Art of Storytelling Conference Explores Redemptive Themes

ForbesThe opening session of the second annual Art of Storytelling conference last week sparked memories of beloved children’s books from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to Little Golden Books and the Harry Potter series.

The “intergenerational, emotional connection” of children’s literature creates a legacy, Dr. Carl Miller, associate professor of English, told the audience gathered Friday in the DeSantis Family Chapel. It is the special and nostalgic quality of these books that has sustained their popularity over the years because they “reflect your life as a child.”

Robert L. Forbes is among the authors whose books are treasured by adults and children for their clever word play set to rhyme and the fanciful animal illustrations by the late master artist Ronald Searle. Forbes, the long-tenured vice president of Forbes Media, spoke about growing up in a family where “words were power.” He watched his father, renowned publisher Malcolm Forbes, labor over his magazine writing, searching for just the right word.

While he focused on the business side of publishing, Robert Forbes often used language in an upbeat, clever style, being mindful to focus on the customer. His own writing began organically as he played around with rhyme. He enjoyed the work and used animals as his characters in order to “balance the appeal to kids and adults.”

When he amassed a pile of poems, a book seemed the natural next step. He found the ideal collaborator in Searle, who shared Forbes’ sense of humor and fun. After a number of publishers rejected the work, they found Overlook Press, which ultimately published three books.

Forbes, who is working on a new book, offered advice for aspiring authors: “Never talk down to a child. Don’t be afraid to use words that they don’t get. They will ask (their meaning).”

The conference continued Saturday with presentations from professor Israel Balderas, who talked about solutions-based journalism, and Dr. Thom Parham, an Azusa Pacific University professor and screenwriter who honed in on nuances of redemptive storytelling.

Balderas began by showing a clip from the student-produced film “Four Families in Mafraq,” a documentary that followed four families in Jordan who fled from the civil war in Syria. By most measures, the documentary was a great success — it won several awards and was accepted to film festivals.

However, it left people feeling hopeless. Balderas recounted how Connie Shepherd, the University’s executive vice president, strategy and planning, came to him after watching the film and asked “What happens now?”

“She was angry, and rightfully so,” Balderas said.

A 20-year television news veteran, Balderas said it wasn’t his job to determine that. Reporters tell the stories. But the interaction left him unsettled. Research led him to solutions journalism, which is committed to investigating solutions as much as problems.

“You don’t shy away from the details. This is not a silver bullet,” Balderas said. “It is data-driven, fact-driven.”

Balderas’ students have started doing solutions journalism. One is exploring whether there’s a correlation between after-school programs and success in public school. The Workship office connected other students with the American Heart Association, for which they are producing a series about social ills that impact health. The partnership led to a news story about a local woman who teaches free yoga classes to low-income people.

Even with such a collaboration, a journalist must remain a neutral observer, identifying the problem, solution, outcome and reproducibility of the solution, Balderas said.

“I’m not picking the solution. I’m not picking winners and losers,” Balderas said. “I’m still the umpire.”

Dance

Solutions journalism may be a way to win back audiences, Balderas said. Fifty-eight percent of people surveyed said they avoid news because it has a negative effect on their mood or because they feel powerless to change it, according to the 2019 Reuters Institute Digital News Report.

Conversely, Parham concentrated on reaching a culture that believes it’s OK. He started by defining what redemption is not: vengeance (depicted in “In the Bedroom”), euthanasia (as shown in “Million Dollar Baby”) or earned (“Saving Private Ryan”). By definition, grace is unmerited favor — you can’t earn redemption, he said.

Jesus loved people unconditionally, yet still challenged them, Parham said, referencing the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. The God-shaped hole in people’s hearts can only be filled by Jesus.

“Jesus met people on their level, where they are, not where he wants them to be,” Parham said. “More specifically, Jesus told stories.”

Stories can offer pure entertainment, pro-humanity messages, clear biblical teaching, primary theology and/or the cross. The 1995 movie “Dead Man Walking,” for example, was about Bible-believing Christian Sister Helen Prejean. It’s impossible to accurately tell her story without theology, Parham said.

When he teaches redemptive writing, Parham warns his students against preaching or dictating the meaning of the story.

“I always tell my students you are a human being created in the image of a loving and holy God,” Parham said — and so are their audiences. “The specific can be universal.”

Eileen Hebron, artist in residence in dance, spoke about dance — the art of telling stories through movement. Students from the University’s dance and preparatory program performed several numbers, including a routine two students choreographed to illustrate the causes and chaos of homelessness in the community.

The day continued with breakout sessions in photojournalism, fiction writing and visual narratives and concluded with a talkback session following PBA Theatre’s final performance of “The Wizard of Oz” at the Fern Street Theatre.