There are many stories in the world. Stories on all types of topics ranging from your sappy romance between two saplings in love to the most violently scarey attack of the rabid bunny horror films. The truth of the matter is, between all these stories, only the good ones have happy endings. Now of course how good a story is ultimately depends on many factors such as: originality, depth, tone, twists, understandability, meaning, and of course its conclusion. My purposes here is not to discuss all the aspects of story, except for one: the conclusion. No matter how good all aspects of a story are, its ending holds the final trump card which dictates how good the story really is. I would also argue that for the ending of the story to be anything but happy, it isn’t a good story.
Let us first start out by defining the word Story. A story is simply the telling of a particular sequence of events, fiction or not, that communicates a certain message (known or unknown). Every story communicates something (even if not intended by the author). If a sequence of events can be communicated in a way that no meaning can be derived from it, then it isn’t a story. Likewise if one just blathers incoherent and meaningless words, it isn’t a story. All stories have structure. They all have a beginning, middle, and end. They all have a subject and, like I said before, a meaning.
Like Ecclesiastes says: “there is nothing new under the sun”, and so there are no “new” stories, but only old ones re-formulated and re-told. Remember a story can be fiction, or it can be historical. Therefore we can both call Hamlet a story, and at the same time the bombing of pearl harbor a story. In both we see a beginning to the story, we see a middle of the story, and we see a conclusion to the story, there are also subjects, and meanings to be found.
Another thing that I should make note of is the proper definition of a story’s ending. This is where many people make the biggest mistakes, especially with historical stories, is in their definition of the ending. Take pearl harbor for example, if we just told the portion of the story and ended with the sinking of the Arizona, (depending on which point of view Japanese or American) we would have a happy ending or sad ending, but if we really ended the story there we would be making a big mistake, because the story doesn’t end there. Even if we stopped the story with the victory of America over Japan in 1945, a definite happy ending for the Americans, we would be making a mistake because the real ending of the story happens when Jesus returns.
What I am really saying is: there are many stories in the world, but really only one True Story and how well the mini-stories fit into the True Story defines how good those stories really are. Now to many of you this may sound indefensible, but please give me a chance to explain my thought process.
If there really is only one True Story in the world, then we can argue there really only is one True Reality (as defined by the True Story). This means that any other mini-story that deviates from the True Reality, is ultimately communicating a false message and thus is diverting people from the True Story. The reason this is so important is that the True Story ultimately defines your identity, destination, and existence for all of eternity. Because this Story is so important to our very being, for us to be distracted, or diverted from it, can (and does) often end very disastrously for us. Consider the person who spends their whole life listening to stories that place them as the center of the universe, opposed to the True Story which places God as the center. How screwed up will their lives ultimately end up? How will their eternal future be shaped by the stories that shape their lives? Oh yes, I forgot to mention: stories shape our lives.
All stories ultimately shape us. They slowly dictate how we think and view life and other things, because we learn everything through story. All stories have this affect on us unless we actively seek to counter this affect. Therefore, to the degree that a story aligns itself to the True Story (True Reality) the better it is, and the future it deviates the worse it is (no matter what skill or depth is it told with). If a car ride ends in your death, no matter how comfortable the ride was, it ultimately was a bad ride was it not? So it is with stories, even if they are told well, and are well thought up, if they communicate a false reality and turn you from the True Reality, how good were they in the end? Now please note that I am defining good by its ends not means, when it comes to stories. Morality is both defined by its ends and its means, but stories, as I argue, are not. A well told lie, is still a lie.
I know you might be thinking that I am advocating only stories that perfectly mirror or tell the True Story; that thinking is not my thinking. Let me take, for example, the Lord of The Rings story, and why it is, even as fiction, one of the best stories ever told. It is one of the best stories ever told because it basically tells the True Story in a deep, profound, and meaningful way with lots of imagination. In both LoTR and the True Story, evil exists, men are corrupted from their first perfect beginnings, temptation exists, and ultimately for good to win, God himself must intervene. Now LoTR doesn’t retell perfectly the True Story, nor tell it all, but its message compliments, rather than takes away, from the True Story. It helps build a True worldview more than destroying it. No mini-story is perfect, and if perfection was needed for goodness, then no mini-story is good, but I believe God allows for imperfection in us because of Christ, and thus we can call imperfect stories still good stories as long as they complement the True Story more than they destroy it.
All this philosophizing can be confusing, and by no means is it exhaustive, but I believe I can give you some simple pointers to help you spot good stories over bad stories. Also I do believe there is differing degrees of good stories, just like there are differing degrees of bad stories. Ultimately our decisions on such subjects are relative to our opinions and knowledge, where as only God knows the true degree of how good some stories are over others. Thus let us show some humility in disagreement if we attempt to define what we think is more good than others. Yet, I do believe there are some good guidelines that can help us make better decisions.
I define a good story ultimately by how it affects the message of the Gospel. Does the story help people move towards an understanding of the Gospel (an act ultimately in God’s hands, by which he uses human agency), or does it hinder an understanding of the Gospel? A great example is to think about how much does the story set up the person as the center of the universe and thus savior of themselves, verses having someone (like God) be the center of the universe and therefore the need for someone else to save you. Now the story doesn’t have to be explicit to be good. A good story can be one where a person needs another person to save them, because they cannot save themselves. This is good because it promotes the idea that we need an external savior and cannot save ourselves, where as a story where the hero ultimately saves himself only hinders our acceptance of the True Story by which we cannot save ourselves. Does that makes sense? You see goodness doesn’t demand a mirroring of the True Story, but of either a promoting, or teaching in the direction of the True Story. In other words a good story doesn’t have to have Jesus in it, but it has to have themes that mirror Jesus and the True story. Themes like: sin, our need of saving, an outside savior, and an ultimate victory of Good over Evil.
Perhaps I should give a quick overview of the True Story so we all have a better idea of what themes we should be looking for, and what themes we need to avoid. The quick overview of The Story is as follows: In the Beginning God (who is self existent and perfectly good and all powerful in a Trinity – one Being and three persons) created the heavens and the earth. When he created humans, he created them in his image and good. Yet they chose to rebel against his rule and chose to set up themselves as god, and so bore the curse God had threatened them with before their fall: death. Because Adam (the first man) was the representative of all humans that would come after him, all humans fell under God’s curse and so all died (spiritually). This spiritual death has made it so that humans are now separated from God as law breakers deserving God’s full wrath for their evil. Yet, God had other plans, plans to save humans from his Justice and Wrath. And so he set his plans in motion with Adam, both promising that he would over come Adam’s sin, rebellion, and curse with a 2nd Adam who would perfectly follow God’s law and will, and do everything God asked of Adam, and in no way disobey God, and thus fulfill everything required of Adam, and at the same time he would pay for the debt all humans have incurred in Adam and through their own sin. This started when God killed animals and covered Adam and Eve’s nakedness (and thus shame/ guilt).
God then slowly and progressively revealed his plan to save humans and bring them back into relationship with himself (having thrown Adam and Eve out of the garden he created for them). Through men like Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets God slowly revealed more and more of his plan of redemption. During that time before God sent Jesus as the redeemer, God provided men with a way to find forgiveness and acceptance in God namely faith in God’s future promise of salvation, which faith was demonstrated through obedience to God’s law namely the sin sacrifices. When at long last God the Father (first person of the trinity) finally sent Jesus (who is God himself in the 2nd person of the trinity, named God the Son) to perfectly obey God’s law, and pay for the sins of his brothers (fellow humans). God also sent His Spirit (3rd person of the trinity) to draw humans to Jesus so they may be saved, and so Jesus provided salvation for sins, for all who would place their faith (trust) in him (and his perfect work) rather than any other human or deed.
So after Jesus lived on this earth, he was wrongly put to death, but 3 days later God raised him from the dead, and 40 days later took him up to heaven to rule until he will return with the Angels to finally and fully set up his kingdom on earth. Jesus currently reigns in heaven, while the Spirit fulfills his work here on earth drawing humans to Jesus to be saved. Therefore God is building a “Church” (people) to present to Jesus as His bride, a people forgiven of their sins, who will spend eternity with Jesus (God) and rule forever with Him. Although Jesus has come, and has broken the curse of Adam, and has overcome sin, and is now drawing humans unto himself to be saved, he still allows evil to exist (for now) and thus we still live in a world that is not how it was meant to be in the beginning. So there is evil, and suffering on this world for now, but when Jesus comes he will once and for all do away with all evil and suffering, but he allows it for now for his own good purposes.
Everything God does is for his own glory for being perfectly good, and beautiful, only His own glory is worth anything, and by his own glory all men receive Joy and Happiness and every good thing. This story is still being written (although God knows the story from the beginning to the end), but we understand the most important parts: Creation, Fall, Giving of Law, Jesus, Salvation, Church, Jesus Return. Thus I would suggest that there are certain themes in stories which so reject the True Story that they pervert the story and turn it evil, and thus bad (not good). A few of these themes would be: the existence of universe through any other ultimate source other than God, the denial of any curse for sin (also denial of sin), denial that God has spoken to humans through prophets or directly, denial of Jesus’ existence, Godhood, and thus his being redeemer (God’s grace), denial that God has created a people for himself (saved anyone), and the denial that God will return to make all wrongs right (God’s justice). Basically if any story denies God, Sin, Law, Grace, or Justice as really existing, it is a story which perverts the True Story as to turn men away from the truth to their death.
As Christians God has given us lots of lee-way as to how we can use our imagination and artistic talents, however we are obligated to not teach false views on the things God deems important to salvation. I can make up stories about fake universes, talking trees, weird physics, and other non-normal (or based in reality) things, but if these stories teach an ultimate message that turns men away from the knowledge of the Gospel, what good really is it? Is it not evil and a tool in use by the devil? But what if my fake universe, talking trees, weird physics, and other non-normal things ultimately direct readers to the Gospel, and therefore Glorify God, am I not fulfilling God’s will and plan (to Glorify Himself by saving humans from their sin)?
I know there are many things to say on this subject, and that this piece doesn’t do the subject justice, but I hope you get a small glimpse here as to a better direction that stories should go: a happy ending. What is a happy ending? Well it simply is an ending that follows the ending that God himself has designed: that all evil is over come, relationships are healed, and that love and Justice wins in the end. The evil men are sent to eternal punishment, while the people saved by God who are therefore declared good, receive everything (by Grace) that a good person (only Jesus is truly good) deserves. So although men and women die, love ones desert us, and this life outside of Christ fails to fulfill us, the ending is life, love, and perfect fulfillment. Therefore every good story ought to end with life, love, and fulfillment. Of course perfection isn’t expected in our stories (only God’s is the perfect story – the one that perfectly Glorifies him), yet God does delight in our attempts to glorify him in them while using artistic talents and imagination. This means that our stories may end with the lovers living happily ever after on earth, which can represent our living happily ever after with God. Also this means that our stories can include evil, and darkness inside of them, but the goal of such darkness and evil is to make the story seem more real (really represent True Reality), so that the good ending will glorify God.
Let me ask you a question. Contrary to contemporary critics, who seemingly delight in dark endings, and unfulfilled people, and perverted justice, a good story must have a good ending. God’s story has a good ending, and God calls us to glorify him, thus our stories must have good endings, or else the stories we really are telling really say that the True Story doesn’t have a happy ending, therefore how can perversions of the truth be good (glorify God)? As I have argued I do not believe that dark stories with unhappy endings glorify God, because they teach that life doesn’t have a happy ending, when it really does. They teach that life is hopeless, when we actually have hope in Christ. Their meaning is that God isn’t in control that evil and darkness will win in the end. How can all these Glorify God? If we use a good thing (imagination) to create a evil end, how can we call the process good? Let me ask you another question: which story will better help you feel your need of salvation and give you hope? A story where evil reigns and yet is over come in the end? Or a story where evil reigns and wins in the end? If the lovers do not ultimately find love but only loneliness in the grand love story, what hope do we have in the Real Story to find love? Does not the smaller mini-story pervert our hope in the true story? Yet, I believe that these critics, and many people love the dark perversion of stories, because they hate the good, and the God it represents and do not desire to tell his story or enjoy it.
If you are told over and over that the good guys do not win, that evil wins in the end, what effect will that have on your thinking about evil, goodness, and justice in the Real World? If there is no joy, hope, or love to be found in our stories, what hope do we have to find them in the Real World? Rather then I suggest that what we find in our mini-stories, is what we end up looking for in the Real Story. This is why Jesus spoke in Parables. He communicated Real Truth through mini-stories. He expected his listeners to find meaning in his mini-story, so they would find ultimate meaning in the True Story. If Jesus, who is our perfect model as the perfect human, taught eternal truths (communicated the Real Story) through mini-stories, why then would we think that we do not communicate anything through ours?
Are stories nothing but mindless meaningless entertainment, or do they hold a higher calling? Do they have power to mold minds, or do they communicate really nothing? Can stories glorify God, or hinder his Gospel, or are they neutral? I say that stories are powerful. They ultimately are under God’s rule, and therefore their end ought to be His Glory. One cannot ultimately Glorify God if one perverts God’s Gospel. Stories mold our thinking. A good story will help us better understand the True Story, and thus glorify God, while communicating such Truth in a way that is unique, artistic, attractive, imaginative, and persuasive. God gives us lots of lee-way as to how we can tell our stories, but surely he doesn’t ask us to pervert knowledge of his True Story does He?