I love movies. I always have, but for some reason I’ve grown more and more fascinated with movies in the last three or four years—the massive industry that stands behind them, the intricacies and subtleties that make for good acting and good narration, and most of all, the power of stories to communicate at such a deep, complex, emotional level. I loved the new Star Wars.
Maybe part of it is living in Southern California. The other week Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler were filming part of their new movie The House right here in Sierra Madre, and as I walked by, I stopped and watched the director coaching them. It was fascinating. It reminded me how much work and energy goes into each scene of a movie. Did you know that the opening conversation in The Social Network was filmed about 99 times? Rooney Mara said, “I was like, ‘I’m gonna burn out, I’ll get flat, it’ll feel robotic,’ but it never felt like that. Every single time, it really felt like a different scene and fresh.” Crazy.
In his speech in the Areopagus in Acts 17, Paul drew attention to the Athenians’ worship of an “unknown god” (17:23), and claimed that God has determined human lives so that they should perhaps “feel their way toward him” (17:27). In their own way, I see movies depict something of that “feeling their way” struggle. Of course, there is great ugliness and evil that can found in the movie industry (just as Paul saw in Athens, Acts 17:16)—and so we need to be discerning about what movies to watch, and what effect they have on us.
But movies also provide insight into the questions people around us are asking—they are windows into our cultural narratives, into those ways even very secular people are “worshiping an unknown God.” (This is true of all mediums of storytelling, and much of what I say here applies equally to Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and Christopher Nolan as well as Aeschylus, Beowulf, and Jane Austen.)
When I say movies are searching for the gospel, I don’t mean the content of the gospel, but more the shape of the gospel. Movies tap into our deepest emotions because they draw on truths and realities that only make sense in light of the gospel, and the questions they ask are only resolved in the gospel.
Here are three components of that “feeling their way” process:
1. Good Versus Evil
In almost every film, the fundamental drama is drawn along the lines of good and evil. What’s creates a story worth telling is usually this:
- good and evil clash
- good struggles and gets beat up for a while
- good defeats evil
Often evil has an institutional advantage—we love Bourne because he is on the run, we hate Warden Samuel Norton in Shawshank Redemption because of his complacent power, and so forth. And often good is an underdog or somehow down on their luck. Think of Rocky Balboa, for instance, or Dr. Richard Kimble—or think how many heroes in Disney films are orphans, or experience the loss of one or both parents along the way.
Sometimes good and evil are cast in terms of a particular motif, like the “light” versus “dark” side in the Stars Wars franchise; sometimes it’s cast in terms of different parties or groups (like the Autobots versus Decepticons in the Transformers franchise, or Charles Xavier’s mutants versus Magneto’s in X-Men); sometimes good is orchestrated around one individual (James Bond, Indiana Jones, etc.). Sometimes the struggle between good and evil is darker, like Batman versus the Joker; other times it’s more implicit and/or lighthearted (say, Frank Dixon versus Viktor Navorski in The Terminal). Often there are very static “good guys” and “bad guys,” or, in the case of superhero stories, heroes and villains; other times you can see a character struggling back and forth between good and evil (like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings). Sometimes the “evil” is located not in people but in nature (survival stories, Jurassic Park, Jaws, etc.), though even here you often find “bad guys” creeping in; other times good vs. evil is depicted internally (Frankenstein, The Godfather, etc.); still other times it’s depicted in terms of ideas or systems or even machines (The Matrix, The Terminator, etc.) or aliens (Alien, Independence Day, etc.)—but again, there are usually good and evil characters as well.
But the point is, movies are never just about different parties striving for survival and power. There is always a moral dimension to the drama, and therefore a heightened sense of significance. We don’t just want one side to win: we sense one side ought to win. We know it’s right that Simba dethrones Scar, and not simply his good fortune; and we feel resolution and satisfaction when Gene Hackman is sitting alone in that bar at the end of Runaway Jury.
Why is this so common? Wouldn’t this paradigm be monotonous if it weren’t so deeply woven into our hearts that we don’t notice it’s monotonous? To me, this is one way movies are searching for the gospel. A naturalistic evolutionary framework has to look at our inclination toward good versus evil and say, “That’s there because it helped our ancestors survive, and the sense of transcendence accompanying it is ultimately illusory.” That’s incredibly difficult to believe, and most of us can’t do it, even if it’s the logical conclusion to our worldview.
Or another way to put it: if blind evolution is how we got here, then movies are telling us a story that’s fundamentally deceptive about the nature of reality. On the other hand, if there is a Trinity that spawned the world out of love, and a real moral battle between those loyal to him and those fighting against him, then the sense of moral transcendence that films convey is a little clue about the point of everything.
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