Over the last year I’ve been taking an improv course. If you don’t know what improv is, then I suggest you watch this excellent example:
Essentially, an improvised performance is one you make up on the spot. There is no script! In order to be successful, I’ve had to learn a lot about effective storytelling. Perhaps the most helpful lesson has been the importance of good characters.
You simply cannot have good stories without good characters. They drive the story forward, their decisions and actions make things happen. They may find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, but the way characters handle those circumstances is what makes a story interesting.
Next time you watch a movie or read a novel or attend a play, pay attention to the characters. You will find that they act according to their nature. We expect Jim to prank Dwight, we expect Sam to help Frodo, we expect Mr. Darcy to pursue Elizabeth. We expect these things because they are true to the character, and yet, those expected actions often find ways to surprise us.
If you did not enjoy a story, I’d bet a primary reason was the lack of good characters. I have experienced this firsthand during improv performances. When I walk onto the stage and jump too quickly into a character that has nothing special or interesting, the scenes drag on and are torturous for myself and the audience. If, however, I spend a little more time developing an interesting character, then the story practically tells itself and is always engaging.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our lives are basically stories, and each one of us is a main character in our respective story. If you want your story to be interesting, then you must recognize the importance of actually being a good character.
Performing an Improv scene
At different times, life will send you challenges and conveniences, pain and joy, trials and blessings. In the book, How People Change, the authors describe how us humans often blame external factors for the way we behave. The reality, however, is that we respond to those external situations in a way that is true to our character.
For instance, I often blame the traffic when it causes me to erupt in anger and swearing. But the cause of that irate behavior is actually in my own heart, not on the road.
The key, then, to being a great character and living an excellent story is a changed heart. This cannot be done in our own power, but only through the work of the Gospel and Holy Spirit.
And so, if you truly want to live a story worth remembering, if you want to live fully, then it starts by spending time at the feet of Jesus. Allow God to work in your heart, to change you and make you more like Him. He is the great potter, the author of life, and His hands will ensure that your story is one worth telling.
Your turn: who is your favorite character in a famous story?
Now I need to make a couple of confessions. First, Morgan did not drag me to see the film. It was my suggestion. Yes I know it’s a princess movie. But I’m a bit of a film fanatic, I love Disney, and enjoy Director Kenneth Branagh‘s work. So sue me.
Secondly, I actually enjoyed it. Granted, Cinderella does more dress twirling than I thought necessary and it isn’t a perfect film, but it features the right amount of charm and Disney magic that can make even the most cynical people smile. Even better, I haven’t seen a movie with so much Gospel truth in a long time. I highly recommend you (and your kids) watch it.
While many moments stick out to me, I’m going to focus on just a few of them. Things might get a bit spoilery here, so consider reading this after watching the movie. That being said, most people know the Cinderella story and so the things below shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.
The film introduces us to a young girl, named Ella. Like many Disney films, she loses both her parents. She is then left with her cruel Stepmother and two Stepsisters. They change her name from Ella to “Cinderella” because of the ashes on her face from all the serving work they force her to do.
Img source: Rotten Tomatoes
Throughout the entire story, her stepmother feeds her this identity, “the ragged servant girl is what you are, and that is what you will always be.” It is no coincidence that her stepmother’s cat is named “Lucifer.”
This identity stays with Cinderella throughout the movie. She frequently questions whether or not a prince could actually love her because she has so little to offer.
“And I’m just a lizard”
The scene that resonated with me the most comes when Cinderella arrives at the ball. She says something to her coachman (who is actually a lizard transformed by the fairy godmother), that goes something like this:
“I’m scared Mr. Lizard, I’m just a girl, not a princess.”
Mr. Lizard responds, “And I am just a lizard, not a coachman. But we can enjoy it while it lasts.”
This exchange works for Ella, who embraces her new identity as a princess, even if it is for just a few hours.
As she walked up the stairs with a huge smile, I was struck by something. We are all just people, unworthy of the glories of God’s Kingdom because of our sin. Despite this, God chose to adopt us all as children, making us heirs in His Kingdom.
Img source: Rotten Tomatoes
But we are not limited to enjoying our new identity as royalty for a few hours. Because of Christ’s work we can enjoy and embrace our new identity for all eternity. Romans 8:14-18 describes it this way, ”
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.“
Take me as I am
When the clock strikes midnight, Ella runs for it. She is afraid that when the prince learns who she truly is, he will reject her. But this is not the case. Instead, the Prince searches the Kingdom to find the woman he loves.
When he finally does, she identifies herself as “Cinderella” She tells him, “I have nothing to offer you, no land or ruling advantage, no dowry or riches. Will you take me as I am?”
The prince is not deterred. He loves Cinderella for who she is and asks for her hand in marriage.
And this is how Christ accepts us. We are tempted to believe that we need to offer God something special before he will accept us. We think “If I were a bit more holy” or “if I do more good works” or “once I start going to church more” then God will accept us into His Kingdom.
But Jesus doesn’t ask us for good works or religious performance. He doesn’t require or money or our land. All he asks is for our heart. No matter where you are or what you’ve done, all you need to do is repent (turn towards Jesus) and believe (that Jesus loves you and can save you).
Happily Ever After
Almost all fairy tales end with the words, “And they lived happily ever after.”
If you’re a believer in Jesus, then those words are not just make believe. There is a Kingdom waiting for us all, and together we shall live with the King and truly know what it means to live happily ever after.
Your turn: Did you see Cinderella? What did you think? Is it ok for a grown adult man without a daughter to enjoy this movie?
Last year, Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling went semi-viral. I recently started taking an improv class where we learned and practiced rule #4 – it outlines a story spine that goes something like this:
Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. But one day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. And ever since that day_____.
Pixar didn’t invent this spine, it’s been around for a long time. Kenn Adams receives credit for identifying the spine, but the truth is, this has been guiding good stories for thousands of years.
In fact, this can be applied rather easily to the story of the Gospel:
1. Once upon a time…Mankind was placed together in the Garden of Eden.
2. Every day…they experienced beauty and freedom and a harmony with God
3. But one day…Adam and Eve sinned against God, severing their relationship with Him.
4. Because of that…Pain and sorrow entered the world
5. Because of that…mankind began attempting to solve the broken things in the world. They tried to become like God, greater than God, or creators of God. But nothing worked.
6. Because of that…Mankind grew more distant from God, hurting each other in their quest for satisfaction.
7. Until finally…Jesus was born. He lived a perfect life, and he did what no one else could do. He paid for our sins, and gave us freedom.
8. And ever since that day…We can Live Fully as we await the final return of Jesus, who will finish putting all broken things together.
Why story matters
1) Our need for redemption: There is a reason we love stories that follow this structure – we want people to achieve redemption. We all face trials, many of them because of our own flaws, and we need to see that people can be saved from them. Why? Because we need to know that we ourselves can be saved.
2) Inciting incidents are kairos moments: Stories always include an “inciting incident.” This is the “but one day” section of the story, where normal life gets interrupted. Many times things are going perfectly well for the characters, but the inciting incident changes that. Buzz Lightyear replaces Woody, Carl loses Ellie, or Nemo gets fishnapped. But sometimes, the story can begin with poor conditions – like Mr. Incredible having to work in insurance instead of as a superhero. Either way, the inciting incident produces a challenge and an opportunity, and the way a character responds can dictate the rest of their life. We have these moments in our own life, and I like to call them kairos moments. It is a defining moment in time, when God intervenes and our response can affect our future.
3) It’s fulfilled in Jesus: A few weeks ago we talked about how the best stories are all true because of Jesus. He is the ultimate “until finally” and we need to remember that. Not just for his first coming, but also for his second coming. When we face trials and tribulations (we will), we need to remember that the story is not over until the King returns.
4) It can guide our own story: Life doesn’t need to be boring. Trials do not need to destroy us. Ultimately, every good story involves someone becoming a better person so they can overcome a challenge. When you look at your life like a story, it can enable and encourage you to keep fighting. You don’t need to give up or quit, but recognize that God uses the adversity in our lives to make us more like Him. As our character changes and we trust in Him, we can overcome those challenges and live lives that are worthy of telling.
Last night my wife, Morgan, and I watched the movie Frozen. It’s become one of the biggest films of all time, winning 2 academy awards and earning more than $1 billion dollars globally. It’s a remarkable film, and even as a 28 year old male I still enjoyed this cartoon movie about 2 princesses.
The True Myth
Frozen reminded me of a rather famous conversation between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien. Two of the greatest authors of the 20th century were excellent friends, and Tolkien actually led Lewis to Christ. Both were professors at Oxford, and both were obsessed with myths. Humphrey Carter recounts their conversation in his biography of Tolkien:
“But, said Lewis, myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.
No, said Tolkien, they are not.
…just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.
We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.
You mean, asked Lewis, that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case, he said, I begin to understand.”
Our most common form of myth (or story telling) today is film. Here are a few popular examples that steer us “shakily towards the true harbour” of Christ. (Spoilers ahead).
When Anna’s heart is frozen by Elsa, she can only be saved by an act of true love. Instead of receiving the expected true love’s kiss, however, she sacrifices herself to save her sister. Olaf recognizes this sacrifice as an act of true love, and Anna’s heart thaws and she is saved. Elsa’s fear had caused her to lose control of her powers, but then she realized that love is the solution to her fear.
In the same way, Jesus demonstrated the greatest act of true love by sacrificing himself to save us. Not only that, but 1 John 4:18 says this, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” Sound familiar?
2) Harry Potter
Harry has received some negative press from the Christian community, but I think they’re missing a brilliant demonstration of God’s love. Harry’s mom sacrifices herself to save Harry, and her blood protects him throughout most of the series. Then, in the final chapters, Harry willingly goes to Lord Voldemort to die. He knows his death will make Voldemort vulnerable, and his act actually protects the people he dies for. After willingly dying, Harry is able to return from the dead and finish off the evil Voldemort forever.
John 15:13 says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” In the same way, Jesus willingly died to save us and to defeat Satan. His death was not the end, however, as he rose from the dead. His blood has covered us, and now we too can have eternal life.
The world’s most popular superhero has significant parallels to Jesus. A man, not born of Earth, comes and lives amongst us. He has unusual powers and rescues people, inspiring them to greater things. The “S” symbol on his chest means “hope,” and this is what Superman brings to the world. In the scene below, immediately after his father says, “you can save all of them,” notice the posture Superman takes (50 seconds):
This particular film is filled with parallels, and so are the comics. Likewise, Jesus is frequently referred to as our hope, he is our salvation, and (believe it or not) he is even more powerful than Superman.
4) Star Wars
The dark side of the force illustrates the effects of sin in our lives. When Anakin joins the dark side, they say he dies and Vader takes his place. We know this too well about our sin nature, as Ephesians 2:1 says, “You were dead in the trespasses and sins.” Perhaps the most moving scene in the original trilogy, however, occurs when Vader repents, turning from the Dark side of the force to save his son.
In this final scene we witness one of the greatest villains of all time find redemption. It is a clear reminder to us; no matter what our past, we can still be saved by the work of Jesus. Ephesians 2:4-5 continues, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.“
5) Beauty and the Beast
Since I started with a Disney princess movie, I might as well finish with one. The last time I cried in a movie was when I saw Beauty and the Beast in theaters. The year was 1991, I was 5 years old, and this is the scene that did me in:
If this doesn’t remind you of the work that Jesus does in us, then I don’t know what will. 1 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” In this scene, the beast is transformed before our eyes, new life is breathed into his broken body, and he is made new.
It’s all true
This list could go on and on. Films like ET, Braveheart, The Avengers, Lord of the Rings, Signs, The Lion King, the Shawshank Redemption, many are filled with truths that resonate with us on a deep level.
Do you ever watch these stories unfold and wish they were true? This is the brilliant thing – they are! So many of the great stories, the ones that really matter, are all made true in Jesus. He is the real “Superman,” he casts out fear with his perfect love, and he redeems us and makes us a new creation.
He is the fulfillment of all our hopes and dreams, he is the embodiment of that which we hold most dear.
I hope you’ll watch stories from now on and look for the “splintered fragments of the true light” that point us home. They are a reminder that we are called to something greater than the mundane. We are called to abundant life, and we find it in Jesus.
The first movie trailer for 50 Shades of Grey was released last week. It has already received over 20 million views on youtube. It’s no surprise, the books were extremely successful and have sold over 60 million copies. The trilogy is a sensation. At #LiveFully we want to constantly engage with culture, but I think we need to ask ourselves, should Christians watch 50 Shades of Grey?
If you don’t know what it’s about, I can’t tell you much. I haven’t read the book, but I did glance at Wikipedia, skimmed the Amazon summary, and read a Time magazine article. From what I gather, it features a pretty simple plot: a girl (Ana) likes a guy (Christian) and they start having lots of sex. Ana wants a romance filled with hugs and kisses, while Christian wants to bind her and control her. The book features “sexual practices involving bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism.” It has also been dubbed, “mommy porn.”
From that description, I think the answer is pretty clear: Christians should not read or watch 50 Shades of Grey.
If you need more convincing, I’ve got 5 reasons you shouldn’t watch (or read) 50 Shades of Grey. One of our convictions is that followers of Jesus should be most recognized for what they contribute to the world instead of what they are against in the world. I don’t want to just rant about why you shouldn’t engage with 50 Shades of Grey (or any entertainment that contains lots of sexually explicit content), but I’ll also offer the #LiveFully biblical alternative.
1) Every view is a vote
Do you know how Hollywood determines what movies they’ll make? It’s not about art – it’s about money. Every time you watch a youtube video, buy a ticket, or rent a dvd you cast a vote for a particular type of movie. If 50 Shades of Grey rakes in a ton of cash, you can be sure that Hollywood will start to pump out more films just like it. If, however, it flops or has mediocre results, then they won’t even make the sequel.
This is actually quite empowering, you can influence the types of films that are being made. By choosing to watch uplifting films (these could be purely Christian movies like God’s not Dead, but also positive movies like How to Train Your Dragon or Captain America) you are telling Hollywood, “I want more positive movies and less explicit ones.” In all seriousness, the evidence proves this actually works. So don’t support 50 Shades of Grey, choose instead to support films that are both high quality and promote values that will help our culture #LiveFully.
2) Sex should be awesome
Culture looks at a Christian speaking negatively about 50 Shades of Grey and assumes it is because we’re just “prudes” who don’t want to talk about sex. Scripture, however, has a lot to say about sex, and it’s clear that it should be AWESOME. There is an entire book of the Bible, Song of Solomon, that focuses on the pleasure and benefits of a healthy sexual relationship.
So when I say we should avoid things like 50 Shades of Grey it’s not because I’m against sex. I love sex. I’m just vehemently against 50 Shades of Grey type of sex that is about controlling and hurting people. When we fill our hearts and minds with twisted messages about sex, it isn’t going to improve our sex lives, but make them worse. I’d rather that not happen.
3) Women deserve respect
Any book that features a woman desperate to earn the love of a man that wants to put her in bondage is a problem. Women are made in the image of God and should be served and cared for, not controlled and dominated. 50 Shades of Grey demeans women, so please don’t support it. Choose instead to love, support, and encourage the women in your life. Choose to watch and read stories that show women being smart, capable, and making a difference.
4) Men deserve respect
Not only does 50 Shades of Grey demean women, but it also demeans men. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to see men being depicted as nothing more than creatures obsessed with sex and power. Men are also made in the image of God, and we should we should encourage the men in our lives and support stories that inspire them to live more like Christ.
5) Stories should be better
My limited research has led me to conclude that 50 Shades of Grey is poorly written. The Time Magazine article quotes the book and then has some brilliant commentary:
“Did you give him our address?” “No, but stalking is one of his specialties,” I muse matter-of-factly. Kate’s brow knits further.
That’s right: This is the kind of a book where, instead of saying things, characters muse them, and they are somehow able to muse them matter-of-factly. And these matter-of-fact musings cause other characters’ brows—which of course were already knitted—to knit still further. The book is over five hundred pages long and the whole thing is written like that. If Jane Austen (another bestselling female British author) came back to life and read this book, she would kill herself.
There is a funny moment in Seinfeld where Jerry complains to a priest about a friend who converted to Judaism so he could make Jewish jokes. The priest asks him, “and this offends you as a Jewish person?” Jerry responds by saying, “no, it offends me as a comedian.”
50 Shades of Grey should offend you for it’s sexually explicit content. But it should also offend you because as an artist. The story is a joke, and anyone who has ever attempted to write something or create a short film should be angry that this story gets to see the light of day.
If you try hard enough, you can create some justifications for watching this movie or reading the book. Ultimately, however, I hope you choose to avoid it. Cast your vote and support quality films that are both works of art and contain uplifting messages. Don’t settle for stories that demean sex, men, and women. Instead, seek after Jesus, encourage others to do the same, and embrace the full life he offers.