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John Mark Reynolds- Contributor

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Biola University. His personal website can be found at and his blog can be found at

The Right Stories
The Power of Myth in Modern Culture

[John Mark Reynolds] 3/18/04

Return of the King wins best picture. The Passion of the Christ leads the box office three weeks in a row. What is the significance of these two cultural events?

For a generation now, Christians have been arguing that we need to return to the arts. The late Francis Schaeffer spent hundreds of pages advocating on behalf of a robust Christian understanding of the arts. C.S. Lewis demonstrated that traditional Christianity could be sold to secular society.

Combined with Tolkien’s arguments about the power of story telling, a generation of Christians has come of age, believing in the importance and power of story. Phillip E. Johnson of U.C. Berkeley, in recent works such as Reason in the Balance and the The Right Questions has advanced many similar arguments from his position as the chief opponent of Darwin and secularism in this generation.

This work is beginning to bear fruit. Though neither the producer of Return of the King nor The Passion of the Christ were evangelical, they faced an evangelical market ready for their movies. Nearly gone are the days when Bible colleges put warning tags in copies of Lord of the Rings books because they used the word “magic.” Many evangelical young people think nothing of going to important films, even with R-rating. They understand that violence and sexuality can be gratuitous or they can be necessary to story telling. They have been trained to see the difference between the nudity of the statue David and a worthless exploitation flick like European Vacation.

Conservative Christians are no longer in the grip of a reflexive hatred of the arts. If Gibson’s movie proves nothing else, it proves that traditional Christians will go to an intellectually challenging film that supports their world view. Gibson did not pander to evangelical sensibilities -- note the R rating of the film -- but evangelicals came anyway. He made a sub-titled film, usually the kiss of death to box office, but Christians flocked to the theater nevertheless.

Some evangelical film makers need to realize that their films are rejected by the evangelical community not because of “shock” at their "cutting edge" quality, but because sophisticated evangelical film goers actually recognize that their films are bad. Films using the “f-word” only to demonstrate that Christians can make such films will be rightly rejected by thoughtful Christians.

These are not films as much as therapy for the film maker as he tries to be “edgy” for the sake of being edgy. Gibson’s film proves that even strong violence will be tolerated in the interest of telling a compelling story. Conservatives need to stop whimpering about having the right to make movies and go out and make movies. If they are good, then they will often find an audience.

Why? Conservative Christians have taken their Lewis and Johnson straight. They understand a key fact: control of the cultural myth is control of the culture. Good arguments matter. Analytic philosophers have their place, but the group that sets their ideas to the right music or within the context of a good myth will win. The French Revolution centered in horrid ideas, but managed to have stirring music and a good story. It lingers in the human mind, despite its objective failures, for this reason. And as the greatest story ever told, the Bible will never be totally defeated by secularism.

Darwinists have always understood the importance of story telling. They know first hand the power of the Genesis myth with its purposeful Creator. The late Isaac Asimov noted that science fiction was one of the few genuinely secular art forms. It tells a story that captivated the hearts of a generation of people that have gone into science. In it, naturalistic science will deliver humanity from the darkness of ignorance and bring on an era of sexual, economic, and human freedom. Classic Star Trek and golden age science fiction which promoted this myth to a generation of young thinkers does much to explain the unblinking secularism of much of the scientific elite. The rise of an alternative genre, fantasy and the modern fairy tale is a great blow their hopes.

So it should come as a great encouragement to discover that Tolkien is the great myth maker of our age. His great conservative Christian epic is, in one sense, truer than the daily paper. Who can tolerate the French appeasement in the War on Terror who has read of the brave defense of the West by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men? Liberals rightly fear and loath Tolkien, because he is opposed to their world view. They cannot fight him, because the power of his story worms around their feeble arguments. In complaining, they sound as impotent and old fashioned as conservative parents worried about Elvis and his “devil music.”

What this all means is that the tide has turned, as it was sure to do. The Biblical story never faded and is now motivating a new generation of Christian artists. After Gibson and Peter Jackson will come hundreds of readers of Tolkien, Lewis, and Johnson ready to keep telling variations of the true myth, the greatest story ever told.

copyright 2004 John Mark Reynolds



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