forging a story: Matthew 17

Matthew 17.  A book called STORY, by Robert McKee, is generally considered the definitive guide to screenwriting. A screenwriter of some of Hollywood’s highest grossing films recently told me at a dinner party that he thinks the book STORY “ruined Hollywood.” He said, “all the directors and producers think they have to follow it.  But I could name dozens of books that didn’t follow it, and now none of them would make it into film, because they don’t adhere to STORY’s formula.”

The thing is, STORY doesn’t have a formula.  McKee, a former Fulbright scholar, strikes me as a genius.  He says you forge a story by moving it back and forth across the opposing charges of its primary values.  ie. crime pays versus crime doesn’t pay.  He says:  “In creating the dimensions of your story’s ‘argument’ take great care to build the power of both sides.  Compose the scenes and sequences that contradict your final statement with as much truth and energy as those that reinforce it.  If your film ends on the Counter-Idea, such as ‘Crime pays because …’ then amplify the sequences that lead the audience to feel justice will win out…  The danger is this: When your Premise is an idea you feel you must prove to the world, and you design your story as an undeniable certification of that idea, you set yourself on the road to didacticism…. Misusing and abusing art to preach, your screenplay will become a… thinly disguised sermon as you strive in a single stroke to convert the world.  Didacticism results from the naive enthusiasm that fiction can be used like a scalpel to cut out the cancers of society.”  McKee claims that if a movie preaches “war is a scourge cured by pacifism,” you’ll “want to pick up a gun.”  He says that the pacifist pleas of antiwar films rarely sensitize us to war because “the writer is blind to a truth we know too well – men love war.”

The solution, Mckee says, is this:  “As a story develops, you must willingly entertain opposite, even repugnant ideas.  The finest writers have dialectical, flexible minds that easily shift points of view.  They see the postive, the negative, and all shades of irony, seeking the truth of these views honestly and convincingly.  This omniscience forces them to become even more creative, more imaginative, and more insightful.  Ultimately, they express what they deeply believe, but not until they have allowed themselves to weigh each living issue and experience all its possibilities….. The trick is not to be a slave to your ideas, but to immerse yourself in life.  For the proof of your vision is not how well you can assert your Controlling Idea, but its victory over the enormously powerful forces that you array against it.”

The reason the screenwriter I met claimed STORY has ruined Hollywood is that directors and producers apply the precepts of STORY like a formula.  They hop back and forth between value changes at a stupifyingly predictable pace.  If the characters kiss, check your watch.  In two minutes, they’ll fight.  If a family is reunited against all odds: beware.  In a few moments, a bomb or other foreseeable force of antagonism will blow them apart.  If someone is free, they will be enslaved.  If there’s truth, it will be followed within a nanosecond by a lie.  Loyalty and betrayal; wisdom and stupidity; excitement and boredom; right and wrong; hope and despair; life as meaningful versus life as meaningless; self-sacrifice versus greediness – these values will see-saw back and forth across the screen at a dizzying pace.

But McKee is talking about something far more profound than see-sawing opposing values through your story arc.  He is talking about the human condition.  He is addressing truth about life.  I think that what he is really asking is that writers be brave enough to explore the allure of evil.  The reason we react in a visceral way to didacticism is that there is something inherently false about it.  We recoil from it.  We don’t like it in our movies, our novels, our friends, our politicians or our pulpits.

How can I say this and claim to be a Christian?  Am I a victim of post-modernism, caught up in the inherently contradictory worldview that claims there is no absolute truth – except the absolute truth claim that there is no absolute truth?

If you read the above passages from McKee carefully, he is not saying a writer cannot make an ultimate assertion of truth: far from it.  He says the opposite.  McKee says that whatever your Controlling Idea, in order to earn your story, you have to be willing to entertain the full power of its opposite.  He is not saying there is no right or wrong: he is saying you have to be willing to “go there.”  You have to be willing to portray the seeming rightness of wrong; and the seeming wrongness of right.  You must explore the full allure of temptation.  You must jump headfirst into the complexity of life.

It should come as no surprise, then, that if Jesus is the ultimate storyteller, the 17th chapter of Matthew jumps headfirst into the complexity of our savior’s story.  The chapter see-saws back and forth between seemingly opposing values.  The chapter opens with Christ leading three of his disciples “up a high mountain to be alone.”  Jesus is transfigured in front of the disciples “so that his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.”  Moses and Elijah – two dead prophets neither of whose bodies, significantly, were ever found – appeared and began talking with Jesus.  A bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice spoke from the cloud, saying:  “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.  Listen to him.”  The disciples, terrified, fall face down on the ground.

On the way down from the mountain, however, Christ once again tells the disciples that he will suffer, die, and be raised from the dead.  Power and victory follows talk of seeming defeat.

At the foot of the mountain, Christ rebukes a demon that has been tormenting a man’s son.  The boy has seizures and suffers terribly.  He often falls into the fire or into the water. Christ heals him instantly: “From that moment the boy was well.”  Christ tells the disciples that they couldn’t cast out the boy’s demon because they didn’t have enough faith.  Christ then makes the incredible claim, “if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,’ and it would move.  Nothing would be impossible.” Once again, the story leaps into the realm of majesty and power.

Jesus follows this encounter, in which he conquers a demon and explains that he can move mountains, by again telling his disciples that he will “be betrayed into the hands of his enemies.”  He tells them he will be killed, and on the third day raised from the dead. The disciples are “filled with grief” at Christ’s words.  Victory again follows talk of betrayal and death.

Then the story takes another incredible swing, this time into the land of seeming fable.  The collectors of the Temple tax ask Peter if Jesus pays the Temple tax.  “Of course,” Peter replies, even though there’s no evidence that Christ has paid it yet.  Peter assumes he knows what Christ will do; he assumes that Christ will be a loyal tax-paying citizen.  Jesus explains to Peter that as the Son of the God for whom the temple is made, Jesus is exempt from the temple tax.  But since he doesn’t want to offend anyone, he tells Peter: “go down to the lake and throw in a line.  Open the mouth of the first fish you catch, and you will find a large silver coin.  Take it and pay the tax for both of us.”  The chapter that began with Christ magically transformed into a shiny figure of light, ends with Christ in command of a what our pictures books would call a magic fish.

So is this chapter doing what McKee said to do?  Is it just telling a good story, by portraying Christ as victor one minute, and defeated the next?  Or is it doing something far more profound, something that even McKee, genius as he is, only hints as being possible for human storytellers?  Is it possible that even as the story seems to swing from victory, to loss, to victory, to loss, to victory, it is instead moving like a switchblade through our own hearts?  Is it forging forward in a truth so profound about the human condition and the cross that we can hardly take it in:  God is all-powerful, yet he has chosen to die for us.

We see this truth not just in the see-sawing of the chapter’s values, but embedded like a gem in each of the chapter’s sequences.  In the transfiguration, we see Christ revealed as he really is.  Christ is God.  Christ is majestic.  Christ was with God before the foundation of the world.  He saw Satan thrown out of heaven like a lightning bolt.  In other words, glowing with light is Christ’s natural state.  Yet the very power of the transfiguration reveals the hard to comprehend truth that Christ, except for in this brief moment on the mountain top, had chosen not to look like God; “There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him,” Isaiah tells us in his famous prophecy about Christ.  Isaiah 53:3.  Why would someone so powerful choose not to look powerful?

We find the answer embedded in the next story in the sequence.  In the story of Christ conquering a demon and explaining that he could move mountains, we see pain and death.  One of the characters in the story is suffering: the boy “suffers terribly.”  And we know that the father, too, had been suffering: he suffered the pain of seeing his child try to kill himself, by throwing himself into water and fire.  So the king who could move mountains, did not: instead, he choose to use his power to remove suffering.

The story of the “magic” fish ties the value switches together into one clear message:  The Lord will provide the payment.  Jesus is exempt from tax, yet God will give him the price to pay the very tax from which he alone is exempt.

Similarly, the Bible teaches that Jesus was the only good man who ever walked this earth. Jesus was the only human who was without sin.  He was, in other words, the only one who did not have to suffer any punishment for sin.  He was the only one who didn’t deserve hell.  Yet, Jesus chose to pay the price for our sin. As the same famous prophecy in Isaiah explains:  “It was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down.  And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his owns sin!  But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins.  He was beaten so we could be whole.  He was whipped so we could be healed.  All of us like sheep, have strayed away.  We have left God’s paths to follow our own.  Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all.”  Isaiah 53:4-6.

Perhaps in understanding this, we can understand why Christ expresses such violent emotion when the disciples failed to cast out the demon from the boy who suffered from seizures:  “You faithless and corrupt people!  How long must I be with you?  How long must I put up with you!”  v. 17.  The words sound so harsh coming from a God who claims to be love.  If McKee were evaluating the writer of this story, he would give him an A+.  A perfect God is yelling at his followers?  But perhaps the emotion expressed here is not rage, but rather anguish: Jesus is exploding with the deepest grief prophesied in Isaiah: He is “a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.”  Is. 53:3.  How long, Jesus seems to be asking, must I carry your burdens?  How long, must I put up with your lack of faith?  How long will I have to pay for your sins?

The answer is one Jesus already knows: he put up with our betrayals all the way to the cross.  But just because Jesus knew the answer, didn’t take away his anguish.  Just because Jesus knew that he would die to make us whole, didn’t mean it wouldn’t hurt.  It didn’t mean Christ wouldn’t wish it away.  “If it’s your will,” Jesus asked in the garden of Gethsemene, “take this cup from me.”  Jesus was asking God if there were another way to save us other than the cross. Jesus, who was fully human, didn’t want to suffer the gates of hell any more than anyone else would have.  If he could have stayed on the mountain top, transfigured, basking in God’s approval and light, he would have.  If he could have stood still, and allowed magic fish to bring him everything he needed, he might have.  If he could have walked around, moving mountains left, right and center, he might have.

But Jesus accepted God’s will, because he trusted that there was no other way to save us.  Jesus accepted the cross because he loved us.  There was yet another person in the story of the demon possessed boy who suffered: Jesus.  Jesus suffers when we suffer. We see in the gospels that Christ sees our pain with “compassion.”  He hurts when we hurt.  He was willing to take that hurt on himself.  He took, in effect, the demonic – the force of evil that wants to destroy us – on himself.  The boy was instantly saved from the fire and water.  But Christ was not.

That was why Isaiah could also proclaim:  “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you… When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up.”  Is. 43:2.  Christ went into the deep waters and into the fire.  Christ, the king, chose to suffer as servant for us all.   Embedded in Chapter 17, therefore, is not didacticism but a powerful story of love.  A majestic king whom mountains and fish obeyed, chose to be thrown into the fire and water to rescue his people.  The chapter, like the whole Bible, embodies the deepest paradoxical truth of the human condition: we are imperfect, yet we are loved.  We do evil, yet we will live in heaven.  God is good, yet he chose to suffer death.  A king becomes a suffering servant.  A story forged across those values, will be the most perfect story of all, because it is the story for which all of us long.  We have a God who knows our weaknesses, and yet loves us to the point of death.  McKee was right.  Fiction cannot like a scalpel remove the cancers of society.  The story of Christ, however, is greater than fiction.  Christ took the scalpel into himself to remove the deepest cancer of all from society: evil.

That’s why the story of Christ offers the kind of life that all other art only hints at.  In Christ, we find a king so magical that in him all the longings of our childhood storybooks come true.  As God declares in the transfiguration, he “delights” in Christ.  If God had wanted, the very fish would have leapt out of the sea to save Christ from the cross.  The mountains would have bent down to rescue him.  But God stayed his hand.  Christ paid the price, willingly, in pain and grief but without regret, out of true love.  That’s not didacticism. There’s no formula.  It’s not saying what should be.  It’s saying that the very thing that shouldn’t have happened, did. That’s why the Bible, alone out of all other books, can truly end with the words, and they lived happily ever after.  The king suffered to hand us the keys to live in his kingdom. All he asks is that we believe.

by Caroline Coleman, posted in, on October 31, 2011

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