Sticking It To God: Rebellious Stories As a Cliche to Play Against

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“The sacred exists and is stronger than all our rebellions.” Czeslaw Milosz

Skipping the qualifiers, we live in an era where rebellion has been mainstreamed. Rebellion is, ironically, very conventional. Pedestrian even. The pervasiveness of rebellion extends to literature and media for children, driving the stories most kids are exposed to every day. I’ll go on record and say this is mostly horrible. Like, civilization-destroying, enemy-embracing horrible.

We want our kids to be who they are uniquely called to be. We want them to have disruptive imaginations. Of course, it all depends on what they are disrupting. Since rebellion is conventional now, the unconventional thing is to reject rebellion. What we want is to disrupt this very religious, institutionalized, conventional rebellion. We want to object to this tired routine of being out-of-order.

Since we are Christians, we are called to submission. This terrifying word is the primary characteristic of the follower of Christ. It is literally what being a disciple means (to follow behind). We are called to a different story than the conventional rebellion of the ancient dragon in the garden. The story is a familiar one, and here we are, still in it.

At the front of our programs there’s a roster, a gallery of who’s who. There in bold we see that the rebel dragon is the bad guy. All the world’s a stage and rebellion is wicked, dragons are evil, and we don’t have to eat his fruit and so become his food.

And we need not only know the personnel, but their locations.

“God is in heaven, you are on earth, so let your words be few…”
(From Ecclesiastes 5)

Listen, oh boy, don’t mean to bust your bubble . . . but there is a hierarchy in creation. God is the boss. And his authority is not a cage, but a key. His authority is an endowment. He is love. And his authority is loving. This also goes for the authority he establishes. Of course, if you’re a parent like me, then it’s apparent we don’t exercise this God-ordained authority with the perfect love of our Father. But we have a chance to deal a counter-stroke in this great battle against rebellion and if we are to do this it must be in and through love.

One avenue of opportunity for this refreshing counter-stroke is in the arts. Not only is rebellion writ large on the calling card of the enemy of our souls, but it’s also profoundly cliche in art. How many more movies do we need where the parents are hellacious buffoons in ties and aprons and our rebellious teenager with ripped jeans, who never makes eye contact (except with girls/victims), is proven to be the truly virtuous one. He followed his dream. The man tried to keep him down. He peels out in his Trans-am. He’s against the system . . . ZZZzzzzzzzzzzz. Wake me up when the formulaic drivel is done.

Caveat: I know that these stories represent a sad and repressive reality in many homes. That stinks. Let’s not do that. Grace and Truth.

Caveat about caveats: I’m trying not to qualify everything, but I give in sometimes.

So, the tired cliche of rebellious victory, or that rebellion = virtue, is pretty well played out, right? Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be. There are some places where the type is actually played against and something like a true nuance is evident (Pixar’s Brave), but it’s still pervasive. I believe it’s pervasive because it is part of our civic religion and our storytellers are writing out of that religious conviction, spreading the “good news” to the unconverted and encouraging the true believers. Down with authority, all the way up. We aim to stick it to “the man,” because we can’t quite get at God with such short arms.

But what an opportunity we have to tell more nuanced stories. See, the answer isn’t to rebalance the scales by always and only portraying parents and other God-ordained authorities as basically perfect. That isn’t honest either. It’s to recapture the comprehensive nature of the Christian story.

Christians believe the world was good, that creation was beautiful, and that harmony is intended. So, when we tell stories about harmony and beauty and peace, we tell true stories.

But there was a fall, and since then sin and death are an unavoidable reality, a loud, discordant note in the symphony of mankind. When we tell stories where things are fouled up, we tell truthfully.

When we tell stories with evil and suffering that resolve in triumph of beauty through self-giving love, we tell perhaps the most truthful kind of story of all.

But they all fit and the varieties possible are almost innumerable. The Christian story is not narrow and confining. The Christian storyteller is not as limited as she has been led to believe. The Christian story has a genuine accounting for the way the world is, as well as for the indescribable longing we feel for resolution. In my view, the Christian worldview is the most broad, comprehensive, and reasonable of all. And the most ripe for tales.

Of course it’s possible to tell stories in a dishonest way about the way God made the world. It’s possible (and cliche, even) to represent rebellion as equal to virtue.

I’m not saying Christians should rally to authoritarianism, or anything like it. Only that we should respect the created order of God’s world. That our expectation of “ordinate” should be what God says in his Word, not what our sentimental (and vapid) civic religion dictates.

I think a couple of things are important to consider:

1) Whenever there’s a deep-seated cultural dogma (in this case, that rebellion= virtue), there’s an honest, artful opportunity to work against that cliche.

2) Christians should consider avoiding championing a cultural dogma at odds with reality (like rebellion = virtue) by attaching Christian language to it.  

I am thinking of many of the same nuances you are. Yes, Christians should rebel against racism, abortion, sexual perversity, and other cultural features which are evil, contrary to Scripture’s teaching, and at odds with human flourishing. But that “rebellion” is really a humble alignment with the ordinate nature of the world God made –and is remaking. It’s conservative in that it holds to truths delivered. It’s progressive in that it clings to a virtue we see ahead in the coming Kingdom of God. It transcends the latest cultural kurfuffles, but does not ignore the evil they embrace.

I do believe God’s loving authority is not a cage, but a key. Storytellers have a unique opportunity to help unbind us from the spell that makes that key seem evil.

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Image by GrayscalexBassGDMCR

This originally appeared at Story Warren.


13 Comments

  1. Brenda Branson

    “God is the boss. And his authority is not a cage, but a key. His authority is an endowment. He is love. And his authority is loving.”

    Sam, I love how you explained this. Submission is a beautiful thing in the context of this kind of love.

  2. Dawn

    This makes me think of the original garden and how Eve didn’t want to submit to God’s design for her. Perhaps it is in the most basic of sinful nature to want to go against the grain (especially when that harms us). So much of the Bible is about obedience and I confess there are times that I feel that is “boring” or “Just” obedience. When in fact that is everything. You bring up a great point about how the Christian artist could be crafting that obedience. I believe if my motivation is love when I create (as God created from love) then it gets me off myself and having to “prove” anything to anyone. When I align to His call on my life and give that over to His control then my creating IS a key to many doors. Doors not leading to more self but to a wider world of need that is met by a God who runs to the lost sheep AND the Prodigal who has come to his senses.

  3. Dan R.

    You’re right, Han & Chewie should have just taken the money and run.
    Oh wait…

    Joking aside, I’m with you here. And I think this might often be hard to figure out. Like Dawn said, I think we have an instinct to rebel, and sometimes rebelling against rebellion, for rebellion’s sake, looks so much like what you were talking about. But there is growth to be had here, and asked for. Thanks for pointing us to it!

  4. Yankee Gospel Girl

    Nice essay. I was thinking about this when over-hauling some of Robin Williams’s work recently. Over and over again, he plays the charismatic rebel sticking it to the cold establishment, leading armies of Vietnam vets, repressed highschoolers and/or little kids with cancer in his wake. But the main flaw of films like these is that the enemy is painted so one-dimensionally. In Patch Adams, it’s a matter of course that everyone except Patch is a Big Meanie, while Patch alone is kind and good and wonderful. In Good Morning Vietnam, the character who insists on showing respect for the President is only there to look like an idiot next to Adrian Cronauer. Even Dead Poets Society, which has some brilliant moments, never gives you anything more than a cardboard cutout for any of the antagonists.

    Storytelling becomes much more interesting when the reader doesn’t feel like he’s being spoon-fed one particular narrative, and the cliche of rebellion is a prime example of that.

  5. Laure Hittle

    i really appreciated the idea that telling true stories, and telling stories truthfully, are distinct from one another. i love tragedy, and my stories are often dark explorations of brokenness.. But i have a close friend who struggles with darkness in story. She sees darkness everywhere in our world and it hurts her. We’ve had a lot of conversations about why i love tragedy, why i think darkness and horror are necessary to telling a true account of the world, necessary for stories of redemption. But i can hardly argue against her need for innocent stories—they express the way the world SHOULD be, the way it was and should be and will be again. She loves true stories. i am focused on telling stories truthfully. What an interesting way to look at the conversations she and i keep having.

  6. Lisa

    “In my view, the Christian worldview is the most broad, comprehensive, and reasonable of all. And the most ripe for tales.”

    Yes! Thanks for this reminder and affirmation.

  7. Peter B

    Good stuff, and well said. Thank you, dear brother.

    Given your Exhibit A of “rebellion is virtue”, I couldn’t help thinking of Gabriel Syme in The Man Who Was Thursday:

    “Being surrounded with every conceivable kind of revolt from infancy, Gabriel had to revolt into something, so he revolted into the only thing left—sanity.”

    May we subvert this world’s expectations — not merely for the purpose of being contrary, but because the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.

  8. Nate Fleming

    I enjoyed reading your article, but I’m wondering what spurred you to write it? I can clearly see the way that art outside of the church celebrates rebellion, but I can’t think of any ready examples where it’s happening in the church – or with arts created by Christians.

    When it comes to Christians applying Christian language to worldly-created expressions, we love doing that, don’t we? For example, Christians love treasure hunting for Christian truth in the Harry Potter books. The irony here is that the series has a protagonist who could be the poster child for “the ends justify the means”. And yet the books are also a perfect example of “When we tell stories with evil and suffering that resolve in triumph of beauty through self-giving love, we tell perhaps the most truthful kind of story of all.”

    I’d be curious to know where you see this as an issue in the arts created by Christians, though.

    Thanks!
    Nate

  9. David Mitchel

    @

    Probably my favorite book about authority is G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday — which is about far more than authority, but has some of the best observations on the subject I’ve ever seen. Like the Gregory/Syme debate in the first chapter on revolution and law.

    A more generally known example of a commendation of authority: In the gospels Jesus commends the Roman centurion, whose understanding of faith arose from two things: (1) a deep understanding of how authority works; and (2) recognition of Christ’s authority.

  10. Peter B

    David, I wouldn’t worry about being redundant. You took it in an entirely new direction (or subdirection).

    Besides, you got your formatting to work — which apparently was not the case for my attempt at an underlined title.

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