Hours after coming home from the theater and watching a certain popular movie (okay, fine, it was Endgame), I found myself coming back to some all-too-familiar thoughts: “I wish that this certain scene hadn’t been in the movie” or “This one thing they did undermines what they are trying to say” and so on. But, most unusually, I woke up around 4 AM with those thoughts still on my mind…and with me realizing suddenly that I am much more like those I seek to criticize than I would have dared to admit hours before.
There is seemingly just no end in sight for the need to feel “represented” on the big screen. No longer content to be passive in the experience of art, specifically when it comes to the movies, so many of us want to reach forward and rearrange the things we see. Take this character out, or add more of this character. Take this one scene out, or add in three more. My sudden realization was that in my own desire for movies to give a better, more fully-realized picture of the things that are “true and beautiful”…was I not also asking for the same things?
A good story is unique in the way that it moves our hearts because it doesn’t come to us as a pedantic teacher, slapping our hands and pejoratively instructing us on right and wrong. Instead, it comes to us like a child, sweetly and authentically. We willingly allow a good story to get past our defenses…to get to those places that we stuff way down inside and never like to talk about. The places where a therapist could spend a lifetime and never reach. The emotions we feel when we read or see, or even hear such a story often resonate with us down to the very core of our being. So naturally, when we are so moved, we are also unnerved. What next? Now that these emotions have been brought to the surface, what now? So often the answer seems to be that we then attempt to “play god” with the stories, making them into something much bigger than they are. We want the characters to not just be characters any longer, we want them to be ours. Or to put it a better way, we ask of the film, or show, or game that it be our god, that it would be perfect, and we will settle for nothing short of that perfection. In many ways, we get in the way of any reasonable criticism when our unreasonable demands are ever front and center.
Our stories themselves cannot bear that kind of burden, no matter how good they are. Even if I were to write a story (and I have tried), there will always be some aspect with which I assuredly would never find a deep, moving level of satisfaction. The problem isn’t so much in our limitations in creativity, although that is a problem we have to wrestle with. The problem is much more than movies and characters can only go so far in meeting the needs that they have the ability to touch. We reach out for their imaginary hands and find nothing but air, bringing ours back figuratively empty and leaving an uncomfortable void. And so, we lobby that much harder for the next character, for the next movie, or for the next game to be the “right one”, pushing ever onward in an obsessive quest for a utopia that will never come.
From a materialistic perspective, stories are just mere evolutionary traits that are exhibited by life-forms with an advanced intellect that ultimately serve no purpose other than the survival of our species. In these terms though, the difficult feelings that stories bring to the surface end up forcing despair on us. After all, from such a philosophy, there is no real hope beyond the physical.
From a particularly Christian worldview, however, good stories, even in their imperfection, are gifts given to us that point to a much greater Story. They are small peeks behind the curtain so that we can get small tastes of the greater reality, those Beautiful and True things that lie in wait for us. We have a Story where the hero is real so that when we do reach out our hands, the grasp is met. A hero who can be, actually and fully, ours (Keller has a great perspective on this in the third point of an Easter sermon here). And a hero whose hands, figuratively, can bear the very real burdens of pain, suffering, anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, restlessness, sadness, brokenness, and even death.
“All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” – Matt. 11:29-30