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Should We Seek the Gospel ‘According To’ Popular Stories?

After years of blockbuster hot takes and cosplaying pastors, some “cultural engagement” tropes blind us to fiction’s greater purpose.
on Aug 17, 2023 · 3 comments

You’ll find no shortage of articles talking about “The Gospel According to [Insert Popular Franchise Title Here].”

New takes on classics like C. S. Lewis’s Narnia and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings make for easy pitches. But you’ll find plenty of evangelical pieces doing this with the Harry Potter series, various Marvel films, Game of Thrones, the new Barbie movie—and yes, even Twilight. Earlier this month, Rick Warren’s church made the news for their pastors cosplaying while presenting a Toy Story sermon series.

All these evangelical engagements beg the question: Should Christians comb through popular films and novels trying to find parallels between these and the gospel narrative? Or does this approach become tiresome or even lead to danger?

Yes, all storytelling rests on a biblical foundation

It’s easy to cringe at some of the more laughable attempts to wedge the gospel into popular stories. (I’d prefer not to see my pastor in Toy Story cosplay on Sunday morning, thank you very much.) But sloppy attempts shouldn’t detract from the fact that certain stories really do mirror the gospel story.

I’d actually take this a step further: every good story in some way, intentionally or not, mirrors the great redemption narrative.

Think about this. All stories necessarily begin with something not right that enters into the world—a Fall. An act of grace often helps the protagonist recognize the moral weakness he needs to overcome. And in the climax, the protagonist will almost always make a pivotal sacrifice to succeed.

Star Wars popularized the “Hero’s Journey” narrative that mythologist Joseph Campbell discovered most popular stories share. But I argue that the Bible itself shares many key similarities with this “Hero’s Journey” template—especially the refined versions that storytellers have developed post-Campbell.

Delving fully into how the Bible lines up with traditional story structure would require a much longer article.1 These parallels are so significant that one wonders if God himself baked the structure of his greatest narrative into story psychology.

Although certain comparisons between popular books and the Gospel are shallow enough to make our eyes roll, such commenters are trying to get at real truth. As humans, we naturally imitate our Creator (whether or not we realize this). We shouldn’t be surprised to see traces of God’s story from humans who bear his image. If we point out and celebrate this truth, we’re being simply honest.

The problem comes when literary criticism begins and ends with the Gospel.

But some ‘Gospel according to’ praise misses the point of stories

Sometimes we in Christian circles hold fiction at arm’s length. Maybe fiction is not sinful, we tell each other. But some intellectuals assume that fiction is a waste of time, akin to pastor John Piper’s example of gathering shells on the seashore in retirement—unless the story points to the gospel in some way.

That’s why some engagements with popular works don’t go beyond the simple question, “How closely does this story mirror the Bible?”

This simplicity misses the breadth of what good stories offer. Stories aren’t evangelism puzzles. They’re meant to entertain us while they explore what’s true, what’s good, and what’s beautiful. Those applications often go beyond the gospel narrative. For example, Lewis’s The Silver Chair explores how we best discern between truth and charlatanry. Kara Swanson’s Heirs of Neverland series deals with how we deal with trauma from our pasts.

And don’t get me started on what Tolkien would say to those who only focus on finding gospel “allegories” in his work.

Christ didn’t try to make all his stories clear pictures of the gospel. Just look at the parables of the dishonest manager or the rich fool.2 And so we ought not flatten complex stories into simple allegories for a John 3:16, start-to-finish narrative.

Doing so too often leads to naïve interpretations. The above-cited Game of Thrones article is correct to show that the TV series shares a few similarities between the Gospel narrative. But every story fundamentally does that. Such basic similarities hardly justify ignoring how the series negatively depicts faith and focusing on how one storyline (particularly the finale) is supposedly “rooted in the Gospel.”

While some critics bring thoughtful insights to stories’ Gospel connections, shallow engagement feels like plucking low-hanging fruit. Such glorified Gospel “matching games” leave me hungry for deeper engagement with a story’s themes.

Let’s practice using more tools in our ‘cultural engagement’ box

Appreciating stories from a fuller Christian perspective can give us more blessings than finding simple Gospel connections. We can ask a great story questions like:

  • What does this story suggest about the human condition?
  • What behaviors or lifestyles does it subtly endorse or critique?
  • Where does it suggest we can find true beauty and purpose?

These help us understand everything a story is saying—which not only helps us make sure we aren’t overlooking key themes, but lets us find more enjoyment and appreciation in a story. Good literary analysis, after all, should feel more like a treasure hunt than an obligatory English essay.3

As the old saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you’ve only practiced using the “Gospel according to” device, you’ll keep hammering away at those in a story. But when we practice with a variety of tools, we can discover a greater and more human depth to the stories we engage.

  1. I created a writing resource at Story Embers to explore this idea further.
  2. The dishonest manager parable is found in Luke 16:1–13 and the parable of the rich fool is found in Luke 12:16–21.
  3. My series about Discerning Christian Fiction teaches how to explore stories with these kinds of questions.
Staff writer Josiah DeGraaf is a literature nerd who loves epic fantasy stories with imaginative worlds and authentic characters. He loves crafting fantastical stories about characters who face the same dilemmas we do when we try to do the right thing. You can download his short story collection for free to read about Medieval superheroes who need to decide how far they’re willing to go to save lives.
  1. Amen. I use such an approach in my live study series “Christian Sci-Fi with Professor K.” https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PL2_mOzRyAES_sBmPAp0S7r7EJPKy5oxyG

  2. Lisa says:

    “…every good story in some way, intentionally or not, mirrors the great redemption narrative.” ABSOLUTELY. I think as Christians, we do ourselves a disservice if we reject certain stories out of hand because they aren’t “Christian” enough, or try to shoehorn the Gospel into a film or novel. Perhaps we should instead be asking ourselves if God can speak to us through a story that isn’t blatantly Christian. (Spoiler: He can.)

  3. yomama says:

    hehehe the people who deify tolkien annoy me.

What say you?