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Spiritual Stories for Skeptics

May 23, 2011

Within a Christian worldview, supernatural events are accepted and even expected. We pray for things like that– we call them miracles–to help solve our problems. We believe they are possible, perhaps even common. However, to people who perceive the world from a purely naturalistic, materialistic worldview, ‘miracles’ are absurd. It is naive to look for them or to observe events and assign that label to them.

So how do you bridge this gap? It is the bane of Christian “message movies.” I mean, how is it possible to tell a story that is compelling, maybe even convincing, when there is no overlap in worldview? If the story is dependent on a supernatural event, a miracle, to drive the change in the Protagonist or defeat the Antagonist, how can one prevent a person who doesn’t share the belief that such an event is possible from tuning out. They will just dismiss the story as fantasy drivel.

I’m working on a story right now that poses such a dilemma. It is a true story of how a traditional indigenous culture has been transformed, positively, through a spiritual change brought about through acceptance of the teachings of Jesus in the Bible. It’s a minefield because we are dealing with very strong emotions and viewpoints about culture and what’s appropriate to do and talk about. It is anathema to talk about someone changing their traditional beliefs to follow teachings that come from outside their culture. [Of course, it’s absurd to consider any culture ‘pure’ and static and perfect – as if any culture has not ever adapted a new idea from outside that proved attractive or beneficial to adopt.]

What I am trying to navigate is the reality experienced by the indigenous people themselves. It is their story, not mine. They say very plainly that the ‘new ways’ are better than their old ones and that many of the changes have come through supernatural events. They see the very real, practical effects on their lives every day. They make no apologies for changing. They also don’t consider themselves to be ‘traitors’ to their culture or puppets of outsiders, as some might claim. They merely say, “We heard these ideas and decided that they are true and help us in positive ways.” How can you argue with that? Isn’t that what human rights are all about: self-determination? But it doesn’t work that way. Outsiders are constantly deciding what others may embrace and what ways they may change.

TEG PosterWe dealt with this directly with our film, Yai Wanonabälewä: The Enemy God (website here). I received hate-mail and the scorn of many who claimed to represent the interests of the Yanomamö, whose story we told (at their request.) How dare we attempt to tell a spiritual story of an indigenous group? How dare the Yanomamö themselves give up their traditional beliefs and practices to embrace a ‘white-man’s religion’? Of course, if you actually talk with the Yanomamö with whom we partnered, they will tell you that these new ways are merely the truth that had been twisted and hidden in their own traditional ways. They say they are still fully Yanomamö. And, of equal importance, they believe that the new ways of following Jesus are the only way they can survive as a people. “The old ways were causing our people to die out.” says Bautista Cajicuwa, a Yanomamö headman and the first shaman to give up his traditional spirits.

Finding Common Ground

What we tried to do in the script for The Enemy God, and what I’m attempting now in this new story, set in Africa, is to establish common ground with my audience. I want to begin a conversation and present a story that has elements that are compelling for everyone, not just people of a particular faith. I’m thinking about the things we can agree on first – like the dreams of my characters that are more universal: peace, a hope for the future, freedom from oppression, etc. From this common ground I can begin to weave a story that includes themes and topics on which all audiences may not agree – like spiritual points-of-view and values. My goal is to create a story conversation with my audience that, while not necessarily ‘winning’ an argument with everyone, presents a compelling, honest, and respectful apologetic. They may be uncomfortable with the choices made by my characters, especially the ones who choose to follow new ways rather than their traditions, but they will need to at least grudgingly accept that the choies are real and meaningful for those that have made them.

By placing my story arguments on more common ground and by making the story less about the areas where there is no consensus, I have a chance to win a hearing. I will avoid deus ex machina moments so common in films with a spiritual agenda (most popular Christian films, it seems). The point is not to depend on acceptance of a miraculous event to explain everything. The point is to tell the story of the change, including spiritual elements, in a way that makes the spiritual a natural part but not the only focus. Can we agree that the new reality for these characters–their change over the course of the story–is a worthy goal? If a specific spiritual change is indelibly linked to the outward change, might it be worthy of consideration too? That’s a question worth asking and a conversation worth having.

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