R. Christopher Teichler, Composer

Book Review: "The Stories We Tell" by Mike Cosper

The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth, by Mike Cosper. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014. 236 pp.

"Cultural engagement." "Redeeming culture." "Cultural relevance." We hear these terms frequently in today's churches and ministries. In the well-intended desire to share the Gospel with our neighbors, we search for the best ways to communicate what we believe in a way that most will understand. After this shared starting point, however, there are multiple differing opinions and strategies on how to accomplish this. Not only that, every strategic proponent believes his or her perspective to be the best, or most effective. There is no shortage of opinion on this subject.

Mike Cosper's book The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth is a recent contribution to the discussion. Cosper brings a wealth of experience to the subject of cultural engagement with his previous work as a minister and his current role as a consultant and coach for pastors and worship leaders. In The Stories We Tell, Cosper argues that we can find and share truth through art; that in our films and television (the stories we tell) we find the reality of the human condition and the innate yearning we have for redemption.

The chapters are organized by various subjects, with Cosper using examples from film and television that speak to these subjects. Cosper's objective is to demonstrate that our longings for eternal truth are so rooted in our humanity, that they manifest themselves in the art that we create. From this perspective, The Stories We Tell is a defense of the doctrine of general revelation. The film and television examples he uses are mainstream "Hollywood" productions, media that non-Christians and Christians alike will, at the very least, certainly be familiar with. Cosper is not advocating for more film and television from Christian studios or perspectives, but rather showing that opportunities to discuss matters of eternity are abundant in mainstream media.

Cosper sees intrinsic value in storytelling for reasons beyond simple entertainment. In his introduction ("A World Full of Stories"), he shares why he sees storytelling as important:

"The profound and dangerous power of TV and movies is that they have ways              
of getting inside us, shaping the way we see the world by captivating our
imaginations (17)."

He builds on this idea through the introduction and into the first chapter ("The Stories We Tell"), continuing to explain why the subject matter of the book is significant:

"It's important to say from the outset that I do not look at our stories as
allegories or metaphors. Instead, I look at them as evidence of longing
and desire. They intersect with, reflect, or parallel what the old story tells
us about the whole of history (38)." 

The "old story" he refers to is, of course, the story of the Bible. Throughout the book, he engages with different examples of film and television which he believes intersect with, reflect, or parallel the message of Scripture.

Later chapter titles include intriguing names like "The Ghosts of Eden," "The Search for Love," “Shadows and Darkness," and "Heroes and Messiahs," among others. Each chapter begins with a biblical reflection on its subject, then explores the ways we see those ideas echoed in various examples of film and television. Cosper often refers to examples that one would not normally expect a Christian book to refer to (films of Quentin Tarantino, most notably), yet they are examples that will be known to a majority of readers. Each chapter concludes with a summary of the topic. Cosper ends the book with an "Epilogue," along with a message to Christian filmmakers, imploring them to tell good stories.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. An easy read, the subject matter is one that I have had interest in for many years. By using popular examples of visual media, Cosper demonstrates that he desires to engage with a wide audience. It is unlikely that every reader will know every example to which he refers, but most readers will be familiar with a good percentage. Regardless, Cosper does such a fine job introducing and summarizing his examples that readers, as in my case, will find themselves wanting to check out the ones they may not have previously known. In terms of content included, readers should know that several of the films and television shows Cosper references are intended for mature audiences. It is also important to note that he does not endorse any of these films or television shows as "Christian," nor does he try to rationalize objectionable material. Rather, he is showing that there is a universal longing in humanity for truth and redemption that manifests itself in these art forms.

Particularly of interest to me was chapter 9, "Heroes and Messiahs." Cosper discusses the wealth of stories that tell of the hero that comes to save humanity, and how all of these hero stories parallel, to some extent, the story of Christ. One of the prime examples of a hero in our culture's stories today is Superman, the near flawless hero that was sent to earth to protect and lead humanity by example. While there are many who think Superman is "too good," Cosper explains why he seems to stick around:

"We want someone like him to exist, someone who can end wars,
who faces down bullets and bombs like they're harmless, and
whose power is in good hands. We want someone we can trust to
save the world (184)."

The parallels to Christ are obvious, and Cosper is suggesting that our longing for someone like Superman is really showing our longing for the One who truly did come to save world. This general purpose and method of Cosper's book make it difficult to put the book down.

The Stories We Tell is a valuable resource for pastors, professors, students, and artists that are interested in apologetics, evangelism, theology of culture, and philosophy of the arts. Cosper's writing is straightforward, engaging, and packed with lots of information to digest and contemplate. While there are seemingly endless opinions competing with each other on how the church can "reach the culture" around us, The Stories We Tell invites us to step back and reflect on why we are moved by stories and why specific themes continually engage us on deep levels, suggesting that it is because our stories echo humanity’s universal longing for the eternal truth and redemption that is rooted in Christ.

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