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Thursday, September 04, 2014

Using the Power of Story to Promote an Agenda

Dan Walsh is the award-winning and bestselling author of 10 novels, including The Unfinished Gift, The Dance and What Follows After. He has won 3 Carol Awards and 2 Selah Awards. Three of his books were finalists for Inspirational Book of the Year. Dan is a member of ACFW and Word Weavers. He lives with his wife, Cindi, in the Daytona Beach area where they love to take long walks. Click here to connect with Dan or check out his books.

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Why do people read novels, or watch movies for that matter? Is it simply to be entertained? To unwind, to check out, to escape the pressures and hardships of life for a little while by getting lost in a good story?

Maybe. I'm guessing most people would not answer this question with things like: 

  • To be persuaded to think differently about something controversial.
  • To be emotionally manipulated into letting go of a strongly held opinion and be willing to embrace a totally different view.

But what if that's the authors goal in writing the story, to accomplish that purpose? To use the power of story to promote an agenda that really matters to them. Does that ever happen?

I think it happens all the time. I'm guilty of it myself.

I believe the entertainment industry has known this for decades and has used the power of story to change the minds of an entire generation of Americans on a host of controversial topics. They like to say, and would like us to think, they are not out to change public opinion. They merely create entertainment that reflects the views and values of the culture. In other words, they're giving "We the people" what we want to see, hear and read. 

But they know that's pure baloney. They were, and still are, using the power of story to promote an agenda. Let me offer some examples. When I was a kid, the prevailing view in America was that premarital sex was morally wrong. So it wasn't allowed to be shown on TV, and when it was depicted in movies it was shown as something morally wrong. Even sex within marriage, though obviously approved, was never seen, and rarely talked about. I remember watching episodes of the Dick Van Dyke Show that had the main couple sleeping in separate twin beds.

Throughout the 70s and 80s more and more movies and TV shows began depicting premarital sex as perfectly normal and acceptable behavior. Nowadays, it's actually hard to find stories that show anyone willing to wait until marriage to have sex. People are shown to engage in one night stands all the time, and to talk about their sex lives with their friends as casually as they talk about the weather.

We've seen the same trend followed with a homosexual lifestyle. Ten to fifteen years ago, it was rare to find a homosexual character depicted as healthy and normal in a popular movie or TV show. Now, it's rare to find a show that doesn't have a main character who is a practicing homosexual. The agenda now includes a new message: Anyone who has a problem with this is homophobic.

The point of my post is not to point out how wrong it is to use the power of story to promote an
agenda. Quite the opposite. I'm saying the power of story is one of the most effective means to promote an agenda, and always has been. 

Gary Smalley and I hope to use the power of story this way in our just-released novel, The Desire. Although you can't tell from the cover, we're hoping to encourage the pro-life message in our story. In addition, we hope to draw attention to the often overlooked members in our churches who struggle with the heartbreak of infertility (more than 1 in 8 couples do). And we want to encourage people to seriously consider the adoption option (including unwed moms facing an uncertain future). Both of my children were adopted, and Gary has two adopted grandchildren.

Are we wrong to use fictional stories to promote an agenda? I say...absolutely not. I think it's just the norm, whether we're admitting it, doing it deliberately or unintentionally.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Have you used the power of story to promote an issue you care about? Can you think of books, TV shows or movies that have effectively used fiction stories to persuade others to see something a different way?


  1. Absolutely! My debut novel was born out of an overheard conversation from a woman who wasn't a Christian when she married. Now a believer, she heard that God had a perfect mate in mind for her, so she was going to divorce the one she had and go find the one God wanted her to have. WRONG! I counseled with her and had a strong Titus 2:4 moment with her. But if one woman thought that, then there are others. So I ran with it.

    1. Oh my...imagine hearing an idea, a notion, that's not even in the Bible, then deciding to act on it and totally violate one of God's clear and written commands? Glad you were there to catch it. Hope your book reaches others tempted by that idea. I think the soul-mate thing often does more harm than good in relationships.

    2. That's for sure. Too many live with unrealistic expectation from their spouses (or is that spice?) Anyway, I hope it does, too. Maybe while they're being entertained, the Truth will seep in and root. :)

  2. I absolutely agree. The general market readers often shun "religious" novels, but they fail to realize or acknowledge the secular humanism, new age philosophies, and so on which appear in the "secular" reading movement. Hollywood is notorious for incorporating their philosophies on morality, religion, and politics into films to influence the culture to their points of view.

    We have a purpose when we write. Even the most light-hearted tomes present POVs. If we tell the story and those agenda-like moments present themselves organically, it's an honest tale. If they come on too strong, people tend to "resent" them unless the story is just too great to ignore.

    Agendas are there whether we know it or not.

    1. You just reminded me of a story I heard on the news several months ago. That big movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein, was on some anti-gun rant and threatened to make a major motion picture that would so influence people it would put the NRA out of business.

      I remember thinking, "But I thought movies didn't influence people, they just reflected existing values."

  3. As a teenager, I never stopped to think about how every movie, show, novel and song has a worldview. Because every creator has a worldview which is like a DNA strand that runs through their creation. What gets really interesting is to realize that even when novels are written from a Christian worldview - the purpose of what they are writing can be heavily influenced by the expectations of the genre, their publisher or even their readers. When writers find themselves trapped by the pre-set expectations of a genre or their readers, they often end up putting limitations on their creation (novel) that God never intended and certainly doesn't put on His creation.

    1. I've definitely felt that pull from time to time.

    2. Amen, Allen. "When writers find themselves trapped by the pre-set expectations...they often end up putting limitations on their creation that God never intended ..."

  4. I don't think you can write a story that is devoid of agenda. Worldview is too deeply ingrained in our essential selves. It's neither right or wrong, in my opinion, it simply is.

    1. I agree. For me, Michael, the bothersome thing is the hypocrisy of the industry elite who like to pretend their movies/books/shows aren't responsible for influencing anyone. Some are so blatant they might as well have a person walking back and forth in the background holding a sign.


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