Virtual Voices

Christians and storytelling

Media

In 1985 CBS made a 30-minute animated cartoon out of my first Hank the Cowdog book. My wife, Kris, and I were self-publishing the books in our garage, selling them at county fairs and rodeos, and struggling to pay our bills.

We were thrilled to get the exposure offered by a Saturday morning cartoon, aired on national television.

At least half the population of my hometown watched that cartoon-friends, neighbors, members of our church, our mechanic, our plumber, our kids' teachers at school. Everyone was proud that a local book had made it to the Big Time.

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CBS did a first-class professional job with the animation, the character voices, and the music. Nobody, including me, paid much attention to the subtle changes made to my story.

In my books, Hank's ranch is a family cattle operation, involving a husband (Loper), a wife (Sally May), and a hired hand (Slim). Loper and Sally May have two small children, two dogs, and a cat. Their ranch is typical of cattle operations in Texas and the Southwest.

But in the CBS version, the cattle ranch had transformed into a chicken farm, and Sally May had become the boss. Loper and Slim were her hired hands, and there was no suggestion of marriage or a biblical family unit. The children had disappeared from the story, and one assumed that Sally May and the men lived together in the ranch house-one big, happy, postmodern family.

CBS used my teacher-trusted, family-tested story as a carrier for its feminist, beef-hating agenda, and the network did it with such a high level of skill, most of the people in the audience weren't even aware of it.

Why did the folks at CBS do it? Because it expressed their worldview. They got by with it because I was incredibly naïve, and because the people who shared my worldview weren't in the entertainment business.

On a typical Sunday morning, my pastor preaches a Christian message to 150 people. The CBS cartoon probably entered 10-15 million living rooms, where unsuspecting children absorbed hidden messages along with their chips and soda pop.

This is the challenge Christians face in today's media-drenched world. We preach. We present well-reasoned arguments and back them up with Scripture. We organize boycotts and sign petitions. And in the arena of popular culture, we're getting creamed, because we have allowed someone else to tell our stories.

In Saving Leonardo, her study of art and media, Nancy Pearcey notes, "Ideas penetrate our minds most deeply when communicated through the imaginative language of image, story, and symbol." Dr. Pearcey urges Christians to stop complaining about rotten art and entertainment, and to offer an alternative that is better.

We must start telling our own stories instead of leaving the task to urban elites who don't know us, don't like us, will never respect our values … and should never be trusted.

Christians often regard entertainment as a second-rate profession, inferior to preaching or missionary work, but storytelling satisfies a deep human need, and we should feel comfortable in the story business. Much of the Old Testament is a collection of stories, and Jesus used parables to reach people of all ages and levels of sophistication.

In the history of our church, storytelling came first. Theology, doctrine, and scholarship came later.

Ours is an age of electronic parables. Every movie and TV show presents a worldview, a set of beliefs that tell us who we are, where we came from, and how we're supposed to behave in this life.

If we don't present our own Christian version of reality-with a high level of professionalism, and in the media of the times-who will do it?

John R. Erickson
John R. Erickson

John is the author of the Hank the Cowdog book series. He and his wife, Kris, live on their cattle ranch near Perryton, Texas.

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