Mike Cosper. The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014. 240 pp. $15.99.
Church and Ministry
Entertainment, particularly that of television and movies, has shaped generations. We might go as far to say we’re addicted to TV and movies. They shape how we think and how we behave. Yet, at the same time, Christians are suspicious of them as well, not knowing how to curb the addiction and filter the moral dimension of entertainment.
Is that the case for you? Do you ever feel ashamed of what you watch, yet seemingly unable to alter your fascination with shows such as Arrested Development, Keeping up with the Kardashians, or Dexter? Do you ever ask yourself: “What will others think if they knew I watch these shows?”
Mike Cosper’s new book, The Stories We Tell, is certainly not an expose on media ethic: what we should and shouldn’t watch. He sets out from the beginning saying that he wouldn’t suggest everyone watch the shows that he discusses (13).
Rather, what Cosper – the Worship and Arts Pastors at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville Kentucky – does with The Stories We Tell is borrow from the world of TV and movies the most striking illustrations of the big picture, the gospel narrative. He reminds us: “All human creativity is an echo of God’s creativity” (33). And though humanity doesn’t always get it right, “These stories long for and echo the truth” (37). They illustrate God’s narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.
So, without assuming that the producers, writers, and actors of these TV shows and movies intended to tell God’s story, Cosper, nonetheless, retrieves from the gamut of media he has enjoyed to explore how these stories hint at and long for the gospel. All along Cosper helps us redemptively reconsider what we watch, why we watch it, and how to watch it with new eyes seeing the gospel story in previously unforeseen ways.
Chapter one sets up the framework upon which The Stories We Tell rests. Chapter two discusses the spectrum on which all viewers sit: the overanxious teenager on one side, enjoying edginess, while the church lady sits at the other pole, setting borders to stay within and judging those outside those borders. Tackling issues pertaining to gospel and culture, and conscience and community fall under the auspices of this chapter as well.
Chapter three begins Cosper’s interaction with the gospel narrative themes. It delves into creation through the movie The Descendants and flips the fall story by focusing on Pleasantville. He also uses Frankenstein, Jurassic Park, and Spiderman to talk about playing God. Chapter four investigates the theme of love by considering shows like How I met Your Mother, 30 Rock, and Who Wants to Mary a Multi-Millionaire.
Chapter five scrutinizes the fall, singling out Prometheus, The Tree of Life, Mad Men, and Seinfeld. Chapter six surveys the inevitability, frustration, and pointlessness of life found in Ecclesiastes by showcasing The Wire. Chapter seven plays on fears and evils lurking in shadows by leveraging horror movies such as Drag Me to Hell or paranormal classics like The Twilight Zone and X-Files.
Chapter eight reveals redemptive pictures prevalent in shows such as Dexter and pervasive themes of vengeance demonstrated in Pulp Fiction and other Quentin Tarantino films. Chapter nine inspects stories of heroes by developing the hero story of Jesus and then tracing parallels in other celebrated stories: The Lord of the Rings, Superman, Sleeping Beauty, et al (cf. the chart, 189). Chapter ten closes the book by calling attention to the social media and reality show phenomenon. Cosper analyzes reality shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and Survivor, all of which point to the universal human desire to be known, accepted, and found valuable, which these desires are only fulfilled at Christ’s consummative return.
Benefit for Pastoral Ministry
Every solid book is built on a stalwart premise. The premise of The Stories We Tell is novel, culturally engaging, and profoundly grounded in biblical truth. Cosper talks about how researching and writing this book forced him to re-examine his approach to media. Looking for expressions of gospel themes in TV and movies nuanced what he celebrates and enjoys watching. I think that is precisely what’s happened after my reading. I can’t view a show without simultaneously reflecting on how I see gospel glimpses in that show’s story.
I want to caution readers to manage their expectation when reading The Stories We Tell. If you’re looking for anti Harry Potter and Twilight ammo, you won’t find that schtick here. Likewise, if you expect to find a list of okay or not okay shows to watch, it’s not going to happen either. Cosper reasons: “The content of the stories we hear and tell can’t be true without acknowledging – and sometimes delving deeply into – humanity’s darkness” (47).
What you will get is an overabundance of gospel connections, which sometimes come from unlikely sources (never saw Dexter coming). I don’t think Cosper considers one ostentatious “Christian” film. His selection of illustrations is completely eclectic and unapologetically built on his tastes. I commend him for this. If anything, this approach piqued my interest in shows or movies I had looked past or forgotten.
Cosper’s synopses of shows are concise; he is a purveyor of clarity. This is a tough task to master, and I am impressed with how simply he explains so many complex plots and provides character development in such few pages.
The Stories We Tell is a timely and fitting read for today’s audience. We all love TV shows and movies; redeeming the time we invest in them is a tangible benefit of this book.
Pastors should read The Stories We Tell as a guide to exploring and leveraging the many advantages that TV and film offer to their ministry. Pastors should recommend this book to their congregation because it will help everyone think in fresh perspective on what, why, and how to consume this media.
Essential — Recommended — Helpful — Pass It By
The Stories We Tell is an investigation of TV shows and movies that reveals an astonishing and riveting encounter with the gospel.