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My New Year’s Resolution: Reject Story Cynicism

Last year I found myself getting more cynical about stories and even reality—then I found the culprit.
| Feb 1, 2019 | 2 comments |

One month into my New Year’s resolution, I didn’t even know I’d made it.

To explain this resolution requires a slight background.

Throughout last year, I noticed myself growing more cynical. That’s strange to me, because I thought I was a naturally optimistic person. What caused this? I can attribute some job anxiety, lots of life changes, difficult work schedule, the usual. At the same time, I noticed I was growing more cynical in a certain area—specifically, the field of fantastical stories.

Mind you, it’s not like I “turned against” stories I love. But I was becoming more naturally cynical, even unease, related to stories.

Even stories I otherwise really like.

Example: superhero movies. I like plenty of them. This is partly because of previous fandom of these universes (though I’m more familiar with DC through its animated series). But it’s partly because, quite simply, the superhero-related genres are the leading fantastical field in “genre movies” today. If we were, instead, getting lots of great sci-fi or fantasy adaptations, I’d likely be all over those too.

But inexplicably, I kept having these skeptical thoughts intrude. Such as:

Hey, maybe all those “superhero movie fatigue” people are onto something. Why don’t you just (switching franchises) join this dark side?

I didn’t want to. This kind of skeptical thought made no sense to me. From where, then, was it coming?

Then I isolated the culprit.

My problem: a form of the old (evangelical) phrase ‘Garbage in, garbage out’

For some time, I realized I’d fallen into a rather frivolous habit.

I’d gotten into the practice of watching YouTube videos whose entire purpose was to scoff and ridicule popular movies.

I don’t want to criticize particular channel operators. But occasionally I would see a video from the “CinemaSins” channel, or Nostalgia Critic.1

Part of my goal was, originally, sort of educational. But let’s be real: I had also drifted into following pointless and shallow entertainment.

And it had begun to affect me. Slowly and ever so subtly, I had begun to see not only fantastical stories, but life itself, with a nasty and grungy haze of Everything is Awful.

This is a common idea, but does it match Scripture’s portrayal of sin’s real source in the human heart?

Remember the annoying little Sunday-school catchphrase “garbage in, garbage out”? It’s a phrase I’ve previously opposed. That’s because its plain reading clashes with Jesus’s words in Mark 7.2

I’d still oppose that phrase. Without clarification, it reinforces the false notion of “your heart is pure until something else corrupts it.”

So in my case, the skeptical and cynical videos were not really implanting nastiness in my heart. Instead, I feel they were drawing out those impulses, already infesting me like a cancer, and feeding them.

My cure: I quit watching scoffing, skeptical ‘critic’ videos

Thus, at some “point” I barely remember within the last few months, I chose to stop watching them.

Two-or-so months later: Wow, such a relief. I did not even know I had been so strongly affected by that stuff.

My whole worldview has already begun to improve. It’s not just that I’m happier. I’m more willing to read Scripture daily, even going into (gasp!) Leviticus. To my surprise, I have (shock, again) more time to read other books. My creative drive has improved. I feel I’m friendlier around people at church and in my job, and I’m even more tolerant to my silly dog.

Oh—and that original problem, my weird suspicion of negativity about fantastical stories? It’s all but gone.

Again, how strange to find that my problem relating to something “frivolous,” like popular culture, could point me toward a problem in real life.

Cynicism sells, but there were some who resisted

Now I begin to wonder how many other people are being “poisoned” by similar material. And I also wonder, how much of our plain nastiness toward other people could be at least relieved by intentionally throwing away those “pills” and pursuing better nutrition.

For instance, I happened across a random and positive tweet that actually reflected, for the first time, my problem and cure.

And back in 2017, I remember reading a takedown of these “snarky critics and reviewers” from none other than Jordan Vogt-Roberts, director of a Kong: Skull Island (2017), a movie I haven’t even seen (yet).

Vogt-Roberts had launched a gracious yet fierce Twitter tirade versus the “CinemaSins” style of nitpicking in particular:

The director’s following tweets encapsulate the problem with CinemaSins videos: “They’re often just wrong or think they’re smarter than you.” . . . As Vogt-Roberts pointed out later in the thread, there’s nothing wrong with film criticism making compelling arguments, even if it’s criticizing a film of his. The problem is less the target of criticism and more the manner and execution of that criticism.3

Of course, that’s a plain secular solution. It would only be of limited help apart from Christ’s saving grace.

Yet I’m grateful for what seems to be the Holy Spirit’s leading to help me recover from this creeping nastiness.

After all, I spent enough time being exposed to the evangelical equivalent of counting “sins” in stories. Why should I put up with the same nonsense from cynical “critics” who don’t even share my view of stories’ ultimate purpose?

  1. Along with these “critics’ ” frequent flippancy and negativity, their flagrant use of profanity had also begun creeping into my brain and heart. I was developing temper and bad-language problem. News flash: hearing bad words can sometimes result in a form of moral “time travel.” Being exposed to their effect can lead to your sinful cause.
  2. From Mark 7:15, 18b–23, Jesus says: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. … Do you not see that whatever goes into person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? . . . What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
  3. Josh Spiegel, “‘Kong: Skull Island’ Director Pinpoints the Problem With CinemaSins,” The Hollywood Reporter, Aug. 15, 2017.
E. Stephen Burnett explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Reed Benson

Very good observations about snarky YouTube reviewers. I can’t stand Cinema Sins anymore. Have you seen the YouTube channel called Cinema Wins? The videos there are in the same style of Cinema Sins’ videos, but they focus on the parts of movies that the reviewer likes…even in movies he didn’t really like. That seems much more constructive, even when he runs down his full feelings about a film at the end.