With Great Stories Come Great Responsibility

I thought I’d kicked Scandal, I really did.jelani

Last spring I lost interest, fed up with the ridiculous plot twists and melodramatic speeches that had been a part of my media diet since the show’s debut three years ago. In particular, I was weary of the on-again, off-again interracial and extramarital relationship at the center of the show, featuring unflinching Washington-fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and fictional president Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn).

But late last fall, I got sucked back in, and I realized something. The steamy Liv-Fitz pairing might get all the attention, but another reason Scandal is such a huge hit is that it thrives on shared stories that resonate with underrepresented people. It’s no coincidence that the show makes big Nielsen numbers among African Americans and the LGBT community, because it, like creator Shonda Rhimes’s other hit dramas, depicts black and gay characters with a depth and intimacy rarely seen on network television.

This is why nothing lights up Black Twitter (a general term for the African American collective that respond to events in real time) like an episode of Scandal. An NPR writer recently compared it to a Spanish-language telenovela in the way it ignites the passions of both white and nonwhite audiences. Yes, some of the recognition is cultural. It’s refreshing to hear scenes scored to classic R&B instead of pop/rock. Also, much of the dynamic between Olivia and her scheming, domineering father, Rowan (Joe Morton), echoes that of many high-achieving parents and children of color.

But much of the appeal is broader. We may not know what it’s like to uncover a national security conspiracy, but we know what it’s like when the demands of work take a toll on our private life. The power of Scandal is in the power of shared stories.

In the evangelical world, that truth has been self-evident in the saga of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church. Part of what caused MH to grow like crazy was not just Driscoll’s brash charisma but the broader context around it. Many Christians in the Pacific Northwest are tired of seeing our faith derided in the public square by militant secular humanists. Mark Driscoll tapped into that resentment with a steady stream of shared experiences that Gen-X and millennial adults could relate to.

But just as shared stories can build up, they can also tear down. As discontent grew within the ranks of MH staffers, members, and attendees, another set of stories began to emerge—of abused authority, both verbal and financial; of rejection and alienation from former insiders who’d been shunned from the community for daring to speak up.

The same sense of story that built up Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill eventually contributed to his downfall and its closing. In the news cycle, that happens over and over. It happened again with Bill Cosby and the numerous rape allegations against him.

The ultimate shared narrative is the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s a story that’s shared again and again, with life-changing consequences. But too often what starts as a celebration of our unity under the banner of Christ’s love ends up shifting into tribalistic, us-versus-them posturing, where unity is forged through mutual hatred.

As Christians, are we using our shared story to build up or to tear down? If the church is to remain relevant in the twenty-first century, we must continue to share stories that are both universal and specific, that reach a wide variety of people but that inhabit specific cultural viewpoints. If we’re not willing to do that, then we shouldn’t be upset if people care more about Olivia Pope than they do about Jesus.

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