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A good story can change your life

Recently, Pure Flix managing partner and God’s Not Dead producer Michael Scott talked about his approach to faith-based films at a summitsponsored by Variety. For films to succeed, the message, he said, must come before the story.

“The engine that drives the train is the message,” Scott said. “We start with the message and then build the story around it.”

He went on to describe how Pure Flix surveyed leaders in their target audience for the messages they were interested in and then spent months marketing the films. Why?

“We need to let the consumer know what’s coming,” he said.

By box office standards, Scott’s approach is working. Yet, this philosophy not only reveals a key aspect that weakens many Christian films but also cheats us of the power of story and Scripture.

We live in a message-driven culture in which story is often seen as a tool to deliver the message. For example, The Flying Tigers film was made to encourage support for the Allies during World War II, and last summer’s Elysium had critics both hailing and lamenting its health-care agenda.

Pure Flix’s approach results in Christian movies in the same vein. On his FilmChat blog, film critic Peter Chattaway notes how audiences for these films are “entertained by propaganda; they want someone to preach at them, telling them what they already believe.”

This leaves viewers and artists unchallenged, says Chattaway — the exact opposite of what art should do: “draw the artist and the audience out of themselves and into something other.”

Message-driven stories are good at rallying the troops, but good stories are so much more. They reveal something about human experience, challenging us on what we think we know.

Good stories don’t simply wrap around a message; truth saturates and seeps out of them. “A story does not say, ‘Let me tell you what is true,’ but ‘Let me tell you what happened,’ ” says Daniel Taylor in The Skeptical Believer. “That illumination may simply entertain you, but it may also cause you to change — to modify your present story or even to abandon it for another.”

And no story can change us more than the Bible. “Stories are God’s idea,” says Taylor. “The Bible does not simply contain stories; it reflects God’s choice of the story configuration as the primary means by which to tell us about himself and how to be in right relationship with him.” It is this story by which we understand where we came from, who we are and who we can be.

Yet we often express faith and Scripture as sets of doctrines or propositions — or messages, if you will. In The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight notes our tendency to reduce the gospel to a “Plan of Salvation.” While this plan flows out of the gospel, we miss out on a more robust and transforming understanding of the salvation if we don’t submerge it and ourselves in the larger story of the Bible. Yet habitually we default to propositions, often packaging them in a way to persuade others.

Films like God’s Not Dead reflect this approach, using story as a tool in which to package a message designed to affirm or persuade a salvation decision — a laudable effort, but one which feeds back a limited understanding of salvation and the gospel.

What can we do to break out of this message-driven cycle? “To become a gospel culture we’ve got to begin with becoming people of the Book, says Mc­Knight, “but not just as a Book but as the story that shapes us.”

Message-driven stories can entertain, please and even persuade. But a good story? It can change your life.

This is a slightly longer and linkier version of my column that ran July 21, 2014, at MWR.