More Evangelical Storytellers

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After such a lively discussion on bad evangelical storytelling, I recalled one notable exception — Focus on the Family makes great radio drama, and Focus on the Family is as evangelical as they come.

I love their adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia. We kids listened to it hundreds of times, and could quote whole chunks of it. Permit me the blasphemy of saying that I think it’s better than C. S. Lewis’s original works. It’s a respectful adaptation, though, not like the newest film adaptations of Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (I’ll spare you my opinions on those.)

But what I love even more, and what I want you to check out after reading this blog post, is their original Father Gilbert series. The radio drama follows a detective-turned-priest as he winds up in the middle of mystery after mystery. It doesn’t have any of the storytelling foibles and cliches evangelicals typically use. The production and acting is professional quality. They’re interesting stories with believable dialogue and endearing characters.

And what I love most about them — they tackle the spiritual, the paranormal, and the evil without any agenda. You walk away from the stories having wrestled with those issues from Father Gilbert’s experience, but not necessarily solving anything. With nuance, they honestly portray both Christian and non-Christian responses to God and spirituality — no conversion tropes here. I’ve been challenged and intrigued by these mysteries as both a believer and a skeptic.

Though written by evangelicals and marketed to evangelicals, the stories are about an Anglican priest in Britain. It makes me wonder why the writers chose Anglicanism. Was it an insight in line with my previous observations that mainstream evangelicalism leaves little room for wonder and storytelling? Or was it just a good excuse to use British accents?

Give the series a listen and let me know what you think! Know any other good radio dramas?

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22 thoughts on “More Evangelical Storytellers

  1. Shaun Jex

    First, I love the Narnia radio dramas. However, I’m going to have to start a vigorous argument with you about them being better than the books. Clearly you’ve strayed from the true faith ;) I haven’t heard the Father Gilbert series but I’m intrigued now. Most of the radio dramas that I listen to are old school, original recordings of “The Shadow”, “X-1” and “Suspense”. I’m an old time radio geek, but none of these are religious. To be honest I don’t know a lot of religious radio drama. The only modern forms of radio drama I’m familiar with are “Prairie Home Companion”, the now defunct “Thrilling Adventure Hour” and modern adaptations of the “Twilight Zone” radio series. Probably not what you were looking for, but you opened a bit of Pandora’s box inviting me to blab about radio…

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    • Bailey Steger

      I feel so bad about my unorthodox views, but I can’t help it. ;) I think I found his writing style a tad bit jarring for me, which was weird, because I love his nonfiction style. It’s been a while since I read the books. I’m re-reading “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” so we’ll see if my view changes.

      I don’t know the first thing about radio drama, to be honest! I always listened to CDs. But now you’ve got me interested in actual radio programs. Something to listen to while I fold laundry…..

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    • Elizabeth

      I don’t know about modern *radio* dramas, but *podcast* dramas are full of interesting things these days — especially if you’re into sci-fi or supernatural storylines. Not sure about any religious podcast themed dramas, either off the top of my head.

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  2. Rebekah

    I think the example of Flannery O’Connor might be helpful here. While of course she was a devout Catholic, her stories have almost exclusively low-church Protestant characters. There was something about low-church Protestantism that seemed a suitable framework for her stories—I could point to her emphasis on sudden, violent motions of grace, and her very personal, come-to-Jesus tone. She does write some stories with Catholic main characters, and it isn’t that she couldn’t have written stories with the mentioned points of emphasis with Catholic characters, but a Protestant framework—especially when most of the characters are also Southern—certainly makes sense. A good writer uses the setting and framework that will best convey the story he wants to tell. To reference C.S. Lewis, he says somewhere that he wrote children’s books because the story he wanted to tell was best told in that format. Although I know nothing about the Father Gilbert series, I would presume that if it’s good art, the writers and actors picked an Anglican priest because it fit how they wanted to talk about the story.

    But I should show my cards and say that I don’t believe there’s anything inherent in evangelicalism that makes for bad storytelling—good storytellers are basically by definition rare. Evangelicalism hasn’t really been around long enough to produce many good writers, and while sappiness, triteness, and consumerism certainly are endemic problems within it, I also attribute that partially to modern-day culture rather than the doctrine or belief system itself. In fact, O’Connor singled out for special criticism the writers of Catholic Sunday School newsletters for their sappy, sentimental stories. Bad religious storytelling was emphatically not a twentieth-century low-church invention (of course, you know that, but it’s helpful for me to remember that when I get discouraged by all the sub-par books engaging with theological themes).

    On an unrelated note, I must confess that I’ve never gotten into books that are read aloud (or radio drama). It would be so convenient for laundry folding, as you mention. But I’ve always associated reading with physical pages, so it’s hard to have a voice instead of a page.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Fair points. Very fair points. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I’m still mulling over the reasoned, gracious pushback I got over my observations, so I don’t have anything more profound to say than that. ;)

      Re: radio dramas. To me, radio dramas are more like movies without images than words without a page. I don’t really like audiobooks for the reasons you mention, but I love radio drama!

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  3. Ishy (@ishylynn3)

    One thing I didn’t see discussed was the publishing industry, which I think makes a huge impact on the books we see from Christian authors. Sadly, the Christian publishing industry seems to produce a very narrow range of Christian fiction genres. I know that a number of Amish fiction authors are evangelical, because I guess that’s all they can get published through Christian publishers. And a lot of books now are pretty shallow simply because quantity of titles is the only way many authors make a living. Maybe there isn’t a lot of more thoughtful Christian fiction simply because they’re not publishing it?

    I have read a few evangelical books worth mentioning, though I don’t know if they are everyone’s cup of tea. Chris Walley’s Lamb Among the Stars science fiction trilogy is both well-written and thoughtful, and science fiction is quite rare in Christian publishing.

    Randall Wallace wrote Pearl Harbor, Braveheart, and Secretariat, and has written a number of fiction books. I’m not sure if he’s evangelical or mainline, but SS Insider stated he’s a Protestant. In articles, he talks about the balance of faith and storytelling, and that people on both sides push him to be more aggressively evangelical with a Sinner’s Prayer or avoid going to deeply about human struggle.

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    • Bailey Steger

      That could definitely be a factor! I’m not too familiar with the inside marketing of Christian publishing, but that sounds plausible. The Christian public is partly to blame too if the only books they will buy are Amish romances.

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      • Corrie Elizabeth

        And Christians shouldn’t just seek to be published through Christian publishers; if it’s good fiction, mainstream publishing houses should be accepting it just as quickly (or quicker) than their Christian counterparts.
        Also, a lot of literary fiction is written by people either high up in academia or the publishing world. And there don’t seem to be many Christians there…

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  4. Corrie McCloy

    Father Gilbert mysteries are great! How an Anglican priest turned up in Focus on the Family I’m not sure – maybe a compromise with the Catholicism of Chesterton’s Father Brown? I think it might be an effort to ally their mysteries with tradition, both the tradition of the British mystery and the tradition of religion, and thus Anglicanism in Britain. There’s a resonance there you can’t replicate.
    But the ambiguity and mystery that remains even when the mystery is solved… really good. Also, Father Gilbert is such a flawed character himself, and I love how the series is ends with his own undoing, in a sense. It’s the antithesis of a pastor running around solving other people’s problems. Growing up, they were a welcome contrast to the disappointing didacticism of Jonathon Park Adventures. Ever listened to them? The mystery turns out to be a series of anti-evolution “science” and no mystery. Argh.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Yeah, I too saw the nod to G.K. Chesterton in Father Gilbert. You’re so right — the mystery at the end and his own “undoing” is what makes this series for me.

      Yep, we listened to Jonathan Park! My siblings got into it around the time I left for college, and they have a love/hate relationship with it. It forms many inside jokes that I, as the sister away at college, don’t always understand. ;) They wouldn’t be so awful were they not, as you pointed out, meant specifically to drive home creationism.

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  5. ChrisW

    Ha… but! When FOTF did a VHS release of “A Little Princess” in the US (the actual production being a UK one starring Maureen Lipman), they cut, I repeat CUT, the lone that Rebeca would be “even richer than she was before”. Humpf.

    In fairness, they were the only ppl selling this series at all a few years ago, which is why I bought it to surprise my parents at Christmas.

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  6. Evan W.

    Interesting that you should choose these three, Radio Theatre Narnia, Father Gilbert, and Adventures in Odyssey. The person who adapted Radio Theatre Narnia (and adapted almost all of the other Radio Theatre productions) and who wrote Father Gilbert and much of Adventures in Odyssey was Paul McCusker. He was an Anglican before he converted to Catholicism in 2007. These examples are less a counterexample to your earlier post than they look.

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  7. lynorarose

    I can’t believe that no one has mentioned Lamplighter Theatre yet. They’re played on Moody radio, but I believe they’re independent. You can purchase their CDs on their website. They adapt old, rare heartstring-touching tales into radio dramas. I’ve yet to find one I dislike… And of course, the British accents don’t hurt any. ;)

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