Last night I went to see the Omaha premiere of Hellbound?, a film by Kevin Miller. The film was, in turns, thought-provoking, infuriating, heart-breaking, and emotionally wracking, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the many ways to view hell, the discussions within Christianity through the ages, and the role those views play in people’s lives. Several comments in the film and after got me thinking. (Bear with me on this one, folks. I’m still thinking it through, and I took notes in the darkened theater so perhaps none of this makes sense).
Miller opened the film with an interview with Robert McKee, author of a book called Story that’s basically a bible in the fiction and screenwriting communities. Miller does so, he says, because the Bible (the real one) is a collection of stories with the emotional gravitas to be told over and over again for thousands of years, first by storytellers, then written down and passed through generations, all long before they were codified into the Bible. If you want to understand story, talk to the expert in creating them. McKee, an atheist, said that if you believed in God or were a deist, you had to believe in Hell. Applying character-driven conflict and narrative structure to human beings (still thinking about that…hmmmmm…), he claimed that the choices we make under pressure when the stakes are impossibly high give our lives meaning, and the greater the stakes and choices – eternal damnation! eternal salvation! – then the greater the meaning. While I agree for creating interesting, compelling fiction and movies, is a similar structure for our lives helpful?
Then, in the Q & A period afterwards Scott Frederickson made a comment about how unlike unicorns or Harry Potter, which aren’t real, we’re dealing with real issues. (I leaned over to Chris and said, “Wait. Harry Potter’s not real?”)
Finally, this morning the idea of the Bible as stories and Harry Potter mashed together in my brain with something else I’ve read recently: fanfic. When an author creates a compelling universe — the Star Trek universes, or Harry Potter, or the world of Sherlock and Watson from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories or the popular BBC update, or Twilight, to name a few — people add to the canonical universe through fan fiction. They write new, different, sometimes eyebrow-raising stories featuring Harry and Draco, or Ron and Hermione, or Sherlock and John, and they frequently post these stories in forums on the internet. That’s how Fifty Shades of Gray got its start. The author wrote fanfic for the Twilight characters of Edward and Bella, and the stories took on a life of their own and became blockbuster bestselling novels. It’s a measure of a story’s staying power when the work is so compelling that readers not only want to read the books but stay with the characters long past the story’s end, creating new scenes and storylines for them.
In thinking about Hellbound?, Robert McKee, and fanfic, my blasphemous question is this: Are the gospels two-thousand-year-old fanfic? Jesus lived and died, and no one wrote a word (that survives) about him while he was alive. But…after he died, people told stories about him. Some even wrote down the stories, or his sayings (Mark, the collection of Q sayings). Other people heard those stories, used them to create their own stories (Mark and Q show up in both Luke and Matthew). Different people either heard different stories or spun what they heard in different ways, resulting in non-canonical gospels like the Gnostic gospels. Paul and his tireless feet set up house churches all over the ancient world, but the bread-and-butter for those churches were the Old Testament and eventually stories about Jesus.
In other words, God created a character so compelling we’ve been listening to his story ever since, telling his story, framing our own lives in terms of his story. It’s the greatest fan fiction ever told.
Yes, I’m writing this partially tongue-in-cheek, but also because I believe in the power of story above almost everything else in our lives. We tell stories all the time. We tell them when we get home from work, around the dining room table at holidays, when we get together with old friend and when we’re making new ones. We frame our lives in “chapters” and the seasons of sports teams in “arcs”. Each playoff season brings us a “Cinderella” team, a story within a story (or so the media prays because Cinderella stories sell papers). The voices in our heads tell the stories we learned about ourselves in childhood, and if we get quiet, sometimes we hear God’s voice nudging us towards a different chapter in our lives.
Compelling stories engage us in a way that almost nothing else does, so when I say that the gospels aren’t literal truth but fan fiction, I’m paying a compliment of the highest order. Less important than McKee’s “impossible stakes and impossible choices”, in my opinion, is the bond created when one person’s story sparks kindred emotions in another person’s heart. Regardless of what you believe about heaven or hell, Jesus, both as a story and a teller of stories, is unsurpassed in human history because the story itself is unsurpassed metaphor, perplexing, thought-provoking, hard to wrap your head around and yet rewarding because when you do, another door opens, revealing new complexity and dimensions. I don’t need his life story to be literally true because the metaphor of the resurrection speaks to my soul.
I’m a writer and person who’s long found characters in books to be more real than people I pass on the street. I’m crap with names. Faces are often a blur to me, but tell me a story, your story, and you cement in my mind. What do you think? High stakes and difficult choices, or metaphor? Who’s writing or telling your story? You? God? The other people in your life? And does it need to be true in order to be meaningful?