Forgetting the Truth of the Story

Late this last Saturday as I tried to kill time, I found myself watching the pilot episode to “This is Us”, an NBC contribution to the fall line up. It was that or kids TV programming and I just didn’t have the wherewithal to watch the cartoon network.  Granted for the last few months images from this show have been plastered all over city buses and in between television shows. Yet none of these marketing  attempts gave any idea to what or who the show was about. They were just tryptic panels filled with three groups of two to three people in some form of connection. Even as I watched the trailer I was given no indication of what the show might behold, except that there was a fat character trying to lose weight, a man reconnecting with the father who abandoned him and a couple who were pregnant and who you just knew something bad was going to happen to. Honestly, from the marketing of this show, I thought it was going to be a horrible thing, created to grab cheaply at your heart strings and pluck the pedantic notes for the basest of emotional plays. With this perspective and nothing else to watch for the next two hours I jumped in, figuring that if it was terrible I could always try to watch cartoons or read a book.

And surprisingly (opposed to the poor marketing) the show was incredible. It was smart and funny and (at least so far) kind to all of its characters. They were constructed as beautifully broken people who are doing their best to function well in the world. EVEN THE FAT characters were well done, which if you pay attention, is often so hard for writers to do. The writers and actors engage in brilliant and interesting cultural criticism weaving it wryly into the narrative in such a subtle way that it gave it more power and depth. These deeper elements were so well constructed and part the characters and story instead of outside it. Everything about this show is well made and smart, so why did those who make the decisions choose to market it in such a way that, the key power of the story doesn’t show? Was it because they didn’t trust their audience? Was it because, they the marketing department, didn’t know their content? Whatever the reason, those who were supposed to champion this story didn’t and that potentially fatal flaw could have cost the show. Luckily, at least so far, it hasn’t. But this failure, the failure to understand the story is becoming a trend these days. I can think of several other films, books, or television programs that I waited a long time to engage with because the way they were marketed completely missed the point and the power of the story, ultimately undermining the visibility and connect the piece to its audience.

This lack of understanding isn’t just limited to art or media, as someone who possesses three degrees in religion and theology and has spent her whole life in and around church and Christianity, I am often amazed at how many people who claim to be informed by the biblical narrative fail to understand it. But often this isn’t their fault because they have been marketed a faulty version of the story. They have been told that they should follow the examples of Christ and The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) but in the same breath are told that they must lock up their churches, national borders, and homes to those in need. Often they are sweet well-meaning people who truly want to engage well in the world through the lens of Christ, people like the father of the man who writes under the pen name Lord Castleton;

“My dad is like Mike Ditka. In my dad’s case, he’s 86 years old and a truly wonderful human being: but misguided and easily manipulated by propaganda and not at all able to navigate the gray areas of politics. For him, you’re either “good” or ‘bad.’” (Castleton)

In this perspective, everything becomes a tale of moral propaganda and in doing so diminishes the text and it’s tradition because it is not allowed to be the poetic holy narrative of a God who engaged and pursues the beautiful and flawed people who said Deity created. The biblical narrative like This is Us, connects because it is a tale of beautiful and flawed people not in spite of that fact. It is the truthfulness of the characters and situations and stories that make these real, not their lack of connection. Therefore, David can be one after God’s heart and a terrible father and king who’s selfish and self-indulgent actions cost his family and his kingdom. To admit this doesn’t lessen David’s faith or ours, in fact, if anything it makes it more real, truer because it lives in the real space of real people instead of a marketing campaign that fails. The word Gospel means GOOD NEWS, but too often what is being presented as “Christian” fails to offer anyone GOOD NEWS. We like the creators of “This is Us” need to be called back to the root of our story, to the heart of what is being told, so that we might re-imagine how to “market” this good story.

Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without the doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself. 
- Madeleine L’Engle

~Jessica Knippel, Director of Operations

Mission Hills Christian Church