There are stories of valor and there are stories of ghoulish depravity. What kind of story do you think led two 12-year-old girls to attack a friend, stab her 19 times, and leave her bloodied — unable to walk — at a nearby park?
The victim, who was left to die, crawled to safety, propelled by the simple, insuperable will to survive. According to the doctor who operated on her, she was a mere inch away from death.
But her death would not have fazed her attackers, because they wanted her to die. When asked about the attempted murder, one of the perpetrators admitted what she did was “probably wrong.” Probably wrong. Perhaps she had not considered the rightness or wrongness of her action because these ethical concepts were absent from the story in which she was playing a part — the story of Slenderman.
Slenderman is a mythological figure, created in 2009 as part of a Photoshop contest. The character, also known as Slendy, is an urban legend featured heavily on the popular website Creepypasta Wiki. Although the website contains a warning that children under 13 should not be viewing its contents, the two 12-year-old girls, who are being charged with attempted first-degree intentional homicide, were very familiar with the tales of the tall, lanky, faceless figure who wears a suit and tie and lures children into the woods.
The two Horning Middle School students, who are being tried as adults, face up to 65 years in prison because they sought to gain the favor of this fictional character. With ruthless ferocity, they set out to kill their friend in order to gain entrance into Slenderman’s Wisconsin mansion. The girls insisted that Slenderman was real, and they wanted to prove it by serving as his proxies.
Russell Jack, the police chief in Waukesha, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb, said the gruesome incident should serve as a “wake-up call for parents,” who should “restrict and monitor” their children’s usage of the Internet, which he noted is “full of dark and wicked things.” Parents in the neighboring areas who have been interviewed by various news outlets admit they are thinking twice about leaving their kids alone with friends and allowing them to browse the Internet unsupervised.
Just one week after the Wisconsin tragedy, an Ohio mother unwittingly walked into her own version of the horror story when she entered her kitchen and saw her daughter wearing a white mask. “[I] got the feeling she was playing a role. It didn’t feel like her at all,” the mother said. Then her daughter lunged toward her mother, wielding a knife and swinging it wildly. The mother, who suffered cuts to her face and her neck, is blaming the horrific attack on her daughter’s excessive interest in Slenderman.
In a New York Times op-ed, Timothy H. Evans, an associate professor of folk studies and anthropology at Western Kentucky University, notes that killings purportedly inspired by pop culture phenomena are not entirely new. Over the last several decades, Dungeons & Dragons, heavy metal, and Ouija boards have all been blamed for instigating violence. “Internet horror memes,” Evans writes, “are no more likely to motivate violence or insanity than any other aspect of contemporary culture.”
But James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, writes in a CNN editorial that instances of child violence occur — at least in part — because of the role models and the norms they encounter on television and on the Internet. The Slenderman character, for example, has a significant online presence. Fan art, short films, and video games about Slenderman can be found on multiple websites and iPhone apps. The world of media, which permits easy access to Slenderman, is, in Steyer’s words, “a super peer.” “It can influence our kids’ social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development, and it can powerfully inform their sense of what’s normal and acceptable. Stories, characters, and their behavior in media — whether in a video game, a movie, a TV show, or on a website — can serve as role models, both good and bad.”
The stories that we tell our children have a profound influence on their development. Their understanding of right and wrong and their ideas about identity and purpose are all formed by the stories to which they are exposed.
What kinds of stories are children hearing from their parents, from their classmates, from their churches, and from the media? And which of these stories is capturing their imaginations and influencing their decisions? Are stories of heroism inspiring their actions, or are stories of darkness cluttering their minds?
Writing to parents, Steyer makes the following suggestion: “Take the time to elicit your kids’ opinions on what’s popular and what they’re interested in, and share your opinions so as to help your kids develop the ability to view media critically and make choices that reflect your family’s values.”
As part of our commitment to the biblical worldview, we seek to promote stories that reflect the life-giving truths revealed in Scripture. In the marketplace of ideas, contradictory narratives are constantly vying for our attention, and neither we nor our children can escape them. We cannot afford to dismiss the role these narratives play in shaping our identities and forming our ideas about good and evil.
Perhaps the greatest storyteller in history was Jesus of Nazareth. The stories we tell should mirror his. The primary narrative in which we should play a role is the grand narrative of Scripture, in which we learn how to be reconciled with God and with our fellow man.
Jesus, the great storyteller, understood the importance of narrative (Matthew 13:34).
“Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.” (Matthew 13:34)
Whereas the Pharisees’ emphasis on law-based religion turned them into lifeless lecturers, who extolled propositional truths, Jesus’ authoritative teaching consisted of stories drawn from everyday life. By engaging his audience with parables, Jesus elicited their attention, taught them eternal truths, and allowed them to adopt roles in-keeping with the ethic of the kingdom of heaven.
Through his illuminating and memorable stories, Jesus encouraged his listeners to emulate the Good Samaritan — not the priest who was too busy to help a neighbor in distress. Jesus inspired his listeners to emulate the tax collector who beat his breast, repenting of his sins — not the self-righteous Pharisee who believed that God owed him something for his good behavior. Jesus advised the crowds to emulate the wise builder — not the foolish builder.
From the prodigal son to the persistent widow, Jesus used vivid, imaginative parables to describe the traits that humans should strive to display. These are the stories that should guide our daily lives. When we live out the right kind of story, we live out the right kind of life, and the kingdom of heaven is made manifest on earth.
What kind of stories are we telling? What kind of narratives are we allowing our children to inhabit? Are we helping our children grow in faith by teaching them through the joys and adventures of narrative? Or are we lulling them to sleep by dwelling on abstract truths that, while important, are not the best way to ignite a child’s imagination?
No matter whom Jesus was speaking to, he made use of narrative, and so should we. Jeffrey Frymire, a homiletics professor at Asbury Seminary, writes, “The dynamic power of Jesus’ preaching was in the stories he told. This was no dry lecturer who stood up and extolled the intricacies of Jewish law. … He came to both inspire and teach, to challenge the conventions of the day, to think new thoughts and bring freshness to the dry bones of the Old Testament law. In the hands of Jesus, even the mundane listings of the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy became visual pictures of turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, or giving away your cloak as well as your tunic to one who would sue you for just one of them (Matt 5:39-41).”
Are we emulating Jesus’ message and his means of communicating it? Are we sharing the truth of the biblical worldview through stories more captivating than those detailing the macabre feats of Slenderman?
How do we draw children to Christ (Luke 18:16)?
“But Jesus called for them, saying, ‘Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’” (Luke 18:16)
We can compel young people to pursue Christ by sharing stories — infused with truth — that teach and delight, enabling them to respond properly to the world around them.
C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, and many important apologetic works, thought that gripping stories could help form children’s hearts in a manner consistent with the gospel. Donald T. Williams, a Summit lecturer, describes Lewis’ perspective on the power of great literature: “Lewis saw the great literature of the past as a repository of cultural memory and wisdom that could help us rightly order our response to the world in terms of health and appropriate stock responses: Love is sweet, death is bitter, virtue is lovely, children or gardens are delightful.”
“Since it is likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies,” Lewis writes, “let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” That means we must replace Slenderman with Aslan — or at least Superman — if we want our youth to escape the dangerous currents of vice and untruth.
The stories with which we can inspire children — and adults — in our churches, schools, and communities do not have to be explicitly Christian, so long as they exemplify basic truths about human nature, God, and the world he created. Williams continues, “The baptism of the imagination, which allows us to see Christian truths more clearly and deeply when we meet them in the Bible, can happen in two ways: first, by encountering similar or parallel ideas imaginatively fleshed out in non-Christian literature (e.g., Lewis’ encounters with the dying god in pagan myth), and second, by seeing newly minted images created as deliberate incarnations of Christian ideas (e.g., Lewis’ experience of ‘the holy’ in [George] MacDonald).”
The scriptural narrative is the greatest story ever devised, and its author is the divine creator who longs to bring each and every person into its continually unfolding plot.
If we want to minimize the effects of Slenderman and other pernicious myths, then we must simply tell better stories. Thankfully, we have one. Ours is a story of creation, fall, redemption, and reconciliation. It is our responsibility to share it.