice of Christ: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4) His life is changed and resolves into Act Three, where he offers sound advice in a letter to the Philippian church.

A lot of Christian writers (me included) don’t like Act Two because that’s where we find an emphasis on fallen man and all the nastiness of the broken human soul: cruelty, adultery, and violence, the temptations, bad choices, and stupid mistakes. We know where we want to be and where we feel most comfortable (Act Three), and we’re prone to rush through the second act, covering our ears and holding our noses.

There, safe on the other side, we tell the audience to think on the things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, and worthy of praise. And it doesn’t work. We get a story that is sentimental and dull, with characters who speak in soft tones and smile all the time.

We get a “good Christian story” that isn’t a good story.

Dr. Thom Parham, an associate professor of theater, film and television at Azusa Pacific University, and a Christian, has written a blistering critique of movies made by Christian filmmakers. He lists fifteen films made between 1995 and 2004 and says, “Overall, these films are unwatchable. There are only a handful of good scenes among them. None had success with critics or at the box office. … Most films that successfully incorporate religious themes are made by nonreligious people.”

Christian filmmakers, he says, are so intent on their message, they ignore storytelling and production values. Further, they “tend to see the world the way they want it to be. Ignoring life’s complexities, they paint a simplistic, unrealistic portrait of the world. … As long as people of faith are more concerned with messages than metaphors, they are doomed to make bad films.”

Independent filmmaker Isaac Botkin agrees. “With few exceptions, films made by Christians are a frustrating mixture of ideological conformity and poor production quality.”

When novelists and screenwriters stop telling stories and “go to preachin’,” Christian literature shrinks down to one book, and we surrender our national culture to people who don’t read it. We need both preachers and storytellers, but not in the same time and place. If we have any hope of influencing popular culture, our stories must compete in a secular marketplace and win, and that means we have to master story craft and produce better stories than the competition.

That won’t be an easy assignment. In the environment of modern popular culture—or “postmodern,” as some observers have described it—Christian writers operate at a disadvantage. We don’t feel comfortable in Act Two, yet Act Two is where popular culture lives and thrives.

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SOURCE: WORLD Magazine, John R. Erickson