“I could tell you some stories . . . ”
Remarked Charlie, before he was cut off by his next door neighbor Barton,
“Sure you could and yet many writers do everything in their power to insulate themselves from the common man, from where they live, from where they trade, from where they fight and love and converse and . . . ”
Barton was a writer who just moved from New York City to Hollywood to write for the motion pictures. His work and passion was the plight of the “common man” in America—the working class, regular “human experience.” The crowd that knew nothing of the world of the elite intelligentsia that Barton was a member. His first Broadway play, Bare Ruined Choirs, all about the “common man,” was a smashing success on Broadway. So much of a success that he landed himself a deal in Hollywood. So he left for California to share his stories of “the common man” with the masses.
The only problem is that Barton didn’t know the first thing about “the common man” and was so wrapped up in his vision of “the common man” that when a common man, like Charlie, wants to tell him about his life he is too involved in himself to listen.
Now, if this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve sat through the strange, brilliant Coen Brothers film Barton Fink. An odd little flick about delusion, disillusion, and writer’s block.
I resonate with the scene above between Barton (John Turturro) and Charlie (John Goodman) more than I’d like to. It’s a convicting, albeit subtle, picture of how I tend to treat people.
Good Stories Breed Humility
I think I know way more about things than I actually do. My theology is airtight (or, at least I think it is). I’m decent at arguing, and I really want to fit things into my neat and tidy classifications. But a good story—a good movie—won’t let you do that.
In the last one hundred and twenty years the medium of the motion picture (movie) has become, arguably, the most popular and powerful way to communicate in story form. Usually running anywhere from twenty-odd minutes to eight plus hours long, a film creates a distinct reality and tells a story (or series of stories) in that reality. Sometimes that reality is real life. Sometimes it’s a galaxy far far away.
Film has been a part of my life in an important way since I saw The White Balloon when I was about ten. I remember being blown away by how different the main character was than me. But at the same time, how similar. I thought I would have reacted just as the main character might have in the same situation—though I could never have imagined actually being in those situations (e.g., living in Iran, navigating a market in streets of Tehran). The story about an unremarkable person navigating an unremarkable situation somehow captured the beauty, emotions, and struggles of life in a remarkable way.
Since then, movies have been more than just entertainment to me. They’ve helped me understand my humanity—the backdrop for understanding the gospel.
I struggle to know what exactly it means to be human. I mean, yes, my “worldview” tells me the facts: created in the image of God, totally depraved, saved by Jesus, Jesus is marking me more like him—but meanwhile life is hard and I need a nap, one day I will die, then I’ll be with Jesus forever. But understanding those facts personally, hopefully, and joyfully is another story. My worldview is often just “life is hard and I usually need a nap.” I forget the beginning, most of the middle, and the end.
More than teaching new things, movies usually serve to remind us of what we already know in beautiful ways. Good movies remind me of what it means to be human—and above all, what it mean’s to be rescued by grace.
Films like The White Balloon and It’s a Wonderful Life remind me that it’s okay to be ordinary because there is something deeply, divinely extraordinary about the ordinary grind of work, family, and sacrifice. Something like Jeff Nichols’ 2007 film Shotgun Stories reminds me that I will never outgrow my need for grace because things will never (in this life) be fully as they were intended to be. Even a movie like Wolf of Wall Street reminds me that the atrocities of humanity deserve God’s wrath, myself included and indicted.
Not the Whole Story
Movies usually don’t tell whole story, but they tell stories that reflect the whole story.
In Mike Cosper’s new book The Stories We Tell, he masterfully articulates how the TV shows and movies we love give us glimpses into the human heart, created in the Image of God. A good movie “aims at the imagination,” says Cosper, “a much more mysterious and sneaky part of us, ruled by love, desire, and hope.”
For Christians, it can be tempting to be fearful or dismissive of these sorts of incomplete stories where the echo is somewhat faint, especially when they seem (on the surface) to contradict Christian values. But in reality a good film, uninhibited by pretense, can be a robust vehicle for gospel transformation. Alissa Wilkinson, the chief film critic at Christianity Today puts it this way,
“We tend to treat actual cultural artifacts in the way we sometimes treat the Bible: as ‘proof texts’ from which we can draw principles or truths for application. Though we love the Bible, we evangelicals in particular have often treated verses as if they stand alone, forgetting that the story in which they appear speaks just as much as the verses themselves.
Similarly, Christian critics can lean (lazily) into the idea that products of culture mainly exist as object lessons to be turned into ‘truths’ when we talk about them and figure out how they do or don’t line up with our beliefs.”
Instead of interacting with stories and people for what they are, it’s too easy to get upset because they are not as we want them to be.
We treat people like the media we produce. As we proof text media or Scripture, we end up proof texting people. “Post-moderns,” “liberals,” “fundamentalists,” or “millennials” become a standard way to disengage with the nitty-gritty humanness of the people around us.
The Gospel That Listens
But the gospel doesn’t operate in labels. God extends grace to unique, broken individuals. The only qualification for believing the gospel is honesty. Honestly acknowledging our need and inability to accept God’s grace and adoption. Like God’s questioning of Job in Job 38, we don’t need to have all the answers we just need to know who does.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
A good movie won’t always reveal the whole systematic truth of life, but if you look closely, it can reveal glimpses of the Creator of truth.
These glimpses—taken for what they are and not just what we want them to be—have the ability to challenge, soften, and enlighten us. They give us lenses to understand different aspects of the human experience.
That scene in Barton Fink, remember, from our opening, isn’t profound because I’m trying to make it as a writer in Hollywood but because, in one way or another, I have many people around me, Christians and non-Christians, saying to me “I could tell you some stories . . . ”
By God’s grace, I’m learning to listen to those stories for what they are just as I’m learning to see movies for what they are—the image of God mixed with our humanity, humanly told.
Nick Rynerson lives in the west suburbs of Chicago with his groovy wife, Jenna. He is a staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture and a marketing coordinator at Crossway. Connect with him on Twitter @nick_rynerson or via email.