As an author, I believe in the power of stories. Stories are powerful narratives that we use to reflect and share the values of our culture. But never did this truth become so striking to me as this past summer, when — amidst the torrents of a global pandemic — I desperately sought a bit of reprieve in watching an evening TV show.
It has become a relatively frequent ritual that after the bedtime routine for our kiddo, my husband and I relax on the couch with some tea and either read or watch part of a movie or a TV show. Either way, after a day of work and toddler-wrangling, it’s nice to allow ourselves to turn off the productivity mindset and partake in the pleasures of a story.
I don’t tend to watch many “R-rated” movies (although there are a few great ones I like!), but other than that, I tend not to be too picky with my movies as long as they’re well done. But as the pandemic drew on, this tendency shifted.
So many nights, weary from the day’s work and the weight of society’s woes, streaming a story only increased my distress. The shows Netflix recommended to me were often dark, with themes of scheming, selfishness, power mongering, and violence. I watched them because the storylines pulled me in, but I ended up feeling no gain from this “relaxing” entertainment. Often, I felt worse.
It took this really stressful life situation to make me realize that such themes don’t actually help me. They don’t relax me, and they don’t reflect what I know, by faith, to be true: that good is stronger than evil, that light conquers dark, and that no matter how bleak circumstances seem to be, there is always hope.
As Neil Gaiman put it, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
So where are these stories?
The ultimate defeat of the dragon is told through the Bible, of course, as all of salvation history built up to Christ’s Passion, death, and resurrection. We have the saint stories too, yet I believe that good fiction — the fiction that endures — reflects these same themes because it can be “more than true.”
These are the stories I like to write, read, and watch. I always have enjoyed them, but now I seek them out, consciously eschewing dark and violent themes. I don’t seek fluffy stories with little-to-no conflict where a happy ending magically occurs, nor stories which end “happily” but give me little beauty or goodness to hold onto afterwards.
The Inklings writers, including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, among others, must have held a similar notion, as “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” have become classics for depicting the spiritual battle. My life feels more battle-like now than ever before, with the virus raising the stakes of everyday outings like going out for groceries and visiting family, and bringing to the forefront questions of values, mortality, and hope.
Now, when I pick out a book or pull up a show, I discern. (Does it look like this story will uplift me? Will it remind me of what is good and beautiful?) If I start watching, and it doesn’t help me, or it brings me to a place where I’m staring too deep into darkness, I stop. And when I find a good one, one that lifts me up and reminds me what’s true — I let myself fangirl a little. I let the story do what it’s supposed to do: which is to help me be human in a broken world, to tell me again that love conquers all, because “whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, think on these things.”
And that’s how our story goes on.