The Stories we Tell

“Our action emerges from how we imagine the world.  What we do is driven by who we are, by the kind of person we have become.  And that shaping of our character is, to a great extent, the effect of stories that have captivated us, that have sunk into our bones – stories that picture’ what we think life is about, what constitutes ‘the good life.’  We live into the stories we’ve absorbed; we become characters in the drama that has captivated us.”   – James K. Smith


the stories we tell

What show makes you cringe when you see it on TV?

For me it is ABC’s The Bachelor.  Hands down.  On this particular reality show, thirty women compete for the lust love of one guy (said bachelor) in a six-week gauntlet of pool parties and exotic trips. Both the women and the bachelor are determined to find the love that has eluded them in the real world.  Each week the bachelor gives a rose to the women he wishes to remain competing for the position of wife and mother to his future children.  He sends the others packing, hearts broken.

In short, the show is as shallow as the contestants’ understanding of love is hollow.  This is neither good, nor true, nor beautiful television.

While I am quick to judge The Bachelor when it is on, I am slow to turn it off.  To be honest, I don’t turn it off.

I am trying to make sense of this cognitive dissonance that separates what I think about shows like The Bachelor and what I actually watch.  It has been helpful reading The Stories we Tell: How TV and Movies Long For and Echo the Truth by Mike Cosper, a pastor of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky and an avid watcher of TV and movies.  He is fascinated by the stories being told through these mediums and their power to shape our actions far more easily than do our firmly held Christian or cultural convictions.

The reason for this, Cosper believes, is that we are image-bearers of a storytelling Creator.  As such, our being is hardwired for stories.  This includes an active imagination, which Cosper calls our “resident storyteller.”  The imagination shapes and is shaped by, our desires and hopes, and it, rather than our reason, is the true target of storytelling.  He writes,

“Storytelling – be it literature, theatre, opera, film, or reality TV – doesn’t aim at our rational mind, where cultural Christian convictions like ‘we shouldn’t watch Sex and the City’ exist.  It aims at the imagination, a much more mysterious and sneaky part of us, ruled by love, desire, and hope.”

The reason I love to hate, and hate to love, The Bachelor, is because I underestimate the role of imagination and overestimate the power of “rational” thought. When it comes to reality shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians or The Bachelor, Cosper points out that their success is a result of connecting to our resident storyteller, not our reason:

A show like Keeping up with the Kardashians is successful, despite the general consensus that it’s shallow and many of the characters are vain and unlikeable, because it connects with our emotional core.  Our resident storyteller (our imagination) sees the glamour, wealth, and paraded sexuality through the lenses of hope and desire (women want to be the Kardashians, with their pampering, shopping, and sex appeal, and men want to sleep with them), and the inner rationalist – the voice in us that keeps brining up how shallow, vain, and unlikeable the show is – gets confined grumpily to a chair in the back.

Reason alone is not capable of overcoming an imagination fuelled by images and stories.  What I think about The Bachelor is not more powerful than what The Bachelor whispers to my desires and hopes, even if those desires are cruel or base.

The imagination is so powerful, in fact, that even my reasons for not watching certain shows can be warped into reasons for watching them; to make fun of them.

Cosper, quoting David Foster Wallace, who was interested in this very phenomenon, points out this unsettling truth about TV watching:

“It’s undeniable, nevertheless, that watching television is pleasurable, and it may seem odd that so much of the pleasure my generation takes from television lies in making fun of it.  TV’s whispered promises must somehow undercut television watching in theory (“Joe, Joe, there’s a world where life is lively, where nobody spends six hours a day unwinding before a piece of furniture”) while reinforcing television-watching in practice (“Joe, Joe, your best and only access to this world is TV.”)”

I am not finished reading Cosper’s book.  But the first chapter has definitely opened up my eyes to the power of story and the important place of imagination in day to day life.

In the remaining chapters Cosper is going to situate a variety of television shows and movies against the backdrop of creation, fall, and redemption.  This biblical narrative that Cosper returns to again and again is the “Story” echoed and longed for in popular culture.  He admits that he is not so much concerned with assessing the content of particular shows, as much as he is in establishing a framework in which to assess the stories being told in the shows.

This is why he is gracious in reviewing something as silly as the The Bachelor.  Even in its real and contrived messiness, it points towards a truth that we, like the bachelor and those thirty women, all long for love.  Perhaps we tune into the show hoping to see this longing fulfilled for someone, even if, as Cosper jokes, “it is packaged, edited, and delivered second hand.”

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