'He who tells the best story wins,' writer says of today's postmodernism

MOUNT HERMON, Calif. (BP)--Christians writers in today's postmodern culture must reach readers through their heart instead of their head, an official with Focus on the Family told one of the nation's largest writers conferences.

Recalling how the movie "Top Gun" boosted military enlistments and legendary author Charles Dickens' stories helped put an end to sweat shops, Al Janssen said convincing arguments won't convert people to Christ.

"We have to communicate through stories," said the senior director of product development for the Colorado Springs, Colo., ministry. "You want to convince the unconvinced? Don't call them to arms, call them to art. That is our challenge today, to master story."

Janssen was one of four keynote speakers at the 31st Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference in northern California. This year's April 14-18 sessions attracted a sold-out crowd of 350 attendees and 50 faculty members.

At the final evening session, Janssen told of writing "Breakaway," a compilation of testimonies of hockey players. He learned that a woman recently found a copy of the book -- which has been out of print for more than seven years -- on the side of the road in Toronto.

She gave the book to her ex-husband, who read it and called the ministry listed in the back to say, "I want to know what those players had."

Noting how he once thought it would be wonderful to pen an Academy Award-winning script or a novel that made the New York Times' best-seller list, Janssen said writers don't get to choose the results of their efforts.

"We need to be faithful to our role," he said. "If mine is to write a book that is thrown by the side of the road, am I willing to play that role?"

He pointed out that biblical heroes like Esther and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego didn't know the outcome of their actions in advance, yet remained faithful to God's call.

The need to stand for the truth of God's Word is particularly important in light of a world that has changed drastically in the last few years, Janssen said.

To illustrate, he played a clip from a Focus on the Family documentary, "My Truth, Your Truth."

In it, most of the young people interviewed said that truth is relative. Though one girl said she believed the Bible is true, she later commented that what is true to her may be different for someone else.

Eighty to 85 percent of the kids in today's youth groups think that way, said Janssen, an Episcopalian. "They're sitting in your church and my church."

Fortunately, the gospel is going forth through such popular literature as the "Mitford" and "Left Behind" series and top novelist John Grisham depicting conversions in his stories, Janssen said. But much more needs to be done, he added.

"He who tells the best story wins," Janssen said. "We have the best story but we're not telling it very well. Tell it compellingly and the world will come hear it. ... The story can be told if we're willing to pay the price with excellence."

Posing the question of why "Titanic" was so popular, he answered by referring to the public's thirst for romance, adventure and heroes that the movie fulfilled.

A similar search for answers has attracted many listeners to the "Adventures in Odyssey" radio serial, he said. While many considered the ministry crazy when it created the series 13 years ago, he said many lives have been touched.

Among them is a computer programmer who listened for years on the way to work. Throughout this time, one of the leading characters, Eugene, resisted God. When Eugene finally gave his heart to Christ, the programmer pulled his car to the side of the road and wept, Janssen said.

"He got to the office, called Focus on the Family and said, 'What do I do now?' He had never been to church."

Despite such successes, he said writers face three primary challenges:

-- Maintaining a commitment to studying and mastering their craft.

Recalling attending his first writers conference 29 years ago, Janssen said he realizes how little he still knows. While he doesn't recommend it for everyone, he said he attends a lot of movies to better understand why certain messages resonate with people.

"Don't ever stop learning and analyzing," he said. "[Ask,] Why is this a good story?"

-- Thinking more about the worldview they want to communicate than their message.

Writers who immerse themselves in Scripture, read Christian classics and talk with others who challenge their faith won't need an agenda -- it will emerge through their writing, he said.

-- Understanding what the world believes.

"We're so eager to communicate our message we hold up a straw man that doesn't reflect where people are," Janssen said. "We want to get to the punch line too fast. How patient are you to let the story emerge?"

C.S. Lewis, whose "Mere Christianity" was recently named the best book of the 20th century by Christianity Today magazine, understood the view of his age and depicted it in a story, Janssen said.

Ironically, while he was an excellent theologian, Lewis reached more people through the "Chronicles of Narnia" than any scholarly work, he said.

"We have one of the most popular stories," the speaker said, pointing to such elements of the gospel as adventure, betrayal, action and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. "You need to tell it."

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