In Imagine That, I made the argument that the world is full of redemption stories, and that we are, by nature, drawn to redemption stories. From “Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer” to “Finding Nemo,” from Homer’s Odyssey to Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” we are moved by stories of redemption.
The Bible too is full of redemption stories: Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Ruth. And in the larger context, the story of God and the entire nation of Israel is a redemption story, for Israel is the prodigal people. Each of these real people had their stories, had their walks in the desert or their times of forsakenness, had their time of reflection and returning, had their time of acceptance and redemption. And there is a reason for this, I believe: God is in the business of redeeming people.
I think that Christian artists often have a hard time telling the prodigal story well. And there are a lot of reasons for this. When was the last time you read a Christian novel about rape or murder? When was the last time you read about a hero that was an adulterer or a swindler? When was the last time you read a Christian story that didn’t have all the bows tied up neatly in the end? And yet, the Bible is brutally honest about all of these things. It’s ironic that the Bible is more truthful about life than the Christian book industry, which makes most of it’s money selling versions of the Bible.
Of course, the archetypal redemption story is the story of the Prodigal Son, as told by Jesus in Luke 15:11-32 (NIV).
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
This is a profoundly beautiful story. This is Jesus the Master Story Teller, laying out before sinners and tax collectors and pharisees a parable of the Meta-Narrative—of Creation, Fall, Redemption. This is God who put on Flesh explaining to us what grace is.
But take a look at this in more detail. How many stories are really being told here? I see the story of a son who was lost but now was found. And I see the story of a wealthy father, whose real wealth lay in his ability to forgive. And I see an older brother, one who understands the law but doesn’t understand grace. And I see the story of the servants, who rightly obey the commands of their master, though they don’t quite understand his actions or motives.
Now personally, I own all of these stories. I have been the prodigal. And I’ve been the prodigal’s father. And I’ve been the prodigal’s brother too. Consider each of these character’s back stories, the complexity of their relationships, the lives they lived that led to the apex of mixed emotions they must have felt in this moment. I just marvel at Jesus’ ability to express Truth with such artistry and economy.
It makes me want to share something about great artists. Great artists have a profound respect for the nature of their art form. And this has implications. When we create a character in a novel or a play, we need to understand that the character is not a human being. That character is a metaphor for human nature. And as such, he or she must be complex, enigmatic, conflicted, and ultimately ruined and in need of redemption. When we create a landscape in a painting, we need to understand that the landscape is not really a part of our world, but is a metaphor for creation. And as such, it must reflect both beauty, for that is the shadow of God’s glory, and imperfection, for that is the curse from which we must be rescued. When we write a song, we need to understand that the lyrics are not an exposition of the Bible, but more so, a form of poetry. And as such, we must be skillful in simile, metaphor, alliteration, and other forms of speech. In this way, we don’t just tell people about the love of God, but we also reflect God in the beauty of the prose.
We are artists. And because of that, much of our art comes from our brokenness, our unformedness, our struggles, our soul-tortures—it is in our brokenness that our driving need to express often comes. We artists have a tendency to feel more deeply, and I believe this also means that our wounds can be also be felt more deeply. We make it our business to be in touch with the pathos and soul stirrings of our world. We make it our business to share these feelings through the expressions of the arts. And in a lot of ways, people are attracted to this artistic brokenness, because it is so universally relatable. (This is why many people are attracted to country music, by the way.)
But here is where we differ from the humanist worldview. The humanist worldview is only a two act play: Creation and Fall. The story of God is in three acts, and ends with the grace-filled redemptive movement of God upon the universe, drawing all things back to His glory, from now to all eternity. Truly, this is the prodigal story of us, and it is the most beautiful of all stories to tell.
Are we convinced that this? Is this what we really believe? Is this what inspires us? Then the story of God must ultimately shine from our work, and we must be diligent and committed to pursue excellence, originality, and honesty as we express it.
[Note: This is excerpted from a recent arts conference speech. Contact me if you’d like me to speak at your faith and arts conference or event.]
2 thoughts on “Telling the Prodigal Story”
Good words. The great stories of our culture all speak about some aspect of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. It could be Man on Fire or Finding Nemo. Our hearts are all drawn to the story that is a reflection of the greater story. I had a chance to sit down with an animator for lunch at PIXAR and we talked about how their great stories all reflect some or all of the flow of God’s great storyline of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.