When I work, I often play music in the background. Recently I noticed that I was gravitating toward playlists I’d made from film soundtracks. I enjoyed the music itself, but I was also experiencing something else: comfort. It had been a challenging few weeks, and the music was helping me feel more grounded and peaceful.
When I thought about it, that made sense. The music is associated with some of my favorite films that, in the midst of their sometimes dark worlds, are life-affirming and woven through with redemption, hope and love. In some way, the music was weaving the truths of those stories back into my soul.
And that intrigued me. I’ve long known that we human beings are wired to respond to stories, but I was struck by how subtly and deeply they were influencing me and my outlook on life.
In “Why Fiction Is Good for You,” Jonathan Gottschall notes that research indicates fiction profoundly shapes our perception of the world. Happy endings and themes like poetic justice, says Gottschall, “make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is.” But believing that may make the world a more just place — “and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.”
This resonates, not because happy endings and poetic justice are lies per se, but because those two things actually reflect deeper truths: According to God’s story revealed in Scripture, we know the world should be — and, in the (happy) end, will be — a more just place.
All of that was stirring around inside me as I listened to the music from a few of those stories. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
No wonder Dallas Willard tells us we should be intentional with the things with which we surround ourselves. “We need to be in the presence of images, both visual and auditory (good sayings, poetry and songs),” says Willard in Renovation of the Heart. “These can constantly direct and redirect our minds toward God.” In particular, Willard suggests arranging these images in our living and work spaces as a way of “keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind.”
I do this in my house. There’s a quote from Augustine on the kitchen window sill and crosses on the wall above our television. Collections of posters of films that strike me for their connections with faith hang on our walls. Books that have spoken God’s truth into my life are collected on a shelf in my bedroom that I see every day.
I’ve learned this is important because I get distracted easily. In “Five Ways You Don’t Realize Movies are Controlling Your Brain,” David Wong points out that because our brains are built to process everything we see as a story, we quickly lose interest in things — like ongoing news stories — if they don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. We just kind of forget about it, he says.
This can happen with our own larger narrative as well. Though God’s story has an end, we are in the middle of it. If we lose track of it, we’re in danger of unconsciously taking on the culture’s narratives. Images of that story surround us every day on billboards, ads and magazine covers.
We’re influenced by story in deep ways, be it the stories that reflect our culture or stories that reflect God’s story. We can keep God’s story in mind throughout the day — even by playing a movie soundtrack while we work.
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.