Courses in Unreality: The Trouble with Modern Stories

The other day, as my wife and I were watching a pretty unobjectionable TV show, we came upon an all too common development. The protagonist was in love with a woman who was already engaged to some inferior man, and at the last moment she experienced a crisis of heart and called off the wedding. Now she is free to reconsider our protagonist! Yay!

Now, it is entirely possible for such a plot to be innocent and need no defense. However, it occured to me, and I noted to my wife, that in TV and the movies, it seems almost always case that the woman (or occasionally man) who leaves their near-spouse at the altar is someone to root for, someone making the right decision in a tough situation. Yet in real life, how often is something who does this really the "good guy"? Is it not far more probable in the real world that someone who backs out on the great committment of holy matrimony at the very last moment is guilty of leading their lover on, of getting engaged too hastily and foolishly, or perhaps giving in to the most flimsy flutterings of the heart, all to the detriment of not only the man who stood there ready to marry her but to all who had any interest in the aborted marriage?

Whether others would put it in quite the same way or not, I think we mostly do have instincts which, in real life, would lead us to seriously question the character, or at least the overall good sense, of anyone who pulled a stunt like this. If it is ever right to leave someone at the altar, surely this is a most rare and exceptional case, or at least the awful but necessary conclusion to a series of prior prior bad or unwise choices.

So we have onscreen in these cases a moral mismatch: we are caught up into a tale of the painful exception rather than the rule. What the story portrays as good and right, even a happy ending, could only be so most rarely in reality. Yet precisely by the way in which these media immerse us into the stories so that we empathize with and root for the protagonists, we feel invested in the exceptional case as a good thing. This need not necessarily hurt anything, of course. Often the whole interest in telling any tale is in its being an exception. A story about normal, ordinary life as we know it is often much less compelling.

And yet, just as we all appreciate a good dessert from time to time while knowing it would be worthless as a normal diet, so it seems to me we must watch out for this exception-driven moral storytelling in popular media. For if you pay attention, you will see that subverting and challenging the normal way of things is more or less the predominant mode of storytelling in today's arts.

I'm not talking, mind you, about simply unusual things happening, or strange situations. Those are hardly trouble at all: we are not likely to be misled about reality if we watch aliens invade or geniuses invent time machines or a nerdy teenager get superpowers from a radioactive spider. But morality and value are quite a different matter. Few, if any, of us have to save New York from a supervillain or slide from universe to universe to find our way home. But all of us have to make moral choices. All of us have to discern what is good, better, and best, identify what is troublesome, wrong, or diabolical. We each must navigate relationships, and no one can is exempt from the need to think through life, love, obligations, rights, responsibilities, trust, fear, judgment, perception, and everything else unique to us as rational and spiritual creatures, as bearers of the image of God tasked with representing Him in every sphere of life.

For this reason the stakes are higher when we think of how the stories we hear and tell portray these aspects of life. And the stories of our age portray them all subversively. Think of Tangled, where the unique and troublesome circumstances of Rapunzel's life serve to justify her rebellion against her mother. Recall how in The Beauty and the Beast the monster turns out to be the hero and upstanding citizens serve as villains. Ponder the endless series of sympathetic villain stories, like Cruella, Maleficient, Wicked, and innumerable others both past, present, and soon to come. Take the countless TV shows where, as mentioned before, the "good guys" will not infrequently break committments, lie, rebel against authority or custom, or kill people without due process because of extenuating circumstances.

I do not ask you to believe that, within the contexts of these stories, all of these characters were wrong. Nor do I ask you to believe these are bad stories or that Christians should stay away from them. I only ask you to consider the diet. For anyone, but especially for children, to consume a constant stream of the ethically exceptional can hardly help but distort his ideas of how things ought to be. When the imaginative world is full of authorities who must be disobeyed, truths which must be covered up, lives that must be taken, customs and norms must be discarded, and relationships which must be unceremoniously broken, it undermines our ability to see the real world, a place where, ordinarily, authorities must be obeyed, the truth must be told with boldness, lives must be spared, customs and norms must be upheld, and relationships should be preserved with great care.

I do not even offer advice to conclude these reflections. Rather, think of it as commentary: the current norms surrounding storytelling focus on subversion, on the limits and exceptions to the normal order of how we should live. We need to explore these things at times, but they are hardly safe for constant consumption. In the older days, it was not so. The tropes and morals of fairy tales (the old ones, not the Disney revival ones) reinforce the way the world actually is. They train us to the right and just sentiments and values we need to navigate the world God has actually made, rather than the strange situations which emerge usually only in the imaginative and rarely, if ever, under the light of solid daylight. I could quote Lewis here to great effect, I think, but I have no time right this moment to look up the comments I want, so I can only refer you to lookup what Lewis, Tolkien, and even Chesterton said about stories. It's a different vision, and I think a much healthier one.