3 Lessons Christian Storytellers Can Learn from Adventures in Odyssey

February 11, 2019

Have you ever loved a book or TV series as a child, re-watched it as an adult, and realized how terrible it actually is?

 

Several stories fall into this category for me—many of which are Christian and contain heavy-handed messages. Some I refuse to revisit because they would ruin my nostalgia.

 

However, one children’s audio series held up even after I reached adulthood: Adventures in Odyssey by Focus on the Family. Within the 800 or so episodes, it has high and low points. But whenever I’m home and my younger siblings are listening to it, the strength of the stories has struck me time and again. Not only is Adventures in Odyssey popular among conservative Christian (largely homeschooling) circles, it’s also a superb example of Christian storytelling. It excels in three areas that writers can glean from and apply to their own projects.

 

1. Experiments in Living and Poetic Justice Underscore Themes

I’ve previously covered how experiments in living, along with poetic justice, form the core of a story’s theme. As a brief review, compelling themes emerge when characters are given experiments in living (worldviews that shape their actions throughout the story) and then receive poetic justice for those beliefs (rewards or consequences that reveal whether they made the right or wrong choices). This cycle allows writers to powerfully show a story’s message without obnoxiously broadcasting it.

 

Adventures in Odyssey displays an acute awareness of the thematic cycle and relentlessly uses it to convey a point. For instance, in “Muckraker” Lucy suspects that a hair product company is corrupt and confirms it by trusting people who agree with her (experiment in living). After publishing an article defaming the company, she realizes her accusations were false and has to publicly apologize (poetic justice). In “All Things to All People,” Aubrey tries to evangelize her non-Christian friends during every conversation, believing that’s what Christians are called to do (experiment in living), and she drives them away (poetic justice) before learning better tactics.

 

While the series frequently expounds (and sometimes sermonizes) morals through Mr. Whitaker, it is a children’s show (which tends to be less subtle as a genre). More importantly, it doesn’t rely on his advice to deliver a message. Instead, Whit acts as a mentor guiding the characters toward wise decisions. Sermons serve the overall goal of the thematic cycle rather than the reverse.

 

Children’s works like Adventures in Odyssey tend to streamline the thematic cycle so that it resonates with a young audience. Because of the simplicity, these stories can serve as useful material for writers to study to understand how the cycle functions. My early forays into thematic writing were both consciously and unconsciously influenced by Adventures in Odyssey. Even as my skill has grown beyond that, I still gain insights from and admire the series. Experiments in living and poetic justice have immense potential, and Adventures in Odyssey reminds writers of that.

 

2. Tricky Subjects Need to Be Tackled

Modern children’s literature often avoids hard-hitting topics. The Brothers Grimm model—rife with murder, adultery, rape, and incest—isn’t in vogue nowadays. Furthermore, Christian fiction as a whole has a reputation for shying away from tough issues to maintain “cleanness.” 

 

Thus, Adventures in Odyssey’s refusal to fit into that mold is refreshing.

 

Despite being marketed toward children, the series regularly delves into difficult matters. In “Father’s Day,” Connie grapples not only with her parents’ divorce but also her father’s upcoming remarriage. “A Question about Tasha” confronts the challenges of a Christian being married to a non-Christian. “To Mend or Repair” addresses barrenness. And “Something Old, Something New” demonstrates the suffering that comes from failed romantic relationships.

 

The producers’ choice to go down this route may seem odd. Most kids don’t wrestle with barrenness or singleness—or want to think about coping with the messiness of divorced parents. But people need stories that prepare them for both present and future challenges they may face. Far from being impractical, perhaps childhood is the ideal time to begin considering the struggles of singleness.

 

Adventures in Odyssey can teach Christian storytellers how to navigate weighty topics. First, don’t underestimate your audience, no matter how young. They’re not dumb and may be able to handle more than you assume. Giving them this sort of material now may benefit them more in the long run. Second, be courageous. Christian stories should urge readers to view issues biblically instead of pretending that the world is unbroken. In my mind, much of Adventures in Odyssey’s success is due to how it approaches tricky subjects.

 

3. The Hardships of the Christian Walk Shouldn’t Be Glossed Over

Treating faith as the conclusion of a character arc is a trend in Christian fiction—particularly in stories that focus on conversion narratives. Coming to Christ straightens out the character’s life and puts him in the place he belongs.

 

This plot line, however, is unrealistic. Christ warned His disciples that those who follow Him would experience trials—and possibly torture and death.

 

One of my favorite aspects of Adventures in Odyssey is how it doesn’t tie off a character arc with salvation. Since most of the characters are Christians, it doesn’t have that liberty. Instead, it highlights problems that Christians encounter in the real world: coaching a baseball team without showing favoritism to your son (“The Defining Moment”), the challenges of ministry and what it looks like to support a pastor (“George Under Pressure”), and the danger of Christian sports celebrities and how Christians should live out their faith in public (“The Holy Hoopster”). These explorations make Adventures in Odyssey surprisingly meaningful—even when I’m no longer part of the target audience.

 

The world needs stories that portray all the dimensions of the Christian walk—not just conversion. The more you zero in on this when writing explicitly Christian fiction, the more impactful your storytelling will be.

 

Learning from Examples

Though Adventures in Odyssey has its ups and downs, it remains one of the best ongoing Christian series I’ve seen over the past couple decades. And it contains a multitude of valuable lessons for Christian storytellers.

 

Telling stories that reinforce audience beliefs is easy, whereas addressing thorny issues is hard. Yet, when you bravely go against the grain, you offer the audience a rare treasure: a story that’s meaningful, complex, and powerful. Adventures in Odyssey has produced quality stories over the years by following these principles. If you pursue the same vision, so can you.

 

What type of storyteller do you want to become?

20 Comments

  1. Eden Anderson

    Interesting article! Unlike most homeschooled, christian kids, I didn’t grow up listening to Adventures in Odyssey and as a young teen I thought it was lame and preachy. Perhaps I just misjudged it. 😛 Thanks for sharing this!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Yeah–it could have been the episodes you stumbled into as well. Some are definitely better than others. But I do think the series is much better than a lot of other stories out there.

  2. Renee

    First of all Josiah, I 100% agree with you when you say that we should all learn from the great storytelling of AiO. I love the way it takes on deep themes and really makes you think— they even made an entire album on LGBT issues, called “The Ties the Bind.” It’s really great.

    However, I don’t agree with the statement that AiO is good because doesn’t shy away from deep topics just to keep itself “clean.” AiO IS clean…there’s no swearing, blasphemy, sex, or graphic violence–and yet it is still able to show the “real world” and tackle deep and important stuff.

    I’m guessing what you meant by that was just “it doesn’t hesitate to address the real dark/hard times in life”…but saying that makes it sound like writing about those things at all, just in itself, isn’t clean.

    Maybe it’s just how I read that part. I do think, though, that AiO is a really good example of how to use stories to address our own struggles in life, without showing the boarder-line inappropriate stuff.

    Anyway. Overall, good article. Thanks, Josiah!

    (P.S. I have read all the articles about “cleanness” that SE did, and while I agreed with some of it, I kept coming back to one thought: isn’t asking “how far can I go?” kinda the wrong question? It doesn’t seem like the right spirit to see how much we can get away with…I mean, would we do that in real life, like when in a romantic relationship or something? I understand it’s a little different since it’s dealing with characters, but still.

    I’ve had all these thoughts in my head but this is the first time I’m saying something, so I just want to know what people think. Thanks for understanding.)

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      The “Ties that Bind” album came just after I stopped regularly listening to the series (mostly for lack of time than for everything else), but I do give them major props for tackling that issue in a children’s audio series. I want to catch up on that album specifically sometime.

      So, looking back over my second point, I perhaps muddled things up by linking to the TSfCS series there. I agree that AiO would be considered clean by most people’s standards. The point I was attempting to make in that section was more that sometimes because authors may not know how to tackle certain subjects in a clean way, they end up deciding not to tackle them. There are other reasons authors may not tackle certain hard topics–but that specific reason along with the general motive of exploring ideal worlds that are less realistic (something I look at in the first TSfCS article) was why I mentioned and linked to that article. My intent wasn’t to argue that AiO handles these topics in un-“clean” ways since it certainly does not on that front. 😛 I can see looking back how that may have been unclear, though.

      That’s a very fair and appropriate question. I suppose the way that I would answer such a question is that in my mind the real question is “Where is the line?”, and that’s the question we were trying to tackle in the TSfCS series. Once lines have been properly established, my personal belief is that the real question is what an author’s motives are with regards to that line, not simply how close to that line they get. If we’re free to operate within those lines, I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to be close to the line because the alternative is to set up our own secondary lines that restrict us more than necessary, which by definition is unnecessary.

      Now, that being said, I do think motive matters. The individual who wants to get away with as much as he can and constantly pushes the line for those reasons probably needs to do a heart-check on why that’s the case. There’s danger to that approach. But I would distinguish that individual from the individual who sometimes gets close to the line, but who does it with wisdom and care both for what they are able to write without stumbling and what the story actually needs.

  3. Emily

    That is too funny… my little sisters just happened to be listening to Adventures in Odyssey in the room as I was reading this. XD

    But wow, this is so true! I appreciate this article a lot. I used to listen to Adventures in Odyssey a lot when I was younger, but I never realized how much I could glean from their example of storytelling.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Haha–providential timing it seems. 😉 Thanks!

  4. Donna Darling

    THIS!! I’ve been saying for awhile that I hold AiO as the gold standard in modern Christian story-telling because the quality of the storytelling far exceeds it’s other mainstream contemporaries. Even as an adult I find that AiO still strikes just the right balance of entertaining and instructive, clean yet honest. But you’ve pointed out some things that I hadn’t even noticed before!

    Thank you for putting these things into words~

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Yep–I would very much agree with that sentiment. It does a great balancing act with some fantastic storytelling.

  5. Mariposa Aristeo

    I don’t remember Adventures in Odyssey very well (it’s been several years, and I don’t have any younger siblings who listen to it all the time 😉). Nevertheless, I still deeply appreciate this article. I’m not sure if it’s just because your article is about a children’s story, but I think this has risen to my favorite article of yours. 🙂 This piece could easily be applied to writing impactful children’s literature (and you’ve basically summed up everything I’m trying to do when writing children’s stories 😊).

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Mariposa! Yeah–having younger siblings who listen to it regularly makes sure specific episodes are kept fresh in my memory. ;P

  6. Sandrina

    Yay! Adventures in Odyssey, our family has listened to it for years 🙂
    Great article!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Sandrina! Figured my family wasn’t the only one who’s listened to it for years. 😉

  7. Chelsea R.H.

    AiO isn’t very popular in Australia (or easily available) so I’ve never listened to it, my family used to like the Jonathan Park stories which have an emphasis on Creation science but seem quite similar (until they became unavailable in Australia too.:( )
    I appreciated this article too, and I’m really glad there’s at least one story out there which doesn’t fit into the current mold of Christian storytelling!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Ahh; that’s too bad. 🙁 I’ve heard about Jonathan Park but never listened to it. Weren’t those also put out by Focus on the Family, or was it just from a similar company?

  8. EricaWordsmith

    AiO=WOOTON!!!!!!!!!
    My ability to laugh at Wooton has never died… I don’t listen to it hardly at all anymore, music and Church History by James White (1. Because I’m a history lovin’ gal 2. The amazing dry sense of humor) occupy most of my listening time, but some of those AiO episodes… Those were seriously hilarious. Especially if it included Wooton, who has always and forevermore will be my favorite character from that series.
    I loved Ties that Bind… That was a really amazing album… And everything with Wooton and Hadley… That was really something else. XD

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      I personally never really got into Wooton, but I know I’m in the minority with that position. 🙂 Church History by James White sounds like a great series to be listening through! I’ve really appreciated the stuff I’ve read from White.

  9. Savva

    Adventures in Odyssey is one of the best audio entertainments out there. I still listen regularly. It’s had it’s ups and downs, of course, but there are some really rich episodes in there! Great article!

    Reply
  10. Coralie

    Oh man! It’s been an age and a half since I listened to Adventures in Odyssey. Wow! Blast from the past! My parents used to have these on when I was really little!! I remember enjoying them. I ought to get back into them sometime. I’ve sort of shifted to more of the Focus on the Family podcast material and less of the AiO stories, I guess.

    All the same, your analysis was interesting and I’m thankful for it. Tackling tricky subjects and showing that the Christian walk is no walk in the park are two things I very much admire in stories.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      I haven’t listened to them much since high school and only hear them when I’m at my parent’s house and my younger siblings are listening to them while I’m in the room. But they certainly stand up to the test of time! Glad you found the article helpful. 🙂

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