Book Review: The Stories We Tell, by Mike Cosper

If you’ve been reading my writing for any length of time, you know that I love good art and good storytelling through art, whether it’s a song, a movie or a novel. My “Marriage in the Movies” series is one example of my attempts to analyze story through a gospel lens. So when I saw everybody and his uncle recommending Pastor Mike Cosper’s book on storytelling in movies and TV, from Tim Keller to Russell Moore to Ed Stetzer to Matt Chandler… I figured, “What the heck, I’ll buy it on Kindle, write a review, and hope there’s a way to return ebooks if it turns out to be shallow and underwhelming.”

Luckily for me, there is a way, because yeah… it’s pretty shallow and underwhelming. But, I’m glad I took the time to read it and review it, because I like the idea of this book. Cosper explains, “I’ve intentionally tried to view the stories in this book in the light of the gospel, treating their characters, plots, and images as signposts for a truth that the writers, directors, and actors might not even be aware of, but that we all, nonetheless, long for.”

In general, I agree. We do need more Christians engaging with film art in a well-rounded, biblical way. We need Christians who can walk that fine line between “Wait, did he just say the d-word?” on the one hand and “All things are lawful for me, wheeeee!” on the other, sifting wheat from chaff and finding value even when the art isn’t coming from a Christian perspective. For parts of this book, I think Cosper does a relatively decent job of that. But for many reasons, it’s ultimately a poor execution of a good idea. Still, I think it’s important to examine why the execution fails and hopefully suggest a more excellent way to engage the stories our culture tells.

First off, aside from any criticisms of the book’s content, there’s the nagging editorial problem of various uncorrected misspellings. “E” and “i” get switched several times in proper names, including several instances of author J. R. R. Tolkien’s name, and there’s one place where Cosper writes “who’s” when it should have been “whose.” I’m baffled that these weren’t caught in the final draft. As for Cosper’s overall writing style, it’s competent, if somewhat bland, but certain sentences contain outright usage errors. These include the dreaded Dangling Modifier and Pronoun Without an Antecedent. Not as egregious, but still a distraction.

Moving on to the body of the book, let’s start with one of the main problems: Lots of the examples Cosper discusses simply aren’t very good. And by “not very good,” I don’t mean, “Well, this movie/show has sexuality, language and/or violence in it, but it’s legit art worth talking about anyway.” Like, I don’t know, Schindler’s List or something. I mean that a lot of it is just plain junk.

Cosper admits upfront that he’s not a film snob, and film snobs probably won’t like the book. But it’s not that Cosper has bad taste because he likes pop entertainment. It’s that he doesn’t even have great taste in pop entertainment. I’m not going to be “that critic” who sniffs disapprovingly because he’s not talking about 70-year-old black and white movies by obscure film-makers with foreign names. I am going to be the critic who types up a list of two dozen superior popular films, plops it down and says, “Really?”

A big part of the problem is that he mostly limits himself to recent shows and movies, no doubt reasoning that this will make the book a better “witnessing tool.” The result sometimes feels like setting out to write a book on the deeper meaning behind American pop music, only to spend its pages contemplating the Top 40 hits of Beyonce, Taylor Swift and OneDirection.

At least Cosper makes it clear that including a particular movie doesn’t constitute a recommendation, even saying that “some of them I never want to see again.” In theory, I understand how you could watch something that’s so depressing you never want to see it again but makes for a thought-provoking discussion anyway. Yet it quickly becomes clear that we’re not talking Lawrence of Arabia or even Saving Private Ryan “never want to see again.” We’re talking “Wow, I can’t believe he’s wasting brain cells and ink on this garbage” never want to see again. For example, he spends an entire section on horror films, devoting several pages to the disgusting details of one in particular. I began skimming when I realized how little he was leaving to the imagination. He pauses at a couple intervals to remark gleefully, “It’s truly gross.”

This isn’t even worthy of a 13-year-old boy, much less a pastor with his book forward written by Tim Keller. Then again, this is a guy who can say with a straight face that he appreciates the high art of Pulp Fiction but likes “low-brow” stuff too. No comment.

Cosper devotes a whole chapter solely to the question of “how far is too far” when it comes to pure content concerns. Here I do give him credit for actually taking time to criticize the liberal side of the debate. This is an especially good line: “[Some Christians] probe the edges, wondering how far they can go… Is there a good Christian reason to read 50 Shades of Grey? They’ll find it.” He shares a good personal anecdote about a young man at his church who was battling p*rnography addiction but didn’t see a problem with going to see a heavily salacious movie. Cosper rightly expressed shock and sternly warned the young man away.

Unfortunately, such nuggets of good sense float amid tired nonsense like (paraphrased) “Hey, shouldn’t we censor the Bible?” or “Esther is a morally ambiguous character,” or “If you say that sex is objectively more of a stumbling block than appealingly shot food shows, you’re not being consistent.” This is most puzzling when it seems to undermine Cosper’s own better instincts. Take this exact quote for instance (emphasis added):

While our stories are indeed shaping our hearts and imaginations, they cannot do any permanent damage to those who are in Christ. In other words, you’re not going to watch a movie that will steal your soul; the world can’t really hurt you.

Really? Then why was Cosper himself warning the boy away from a sexually charged movie? Number one, I don’t think you have to doubt eternal security to disagree with Cosper, but number two, I think Cosper’s instinctive concern for the boy in his example speaks more truly than his clichéd talk here. It seems pretty clear that he wasn’t just worried about whether God’s feelings would be hurt, or whether it would be a poor way for the boy to receive grace. He knew that movie was bad for the boy’s soul. And good for Cosper. I’m actually glad he’s not consistent with his own bad philosophy. I just wish he’d change his philosophy.

The chapter on “Heroes and Messiahs” is also cringeworthy for its use of faddish literary criticism. Cosper literally creates a chart for the five stages of a heroic journey, begins with Jesus as a model, and then proceeds to shoehorn other random heroes into the template. It’s tolerable when he does it for Frodo Baggins, but it wears out its welcome even before he’s trying it on Joe vs. the Volcano. At a certain point, he stops and notes, “We could follow similar trails all day.” Hope springs in my breast: Is this a signal that he’s going to stop now? Of course, he can’t resist two more mediocre examples. Moral: Just because you could doesn’t mean you should.

Cosper is at his best when he’s not trying to follow a canned formula for his critiques. This allows him to offer up some genuinely thoughtful comments. For example, he astutely takes apart the false dichotomy of Pleasantville, where a town is literally colorless, lifeless and miserable until the main characters introduce its citizens to the excitement of sexuality and banned books. And while his plot summaries of various TV shows can get long-winded, he writes compassionately and compellingly about some of the more moving moments from said shows. His discussion of Mad Men is particularly good. I don’t keep up with contemporary TV, and many of the shows Mike discusses are heavily laced with inappropriate content. But it was nice to get the benefit of his poignant insights on some of them without wading through whole episodes of the stuff.

I’ve been hard on Cosper for covering lots of forgettable or cheap material in the book, but a few worthwhile films discussed include The Mission, The Descendants, The Tree of Life, and the Lord of the Rings adaptations. (Does part of me wince when he first introduces Tolkien’s literary characters with their movie actors’ names in parentheses after them, or when he mashes up LOTR references with super-hero references? Yes, but it’s still a nice change of pace.) And as with some of the shows discussed, he touched on some interesting moments from a few films I wasn’t familiar with and probably wouldn’t watch.

The last chapter castigates the cruelties of reality TV, while examining the psychology behind the average TV viewer’s ongoing appetite for it. Again, it kind of goes on and on, but he’s making a very good point here.

The best part of the book is actually an “Epilogue” inserted after the main body. It’s pretty well written and includes some good ideas for how Christian filmmakers can improve at their craft. He emphasizes the importance of colorful, interesting characters to great stories, encouraging aspiring filmmakers to appreciate such characters and cultivate compassion for them. An earlier quote puts it well when he says, “Rightly viewed, the world after Genesis 3 (and its human inhabitants) isn’t simply condemnable; it’s also pitiable.” He also explains the “less is more” principle when it comes to communicating a truly effective story of redemption. Christians can tell better-crafted redemptive stories by not bashing viewers over the head with pages of on-the-nose dialogue. This doesn’t mean they should water down the gospel message, it just means that there are artistically superior ways of conveying it. He closes on a fittingly inspiring note for the next generation of budding storytellers:

If you want to make films, then make films. Make them badly. Make them with iPhones and flip cameras, edit them on a laptop or in a computer lab at your middle school. Make lots of them, and don’t worry about whether they’re any good until you’ve made ten or twenty. Even then, don’t worry when they’re bad. Look for the things you’ve done well and figure out how to apply those lessons to the entire next project. Keep going and pressing on in your spare time. Chase down the craft of storytelling like you’re stalking prey in the woods. You’ll start with just glimpses in the underbrush—evidence that you’re close, a flash of it here and there. Keep at it, and some day you’ll catch one.

Ultimately, The Stories We Tell feels kind of like a bargain bin. Sometimes you reach in and make a lucky find, sometimes you pull something out and throw it back in again. One good thing is that Cosper’s pastoral heart sincerely comes through. He understands that part of interacting with story from a Christian perspective is learning to love the characters who inhabit it. He is also handling some legitimately profound themes, and when that connects with some actually good art, it’s very effective. I just wish that connection happened more often in the book, and I could have done without the forays into silly proof-texting and bad exegesis along the way.

In the end, I’m not sure exactly to whom I could recommend this book. If you’re already the sort of person who watches a lot of movies and thinks deeply about them from a gospel-centered perspective, you won’t really get anything too ground-breaking out of it. If you’re not, but you’re interested in learning more, I would rather give you something that was better written, with better examples. (Which is a roundabout way of saying “Read my blog!”) I also encourage you not to watch current stuff just so that you can have something to talk about with unbelieving friends. Watch movies that are excellent and praiseworthy, even if you’ll never be able to make a witnessing opportunity out of them.

Although, do read the Lord of the Rings before you watch the movies!

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