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Seven stories we keep telling

Over the course of around twenty years of analysing films, books and other media, I have often been struck at the ways in which storytellers keep telling the same kinds of tales over and over again. That’s not to say that the narratives they construct are inevitably wearied or hackneyed; far from it. There is extraordinary diversity in the way that the themes have been explored. Yet, it remains the case that, under the surface, most if not all stories are versions of a limited number of key themes.

Back in 2004, Christopher Booker wrote a large tome entitled The Seven Basic Plots, which he had worked on for 34 years. He wrote out of a conviction that every story was a retelling of one of seven fundamental storylines:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

While some writers praised him, others were highly critical as it led Booker to be critical of some classic works because they didn’t fit into his scheme. Some of his basic plots resonated with me more than others, but I didn’t ever make much effort to look at films through his grid as I wasn’t convinced it would help me in any particular way.

A Story of a Larger Kind

Long before Booker, J.R.R. Tolkien gave a lecture at the University of St Andrews which was later published as an essay, ‘On Fairy Stories’. Tolkien argued that the stories we tell (what he refers to as fairy stories are what we now generally call fantasy literature) are reflections in some way of the true story of the gospel – of God coming into our world in the person of Jesus Christ, dying and rising again to rescue us.

The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. . . . But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. . . . There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. . . . But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

C.S. Lewis wrote, in his essay ‘Is Theology Poetry?’, about the way that the story of Jesus's incarnation, death and resurrection echoes, or is echoed by, old myths and legends:

Theology, while saying that a special illumination has been vouchsafed to Christians and (earlier) to Jews, also says that there is some divine illumination vouchsafed to all men. . . . We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of the great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story—the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth.

Similarly, in a 1904 debate with an atheist newspaper editor Richard Blatchford, G.K. Chesterton said,

If the Christian God really made the human race, would not the human race tend to rumours and perversions of the Christian God? If the centre of our life is a certain fact, would not people far from the centre have a muddled version of that fact? If we are so made that a Son of God must deliver us, is it odd that Patagonians should dream of a Son of God?

What Tolkien, Lewis and Chesterton are saying is that human beings, made in the image of God for a relationship with God, have an intuitive sense of the shape of the most important story there is – the gospel story. While their focus was more on ancient myths, legends, and fairy tales, it seems to me that we should expect the same to be true of all powerful stories which human beings tell. Because God has 'set eternity in the human heart’ (Ecclesiastes 3:11), we have a deep longing for God, though many people fail to recognise what this longing is. And somehow we have, hidden deep within us, an urge to tell stories that resonate to some extent with the true story of God’s rescue of lost people.

The Stories We Tell

The Stories We Tell

Having been reflecting on this for a long time, a year or so ago I started to ask what story themes we keep coming back to within contemporary culture – especially in films. At the start of this year I was excited, therefore, to spot a new book by Mike Cosper, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long For and Echo the Truth (Crossway, 2014) as it seemed to be exploring the same territory.

As I read it, I was delighted to find that Cosper’s work resonated strongly with my own thinking in this area, and that it looked at many good examples of contemporary storytelling echoing the big story of the Bible. It seems that many Christians who look for theological echoes in contemporary culture are really only looking for obvious echoes of the death (and possibly resurrection) of Jesus. Mike Cosper is looking more widely at echoes of the big story of the whole Bible, as I had been doing.

Many of Mike Cosper’s themes are ones I had already articulated, while others were things I hadn’t really considered – especially chapter 10 (‘Honey Boo Boo and the Weight of Glory’), which looks at how our longing for fame and glory is rooted in a deep human longing which, like all of our longings, is easily misdirected.

Seven Key Themes

I have settled, for now, on seven core themes in the stories we tell which reflect the overarching narrative of the Bible (and which overlap to some extent with Mike Cosper’s themes):

Paradise Lost

These are stories in which the central characters’ world of peace and tranquility is shattered by some event – usually due to some wrong human action. It’s an obvious echo of the story of the Garden of Eden. An example of this is Beasts of the Southern Wild

Breaking Free

The first human rebellion against God in the Garden of Eden – the Fall – was an attempt to be free from God’s authority. We are constantly trying to break free of all sorts of things. Think of Elsa in Frozen as she sings ‘Let it Go’.

Remaking the World

The world is clearly far from being paradise. Biblically, this is a direct consequence of our rebellion against God. Our response to it is to try to improve it. In Genesis 4, we read about Cain building a city and Tubal-Cain making tools. Those aren’t wrong things in themselves, but both are attempts to improve the world. A recent example of this theme is Interstellar.

Overcoming Brokenness

Human beings instinctively recognise that the world is – as a result of the Fall – a very broken place (see this fascinating quote by Michael Chabon). The Bible is full of accounts of, and reflections on, our brokenness. One response is remaking the world, but there are other ways we go about overcoming brokenness: searching for happiness or meaning; trying to find some personal sense of purpose; seeking consolation in relationships; or simply trying to drown out the pain through a range of addictive behaviours. I think this is the central theme of Moonrise Kingdom.

Defeating Monsters

By ‘monsters’ I don’t necessarily mean real monsters like Godzilla, but any oppressor or enemy. The world is full of monsters of various kinds, but our greatest enemy is the biggest monster of them all, the Devil. This is the theme at the heart of every superhero film and just about every fantasy film. But how about Toy Story 3, with its cuddly enemy Lots-O as our example?

Finding Love

Another response to our brokenness is searching for true love – not necessarily romantic love, but for a relationship in which someone truly loves us for who we are. It could be the love of a friend, a child or a community. We are made for love, of course: ultimately we will only be fully satisfied when we are in a loving relationship with God. It’s the heart of shalom. This is one of the most common of all themes in films and other media. How about Frozen as an example again? We assume that the classic Disney trope of ‘love’s true kiss’ from a handsome hero will save the day, but it turns out to be the true love of Anna for her sister.

Coming Home

The great sweep of the Bible's storyline is about the idea of ‘home’ in some sense. We were expelled from our home in Eden. The Promised Land should have been a peaceful home for God’s people but they ended up being exiled from it. In the New Testament, God comes into our world in the person of Jesus Christ and makes his home among us, and it culminates in redeemed humanity at home on the new earth in intimate relationship with God. The longing for home is the longing for shalom. There are many great homecomings in films – and they’re often profoundly emotional. When Frodo returns to the Shire in The Lord of the Rings, he’s not really at peace because of all that’s happened, and he needs to move on to a new home: the Grey Havens.

I don’t think this is a comprehensive list, and it doesn’t include all of Mike Cosper’s themes, but these seem to me to profoundly echo the big story of the Bible. I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions of other examples – please leave a comment below.


Freedom Fighter: Amazing Grace

This is an old article of mine that was published on Culturewatch (which later became the Film & Bible Blog from Damaris) in 2007. I am gradually republishing many of my Culturewatch articles here, especially since the demise of Damaris Trust and its websites. What's prompted me to republish this article on Amazing Grace today is that I'm teaching on Bible & Culture this week, and we had a film discussion on it yesterday evening.

Ioan Gruffudd in Amazing Grace

Ioan Gruffudd in Amazing Grace

William Wilberforce is one of the world’s great heroes: statesman, reformer, philanthropist, evangelical Christian. It has been said that Victorian Britain was largely his creation. He was concerned about mistreatment of animals (a founder member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, soon to receive Royal status to become the RSPCA), education, the social impact of heavy gin drinking, and the need for missionaries in various parts of the world, including India and Africa (he was a founder of the Church Missionary Society and the British and Foreign Bible Society).

He is most famous, of course, for his enormous efforts to bring about the end of the slave trade, and then to abolish slavery itself. Wilberforce was far from being the only campaigner against the slave trade in the early nineteenth century, but as 2007 is the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, he is the figure on whom much attention is currently focused. He was the MP who doggedly presented his bill to Parliament year after year, the one around whom many of the campaigners rallied.

The story of a struggle

Amazing Grace is the story of his struggle. It opens with Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) being taken to the home of his cousin Henry Thornton (Nicholas Farrell) to be cared for. William’s health and his will to keep on fighting have broken after fifteen years of campaigning. Henry, a doctor, administers laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) to combat Williams pain, and he and his wife seem to be intent on keeping Wilberforce away from politics and getting him settled down with a wife. The story of how Wilberforce reached this point is told in long flashbacks, partly as he tells his story to the idealistic young woman, Barbara Spooner (Romala Garai), whom Henry and his wife are attempting to set William up with.

Ioan Gruffudd and Romala Garai in Amazing Grace

Ioan Gruffudd and Romala Garai in Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace is a wonderful film in many respects. It is powerful, moving and inspirational. Michael Apted’s direction and Steven Knight’s screenplay are both very good, though they leave out or diminish some of the many aspects of Wilberforce’s rich life. Admittedly, they are telling the story of just one facet of that life, and they can do little other than nod in the direction of some of the others.

Nevertheless, Apted keeps us focused on the issue of slavery and he conveys its horror without assailing viewers with endless scenes of slaves being mistreated. It is our awareness of the reality behind the story that makes it so disturbing at times: slavery was a terrible evil and it almost defies belief that it took so long for enough of Wilberforce’s political contemporaries to realise the fact. What helps to drive home the reality of it all is the exceptional performances from all the actors as their characters reflect on how the slaves are treated. Ioan Gruffudd is excellent as Wilberforce, bringing passion, energy, seriousness and charm to the role, though Albert Finney as John Newton deserves particular praise.

Albert Finney as John Newton

Albert Finney as John Newton

Struggling with expectations

At first, Wilberforce wrestles with others’ expectations of him. He has recently been converted and contemplates leaving politics for a life of devotion to God. Others, including his good friend William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), are of the opinion that he would be wasting his considerable gifts. Pitt asks him, ‘Do you intend to use your beautiful voice to praise the Lord or change the world?’ He asks this question after bringing a curious group of people to dinner at Wilberforce’s house. As Wilberforce questions them to discover why Pitt has invited them, he discovers that they are all anti-slavery campaigners. They include Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), Hannah More (Georgie Glen), James Stephen (Stephen Campbell Moore) – all members of the group of evangelical Christian reformers now known as the Clapham Sect – and Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N'Dour), a former slave.

When Wilberforce asks Hannah More about the matters which she and her friends at Clapham discuss, she replies, ‘Issues regarding the making of a better world.’ Wilberforce inquires further: ‘Better in which way?’ to which one of the other guests remarks, ‘You make the world better in one way, it becomes better in every way, don’t you think?’ At this point Wilberforce turns to Equiano and soon discovers that he has come to London to challenge the MP about the issue of slavery. Clarkson clears a space on the table and deposits a set of manacles, explaining their use to his surprised host, and Equiano opens his shirt to show his branding mark. ‘Mr Wilberforce, we understand you are having problems deciding whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist,’ says Clarkson. ‘We humbly suggest you can do both,’ adds Hannah More.

Youssou N'Dour as Olaudah Equiano

Youssou N'Dour as Olaudah Equiano

‘Cracking crowns’

As a result, Wilberforce throws himself into leading the parliamentary campaign, gaining some formidable enemies in the process, not least the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones) and Lord Tarleton (Ciarán Hinds), MP for Liverpool. The bill which he presents is defeated again and again, despite the tide of public opinion turning against the slave trade. Eventually, it grinds Wilberforce down, and he feels utterly defeated as he tells his story to Barbara. However, she inspires William both to fall in love and to go on again with the struggle.

Wilberforce visits his old preacher John Newton, the former slave trader turned Anglican vicar. Newton, old, blind and dressed in sackcloth because of his remorse over the deaths of twenty thousand slaves on his ships, is dictating his memoirs when Wilberforce arrives. Newton tells him, ‘This is my confession. Names, ships’ records, ports, people; everything I remember is in here. Although my memory’s fading I remember two things very clearly: I’m a great sinner and Christ is a great saviour.’ It is this conviction which has transformed Newton’s life and which drives William Wilberforce, along with the biblical understanding that every human being is made in God’s image.

Albert Finney and Ioan Gruffud in Amazing Grace

Albert Finney and Ioan Gruffud in Amazing Grace

At one point Wilberforce stands on the poop deck of a slave ship and addresses the gentry assembled on the deck of another ship which pulls alongside:

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a slave ship, the Madagascar. It has just returned from the Indies where it delivered two hundred men, women and children to Jamaica. When it left Africa there were six hundred on board. The rest died of disease or despair. That smell is the smell of death – slow, painful death. Breathe it in; breathe it deeply. Take those handkerchiefs away from your noses. There now – remember that smell. Remember the Madagascar. Remember that God made men equal.

Wilberforce’s victory was a wonderful turning point in history. At the very end of the film, Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon) declares:

When people speak of great men, they think of men like Napoleon – men of violence. Rarely do they think of peaceful men. But contrast the reception they will receive when they return home from their battles. Napoleon will arrive in pomp and in power, a man who’s achieved the very summit of earthly ambition. And yet his dreams will be haunted by the oppressions of war. William Wilberforce, however, will return to his family, lay his head on his pillow and remember: the slave trade is no more.

The relevance of this film for our own age can hardly be overstated. The legal slave trade may have been abolished two centuries ago, but a secret trade continues nevertheless. Human traffickers smuggl people across many borders to be slaves, often in the sex industry, even into our own country. It is estimated that 27 million men, women and children around the world today are slaves – forced to work long days in plantations and factories, or compelled to fight in rebel armies, or as sex slaves. These people are not free, they have no choices in life, the money they make goes into others’ pockets, and they are frequently the victims of abuse and violence. The world still needs changing; it still needs people like Wilberforce who, driven by their convictions in the value of human life and in God’s concern for our broken world, will not rest until society has been transformed.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Ioan Gruffudd in Amazing Grace

Benedict Cumberbatch and Ioan Gruffudd in Amazing Grace


William Wilberforce was a very gifted statesman, a social reformer, a philanthropist and an evangelical Christian. As well as working to bring about the end of the slave trade, and then to abolish slavery itself, he was concerned about mistreatment of animals (he was a founder member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, later to become the RSPCA), education, the social impact of heavy gin drinking, and the need for missionaries in various parts of the world, including India and Africa (he was a founder of the Church Missionary Society and the British and Foreign Bible Society). Screenwriter Steven Knight’s research into Wilberforce showed him to be
‘a single-minded man who kept pursuing his goal, and plucked success from the jaws of defeat. To most people at the time the idea of abolishing the slave trade was ludicrous – like someone today suggesting that we abandon the internal combustion engine right now! At the same time he was an eccentric. He had a house full of sick animals, and could never bring himself to fire any of his staff, so that by the time he was fifty, he had a house full of old servants, most of whom did nothing. And he would come home to find his house full of people he didn’t know, sleeping there.’
Wilberforce was born in Hull in 1759, the son of a wealthy merchant. He studied at Cambridge University from 1776 where he became good friends with William Pitt, later to become Prime Minister. He became a Member of Parliament for Kingston-upon-Hull in 1780, and then for Yorkshire in 1784. Wilberforce became an evangelical Christian and a leading member of the Clapham Sect, a prominent group of Christian reformers. Influenced by other members of the group, particularly the abolitionist clergyman Thomas Clarkson, he campaigned for eighteen years until the Slave Trade Act was passed on 25 March 1807. Director Michael Apted says, ‘He had a very strong moral drive, based on his religious beliefs, but Wilberforce moved in the real world and could form alliances with people he didn’t totally approve of, in order to get closer to his goal. He proved that although he was driven by a divine purpose to rid the world of this iniquitous slave trade, to execute this mission he needed to be strong, worldly, smart and political. A combination of Christian visionary and skilled politician, his overwhelming tenacity eventually let him reach his goal.’ While few people these days know much about the members and work of the Clapham Sect, even less are aware of Oloudah Equiano. Equiano was a Nigerian slave who managed to buy his freedom and get to London where he campaigned against slavery and wrote a best-selling book about his experiences. Apted comments, ‘The role of Equiano is crucial and complicated in the film. Youssou had that pure presence; he brings a richness and dignity to his scenes.’ For more information see:
Ioan Gruffudd and Romala Garai in Amazing Grace

Ioan Gruffudd and Romala Garai in Amazing Grace

Questions for discussion

  1. How did you respond to Amazing Grace as a film? Which performances particularly stood out for you?
  2. What emotional journey did the film take you on? How much of the story were you aware of beforehand, and did this affect the way you engaged with the film?
  3. Why do you think much of the story is told in extended flashbacks? How well do you think this device works in this case?
  4. How would you describe Wilberforce’s character as portrayed by Ioan Gruffudd? How does he change during the years covered by Amazing Grace?
  5. Why is Barbara so effective at re-inspiring William Wilberforce to continue with the struggle?
  6. What impact do Wilberforce’s friends have on him? What impact does he have on them?
  7. In what ways is Wilberforce an inspiration for you?
  8. Were you surprised by Wilberforce’s addiction to laudanum? How did this affect the way you viewed him?
  9. How does Amazing Grace demonstrate the truth of the biblical understanding of human beings: that being made in God’s image we are capable of extraordinary good, but being rebels against God we are also capable of extraordinary evil?
  10. ‘[Thomas Clarkson] had so much energy, devoted to the power of good, but, like many people working for the good of humanity, proved not to be that able at individual relationships. . . . He was a religious man, but hung out with the wrong types, because they would give him proof of the iniquities of the trade. People who do good are not necessarily all totally clean-cut and wholesome. The Abolitionists were a very mixed bunch of individuals. There is good and bad in everyone, so it’s worth appealing to the good in people. This is a film about real human beings doing something good.’ (Rufus Sewell)
'Thomas Clarkson, though he was a passionate man, was also a very pious and serious individual. He was almost a Quaker’ and stayed with Quakers when travelling around the country. . . . Rufus Sewell’s portrayal of Clarkson in the film is seriously misguided.' (Maureen James, The Clarksons Society) How do you feel about Clarkson's character being misrepresented in the film? To what extent does it matter whether he was 'very pious' or 'not necessarily all totally clean-cut and wholesome'?
  1. Director Michael Apted says, ‘I wasn’t interested in making a dull biopic. This is a great period in British politics. I wanted to make a film that showed how heroic and relevant politics can be.’ To what extent do you think he succeeded? What impact did the political debates in the film have on you?
  2. Do you think Pitt was right to keep out of the abolitionist campaign once he had introduced the Clapham group to Wilberforce? Whose fault was it that their friendship was somewhat soured once the war against France had started?
  3. ‘I’d like the film to show that standing up for your rights takes courage and will reap rewards in the long run.’ (Ioan Gruffudd)
Do you think this is what Amazing Grace does show? Do you agree with Gruffudd? Why/why not?
  1. How do you feel about the facts presented in the film, in particular that an estimated eleven million slaves were transported to the New World, chained up in appallingly cramped, filthy and unhealthy conditions? What is your view of those like Lord Tarleton who were only concerned about the economic benefits of slavery? In what ways do you think our country, and even ourselves as individuals, are still guilty of putting economics ahead of justice?
  2. ‘I hope we open people’s eyes to an interesting story that not many people will know about, and that, while being entertained, they learn something about the human condition: that principles exist in the world, and that things can be changed.’ (Michael Apted)
Has watching Amazing Grace changed you in any ways? If so, how? Has it motivated you to get involved in the Stop the Traffick or other campaigns to deal with human trafficking and slavery?

Discovering the brokenness of the world

I've just come across this fascinating and insightful quote by film critic Michael Chabon, in the introduction to Matt Soller Seitz's The Wes Anderson Collection, about the brokenness of the world:
The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research “childhood.” There follows a program of renewed inquiry, often involuntary, into the nature and effects of mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence, failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief; the researcher learns their histories, and their bitter lessons, by heart. Along the way, he or she discovers that the world has been broken for as long as anyone can remember, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the ache of cosmic nostalgia that arises, from time to time, in the researcher’s heart: an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken. We call the moment at which this ache first arises “adolescence.” The feeling haunts people all their lives.