“The purpose of movies is to tell stories that afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Some people just want to go to the movies to relax and feel good, so they’ll resist anything that seems too heavy. But some movies are made in order to communicate truths that you may not want to hear.” My ears immediately perked up when Bobette Buster basically told the one hundred clergy gathered for the Michigan Area School for Ministry that making movies and preaching have the same purpose!
“Tell me your story.” It’s often the first question I ask when sitting down to meet with someone I don’t know well. What I really mean when I ask that question is, “Where has your life’s journey taken you? What troubles or fears have you overcome? When are you fully alive? What are your hopes and dreams? How has God called you to make a difference in the world?” Listening to the stories of others not only helps me capture their essence but connects their story to my story and God’s story.
I had the privilege last week of learning from Bobette Buster, who teaches storytelling at the most elite film schools around the world. Author of the book, Do Story: How to Tell Your Story So the World Listens, Buster reminded us that telling stories well is an essential skill for ministry, especially preaching.
Buster, who grew up as a Methodist in Kentucky and whose great-grandfather was a circuit rider from the Holiness tradition, was raised on stories. Empowered by tales of courage and resilience from her grandparents, aunts and uncles and parents, Buster is convinced that human beings are hard-wired for story. Storytelling plays a vital role in our personal well-being, not to mention the fact that the Bible is one big story book. After all, life began with oral tradition. God spoke, and creation came into being.
Every good story takes a person on a journey and has several elements in common, according to Buster.
- Time, place and setting are clear. Action verbs help you can see it in your mind’s eye. A younger son asks his father for his share of the property and travels to a distant country.
- The story is filled with “gleaming detail,” small, ordinary things that stand out. He squandered his property in dissolute living.
- There is juxtaposition, a unity of opposites. The prodigal Jewish son of the rich father ends up feeding pigs.
- The story reverses itself. The father runs to meet the younger son when he decides to return home and prepares the fatted calf. Meanwhile, the elder son, who always does everything right, is left resentful and angry.
- There is personal transformation and redemption: the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The father kisses his younger son, who is redeemed. But he also has compassion on the older son and says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
Buster referred to a quote by Norman Lear, one of the most important writers and producers in the history of television, “This is the most emotionally cluttered era in history.” It is so difficult to sort out what is happening in our world today because the stories are immediate and fast-paced.
Islamic militants destroy the two thousand year old temple of Baalshamin and film themselves laying out the explosives and detonating them. An unstable man murders a morning anchor and cameraman on live TV in Virginia. Donald Trump boots a well-known Hispanic journalist from his press conference for asking a question. The bodies of seventy-one migrants are found in an abandoned refrigerated truck along the side of a major highway in Austria. Racism, bullying, poverty, hundreds of millions of people simply struggling to stay alive one more day.
Story after story, at our fingertips, much of it unfiltered. How do we make sense of the world? Where do we fit in? How is God working in and through us and the church to redeem our world and its people? What is the story behind the story?
Bobette Buster would say that well-made movies help answer these questions by emphasizing the importance of character development. What stories will people tell about us when we are gone? These stories will not revolve around our resume, wealth or accomplishments. Rather, they will focus on our character and how we made a positive difference in the lives of others and our world.
In real life as well as in movies, character development usually includes a wilderness experience. And wilderness experiences force us to face our fears. It is during times of stress, failure and grief that we have the opportunity to create a new vision for our life. The whole point of storytelling/preaching, Buster said, is to project ourselves into our future. “If Mom and Dad could get through the Depression, then maybe I can make it through this unemployment.” “If Grandma could survive the death of three of her children and move forward in hope, then when I am afraid or things fall apart in my own life, maybe I can live courageously as well.”
In the same way, the church molds character by telling the stories of the Bible as well as inviting others to tell their stories. These are stories of very faithful but human, fallible people whom God nevertheless uses to transform others and the world. Through stories, pastors, Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders and caring adults can all play a vital role in shaping and even changing the character of our children and youth in an emotionally cluttered world.
Bobette Buster shared one of the most poignant cinematic stories ever about discovering the courage to face one’s fears. The King’s Speech (2010) begins with Prince Albert, the Duke of York (played by Colin Firth) and second son of King George V, stammering badly in a speech at the close of the 1925 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium (time, place and setting). Embarrassed at the inability of Prince Albert to speak, the crowd is shaken (gleaming detail). The prince, known to his family as “Bertie,” is treated by several doctors for his stuttering, to no avail. Finally, his wife persuades him to see an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush).
As the story unfolds, we see how every aspect of Bertie’s life is dominated by his fear of stuttering. As Logue works on Bertie’s breath and muscle relaxation, he also probes the psychological roots of Bertie’s affliction; among them, his parents not wanting to see him and not feeding him adequately (juxtaposition).
When his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicates the throne to marry a commoner, Bertie becomes King George VI. Logue helps Bertie reckon with his past, turn his fear into courage and gain confidence as king (reversal). In September 1939, shortly after Britain’s declaration of war with Germany, Logue prepares George VI for his radio address to the country and coaches him through the entire speech (transformation).
How are you telling your own story as well as THE story of God’s love through the grace of Jesus Christ? Do you care enough about others to encourage them to tell their story? How might the church be transformed if we reached out to the world by listening to the emotionally cluttered and courageous stories of others without judgment? If we knew and honored the journeys of the troubled and the heart-broken, how might it transform our relationships and open the door to deeper faith?
Why do people go to church, anyway? Perhaps it’s the same reason people go to movies. Because when both movies and churches tell stories of struggle, character and transformation by afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, it sparks our own wonder and imagination, and we can more clearly visualize our own journey as God’s transformed people.
The only difference? The price of admission … and the popcorn.