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Tell a Better Story

October 31, 2016

Judges speech given at the Omega Writers CALEB awards for Australian Christian literature.     Mulgoa, NSW. Oct 29, 2016

Good evening friends. Maybe you’re a Writer, a Reader, an Author, an Editor, a Scribe, or more of a scribbler, an Illustrator, an Appreciator, a poet, a publisher, a story teller, a story seller, maybe you’re the literati, or maybe your just like me -here for the party…

My name is Beth Barnett, I’m from Melbourne. I’m an author, I’m a children and families ministry teacher and a theologian. And I have had the privilege of contributing on the judging panel for some of tonight’s awards.

I served on the panel for the Children’s Illustrated Literature section. The children’s picture books. What a medium that is!

It’s a medium of communication, of such influence, of such transformative capacity and subversive potential. So called children’s literature is read by children of course. But it’s also read by parents, By professionals, by politicians, by pastors, by publicans, even by Prime Ministers. It’s a high-impact medium. Really, by rights it should be the most highly censored and regulated media of our society. Such is its power.

I read and reviewed these books in the midst of plenty of thundery noise – energy, heat, and flash points of light – being exchanged in discussions in our public arena on the value of faith, the place of principles in policymaking, the role of religion in regulations on relationships.

And yet for all the economic and educative energy various parties on all sides are exerting, listening in on public discourse, it is hard to see much traction gained or movement in any direction. In fact we’re not sure in Australia whether we can even talk about some things in the public anymore, safely.

And yet here we are: still writing, illustrating publishing – words, images, books, stories, characters, plots, alternate universes and also representations of this our cosmos, gifted to us, in brilliant, bright, clear lines for children, for young people.

Our stories celebrate subversively what might be missed in all of that nose, and our stories challenge what might be amiss.

The books that I reviewed in judging the children’s illustrated section embraced topics of the dignity in disability, negotiating our fears, the power of words to would and heal, our sources of conflict and belonging. These are mighty themes.

I have a little motto – for myself, and for those I mentor and teach and write for. It is this: tell a better story.

Perhaps calling this a motto is a misrepresentation. Let me rephrase: I have a vocation. Tell a better story.

It is a vocation I think many many in this gathering share: Tell a better story. We celebrate the telling of better stories tonight.

So let this continue to be a vocation for us:

I was inspired as I reviewed the books to Tell a better story than the formulaic, predictable good guys/bad guys comic book plot of winners and losers.

Tell a better story than the patronizing prince charming rescue and facile happily ever after ending.

Tell a better story than the endlessly dysfunctional family.

Tell a better story than the purposeless pursuit of point scoring.

Tell a better story than the too easy polarizing black and white judgments so common in the thunder and lightning show of public discourse.

And let’s keep working, true to our vocation, and tell a better story than the one we told before

– to keep working at our craft,

at our courage to create;

at our unconventional characterisations that make room for the non-typical our society fails to celebrate as they should;

to keep working at our content – our theology. Let’s keep asking what God inhabits the world of our story? Is it a God able to be loved with whole heart, soul mind and strength? – is it a God a who gives himself – and all his rights and righteousness up to do what only God can bear to do?

And let’s keep working at our audience, our mission. Let’s tell a better story where other messages don’t reach. To tell our better stories which can extend beyond our own churches and Christian cloisters and confessions – these stories reach way into the cracks and corners of our culture and find their way into the corridors of power. This is our great vocation: it is well worth our effort to tell a better story.

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