The Art of the Religious Narrative

Via Alyssa, here’s a trailer for “the Christian Movie Event of the Year,” whose chief selling point seems to be how it effortlessly fuses self-righteous didacticism with the wooden, dull-eyed imitation of life we normally associate with the walking dead:

This is really the latest offering in a whole cottage industry of truly artless, half-assed religious propaganda. Of course these heavy-handed conversion narratives are nothing new—nor are they limited to Christianity, or even religion—but this specific subset of evangelical porn truly is a trend unto itself. A trend starting, I think, with the Left Behind series, and branching out into Twilight (which, to be fair, is a good deal more subtle about it) and less well-known works like Fireproof.

There’s a lot you can blame for the general suckitude of this subgenre—semi-comatose actors, cheap production values and so on—but I think the fatal flaw here is that the whole enterprise is misguided. You simply can’t craft a compelling narrative based around a central philosophical question—Should we let Jesus Christ into our hearts?—when you’re already so thoroughly persuaded of the answer that you can’t even come up with any reasonable objections.

Take the above trailer as an example. The protagonist seems to have no dilemma whatsoever: everyone around him confirms that God exists and is awesome, and the big guy Himself conspires to align everything so that conversion to Christianity is the best possible choice. No cost, all reward. That’s propaganda, not art.

It’s a bummer, because we know for a fact that deeply religious narrative art can be done well. Example A: Dostoevsky, arguably history’s greatest practitioner of the philosophical novel. Crime and Punishment ends with Raskolnikov finding spiritual salvation, but the road he takes to get there goes through some dark, unabashedly nihilistic territory. And Dostoevsky takes that nihilism seriously. Raskolnikov’s initial worldview is twisted, to be sure, but it’s also coherent and strangely compelling.

(Another good example, also courtesy of Alyssa: In Paradise Lost, Satan is pretty much the most interesting and sympathetic character in the whole damn poem. Milton’s no Satanist, but he cares enough to show us why the Lord of Darkness might feel like he has a legitimate beef with the Lord.)

For a more contemporary example of how to do this stuff correctly, look at the TV show Kings, a prematurely cancelled revisionist take on King David’s rise to power. In the show, God is inscrutable, demanding, and seemingly morally ambiguous. Though of course we know that He’s going to be revealed as right in the end—He’s God, after all—we also understand why King Silas, long His faithful servant, struggles with the urge to fight back against His divine will. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Silas ends up being a far more compelling character than David, the show’s ostensible protagonist. (Though that could also have a lot to do with the fact that Silas is played by Ian fucking McShane.)

The irony is that where Left Behind and its spawn fail—and Dostoevsky and Kings succeed—the Bible succeeds as well. Jesus has his moment of doubt on the cross. Abraham is told to murder his own son, and later actually negotiates with God in an attempt to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah. Jacob—the founder of the tribe of the Israelites—is named Yis’rael, or He Who Wrestles With God.

What makes these stories compelling isn’t that they involved square-jawed men doing the will of an infallible being. It’s that the heroes, before they carry out God’s will, must first struggle with epic spiritual questions that A) do not have easy answers and B) have unimaginably high stakes. As an admitted outsider, I have way more respect for the long, hard, seemingly endless road to spiritual peace than the quick and easy medicine with a spoonful of sugar. It’s more honest, it’s more nuanced and interesting, and, most of all, it makes for a way better story.

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