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Review: The Stories We Tell by Mike Cosper

The Stories We Tell

Every culture has its stories. Our Western culture’s stories are, more and more, presented in movie form.  So, for us and our children to engage the culture, we need to consider movies, both the ones we watch and the ones we don’t watch.

However, because we Christians are part of God’s much greater culture, we also need to understand our culture’s stories in the light of God’s truth. This is especially important because the emotions involved in stories often allow an author’s ideas to slip into our minds unnoticed.*

In The Stories We Tell, Mike Cosper analyses the stories our culture watches and compares them to the gospel.  He writes, “I believe the Big Story of the Bible—creation, fall, redemption, and consummation—is so pervasive, so all-encompassing of our world, that we can’t help but echo it (or movements within it) when we’re telling other stories.”  Cosper investigates what these stories reveal about us as humans because he believes that the motivation for our stories is deeply connected with the gospel.  He also examines how TV and movies both echo and form our desires.

As a parent of teens who, like Cosper, love both Jesus and movies and believe the two are not mutually exclusive, I am especially interested in how such media forms our desires. We are told to guard our heart above all else; is movie-watching compatible with that?  Cosper helped me to understand that question more deeply and to begin to move towards an answer.

In The Stories We Tell Cosper focuses more on what drives the stories than on the common—and also important—discussions about violence, language, and sexuality in film.  Since examining stories intellectually makes us more aware of their emotional impact,* this is a good thing.  Even so, it “is a mistake is to think that we’re rational enough to overcome the power of these images and stories,” On the other hand, Cosper is convinced that our watching, if it is thoughtful, can be edifying and even a cause for worship despite the very real power of stories.

He begins the book by discussing stories and how Christians engage with the storytelling world.   Then he groups and discusses TV and movie stories according to different aspects of the gospel story:  creation, paradise, the search for love, the fall, the frustrations of life,  darkness and evil, redemptive violence, heroes, and glorification.

In the process of reading this book, I learned a whole lot more about many movies than I ever wanted to know. However, Cosper was convincing in his insistence that all movies are an echo of the gospel story as outlined above.  That means that any movie could be used to point to the gospel, and I think this insight is the heart of the book. Once we understand how even the worst movies show an aspect of the truth, we will able to discuss that aspect of them without having watched them—and most of the people we talk to will be eager to tell us about the movies themselves.  So we’ll be listening to them and then also have something upbuilding to say, both very positive parts of communication, encouragement, and relationships.

However, the following caution rings throughout The Stories We Tell: “We think we’re merely being entertained, but the power of story is being used to frame the way we think about love, marriage, sex, children, war, peace, nationalism, and more.”  Movie watching requires vigilant guarding of our hearts because movie makers often have an agenda they want us to absorb.

While The Stories We Tell is not a book about movie analysis for English class, it is none-the-less very valuable for anyone homeschooling high school.  It shows both parents and older teens how all stories echo the Truth and thus helps us understand the culture as well as engage its people and ideas.  It also cautions us about the power of the stories we allow into our minds.

I recommend this book to all Christians—movie buffs, parents, mature young people, homeschoolers, and anyone working with youth, outreach, or ideas.

Caution: The Stories We Tell discusses evil movies explicitly.  While evil, too, is part of the whole world we live in, reading discretion is advised, especially for younger teens—and, of course, there is no call for most of us to watch many of the movies discussed.  There is always a tension between engaging the culture and Paul’s warning that “it is a shame even to speak of the things they do in secret” (Ephesians 5:11).  Each of us is responsible for resolving that tension in our own lives and for teaching our children how to do that.

*The psychology behind the power of emotion and stories to change our intellectual ideas without us noticing is described in Mindsight, reviewed here, and various examples are discussed in Mastermind, reviewed here.

To peek inside the book, see this list of 20 quotes.  An excellent summary and review is presented here.

This is yet another book in the in the 2014 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge and is also linked to Saturday Reviews, Works for Me Wednesdays, Booknificent Thursdays, Raising Homemakers, Finishing Strong, and Trivium Tuesdays.

Disclosure: A download of this book was provided by Crossway Books for the purpose of this review.


  1. This sounds very interesting. I’ll have to put it on my “to read” list.

    1. Annie Kate says:

      I think you’ll benefit from it; I sure did, although there were parts of it that I did not enjoy, as I mentioned above. In any case, it is certainly interesting.

  2. hopeinbrazil says:

    Sounds like a valuable book. My oldest son loves movies, but I don’t think he’s always aware of their messages. This would make a great Christmas gift.

    1. Annie Kate says:

      Yes, it would make a good gift, depending on his age and maturity level.

      The power of movies is in slipping a message in along with the story; good books do that too. As long as we only experience the story, we don’t examine the message and it remains very powerful.

  3. Amy says:

    This is a very interesting topic. I agree that we can look at things critically and benefit from them, but I think that often people watch things that they shouldn’t (because really they enjoy watching it for one reason or another) and justify it by pulling out some slight positive message. I just don’t know that it is worth it (or even right) to knowingly put things that are evil (sinful) in front of us regularly. With that said, I know it is definitely a black and white issue! This book sounds interesting!

    1. Annie Kate says:

      Yes, Amy, those are my sentiments exactly. Yet other Christians I respect see things differently, and that is why I read this book.

      It’s kind of like classical literature; some of it is pure garbage too, from a Christian perspective. Yet we read and study it, and I trust we and our children benefit from it from it too.

  4. I love hunting for redemptive analogies in TV and movies, but I don’t think I would be brave enough to say that every movie can be used to point to the Gospel! I will enjoy reading this book to see how I can become better at this! Thanks for sharing it at Booknificent Thursday this week! Always great to have you!

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