Review: ‘The Stories We Tell’ by Mike Cosper

No one likes to admit that they did another Netflix binge last weekend watching Drop Dead Diva until 2am, but we’ve all had those weekends. What’s more, we know so much of what we watch is silly, thoughtless, and contrived, yet we somehow remain hooked to the stories that play across that screen, no matter how far short they fall of real life.

The stories we tellEnter Mike Cosper, admitted TV addict…and pastor. Cosper’s The Stories We Tell begins with his own story—a childhood filled with TV shows. He writes, “Like most Americans, TV had me hooked.” In the pages that follow, Cosper stitches together an exploration of the themes of God’s grand narrative as discovered in the stories told on TV and in movies.

The Stories We Tell feels a bit like a hat crocheted in haste, with some stitches too large, and others too tight, some loops missing, some yarn hanging loose. It’s a book full of messy details, rabbit trails, long narrative summaries, and loose connections. Cosper doesn’t pretend to present a well-sorted argument. Like a good story, his themes weave in and out, connections appear at unexpected moments, and the stories do most of the talking. And the book is all the better for it.

Summary.

In his introduction, he writes, “I believe the Big Story of the Bible—creation, fall, redemption, and consummation—is so pervasive, so all-encompassing of our world, that we can’t help but echo it (or movements within it) when we’re telling stories.”  The chapters that follow investigate the many themes that surface in television and movies—themes that all human beings cannot help but acknowledge. This book is not an exercise in allegorization. The point is not to read the Gospel into every story, turning the hero into a Christ-figure. The author allows each story to tell its own tale, and he points out inevitable intersections with God’s grand narrative as they appear.

Chapters 3-5 explore themes related to the Creation and the Fall of mankind. Pleasantville and The Truman Show argue that a fallen creation as a better state of existence—fallen, yes, but richer as well. These stories caricature paradise and the broken world in a way that ignores the full consequences of sin and death. In Jurassic Park we see the disastrous results of mankind trying to “play God.”

In the chapter “The Search for Love”, Cosper explores our obsession with formulaic romance movies of searching, longing, sacrifice, and ultimate discovery. These all mirror the Bible’s original love story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Ultimately, God’s grand narrative itself is a love story that contains these same elements. However, unlike most rom-coms, Adam and Eve’s story does not end with “…and they lived happily ever after”. Sin entered their relationship and the rest of the world. The series Madmen allows us to experience a sense of solidarity with flawed and sinful characters as we pity their sad spiral of destruction and loss.

In chapters 6 and 7, the author explores frustration and darkness, the fruits of a world filled with wickedness. In a thorough examination of the HBO series The Wire, Cosper explains how the Ecclesiastical refrain “vanity of vanities” echoes in a world where cops and robbers are all corrupt, and justice is trampled as wicked men prosper on both sides of the law. The genre of horror movies expresses the fear that resides in our hearts that evil really does lurk out there in the world. The grave does not wait quietly for us to arrive; it comes searching for us seeking to Drag Me to Hell.

“Redemptive Violence” explores Dexter, a TV show about a serial killer, where we see that no amount of killing or bloodshed will ever atone for the fallen condition. So many of the stories told admit that violence is a necessary part of redemption, and this points to the cross. In “Heroes and Messiahs”, Cosper presents Jesus as the archetypal hero, and he demonstrates how heroes like Frodo, Superman, and Jason Bourne are echoes of the one True Hero.

In his final chapter, unfortunately titled “Honey Boo Boo and the Weight of Glory” (double entendre not intended, I assume), Cosper presents a fantastic analysis of reality television shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, The Real World, and Survivor. He argues that this genre of television centers around the tangible human desire for glory. Cosper connects the rise of reality TV with the rise of social media, explaining quite convincingly that the personas we cultivate on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. are actually motivated by this same desire for glory. As he puts it, “Your Facebook timeline is your version of a reality show.” Cosper points out, “after God created us, he said we were ‘good’…we long for an affirmation that who we are and what we are is ‘good.’”

A Few Words of Commentary.

I really appreciate Cosper’s approach to this topic. There are so many The Gospel according to…[Insert Movie Title Here] books out there, but Cosper presents an approach that encourages us to allow movies and TV shows to tell their own stories. Our job is not to project our own framework onto these stories, but to identify points where even the most sinful storyteller has unwittingly stitched his narrative into the fabric of God’s grand story.

Cosper is encouraging us to move beyond simple consumption of TV. He wants us to truly listen to the stories, experience them in all of their heartache, longing, loss, and triumph. The opposite of passive consumption is not passive scientific analysis, but passionate engagement with the storytellers, looking to the heart of desire from which the story flows.

Particularly in the middle chapters, the content of the book seemed to degenerate into very long retellings of whole episodes or entire TV series. In a book entitled The Stories We Tell, it’s to be expected that many stories will in fact be retold. However, it’s important to note that a summary is different from a story. Unfortunately, a recounting of a TV show is always more pleasurable to the one recounting it than to the one who is trying his best to imagine a story that was originally depicted visually.

Which brings me to my last comment. I would have appreciated at least a bit of dialogue about the visual nature of TV and movies. There is a difference between a story told in a book and a story told on the screen. I would have appreciated some discussion on the unique nature of visual storytelling.

This book is a pleasurable read, and it is itself a demonstration of the principles established early in the book. Even if you haven’t seen many of the movies or TV shows analyzed, it is a good example of how to engage when watching these stories. Oh, and don’t skip the Epilogue.  Cosper does a great job explaining that what we need is not more evangelistic movies, but more Christian moviemakers who can tell a good story: “We would not expect an engineer to work an ichthus into each of his designs, but (metaphorically speaking) we expect exactly that out of Christian artists, filmmakers, and musicians.”

Disclosure clause: I received The Stories We Tell as a free Kindle edition from Crossway through the Beyond the Page program.  I was in no way influenced to provide a favorable review.


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