November 16, 2020
What does liberal entertainment share in common with Christian entertainment?
Both worldviews produce books and movies ranging from propaganda to deeply relatable stories. Most importantly for this discussion, however, both share the same laws of theme.
Watching Fiddler on the Roof was part of my childhood. Since my ancestors escaped the Armenian genocide, the tale of Jewish eviction hits close to home. Love for the film passed from my great-grandparents, to my grandparents, to my mom, to me.
The main reason I enjoy Fiddler isn’t my heritage, though. Rather, I’m charmed by Tevye, a poor milkman who tries to adhere to Jewish traditions despite resistance from his daughters.
As I grew older, I started analyzing worldviews, and I realized that my beloved Fiddler celebrates liberalism. My studies confirmed these suspicions, but even so, I could revisit the film annually without tiring.
It moves me.
Why can’t a radical Christian shake off his fondness for radically progressive art? Is Fiddler ineffective or watered down?
By no means! It’s revolutionary and poignant.
If Fiddler can delight someone antagonist to its message, can it offer us insight into writing hard-hitting, God-glorifying fiction for a hostile audience?
I believe it can.
Tackling the Elephant in the Room
If you search Quora for “the moral of Fiddler on the Roof,” the answers won’t include the subversive message I ascribe to it. Inevitably, I must address the historical facts behind Fiddler before exposing its artifice.
After my initial, depressingly unfruitful investigation into the producers’ intent, I stumbled upon a treasure trove: “My Father, Fiddler, and the Left” by Harry Stein, son of Joseph Stein, the film’s screenwriter. Harry’s description of his father is revealing: “A communist in young adulthood, he’d been a proud progressive ever since.” He goes on to explain how his father never took conservative criticism of Fiddler to heart: “He and his collaborators had set out to do work true to their own convictions and values… Of the more than a dozen Broadway shows—musicals and comedies—that my father wrote over his long career, none ever sounded more like him or more fully reflected his social and political views.”
While viewers can interpret the film however they want, its goal is to emphasize that love leads to a better life, so we shouldn’t allow orthodoxy to obstruct those feelings.
Perhaps you’ve never noticed any such message and would argue that Joseph Stein failed. But that’s not how subversive storytelling operates. It doesn’t get in your face. It tiptoes around your guard and influences you subconsciously before (if ever) it affects you consciously. You may be unaware of the impression Fiddler on the Roof has left on you.
By exploring how Stein cleverly and subtly peddles his worldview, we can learn to send powerful messages under the radar of unreceptive readers.
The word “subversive” tends to carry nefarious connotations, though, so let’s quickly reach an understanding. I’m not proponing anarchy, malignance, or deception. TheFreeDictionary.com provides two helpful definitions of the word “subvert”:
- To cause to serve a purpose other than the original or established one; commandeer or redirect.
- To undermine, mislead, or betray.
As Christians, we’re compelled to undermine any status quo or ideology that endangers human souls. So, for the purposes of this article, “subversion” means commandeering and redirecting an audience’s underlying biases, emotions, mantras, and symbols to demolish false belief systems. No dishonesty is involved. I’m simply going to outline five tactics for delivering truth without exploding land mines.
1. Create Characters Readers Can Easily Connect with
Every major character in Fiddler on the Roof supports its themes. But none exist solely to make a point. Each one is vibrant and endearing. “While the stories he told reflected his values,” Harry Stein said of his father, “his characters were his most honest expression of what those people would say and do.”
Stein breaks the liberal playbook most notably with Lazar Wolf, the butcher. Tevye arranges a marriage between him and his eldest daughter, Tzeitel, without consulting her. This is step one in Stein’s stealthy yet brutal attack on tradition. The average Hollywood screenwriter would turn Lazar into an ugly, selfish oaf so audiences would be outraged at the pairing. Instead, although Lazar is older than Tzeitel, he’s not hideous, and he seems to sincerely care for her.
After Tzeitel begs her father to renege on the marriage agreement, Lazar throws a fit, but the audience can’t help sympathizing with his hurt. In the end, Lazar hugs Tevye goodbye, displaying his capacity for forgiving personal slights.
On the other end of the spectrum, Perchik, a Jewish communist Stein elevates as a hero, has plenty of humanizing flaws and quirks. While shown in a positive light, he’s never idolized.
When you empathize with all of your characters and know their foibles as if you’ve memorized their diaries, readers will become so attached that they’ll be vulnerable to the worldview you’ve built into every action and line of dialogue.
2. Use Point of View to Your Advantage
Fiddler on the Roof opens with Tevye introducing his little village of Anatevka, and his role as narrator flavors most of the events that follow. At times, he’s devout, but overall he’s lax and able to maintain a number of contrasting viewpoints. His neutrality encourages the audience to be open-minded without worrying that their own views might get smashed. They can relax and trust Tevye’s amusing, blatant honesty. His positive outlook and blindness to evil in people makes any viewer feel both accepted and acceptant of whatever is ahead. To Tevye, the world is less a thematic battlefield and more a place filled with milk and geese, Sabbath meals, and local gossip.
In the first scene, Tevye speaks as indifferently about the origins of his Jewish customs as he does about the provocation behind village squabbles. He’s not trying to persuade anyone of anything. His commentary is merely part of his tour of the town. The next instant, he defends his religion with an offhand remark that his life would be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof without it.
You can apply this approach to your work-in-progress by spotlighting characters who embody your theme. Every story requires unique POV characters—yours might need someone with a personality that’s the opposite of Tevye’s—but the right one(s) will dramatically impact readers’ attitudes about your story.
3. Divide Your Message into Increments
If you’ve never heard of the Overton window, now is the time to familiarize yourself with the concept. Basically, it’s an imaginary safe zone for conversation on social topics. You’re free to express any viewpoint, conservative or liberal, as long as it isn’t too extreme and stays within the designated boundaries.
To succeed at subversive fiction, you need to move the Overton window. Otherwise, if you present an idea that’s at the edge (or miles outside) of cultural perimeters, readers’ first instinct will be to balk. You must guide them with baby steps. If Belief A is normal and Belief D is fanatical, you must convince them to acquiesce to B, then C. After that, D will feel much comfier than A ever did.
Joseph Stein understood this technique, and the structure of Fiddler reflects it. The story chronicles the gradual deconstruction of tradition through the marriages of Tevye’s three daughters.
Motel, the first suitor, is the “good guy.” Everyone is supposed to adore him. But he can’t marry his childhood sweetheart, Tzeitel, because she’s betrothed to the man her father selected for her. At first, Tevye refuses to yield to the couple’s wishes, but their affection for each other cracks his resolve. All other considerations pale in comparison to love. His decision is right, but his reasoning is lopsided.
The Overton window shifts left.
Next comes the communist suitor, Perchik, who openly spurns the old in favor of the new. Tevye is furious. Perchik and Hodel weren’t even chosen by a matchmaker! Then a question enters his mind: Did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker? “Yes,” he concludes, “and apparently these two have the same matchmaker.”
Brilliant job manipulating Scripture, Mr. Stein. Christians will immediately shout, “Exactly! God brought Adam and Eve together, and He still orchestrates matrimony today!” The twist is how Tevye recognizes God’s handiwork. Attraction between two people must be a sign of God’s blessing. The assumption sounds nice—you almost don’t think about it—but it’s faulty.
Since this rationale benefited all parties last time, you’re especially likely to swallow it. Now you’re Stein’s pawn, and the Overton window encompasses more progressivism than orthodoxy. Time to cue suitor number three.
The Gentile and Tevye’s third daughter, Chava, seem compatible, but that’s not the issue. Up until this moment, the heroines’ desires have hung in the balance between love and tradition. The audience, Stein hopes, hasn’t batted an eye. So he raises the stakes. If Tevye approves this marriage, he apostatizes, demonstrating that his faith doesn’t matter. Once again, he gazes into his daughter’s eyes.
Love has won every time. Won’t it continue to triumph?
“No!” Tevye bellows. He cannot bend this far. If Chava yokes herself to the Gentile, she’s dead to him. Earlier in the film, we wouldn’t have criticized him for honoring his religion, but now the Overton window has migrated entirely to the left, and we’ve been conditioned to frown at his stance.
Harry Stein summarizes the purpose of this scene: “The most fiercely adhered-to social/religious tenet of all—the injunction against marrying outside the faith—was meant to be depicted, in a changing and more sophisticated world, not merely as outmoded but as outright bigotry. In fact, wrote Robbins (Fiddler’s director) of Tevye’s initial refusal to accept Chava’s Gentile mate, the conditions ‘he has lived under have made him become as prejudiced as his attackers.’”
Joseph Stein is a gentleman, however. Even though he casts Tevye as a bigot, he doesn’t hit the character while he’s down. Immediately after Tevye’s rejection of the third marriage, he sings one of the most beautiful pieces in the whole musical. The lyrics are seasoned with his pain over losing his little girl, who just married the Gentile.
Stein couldn’t have portrayed his enemies as any more human. Christian storytellers can glean two lessons from his finesse.
First, break a controversial message (such as a biblical sexual ethic) into digestible portions. For nonreligious readers, you might need to stretch your message across an entire series. But if your target audience is the moderately secularized Bible belt, you could start with a character who’s realizing that her life only has purpose in light of her relationship with God. From there, you could transition to trusting Him with problems that don’t jibe with her emotional makeup, then incorporate themes like commitment, delayed gratification, and male and female identity. Slowly and steadily, you’ll feed readers your real message.
Second, sympathize with your opposition to the deepest degree possible. If you don’t have a clue what’s palatable to them, you might commit the mortal error of depicting straw men.
4. Challenge Your Own Worldview
Fiddler on the Roof employs what I call the “hands tied behind your back” principle. A stacked deck proves nothing. But if your message survives an onslaught, you’ll amaze readers.
Joseph Stein is so confident that he can afford to play fair. He allows multiple incidents to contradict his message.
- Tevye astutely observes that, without traditions, his family’s life would be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof. Without standards, any behavior is justifiable.
- Tevye yearns to “discuss the Holy Book with the learned men seven hours every day.”
- Perchik is ridiculed for being unrealistic, prideful, and discourteous to women because of his communist leanings.
- The characters recite a lengthy Sabbath prayer, glorious in all respects—except for the request that God protect the children from the stranger’s waywardness. At that moment, Tevye’s wife shoots a distrustful glance at Perchik.
- The song “Do You Love Me?” testifies that love can blossom even in an arranged marriage.
In spite of the above evidence, you’re probably struggling to concede any ground to the other side, though. Wouldn’t that be self-defeating?
Have you ever listened to a debate where one contestant repeated his statements like an automaton, completely ignoring his opponent’s arguments? Whether or not you agreed with him, his response probably scored more points for the other side. If you paint the world as simplistic, no one will buy it. And if your views can’t stand firm amid a free market of ideas, why are you committed to them?
Wrap your worldview in as appealing a package as possible, then give your competition a voice.
5. Imply Dramatic Character Shifts
Twice, Fiddler insinuates morals that would horrify conservatives if communicated more directly. The film accomplishes this once with five words and later with none at all. The effect, rather than pouring gasoline on a fire, is touching.
In the first of these two scenes, Tevye and all the other exiled Jews are packing up their belongings. Chava and her Gentile husband stop by, announcing that they can’t condone the government’s cruelty, so they’re leaving too. Tevye and his family shun the couple as they vowed to do, but when they start to walk away, Tzeitel can’t restrain herself from calling goodbye.
Here’s the pivotal detail: “And God be with you,” Tevye mutters, and Tzeitel echoes the blessing.
What could be wrong with Tevye bidding his daughter farewell? Nothing, of course. But in this context, it indicates a victory for love in the war with religion. When Chava wedded a Gentile, Tevye disowned her because he cherished his faith more. But when he acknowledges her presence, Stein is showing a profound change in the character’s heart. Yet, it’s so understated. If it were drawn out, it might feel preachy.
Stein has invoked the “magic bottle” technique. This is when an author fills a symbol, phrase, or action with incredible significance. From then on, whenever that “bottle” is uncapped, it can convey volumes with a single sentence. In this case, the magic bottle is any dialogue Tevye exchanges with Chava, which the story has classified as willful sin. Tevye murmurs five words, and we’re saved a monologue about family ties versus faith.
The second scene also relies on the magic bottle technique. Tevye and his family trudge down a muddy road after being thrown out of their village. Music floats through the air, and Tevye turns to see a fiddler, who he motions to join them.
Remember, the fiddler represents the Jews and their customs, so Tevye’s invitation is equally symbolic. After abandoning orthodoxy at every crisis, Tevye is still partial to those grand old traditions. It’s the perfect grace note to an anti-tradition film, and we absorb it with warm smiles.
But something is askew. Why cling to tradition if you’ll loosen your grip under pressure? All of us can sense that the symbolism has an alternate meaning. Tevye has forsaken tradition, but he continues to embrace his Jewish identity.
In other words, you can disregard aspects of your faith at whim, but that’s not a big deal! Stein has managed to write a scene that feels conservative while actually promoting humanism.
Man Your Battle Stations
I believe Christian fiction is at a crossroads. The Christianized market of yesterday has become the post-Christian market of today. Many on both sides have raised walls and hardened their hearts. To infiltrate those strongholds, we need to be subversive with our messages. This type of fiction is not watered down, it’s down under the water—a submarine sneaking past barriers and teaching enemies to think differently without even noticing their minds have expanded.
The time has come to learn from our moral opposites. We may be divided in worldview, but when anyone of any conviction crafts breathtaking art, they’re simply stealing from God’s created order. The storytelling techniques that spread lies can also spread truth—especially if God blesses our efforts.
One of the Kendrick brothers once admitted that their movies contain cheesy scenes, but he excused that with the testimony of a man who rolled his eyes at Fireproof until his own marriage went downhill. Then it came to life. Praise God! But how many people would such a story have impacted if cheesy scenes hadn’t initially repelled them?
In an age where all of our shouting has deafened listeners, many ears are still tuned to the timeless words “once upon a time…”
Many moons ago, a series of suspiciously providential events led Daeus to cast his lot among the worldwide community of Christian storytellers. Since then, no reports indicate that he has come back out. Perhaps he is lost among those fine gallivanters forever. Rest in peace, Daeus Lamb.
Daeus dreams impossibly large (which doesn’t bother him a bit) and tends to bite off more than he can chew. Watch this in action as he tries to capture the depths of the fantasy genre on his YouTube channel, or as he seeks to express the meaning of life in just a short novelette. (Psst. It’s a popular little book called God of Manna and you can get it for free here.)