My son, Sean, recently shared with me some thoughts on content and media in the wake of the introduction of a new game console. His insight into story and creating content are very interesting from the point of view of the twenty something generation. Here it is:
“every great thing that ever was, was small on the day before it became great” Michael Hyatt
The biggest problem we’re facing in the modern world is not hunger or disease, government overreach or corporate ownership, shifting global industries or climate change (though believe me, all those issues are important and vital to address in one way or another.) No, the biggest problem facing our generation is this: what do we do with the time we’re given?
We live in an unprecedented season of human history where technology, social development and worldwide prosperity gives an increasingly large portion of the world more free time than they know what to do with. Access to tools for information technologies and public information create a world where secrets can’t hide, and if they can, they can’t hide for long. Information access is the great socially destabilizing force of our time. When combined with the reshaping of world socio-economic systems, a larger population of the world’s population has access to a larger pool of comfortable free time than at any other point in human history.
Like Clay Shirkey points out in Cognitive Surplus, we’ve spent the last 50 years trying to reckon with this enormous shift in social and cultural life around the globe. Shirkey asserts that like the gin craze of industrialized London, society has coped with our influx of free time by investing in something easy and palatable (though by no means healthy): the television. We befriend characters (fictional and “real”) and we live vicariously through them, letting producers and writers take our nigh-genetically-encoded hunger for story and shared experience and transform it into a multimedia, multi-national conglomerate entertainment complex. For many years, television viewership was like a national religion – the shared set of stories and cultural understandings that grounded us in modern life.
But (and this is a really, truly crucial but): the world is changed. Ironically, the information access that created this coping mechanism’s key systems is also slowly dismantling it. With the advent of personal computing, interactive entertainment and affordable mobile electronic devices, people have more opportunity than ever to actively participate in and sometimes even co-create the media they consume. Smartphones enable users to photograph or record any event they choose; games like Minecraft and even Mass Effect allow users the opportunity to custom-tailor their story experience and tell stories of their own; and digital hosting like Youtube or Instagram allow for easy and free distribution of created material. We have participated in stories because we must be involved in shaping our understanding of our world; we have consumed them passively through commercial media production because previously we have had no choice.
We have participated in stories because we must be involved in shaping our understanding of our world
That has changed. Reality has shifted, and media creation (and participatory media consumption) is now within reach of (if not already a reality for) a vast majority of people in the developed world (and a good portion of the developing world too.) Humans have always had a nigh-infinite capacity for creation and self-realization; technology now allows our created works to finally catch up with our imaginations.
Most people realize that this change has come about on an instinctive level. They share photos and videos of their lives on Facebook; they post pictures to Instagram and keep up with far-flung acquaintances through digital audio and text. The capacity for deliberation and deep, honest engagement with people of like mind has never been greater. Therefore, for most people the television has become the new household god, a marker of cultural identity maybe, and a presence to which people feel great affection or deference, but not the overwhelming, monolithic driver of human existence and identity that it once was.
It’s an old god in a new world, having the appearance of power but slowly losing any of that power’s realities, not by outright defeat, but by a slow fade into irrelevance.
There’s a secret to that god, one that its fondest worshippers diligently spend millions of dollars a day to obfuscate and disguise. The secret is this: the god was never real, and was of our own making from the beginning. Before television, before commercial radio, we created: we told stories, we laughed at bars, we wrote songs on our porches. Sure, there were always consumptive media (and interactive experiences like games, incidentally), but we have always actively engaged them: we have gone to the theater, we have cheered at games, we have sung together in church. One of our human prerogatives is to create, and no amount of media consumption has ever fully suppressed that compulsion. We’ve consumed because we’ve been trained to; we create because we have no other choice.
So that’s my invitation to you: create. Make something. Do something; do anything. There is no amount of cultural gatekeeping that can keep you from creating. The tools are there; the desire is there. You need only to act. Michael Hyatt says every great thing that ever was, was small on the day before it became great. You have no idea how important your stories are: to you, to your loved ones, to me, to the world. You just have to tell them. If you do, if we create and share, then the world will never look the same again.
Let me tell you a story filled with horror and fright. This is a true story. It happened to me.
I am a radiologist, a doctor who interprets Xrays, CAT scans, MRIs, etc. Years ago, in the old school days, Xrays were images exposed on regular film. Now, images are captured digitally and sent to a hires computer screen. To develop these films, each Radiology department had a dark room. On one side of the front wall of the darkroom was a huge Xray film developing unit the size of a short refrigerator. It went through the wall and the other side, enclosed in darkness, was where the exposed films were fed for development. These huge, hot, throbbing machines churned out spent silver and hot water. The result was a viscous, shiny black goo that was poured into a special drain cut in the floor of the darkroom.
I came to work one day at a radiology department (I will not say where — at that time I worked at over six different locations) to find the “light” room in disarray. The “light” room was where the technologists worked and was called that because the room had a door that led into the “dark” room. Go figure. It seemed that sometime during the night, the developing machine had malfunctioned. The floor was covered in black, icky goo glistening and burbling like some vast living alien being. Fortunately, there was a backup developer in surgery for running Xrays taken during surgery. The stench was unbelievable! It was as if a thousand dying vultures had plunged into the dark cave of the dark room and had putrified into a morass of black ichor.
To get into the dark room, there was a rotating door of black and brown panels. When the door was open, you could go in. If it was closed, someone was inside. And, since there was room for only two people in the darkroom, you didn’t want to go in. There was a deep throated rumble as the door rotated and exposed our “biorad” tech guy clad in a surgical mask, bouffant surgical cap and a yellow biohazard apron. He was gagging as he emerged into the light room and he leaned over the sink and retched. I looked back at the yawning black mouth of the darkroom door. I recognized this stench. I had been involved in my share of autopsies as a medical student. It was the stink of human decomposition.
“What did you find in there?” I asked the man.
His face was pale and sweaty as he pulled off his mask. “Something is wedged in the drain pipe. Something big.”
My heart raced and he placed the mask back over his face. “I’ve almost got it out.” He bravely stormed the doorway and cycled out of sight. I went to my office and began my day of reading films. An hour or so later, biorad guy knocked on my door. I knew he was there because the stench preceded him. He was carrying a large, black bucket.
“Dr. Hennigan, what do you think this is?” He sat the bucket at my feet.
My heart raced as I examined the shiny, black mass glistening in the bucket. The pebbly surface and contour matched only one thing. A liver.
“It looks . . . organic.” I managed to say. How had someone’s liver ended up in the drain pipe of a hospital dark room? Instantly, my imagination began to run wild. Someone had to have removed this liver from a living, or possibly, dead human being. Why had they done so? Was this heinous killer caught in the act and had to duck into our dark room and try and dispose of the liver? Why on earth would anyone do such a thing?
Biorad wiped his mouth with the back of his gloved hand. “What should I do with it? It looks like an organ.”
“Yes, it does.” I slowly rolled my desk chair back from the thing. “Why don’t you take it to the lab and get someone in pathology to look at it. It might be a specimen from . . .”
“Surgery?” Biorad said. “Maybe someone dropped it in the dark room and . . .” He stopped because he knew how stupid it sounded. But, the thing before us was beyond stupid; it was horrifically real.
“Pathology.” I nodded.
Biorad picked up the bucket and left my office. I tried to push the image and the smell from my memory without much success. I was relieved when my day was finally done and I could leave the lingering odor that filled the hallway with the memory of death.
I did not return to that hospital for several days. When I returned, the light room was pristine and the developer was humming along. The head of the department came to my office to discuss a procedure to be done on a patient and I stopped her before she could leave the room. “What ever happened with the thing we found in the drain?”
Her face paled and she smiled weakly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I blinked and laughed. “Last week. The dark room flooded. We found something in the drain. It looked like a liver.”
She shook her head and looked away. “There was nothing in the drain but some thickened silver halide.
I stood up and took her by the shoulders, turning her face toward me. “I know what I saw. I told our biorad guy to take it to pathology. Did he?”
She swallowed. “He never should have done that.”
“I can’t tell you. If I do, I’ll be fired automatically. Just drop it, Dr. Hennigan. Just drop it.” She pulled away from me and disappeared from my office.
A few months before, a serial killer had struck in our area. Just a year before that, a prominent physician had been accused of killing his wife. He always maintained someone broke into his house. I can’t prove it, but as I slumped into my chair I was convinced this mysterious killer had struck again. And, to escape negative publicity, this hospital in a small town at which I was moonlighting would never reveal the fact that someone under its care had died a horrific and painful death and a ghoulish fiend had taken that victim’s liver and instead of eating it with fave beans, had stuffed it into a drain in a lonely, dank dark room.
Story. It is how we communicate. This is a true story. I have not embellished it in any way. What I did was to give it context and setting. Against the backdrop of recent events, the story took on a menacing and horrific tone. No matter what my intent in telling this story, I had to convey information in a specific format. A beginning, a middle, and an end.
The scientific method developed out of Augustine’s method for exegesis of scripture. He developed the method to provide a concrete and rational approach to the interpretation of scripture. Centuries later, Isaac Newton took the same set of principles and applied them to scientific inquiry. First, you have an idea; a notion; a suspicion on how something works. Next, you devise a way to test your idea through experimentation. Lastly, you take the data you have acquired and analyze it to determine one of two possible outcomes. Either the data supports your idea or it fails to support the idea. If it supports the “hypothesis” then a new “law” is in the making. If it does not, the scientist returns to the drawing board and revisits the original “idea” or hypothesis. In scientific inquiry, just as in story, there is a beginning (hypothesis), a middle (data acquisition), and an end (conclusion).
Story is everywhere. In fact, I would assert that story is the ONLY way as human beings we have to communicate. We are verbal beings, even when what we say is written or painted or sung or played upon an instrument. We take our innermost “ideas” and we transmit them in such a way that we communicate with others. To that, we must couch those ideas in the form of a story. Story is all around us. Story is how we communicate. Story is Life!
There are challenges to the Christian faith that consist of claims that the “story” of Jesus is borrowed from myths and legends of the day about other “gods”. Such claims may have some legitimacy. But, how can we convey the facts about an event without, in some way, using language and elements that have already been used in story after story after story since the dawn of mankind? As a writer, I can tell you that every story that can be told has been told. Most stories can be reduced to basic elements of at best two dozen basic stories. No matter what kind of story we choose to convey a truthful event, there can ALWAYS be claimed that we took elements of other stories to fabricate this story. Nothing is original! It has all happened in one form or another before. Just because it is a story, does not mean it is not truth!
What we do as human beings is to embellish the story; to strengthen the story; to enhance the story to give it context and gravitas and emotional heft. Here is an excerpt from one of my favorite essays of all time by Walter Wangerin, Jr. He tells the story of the “the shaper” the meaning of the ancient English word, scop, used for the poet of the day. In this essay, he talks about how the clan has had a battle in which one of its own has perished. The clan returns to its mead hall, tired and broken by the day’s events. And then, the storyteller, the “shaper” takes the day’s events and . . .
The battle had been bloody enough to make a red mud of the earth beneath their feet; and one of their number had died; and now they’ve returned to the mead hall, exhausted, hungry, aggrieved.
They eat in silence. They drink that oldest of human drinks, a wine made of fermented honey. Their sadness deepens to a maudlin despair….
And just then the singer strikes a chord on his harp.
The singer develops the chord into melody. A familiar melody, in fact. One everyone has heard since childhood, and therefore one that carries profound, unutterable associations: parental comfort, an assurance of the divine. The singer sings familiar verses, and all the people nod: there is the weight of meaning in these verses. They remember. They remember and re-experience them now.
But then the singer begins to weave new words into the familiar verses: the details of today’s grim battle; the name of the comrade who fell; the deeds he did in falling, all of which, fetching up in the experience of this song, find place within the precincts of the divine; all of which are no longer senseless, but do bear now the weight of genuine purpose and meaning. And the people nod. And the dead ascends into the Valhalla of heroes. It is well. Chaos is cosmos. Desolation is now heavy with purpose. The day has taken shape in the singer’s song–
–and ever thereafter, it is the spiritual, artistic shape which is remembered as the truth of that day, not the cold, undecipherable, purely empirical fact.
We take “purely empirical fact” and shape it into song; story; poetry; painting; music; art; and yes, scientific discovery. We give it life! It resonates within our souls; our hearts; our minds! And, here is the point I would like to make as I follow up on yesterday’s post about Ray Bradbury.
Humanity will always have to utilize Story to communicate; to give meaning and life to the events that swirl around us; to answer the “why” not just the “how” for those empirical facts. And, in order to use Story, we must use our imagination. And, in order to use our imagination, we must ALWAYS have the ability and the freedom and the capacity to seek after God. Remove God from the human awareness and you remove imagination. The supernatural is ESSENTIAL for the continuation of the human race. This was addressed years ago by a prominent atheist who said that whether we believe in God or not, we have to at least believe in a “noble lie” for humanity to continue to thrive.
The “noble lie” for me is the Truth, the Life, and the Way! And, His Story is the Greatest Story Ever Told!
Don’t forget to come by the LifeWay in Shreveport this coming Saturday, January 5th from noon to 2 PM for my book signing. I will be signing “The 12th Demon: Mark of the Wolf Dragon”, “The 13th Demon: Altar of the Spiral Eye”, and “Conquering Depression: A 30 Day Plan to Finding Happiness”. Come and buy some books if none of these interest you. Come and share your Story! Free tee shirts!!!!
In 2008 I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to meet my all time favorite writer, Ray Bradbury. If you have not read stories by this giant of science fiction and fantasy literature, then you have missed out on a life changing experience. Ray Bradbury passed away in 2012 and his loss was a tiny tremor in the tumult of this past year. For you see, as forward thinking and progressive as Mr. Bradbury was, he hesitated to embrace many forms of modern technology. He refused to fly. He would only travel by train or boat. He would not allow any of his works to be translated into electronic form. You will not find any of his stories as ebooks! Why? Go read Fahrenheit 451 and you might catch a glimmer of the reason. Stories, to Bradbury, belonged inside people! Story is Life!
As we enter 2013, I am depressed at the negative tone of many of my favorite blogs. Who can blame us? If you are a Christian, then 2012 was a year of blow after blow to the Christian lifestyle. And, I don’t need to spend time listing those developments here. Others have done it well. But, there is one concept I want to explore as we enter a new year.
In this past year, scientists have mounted a campaign against God. Not surprising. This happens with regularity. But, this past year the attack was imbedded in such books as “A Universe From Nothing” by Lawrence Krauss or Richard Dawkins’ atheist children’s book “The Magic of Reality”. And, that venerable icon of science for children, Bill Nye, the Science Guy attacked creationism in public and on internet based video. The year ended with the American Atheists’ huge billboard on Times Square asking people to “Dump the Myth”.
Back in the 1950‘s, Ray Bradbury wrote a series of short stories that resonate with today’s headlines. Now, remember, he was an advocate of science. He helped develop ideas for many of Walt Disney’s animated shorts about space travel. He was involved in the design of “Future World” at EPCOT. But, he had cautionary words for us about the danger of the supremacy of science as a philosophy. As a philosophy, this is known as scientism or materialism or naturalism. Nature is all that is. If we cannot sense it with our scientific machines, then it cannot exist. NOTHING in the supernatural realm can be even considered as possible.
In “The Martian Chronicles”, Bradbury created a character who had escaped to Mars and built a house of “Usher” to resurrect the creations of imagination. It seemed that on Earth such imaginative works had been outlawed. Look at this passage from “Usher II” in the Martian Chronicles:
They passed a law. Oh, it started very small. In 1999 it was a grain of sand. They began by controlling books, cartoons, and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressures; there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves.
Every man, they said, must face reality. Must face the Here and Now! Everything that was not so must go. All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy must be shot in mid-air! So they lined them up against a library wall one Sunday morning thirty years ago, they lined them up in 2006; they lined them up, . . . and shot them down, and burned the paper castles and fairy frogs and old kings and the people who lived happily every after . . . and Once Upon a Time became No More!
In another story from that book, “The Million Year Picnic”, a family has escaped the self destruction of Earth and has made it to Mars to rebuild a new life. Here is what a father told his children about Earth:
Life on Earth never settled down to doing anything very good. Science ran too far ahead of us too quickly, and the people got lost in a mechanical wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters, rockets, emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing machines instead of how to run the machines.Wars got bigger and bigger and finally killed Earth.
But, the most powerful story, and more than likely a precursor to “Fahrenheit 451” was “The Exiles” from “The Illustrated Man”. In this story, the authors of science fiction, horror and fantasy have found exile on Mars from a world in which their works have been burned and now, a rocket from Earth approaches. In this scene, Edgar Allen Poe is waiting for the rocket men to land so he can defeat them.
They won’t be prepared for us, at least. They haven’t the imagination. Those clean young rocket men with their antiseptic bloomers and fish-bowl helmets, with their new religion. About their necks, on gold chains, scalpels. Upon their heads, a diadem of microscopes. In their holy fingers, steaming incense urns which in reality are only germicidal ovens for steaming out superstition. The names of Poe; Bierce, Hawthorne, Blackwood — blasphemy to their clean lips.”
How did this happen and how did Poe come to reside on Mars?
On Earth, a century ago, in the year 2020 they outlawed our books. Oh, what a horrible thing — to destroy our literary creations that way! It summoned us out of — what? Death? The Beyond? . . . the only saving thing we could do was wait out the century here on Mars, hoping Earth might overweight itself with these scientists and their doubtings; but now they’re coming to clean us out . . . “
And, lest you think that Bradbury was not aware of the war on Christmas look at this scene of a wasted, near dead Santa Claus:
They took him, a skeleton thought, and clothed him in centuries of pink flesh and snow beard and red velvet suit and black boot, made him reindeers, tinsel, holly. And, after centuries of manufacturing him they drowned him in a vat of Lysol, you might say.
What must it be like on Earth? . . . Without Christmas? . . . nothing but snow and wind and the lonely, factual people.
Ah, the power of Story. I will address this in upcoming posts. For now, we must stop and revel in the sheer power of Story to transform humanity. Bradbury did it with these short tales. Bradbury cautioned us that if we allow our imagination to die, then we will die as a people. And, imagination is built upon the foundation of the possibility of the supernatural. Eliminate the supernatural, and you MUST eliminate imagination; burn it out of the brain; cauterize it from the human thought patterns; outlaw it from public and private expression.
Don’t miss this. Bradbury talked of it and he was on the side of science. Science is a tool! It is NOT a way of life. And, if we allow Science to become a way of life, we will see the death of imagination; the death of superstition; the death of the supernatural; the death of Story; the death of God! There is no other path.
Adolf Hitler built his world upon the foundation of naturalism. And, he tried to purge the world of superstition in the ovens of Auschwitz. We cannot forget this. We must remember that to kill Story is to kill what makes us humans. And, one Man used Story to change the world. These stories were called parables.
So, this coming Sunday, January 5th, I will be signing copies of my three books at our local LifeWay in Shreveport, Louisiana from noon to 2 PM. Of course, I would like for you to come. I will be giving away tee shirts. But, here is my request. Go to a book store. Any book store this coming Saturday. Go and find a book that fuels your imagination. There are wonderful books for all ages and for men and women in the realm of Christian fiction at a LifeWay and if you come to my LifeWay, I can point you to many good Stories.
Go out this Saturday and let’s show the world that as followers of Christ, we recognize the importance the power of Story. This Saturday, wherever you are, go into a book store and buy a book and when you check out, look the person behind the counter in the eye and say, “Story Is Life”!
There was the mystery of the man in the rocker. My mother often told the story of how, at the age of 14 (which would be in 1932) she was forbidden by her mother and father to go to a dance party. In the small town of Saline, Louisiana there just wasn’t a whole to do for entertainment and my mother really wanted to go to the “Jump Josey” party. So, after she was sent to her room, she slid out the window and ran across the yard in the dark toward the neighbor’s house.
She would talk about how much fun she had at the party and suddenly realizing how late it was. So, she ran back to her house. It was now close to midnight and the little hamlet of Saline was quite and dead as a door knob.
She eased up on the front porch with her shoes in her hand and into the house. As soon as she shut the front door behind her, she head someone rocking in the rocking chair. In the dim interior of the living room only lit by reflected moonlight, she saw someone sitting in the rocker. Her heart was beating and she was so afraid it was her mother and father. She quietly slipped by the chair but when she passed her parents’ bedrooms, they were both in the bed fast asleep. All of her sisters and her brother were in their beds. Then, who was in the rocker?
This was the great mystery. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat as my mother told this story. She told it over and over throughout my childhood. And, I jumped every time the big Reveal was, well, revealed. In fact, my mother and father were incredible story tellers. It seemed as if their entire lives were one unending story after another. I grew up believing in fairy tales and ghost stories and that good would always triumph over evil. I grew up believing that life, like stories, has a beginning, a middle, and an end and the best stories always have the strongest endings! I grew up believing that everything in life was a story; coherent; understandable; forward moving toward a satisfying end.
In our postmodern culture where relativism rules supreme, it is difficult to see where life in the 21st century matches the classic story. I guess that is why I absolutely LOVE anything written, directed, or produced by J. J. Abrams. Yes, I watched every episode of LOST with breathless anticipation. And, yes, I loved the finale. It fit. It was inevitable. It was a strong ending. I watched every episode of Alias. I went back and watched Mission Impossible III again and loved it. And, Fringe is one of my favorite shows right now. Just last week, I got hooked again by Alcatraz. And, as a life long Trekker, I was shocked and stunned by the brilliance of his reboot of Star Trek.
This past week I began the long process of re-editing my final version of my next book, “The 12th Demon”. Today’s post is about plot. My editor, Andy, had this to say about character development in light of the plot devices regarding one scene where Jonathan Steel has “lost” the teenager Josh again and is reeling with emotional conflict over this failure to keep his promise to Josh’s mother:
You’ve written a novel that centers around action, which is excellent. However here it would be good to dwell on Steel’s emotions. He’s just lost Josh. He would be feeling ashamed, angry, and even afraid. Help the readers connect with him on an emotional level by giving Steel a moment of vulnerability here. See this talk by JJ Abrams about the most important scene in Jaws (start at 10:00).
Here is the link to this most excellent discussion. Watch it over and over and bathe in the pure brilliance of the Mystery Box.
My mother gave me a “mystery box” each and every time she told me that story. It set the stage for my entire life. It has made me an investigator of all around me: people, places, things, situations, life in general. For in everyone of us, in every situation there is a mystery to be solved. And, it is in the journey to discovery that life finds its most satisfaction for me. In fact, the greatest discovery of my life was in finding a relationship with Jesus Christ. Opening that “mystery box” was the most profound experience of all.
Oh, yeah. The rocker.
My mother slowly crept back into the living room, still carrying her shoes. The rocker was still but as she got closer, it began to rock again and she could now hear a deep, throaty breathing from the person in the chair. Who was it? Had someone come into the house to rob them? She should have run back to her parents’ bedroom and cried for help, but if she did, she would be in big trouble over the dance. So, she drew nearer to the chair and asked, “Who’s there?” More deep breath and now, a thumping sound like a heart beating hard and slow. She reached out in the darkness and felt hard, scratchy whiskers and she screamed, throwing her shoes up in the air. The man in the chair bolted up and landed right on top of her as they toppled to the floor. The man’s face grew close to hers and he . . . licked her. He licked her? The lights came on as the family tumbled into the living room and there perched on top of my mother was the family hound. You can figure out the rest!