God Loves Movies
By Brian Godawa
Adapted from the Preface of the Updated and Expanded 2009 edition of Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (IVP), available July 2009.
God loves movies. Movies are visually dramatic stories, and in the Bible, the dominant means through which God communicates His truth is visually dramatic stories-not systematic theology, not doctrinal catechism, and not rational argument. A survey of the Scriptures reveals that roughly thirty percent of the Bible is expressed through rational propositional truth and laws. Therefore, seventy percent of the Bible is story, vision, symbol and narrative.[i] Sure, God uses words, rationality and propositions to communicate his message. But modernist Christianity has neglected to understand how much more important visual imagery, drama and storytelling are to God.
Movies are a visual medium. Cinematic composition, color, light, and movement confer emotional states and embody symbolic meanings and ideas with deep effect. Consider the sense of awe at the majestic panoramic depiction of good battling evil in The Lord of the Rings. Remember the visual punch in the spiritual gut experienced through The Passion of the Christ as it incarnated the atonement imagery of Isaiah and the Gospels.
The thousands of miracles that God performed for his people in the Bible were not mere abstract propositions, but "signs and wonders," sensate visual displays of God's glory.[ii] God's own Temple was designed by Him to be a visually rich engagement of the senses as his people worshipped Him, surrounded by colors, images, pictures and statues of visual beauty.[iii] New Covenant sacraments are visual pictures of grace that are not reducible to abstract propositions.
And then there are dreams and visions: God's form of television and movies. Joseph's dreams of fat and skinny zombie cows, Ezekiel's Close Encounters with spinning wheels, Nebuchadnezzar's Terminator statue, as well as other visions given to dozens of Old and New Testament saints are all stunning high-definition, Dolby sensurround feasts for the senses as well as the spirit. God loves movies. He produced a lot of them.
The book of Revelation is a theatrical orgy of visual imagery, produced, written and directed by Jesus Christ. The images of apocalyptic horsemen, multiple-headed monsters running around killing people are more akin to a modern horror film or fantasy epic than a systematic theology or doctrinal exposition.
God also uses visual images to reveal Himself. The burning bush is just a trailer for upcoming releases. From Old to New Testament, God's favorite visual images to use for his presence seem to be thunder, lightning, clouds, smoke, and fire. Tentpole spectacular! And no blue screen CGI!
Movies are all about drama. Drama is relationship in action. It is existential rather than intellectual. As we follow characters working through their moral dilemmas and personal journeys, so we learn through them. It is one thing to rationally explain the concept of forensic justification, but the power of seeing Jean Valjean being forgiven in Les Miserables, embodies that truth existentially like no theological exposition possibly could.
Rather than merely give sermons or lectures, God often had his prophets give plays. Ezekiel was a thespian prophet. God told him to act out a battle scene as a prophecy, complete with miniatures.[iv] Then God has Ezekiel engage in the longest-running Off-Off-Broadway performance of the time in a dramatic symbolic enactment for 430 days.[v] And there were more episodes of the Ezekiel show.[vi]
Jeremiah is called "the weeping prophet." But he should have been called "the acting prophet," because so many of his prophecies were theatrical performances.[vii] Isaiah broke the social taboos of modesty with R-rated shocking performance art as he walked around naked as a visual "sign and token" of Israel's shame.[viii]
In the New Testament, God uses the Lucas-like special visual effects of a picnic blanket from heaven filled with unclean animals to persuade Peter of the New Covenant inclusion of Gentiles. God, it seems, is the original Cecil B. DeMille. Mere words were not enough for Him. He wanted lights, camera, action!
Several books of the Bible are deliberately structured according to theatrical conventions. The books of Job and Jonah are depicted in dialogues reminiscent of ancient plays, including prologues, epilogues, and several acts. Job's friends function as the chorus of ancient theatrical performances. The book of Mark structurally resembles a Greek tragedy.[ix] God loves the visual, and God loves drama. But even more, He loves visually dramatic stories.
Movies are first and foremost stories. And so is the Bible. The Bible is the story of God's redemptive activity in history. The Bible is not a systematic theological textbook. It communicates doctrine and theology mostly through story. Storytelling draws us into truth by incarnating worldview through narrative. Creation, Fall, and Redemption, the elements of a worldview, are a narrative progression of events that can be seen in all movies.[x]
Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God mostly through parables-sensate, dramatic stories. To him, the Kingdom was far too deep and rich a truth to entrust to rational abstract propositions. He chose stories of weddings, investment bankers, unscrupulous slaves, and buried treasure over syllogisms, abstraction, systematics or dissertations. Jesus could do abstraction. He preferred not to.
Indeed, stories and parables may be a superior means of conveying theological truth than propositional logic or theological abstraction. As N.T. Wright suggests, "It would be clearly quite wrong to see these stories as mere illustrations of truths that could in principle have been articulated in a purer, more abstract form."[xi] He reminds us that theological terms like "monotheism" "are late constructs, convenient shorthands for sentences with verbs in them [narrative], and that sentences with verbs in them are the real stuff of theology, not mere childish expressions of a 'purer' abstract truth."[xii]
Kenneth E. Bailey, an expert on Middle Eastern culture, explains that "a biblical story is not simply a 'delivery system' for an idea. Rather, the story first creates a world and then invites the listener to live in that world, to take it on as part of who he or she is... In reading and studying the Bible, ancient tales are not examined merely in order to extract a theological principle or ethical model."[xiii] Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer agrees that doctrinal propositions are not "more basic" than the narrative, and in fact, fail to communicate what narrative can. He writes in his book, The Drama of Doctrine, "Narratives make story-shaped points that cannot always be paraphrased in propositional statements without losing something in translation."[xiv] If you try to scientifically dissect the parable you will kill it, and if you discard the carcass once you have your doctrine, you have discarded the heart of God.
Because of our modern western bias toward rational theological discourse, we are easily blinded to the biblical emphasis on visually dramatic stories. We downplay the visual as dangerous or irrational, while God embraces the visual as a vital to His message. We elevate rational discourse as superior and dramatic theater as too emotional or entertainment-oriented, while God elevates drama equally as part of our imago dei. We consider stories to be quaint illustrations of abstract doctrinal universal truths, while God uses stories as his dominant means of incarnating truth. God loves movies.
Brian Godawa is the screenwriter for the award-winning feature film, To End All Wars, and author of Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment.
[i] Of course, most of the propositional content and imagery is integrated with each other, so a strictly "scientific" separation is not possible. Both are necessary to God's revelation, but the sheer comparison of volume is revealing.
[ii] See Heb 2:4 Deut. 6:22; Dan. 4:1-3; Acts 14:3; 2 Cor. 12:12.
[iii] Exodus 25; 28; 1 Kings 6, 2 Chronicles 3; 4.
[iv] Ezekiel 4:1-3
[v] Ezekiel 4:4-8
[vi] See also Ezekiel 5:1-4; 12:1-11; 17-20; 37:15-23.
[vii] See Jeremiah 13:1-11; 19:1; 17:19-27; 27:1-14; 32:6-15; 43:8-13; 51:59-64.
[viii] Isaiah 20:2-4
[ix] "Theater," Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, © 1998 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc.Version 1.0.
[x] See Brian Godawa, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 2002).
[xi] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 77.
[xii] Ibid, 78.
[xiii] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jacob and the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel's Story (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 51.
[xiv] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 50.
So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.