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The Untapped Potential of Storytelling

“Only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.”  This statement, made by J.R.R. Tolkien in conversation with C.S. Lewis, is a bold one. How can story-telling be a manifestation of the divine? While the manifestation of the divine may be easier to point to in classical literature and poetry that explicitly deal with religious themes, can it also be found in modern novels, television shows, and blockbuster films?

In many cultures, storytellers once held a prominent social position as keepers of history and moral lessons. A shared mythos is, in fact, an essential part of what holds a community together and provides a grounding for that community’s morals, behavior, and place in the world. Creators and tellers of myths understand that a story’s purpose extends beyond entertainment; it is a part of education and civil society, a recognition that all of human existence is part of a greater story that has a spiritual, transcendent goal in mind.

As anyone who has binged a Netflix series can attest, humans crave stories as a way to experience happiness. And although stories are a subjective experience, almost everyone has had a story that deeply resonated with them. “The classics” are classics because they have tapped into universal truths about the human experience. Enduring life lessons can be found in stories ranging from Star Wars, Disney cartoons, to It’s a Wonderful Life. Even though people may not always be able to describe exactly what it is about these stories that resonate with them, they usually know it when they see it.

When deciding to binge a show or head to the movies, few people think of themselves as partaking in the divine life within their souls. They are seeking entertainment; however, there is a difference between entertainment for entertainment’s sake and entertainment that enriches the soul. It is this capability of stories to enrich and enlighten that is largely untapped in today’s movie industry.

The Hollywood film industry occupies a dominant role in how stories are told and which stories are marketed and consumed. The development of film technology is at its highest peak and with it comes greater potential for cinematic beauty and an increased variety of stories. Yet, beautiful cinema is not all that goes into creating a great film. A movie may have fantastic CGI, stellar fight sequences, or beautiful filmscapes, but none of this takes the place of a good story. Such aesthetic principles capture the attention of audiences, but they cannot replace the narrative’s central role. For example, Mulan’s 2020 live action remake had a budget of $200mil, and yet for all its cinematic beauty, the movie’s overall narrative was described as a shell of both the original animated version and the ancient Chinese ballad. CGI, costuming, soundtrack, lighting, and camera technique are important for telling a story well, but they will not take the place of telling a good story.

Storytelling is an unparalleled platform for changing, shifting, and shaping the soul of a community. The stories we consume and look up to for entertainment will root themselves within our psyche and become part of the tapestry that forms our outlook on the world. This unique role has been recognized by Hollywood, and many would argue the industry has become shameless in incorporating ideology into recent films, in the hope that their movies will help spread certain ideas. Ironically, the incorporation of ideology into storytelling is both a recognition of the unique power of storytelling in culture, and simultaneously, a cheapening of it. Too much emphasis on storytelling as “moral” allegory can result in propaganda. Filmmaking has been far too cavalier in blurring the line between art and propaganda recently. This results in the loss of good stories.

The opposite end of the aforementioned extreme is to focus on movies as solely entertainment. Although good stories must be entertaining, the entertainment aspect is not the sole purpose, or even the primary purpose of a story. Placing entertainment as the height of a story’s purpose has contributed to the creation of countless remakes and the lack of original movies that both critics and movie-goers alike have criticized.

What is most concerning about this phenomenon is not just that this platform is being misused, it is that genuine harm is being done by starving the modern Western world of good stories. Creativity that attempts to reflect the human soul prompts one to think about higher truths that transcend one’s self. It calls humans to eternal question, rather than placating desires by mere entertainment or providing easy answers for what to think. Part of fiction’s beauty is that it does not need to speak to everyone in the same way, but good fiction does have the potential to move and change the soul. There is a distinct difference between mere entertainment and the stories that, to quote Tolkien again, “really matter.” Stories that matter provide us with reminders of the transcendent, and for some people, it may be the only reminder or their first encounter of the transcendent.

When movie theatres return, pay careful attention to what is released and be more critical of the stories that you consume. What seems like pure entertainment can and will affect your outlook on the world. It is worthwhile to seek out experiences and to tell stories that will move yourself and others towards the divine.