Synedoche, New York is one of those mind-bending Charlie Kaufman films that either makes more sense or less sense upon repeated viewings. It’s the story of a theater director named Caden Cotard who sets out to stage the biggest production imaginable. The cast, story, and rehearsal space are ever-expanding as Caden seeks to pack in more and more truth — Caden ends up casting someone to play him, then casts someone to play the person playing him. The play grows beyond its original story to include the story of telling the story, and then the story of telling the story of telling the story.
Did you find that hard to follow?
So did I. And I’ve seen the film.
Without giving away any specifics about the ending, I’m sure you can guess that the enormity of Caden’s ambitions exceeds his ability to produce. Either he must break the production or the production must break him.
Yes, Synedoche, New York is a mind-bender. But I also think of it as a cautionary tale. Ever since the Tower of Babel, we as humans have let our ambitions get the better of us. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens,” Babel’s builders declared, “so that we may make a name for ourselves …” (Genesis 11:4).
We are people drawn to grandiosity. We are a species determined to bite off more than we can chew — if for no other reason than the imagined glory that awaits us should we succeed where others have failed or feared to go.
Lost somewhere amid our fixation with the epic is the focused beauty and brilliance of short stories. If you’ve never experienced this beauty and brilliance for yourself, I insist you dive into the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, and J.D. Salinger at once! These masters of the form remind us that short stories aren’t any less compelling than their lengthier counterparts (especially to the characters involved in them).
Of course, you’ve seen great short stories in other mediums and formats as well. You’ve read Robert Frost poems like this one, watched TED Talks like this one, and shared short videos like this one with everyone you know. In each case, the artist or creative team has moved you in a matter of moments. Why? In part because the artist believed moments mattered. Short stories don’t compete on breadth. They rely on depth.
In our Christian context, we need to look no further than Jesus. When he taught, he was content to tell short stories. There’s the Parable of the Prodigal Son — a story that has inspired countless sermons and essays, countless hours of reflection, and a 176-page paperback by Tim Keller – even though it’s only about 500 words long in the NIV (Luke 15:11-31).
Throughout the Gospels we’re given these short stories – a parable here, a woman at the well there. He leads his disciples to a new town where He speaks, heals, has a meal, and leaves. Hardly the kind of sprawling epic Peter Jackson might want to shoot at 48 fps, but for Jesus they were sufficient.
Because with Jesus, all these short stories were leading somewhere.
There are a lot of things you could do at your church this Sunday – a lot of directions in which you could go. You could bring in Manheim Steamroller (cheaper rates after the holidays) or a Bengal tiger. You could try to preach about the seven deadly sins and the nine fruit of the Spirit in the same sermon. You could try to cover the whole Bible without cutting any corners.
Of course, you might find yourself in the same predicament as the aforementioned Caden Cotard, buried in the rubble of a story larger than your ability to tell. Obviously, there’s another way.
What if we approached our creative work the same way Flannery O’Connor approached hers? What if we were content to tell short stories? What would that look like? I think this approach would make us a particular kind of people.
We’d resist the temptation to kill flies with an elephant gun. We’d focus on stakes, not scale. We’d trim the fat, and then trim some more. We’d use bold type for emphasis, not out of habit. Our worship services would leave people wanting more, not less. They’d be eager to continue the conversation, rather than just head to lunch and change subject.
Our work might never be perfect, but our work would always be on purpose. We’d find that, as was certainly the case with Flannery O’Connor, a lifetime of excellent short stories makes for a legendary anthology.