How Story Persuades
Editor's note: This post is the second installment in a series titled, "The Power of the Imagination and the Christian." Brian Godawa serves as an advisory board member at Stage & Story.
In my previous post, I explained that the power of imagination in storytelling lies in its ability to incarnate the worldviews of characters and embody conversion or persuasion through lived-out human choices. The audience is influenced by rooting for the protagonist whose own journey embodies the journey of redemption. As Christians, we can communicate Biblical truth by incarnating our worldview through the choices of characters in our stories. But in order to do so, we must make the audience sympathetic to our protagonists. How do we do that?
Rather than making strictly logical arguments about truth or reality, a story carries us along existentially in a universe where arguments are incarnate, where worldviews are lived out and lead to positive or negative results. If the audience likes the protagonist, if they identify with him in some way, then they follow him on his journey and learn the lesson he learns along with him. This is why it is so important for the audience to be discerning about who they are rooting for. They are not merely being entertained when watching a movie or television show; they are being exposed to an incarnate argument about the way life ought or ought not be lived, about the nature of truth in human experience.
There are many ways that stories create a connection between the audience and the protagonist in order to persuade through identification. One is through sympathy; many people love to root for the underdog or the hero who has suffered great injustice. Humor is another basic way to draw the audience into the protagonist’s viewpoint; audiences love to laugh at and with a humorous personality. Likeability is also a means of identification. People will like a protagonist even if he is a criminal, if that protagonist is perceived as cool.
Yet another means of identification with the audience is universal desire. If the hero is seeking something that we all seek in one way or another, then we relate to him and sympathize with him. Freedom, significance, protection of family, success, justice and love are all examples of universal desires that most of us can relate to.
The love interest in a story usually embodies what is lacking in the protagonist, the perfect complement to the hero. In order to discover his flaw, the hero has to lose his love interest. This is why the standard formula for love stories is (1) boy meets girl, (2) boy loses girl, (3) boy gets girl. Only by confronting his flaw and becoming a better person is the hero worthy of his lover. That is redemption.
Another aspect of storytelling rhetoric is the reflection character, the person in the story who is going through the same problems but who seeks resolution in a different way. This is the dramatic way of discrediting counterarguments (antithesis) against the theme (thesis) of the story. In Braveheart, Robert the Bruce wants the same thing as William Wallace: a free Scotland. But he pursues this goal through negotiations and compromise with the king of England, rather than the uncompromising fight that Wallace engages in. Bruce is the man of self-preservation and Wallace is the man of self-sacrifice. By seeing Bruce’s negotiation with the tyrannical king leading only to more slavery, the argument against compromise is sealed.
Just as logical argumentation contains rhetorical rules of argumentation, so storytelling contains persuasive rhetoric. Let’s take a look at just a few of the many other ways in which storytelling in movies uses the language of image and drama to effectively persuade the audience.
It is no surprise that stories that incarnate an idea can often have as much if not more impact than the labyrinthine meanderings of logical debate. Human beings are not reducible to disembodied intellects. We are also emotional beings whose reality is historically experienced within space and time. Truth is not merely mathematically measured against abstract doctrinal propositions; it is existentially experienced.
This goes for our approach to understanding the Bible as well. As Curtis Freeman puts it, we must read the Bible “not as disembodied minds seeking knowledge, but as embodied selves with histories searching for the story of our lives.”
God used incarnation to communicate the seriousness of Israel’s apostasy by commanding Hosea to marry the prostitute Gomer. The parable of the Good Samaritan is an incarnation of the argument defining the responsibility of loving one’s neighbor as universally applicable to everyone, as opposed to the logical and legal technicalities used by the Pharisees to justify their lack of compassion.
Subversion—the retelling of one mythology in terms of another—is another rhetorical strategy of storytelling. The film Underworld uses the accepted mythologies of Romeo and Juliet and the horror genre of vampires and werewolves to address the controversial idea of interracial romance. The tribal families of vampires and werewolves have been feuding for centuries, killing each other in the dark of night. Along comes a hybrid vampire/werewolf that threatens the werewolves’ sense of identity and the vampire’s power over the werewolves. The hybridization of these two cultures threatens the power of the majority and the survival of the minority. Utilizing these other mythologies bypasses the deep-seated prejudices of viewers to address the thorny issue of racism.
The Scriptures are themselves acts of subversion. The apostle John subverts the Hellenistic doctrine of Logos in John 1:1, taking a term loaded with pantheistic worship of abstract Reason as the underlying order of the universe, and subverting it by redefining it as “becoming flesh” in the person of Jesus Christ.
An analogy is an inference that if two things are similar in some ways, they are similar in other ways as well. Some Christian philosophers argue that all truth is analogous. That is, nothing can be known apart from comparing it to something already known or assumed.
In movies, images that embody a similarity between ideas connects those ideas in identity. For example, the movie The Island is a futuristic sci-fi story about a corporation that creates clones to harvest body parts for clients as needed. The clones are kept in isolation and in ignorance of their true identity. The corporation uses euphemisms of the clones—”products”—to dehumanize them. The corporation tries to kill the clones before they are discovered. Henchmen make their way through a series of clones suspended in large plastic bags; they look like fetuses in amniotic sacks.
These clones are injected with drugs and the plastic sacks are slashed open. Others are put into a chamber to be gassed. A black man challenges the owner of the corporation, suggesting that this is how slaves were treated in early American history. Through all these analogous images, viewers are reminded of abortion, euthanasia, the Jewish holocaust and black slavery. This connective analogy shows the dehumanization involved in cloning to be similar to that engaged in by other atrocities.
The evil of the Beast in the biblical book of Revelation is analogized in his many-headed, blaspheming and animalistic, flesh-eating nature, while the sacrificial and peaceful nature of the Lamb depicts Christ’s purity and goodness. Nathan’s parable to King David analogizes his murder of Uriah to a man stealing another man’s only ewe lamb (2 Sam 12:1-7).
In debate, generalization is usually considered a logical fallacy because it takes a particular example of something and generalizes to a universal, when in fact, this is not always true. This is also the problem of most prejudice in our culture. However, as the old adage goes, stereotypes exist because they are to some degree true. There is a sociological preponderance of certain character traits or behaviors in certain cultures.
The fact that not everyone of a cultural community is exactly the same does not disprove that there are in fact many who are. We are sociological creatures and as such display common traits in our communities. Many Christians in the evangelical culture use similar language that others do not, such as “born again,” “saved,” “the blood of Jesus.” And so they also behave in similar ways such as “witnessing” or quoting the Bible. Animal rights activists, Wall Street financiers, Democrats, Republicans, soccer moms and Hollywood celebrities all have similar behaviors within their cultural communities.
In a story, placing common phrases into a character’s mouth or common behaviors in their actions identifies them with a certain cultural community. The character becomes a symbol for that community. The more common phrases and behaviors displayed in the character, the more easily universalized they are. And when the storytellers make those linguistic and behavioral connections, and then show the consequences on that character, they are incarnating the argument against that worldview.
The villain in The Island is the head of the corporation. He explains his motivations using the familiar language of modern scientists: the clones have no souls; they are a means to good ends for society, such as the curing of diseases like Leukemia. Modern scientists make similar arguments to justify public funding or approval of controversial schemes, such as embryonic stem cell research. By placing that familiar language in the villain’s mouth, the storyteller makes a general connection of those ideas with villainy. This may not seem fair or logical to those who disagree, but it is the nature of storytelling to embody a worldview or paradigm in its characters.
Jesus’ parables contain many examples of generalizations of different kinds of people. The snooty self-righteous religious hypocrite was one of his favorites (Lk 10:25-37; 18:10-14; Mt 23).
In a story, a character may become a symbol for a particular worldview; the consequences of that character’s experience become a symbol for what that worldview leads to. In A Beautiful Mind, the schizophrenic John Nash is a symbol for modernity: reducing truth to mental reasoning cripples our humanity, just as Nash was crippled by his “disease.” As a doctor tells Nash, his mind is his problem. He can’t reason his way out. And by the end of the film, Nash explains to the Nobel Prize audience that he discovered real truth in the heart, not the head. So elevating the mind to the absolute determiner of truth leads to self-destruction. But redemption and real truth is found in human connection through love.
In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the five different kids who win tickets to tour Willy Wonka’s factory become symbols of the negative results that different types of parenting bring. A suburban overachiever shows the perils of hypercompetition. A fat German boy serves as a symbol of conspicuous consumption. A spoiled little rich girl gets everything she asks for by whining. A video-game enthusiast embodies antisocial behavior. And of course, there is Charlie, whose poor but loving family sacrifices their needs for his happiness. The storyteller communicates his view of what parenting should really be like through children as symbols of different approaches.
In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul allegorizes Hagar and Sarah as symbols for Jews in bondage to law and Christians as true children of Abraham (Gal 4:21-31). Jerusalem and Mount Zion itself are frequently used as symbols for the church or the people of God (Heb 12:18-24). Tax collectors are used as symbols of greed and distance from God (Mt 5:46; 11:19).
Though many of these examples of story rhetoric would be criticized as being logical fallacies, they are nevertheless given legitimacy in the Bible as effective means of communication and persuasion. But the point remains: storytelling captures us and persuades us to change our own worldview by getting us to identify with the protagonist’s own journey of persuasion, which amounts to a conversion. Story does this through identification with the protagonist; the love interest that embodies what the protagonist lacks; the reflection character who shares the protagonist’s problem, but chooses differently; through incarnation and subversion of worldviews in characters using generalizations, analogies and symbolism.
Curtis Freeman, “Toward a Sensus Fidelium for an Evangelical Church,” in The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation, ed. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996), pp. 164-65.