Triperspectivalism and the Movies (C)

March 29, 2011 — 4 Comments

[This post is part of the Perspectives on Triperspectivalism series]

If you need to, see the previous post before digging into this one.

At this point, we’re finally turning to the focus to actual film analysis. From an overall Christian theological perspective, a triperspectival analysis would entail:

  • (1) a normative perspective looking at how film functions as divine revelation;
  • (2) a situational perspective looking at how film functions within the broader culture;
  • (3) an existential perspective looking at how film functions as part of our subjective experience (how we react and appropriate films).

Or, more briefly, the question could be asked “what do films tell us about God, the world and ourselves?” This is how one would use triperspectivalism to examine film in general, with the result being a kind of Christian theology of film. For our purposes here, I am concerned with offering a model for doing specific film analysis. This could be largely construed as a cinematic perspective on film. To do this, the above model would need to be tweaked, resulting in a slightly different scheme:

  • (1) a normative perspective looking at what the film is revealing about its own world (its worldview)
  • (2) a situational perspective looking at the specific situation of the film (its story)
  • (3) an existential perspective looking at specific moral lesson the film is trying to impart to the viewer (its ethics)[1]

For this analysis of a film, it is best to start with the situational perspective, which is simply to start with its story. Whether one then moves to the normative perspective or the existential is a matter of preference in presentation. However, as mentioned earlier, part of the need for a good interpretive model of film is not just to analyze the film itself but to bring it into relation with what Scripture teaches. For simplicity, we’ll just call this second perspective the Christian perspective.[2] To look at things from this vantage point, one would need to construct a triperspectival analysis of Scripture that can be brought into fruitful relation with the film. The questions to ask in short are, what does Scripture reveal about God (theology), what story does it tell (creation/fall/redemption or the gospel story), and how should we then live (ethics)? Answering these questions is conducting a triperspectival analysis of Scripture, and is similar to the above systematic theological inquiry, except that in this case the scope has been limited to Scripture.

Having done that, one can then construct a comparative perspective. In this perspective you would now bring the first two into relation with one another to compare and contrast. A comparative triperspectival analysis would be:

  • (1) a normative perspective contrasting the worldview of the movie with the worldview of Scripture
  • (2) a situational perspective contrasting the redemptive story of the film with the redemptive story of Scripture
  • (3) an existential perspective contrasting the moral lesson the film is teaching with the moral lessons found in Scripture.

In this analysis, the goal is to not only note points of departure between the two perspectives but also to note points of agreement. In this way one would highlight where the cinematic perspective shed light on the Christian perspective and vice versa. Typically, analyses tend to do one or the other. But from this last evaluative perspective, one can find genuine insights from the film as well as be able to connect its story with the Story in a sometimes fruitful way.


Details on how to conduct an analysis from what I’ve labeled “the Christian perspective” are not necessary at this point. For one thing, it will be in some ways relative to your particular theological tradition, and I am assuming that theological task is well known to us and does not need to be re-explained here. Rather we’ll focus instead on how to construct the cinematic perspective, starting with what one naturally comes to first in watching a film: its story. As Brian Godawa puts it, “Storytelling from its inception was expected to be more than entertainment. Through their craft, the first storytellers were expected to teach the culture how to live and behave in their world.”[3]

If one takes biblical history seriously, then this observation makes sense of the purpose the first story would have had. In Genesis 2-3 one is presented with what would have been the first story ever told, and it would have presumably been passed on from family to family as a means of explaining how to live in the world they all found themselves inhabiting. It is also worth noting that this first story ended with hope of redemption. Again says Godawa, “The essence of storytelling in film is about redemption,”[4] or as he says elsewhere, “Film are finally, centrally, crucially, primarily only about story. And those stories are finally, centrally, crucially, primarily mostly about redemption.”[5]

This is after all what one might expect given the truth of the Christian worldview. Man as an image of God will inevitably imitate God’s actions at some level.[6] As God acts on the stage of world history to accomplish his purposes, so man acts on the stage of his own personal history to accomplish his purposes. Stories in their basic form are accounts of a main character’s purpose, action, and the result. In this basic sense, all stories are accounts of a man imaging God, who as Scripture teaches has purposes, acts in history, and brings about his intended results.[7] In a more specific sense though, God does not just act randomly in history, but acts to accomplish redemption. This redemption “is at the heart of God’s purposes for the world, it is the one central story.”[8] If this is true, then “in the end, all the other stories about working out human purposes derive their meaning from being related to this central story.”[9]

If man in general derives meaning as a human from imaging God, at the particular level of stories told by man, meaning there would be derived from imaging The Story. In this way, all stories image the Christian story of redemption, which is another way of saying all stories by their nature are imitations of the Christian gospel story. There are several approaches to story analysis, but given its connection with screenwriting, I would suggest Christopher Vogler’s mapping presenting in The Writer’s Journey to be the best.[10] His work is based on Joseph Campbell’s conception of the Monomyth, which is the universal plot that can be seen through a large scale analysis of mythology.[11] For Vogler, the categories of a story can be broken down into twelve stages filling three acts.[12] In the first act, called Separation, the stages are: (1) Ordinary World, (2) Call to Adventure, (3) Refusal of the Call, (4) Meeting with the Mentor, (5) Crossing the Threshold, (6) Tests, Allies, Enemies, (7) Approach. In the second act, which can be split into two parts itself, Descent and Initiation, there is a single (8) Central Ordeal. In the last act, called Return, the stages are: (9) Reward, (10) The Road Back, (11) Resurrection, (12) Return with Elixir. Space does not allow a fuller exposition of how each of these stages work, but as one can see from just the names it is assuming a kind of redemptive plot line in most stories, with every story either achieving redemption (making it a comedy), or attempting and failing (making it a tragedy).


More could be said about the analysis of story and I’m working on simplifying it a bit more. The next post will cover worldview and ethics. And then I’ll post some concluding thoughts.


[1] This is how the film is suggesting is the way to live in light of its worldview. The moral premise is essentially the underlying ethical thrust of the particular film which is not meant to only be considered but is meant to be followed.
[2] Other options might be to call it the “theological perspective” or the “biblical perspective.”
[4] Ibid. 86.
[5] Ibid. 89. Emphasis original.
[7] Ephesians 1:10-11, 1 Cor. 15:28, Rev. 21:1, 22-27
[9] Ibid.
[10] Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers, 3rd ed. (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007). Part of the rationale in using Vogler is that many film makers use his structure in writing their screen plays.
[11] See for instance Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008).


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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