A Great Myth Written in the Material of History
I was speaking with an executive of the AMC channel about their wildly successful shows, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. We were talking about the split season for many of their shows, ending a fall run in early December and not beginning a spring run until late winter. The executive said their most popular shows had a storyline that focused on evil, and they wanted to give people a break from evil during the Christmas season.
The executive is a believer, and we began a conversation about the storylines of these wildly popular shows. He said, “Yes, they are about good and evil, and especially about the consequences of evil.” I agreed with him when he said a show that includes the consequences of moral decisions, is in the final analysis a show with spiritual values. I thought of the flawed characters in the novels of Flannery O’Connor, a committed Christian.
An acquaintance of mine in New York City made a number of popular but violent movies. On a visit to his home in the late 80s, I asked about his movies. He said they were very spiritual. He cited a scene he had shot that very day for a film he was making. Over the passing of time, that specific scene has found a life of its own on You Tube, in university courses, and in conversations among Christian filmmakers. The scene shows Harvey Keitel on the floor of a church in Manhattan, looking up at a homeless man, but seeing Jesus. My friend was right. His movies were spiritual.
All great stories have similar elements. There is a protagonist and an antagonist. There is something the protagonist wants that the antagonist does not want him to have. The story builds to a dread/hope axis, in which the reader, hearer, or viewer dreads and hopes something for the protagonist. He dreads that the protagonist does not reach his goals, and hopes that he does.
Many great stories are myths, stories that may or may not be historically true, but universally illustrate the human condition. Think of Homer’s Odyssey, or other examples of Greek mythology.
One group who understood the importance of myth was an informal literary group of several writers affiliated with the University of Oxford in England. The group was called the Inklings. The group included J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and others who appreciated narrative fiction and fantasy. We are blessed today with the fruit of their collaborative conversations.
On one occasion Tolkien suggested to Lewis a way Lewis might want to view scripture. He said Lewis should view the gospel as “a great myth written by God in the material of history.” Tolkien was right. Never in the history of mankind has the dread/hope axis been any greater than in the three days between Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection. Never has there been a more powerful protagonist and antagonist. And never has so much hung on the outcome of a single story.