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Special Effects of Story

Hollywood suffered a long, hot, and disappointing summer in 2010. Films predicted as hits fizzled. Audiences avoided Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood. No one bought Jake Gyllenhaal as a Prince of Persia. The thrill was gone in Sex and the City 2. Tom Cruise failed to generate heat in Knight and Day. Even Mr. T couldn’t have rescued The A-Team. Pundits suggested aging action stars like Cruise and Crowe no longer held sway over moviegoers. I think Hollywood’s problems are even deeper: they’ve forgotten the enduring power of a good story.

We go to movies for more than explosions. We want to follow characters we care about in situations that reflect the everyday decisions we’re all forced to make. We want a story we can enter into, that contains a rooting interest. For churches, this suggests that costly lighting and sound equipment will not suffice. More important than the fancy equipment we invest in, we need to first ask if our sermons and songs are rooted in enduring biblical characters. Have we uncovered the inherent drama found in the choices of Rahab, Solomon, or David? Do we see Jesus as a different kind of action hero, one who turned the tables on corrupt religious structures? The most powerful special effect is a compelling story. 

Deeper Movement from Pixels

So which cinematic stories stood out in summer 2010? Toy Story 3 continued Pixar’s unprecedented streak—eleven hits in a row! All ages can enter into Woody, Buzz, and Jessie’s adventure. While parents recollect their faded childhood, kids consider notions of loyalty and friendship. Woody makes a conscious decision to rescue the gang and go back to Sunnyside Day Care Center. He could turn his back on Rex the dinosaur, Hamm the pig, and Slinky Dog. Yet, Woody answers their cry for help.  

How does Toy Story 3 make us laugh and cry? Pixar demonstrates a genuine affection for the characters. We are reminded of Buzz Lightyear’s original bluster. We are attracted to Jessie’s can-do attitude. We are touched by the genuine love of Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. We see old friends face new challenges, rising to the occasion in creative ways. 

We appreciate Woody’s creative solutions, grabbing a kite to escape a dark day care center. Mrs. Potato Head turns her lost eye into an opportunity to follow Andy’s packing for college. Toy Story 3 also taps into Buzz Lightyear’s hilarious, alternative Spanish soundtrack. When they face the final abyss (otherwise known as a trash incinerator), our heroes lock arms. They are rescued in a familiar, yet unexpected way. Screenwriters call these tricks of their trade, “planting and payoff.”

A Useful Technique

As worship leaders, we must plant the thematic seeds that will come to fruition within the pastor’s sermon. And even though the thrust of the Sunday may not come into focus until the last song, the pleasure derived from seeing a familiar Bible passage or image reemerge in a new and unexpected way is priceless.

Audiences also flocked to the third episode of the Twilight saga: Eclipse. Having already invested hours in Bella Swan’s romantic choice between a sparkly vampire (Edward Cullen) and a smoldering werewolf (Jacob Black), Twi-hard fans were eager to return to Forks, Washington. One could dismiss Twilight as tween drama, yet the issues of abstinence, of seeking what is best, elevate Stephanie Meyer’s series to a higher plain. Bella and Edward find their most moving moments in a meadow. It takes audiences back to the garden, before innocence (and Paradise) was lost. How inspiring to see Edward resist Bella’s advances, encouraging her to control her passions, to hold onto her virginity until marriage. There is a certain irony that a vampire-themed movie has a strong sense of morality (Bram Stoker’s Dracula drank blood to represent the antithesis of life given by the blood of Christ); however, the Mormon-based overarching ethic of Twilight can lead adroit adults into meaningful conversations with the throng of teenaged Jacob- and Edward-followers. 

The Power of One Idea 

While Hollywood banked on sequels, the most exciting film of 2010 brought remarkable originality to the screen. Inception‘s story resembled The Matrix, with notions of a living dream. Yet the grand special effects generated by director Christopher Nolan’s crackerjack creative team enhanced a story anchored in enduring questions. Can I trust myself? What is real? What matters? Inception is a thinking person’s popcorn film. Audiences appreciated a genuine, brain-bending challenge. Nolan understands the subconscious power of stories, suggesting, “A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.” The parables of Jesus explode in our subconscious like smart bombs, long after we first heard them.

We may be lulled into thinking that our congregations like our songs and sermons over easy. There is a place for escapist entertainment. But the kinds of stories we come back for are rooted in profound metaphors and real-life applications. They give us a glimpse of a better world, but anchor our choices in a lived reality. That is the power of story. 

Craig Detweiler directs the Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture at Pepperdine University. His latest book, Halos and Avatars, offers pastors and parents a guide to understanding video games and virtual worlds.

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