In Matthew 13, Jesus’ disciples approach Him and ask the question that’s been burning on everyone’s heart: “Why do you tell stories?” His answer: “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight.”
There’s something about evangelical Christianity that makes us feel guilty if we aren’t being overt about our faith. With the recent media craze over Tim Tebow and the publicity of his faith, Christians have been dialoguing ceaselessly over the importance of holding our faith out like a label in front of us wherever we go. Certainly Jesus wasn’t ashamed to boldly proclaim the truth, but he also knew what people needed to hear. He knew that some people wouldn’t be moved by our teachings, or even by the labels we wear, they would be moved by stories.
Stories connect with people where they are. They can evoke emotion and provoke thoughtfulness.
Christianity is about a story, an ongoing one, and it’s all about this original Storyteller, a Middle Eastern man who was killed because of the claims he made. Many have followed him and tried to emulate his life in different ways. Some are convinced that they are most like him when they preach un-apologetically. Others follow him by becoming his hands and feet, reaching out to hurting people, loving not just in tongue, but in word and deed. Through history, as the printed word became the dominant form of communication, still others have tried to emulate him in his storytelling by writing books, and history can attest, they did a masterful job. Just think of Milton, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Tolkien and Lewis.
The truth is, Christianity has a rich history of storytelling. But how does that fit in with the way we relate to our present world?
If there’s one thing evangelicals understands, it’s evangelism. We know how to share truth, we know how to love people. We use these to invite people into the lifestyle of gratitude that we live in response to the grace of God. We do this because we’re convinced that a person’s soul is the only thing that will last into eternity. Though there is great virtue in creating beauty all around us in the meantime, we can’t bring anything else with us. This is what we believe.
But what if there’s something we’ve overlooked? We can share our faith authentically, we can be nice about it, but is there another way to create readiness in people’s hearts? To “nudge” them toward faith? I believe that there is.
Stories create readiness, they nudge people toward receptive insight. Peter Hitchens once said of his brother, famed atheist Christopher Hitchens, “It is my belief that passions as strong as his are more likely to be countered by the unexpected force of poetry, which can ambush the human heart at any time.” He mentioned poetry, but the same is true of stories.
The reason stories matter to me is because I see a new medium rising, one with the potential to convey meaning in a more affecting way than ever before: video games. Authors try to describe how characters feel, films show you what they feel—but a good game can actually make you feel what they feel by not only drawing you into a characters perspective but making you personally responsible for their well-being.
The case study for this in recent years is a Japanese game called Shadow of the Colossus.
You are a stranger in a foreign land. You’ve been told that you can bring a loved one back from death if you will search far and wide to hunt and kill 16 massive creatures. These creatures are not violent unless provoked. This means that you are the aggressor; an objective bystander might even say you are the villain. Chris Suellentrop, writing about the game for The New Yorker, observed, “Shadow of the Colossus is the most successful video-game tragedy that I know of. When you have killed all 16 colossi, you feel loss rather than triumph.” Games are more than capable of telling stories, and not just in a traditional, linear way.
Currently, in the world of games journalism, the conversation is ongoing over whether or not games should even be used to tell stories. “After all,” some say, “games at their core are nothing more than sets of rules. Storytelling is not what the medium should be used for.” But that attitude hasn’t stopped many Christians from beginning to make games that tell stories.
One effort is being made by Jon Collins and his team at Kaio Interactive. They’re currently raising money to develop a new title, called Codebearers: Continuum. It’s based off an already-popular tween book series, and is going to be launched in tandem with the newest book in the series. He told me recently, “We hope gamers will pick up the book and readers will pick up the game—both are going to have some great allegory in them and tell a story which will encourage and build up.” Encouraging and building up is just one side, though. There is a growing number of Christians who believe video games are maturing beyond the realm of child’s play.
So whatever you do, don’t count games out. Writers and designers are dreaming and praying, pouring new energy and creativity into the medium, and I believe it’s only a matter of time before we see not only gaming’s The Chronicles of Narnia, but perhaps even its Brothers Karamazov.