Shaping Culture

I enjoy listening to apologist Ravi Zacharias on the weekend. In the talk that aired Sunday, he posited three ways in which culture is shaped. In essence, this process is actually the manner in which a person influences others, either their contemporaries or those of a coming generation.

One method a person can use to shape culture is theory. This method would include such things as reading Plato and Aristotle or any other philosopher who is working through a theory of how the world works.

A second method is through the arts. Here Mr. Zacharias gave the example of Albert Camus and his philosophy of the absurd (shown in stories such as The Plague and The Stranger) or existentialist Franz Kafka (The Metamorphosis, The Trial).

The third method of shaping culture is by prescription—that is, by telling someone what to do. By preaching, you might say. Or dictating. Parents use prescription regularly—Monique, make your bed or Lee, do your homework.

As I listened to the descriptions of these three methods, I couldn’t help but think about Christian fiction, particularly that the Christian writing world wants to reduce our ability to shape the culture to just theory and prescription.

While some writers like Athol Dickson have declared the importance of having something to say in fiction, I continue to read others parroting the sound bite, If you want to deliver a message, go preach a sermon.

How clever. And how wrong.

Not that sermons don’t deliver messages. They should. But so should stories. Just not in the same way.

The message of a story—and we’re actually talking about its theme, a literary term for the idea that pervades a work—should not be delivered in the same way as the message of a sermon. Preaching, after all, is prescriptive. Stories should not be prescriptive.

However, it’s a mistake for an author to accept this last statement and then deduce that stories should not have a message, or that the message will somehow ooze out of the author’s pores onto the page. As if delivering a powerful, non-prescriptive message takes no purposeful planning, no conscious thought.

Mike Duran recently had an interesting blog post about the time necessary to write meaningful stories. Primarily he was pointing out the effect of deadlines on a writer. But I can’t help but wonder if haste doesn’t first strip away depth from our stories. Who has the chance to think about what he actually wants to communicate when he needs to create realistic, engaging characters and a plot that isn’t derivative or predictable.

However, I don’t think haste would strip our fiction of its meaning, no matter how hard it is to weave a thoughtful message into the fabric of a story, if we were committed to the idea that we are shaping culture by our art. And that it’s OK to do so. Really.

Published in: on October 4, 2010 at 6:54 pm  Comments (3)  
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