The Shape of Redemption in The Gospel and The Movies

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Earlier in this movie mini-series, I talked about the need for a nuanced take on movies. Then, I started unpacking some basic perspectives that need to be in place. First, I explained the need to see movies as artistic creations. Second, I pointed to the moral messages woven into the fabric of most movies. Today, we’ll look at how most movies are essentially redemption stories, and what kind of implications that has for how we watch them.

As a leading screenwriter in Hollywood puts it, “The art of story is the dominant culture force in the world, and the art of film is the dominant medium of this grand enterprise” (15). Robert Johnston concurs stating, “the nature of film is story,” and “we go to the movies to see stories.” Stories however, are rarely just stories, but rather, “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.” (Godawa, 76)

Interestingly, this quite often takes the form of a character going on a quest to achieve some kind of redemption. As Craig Detweiler observes, “The most timely, relevant, and haunting films resonate with the shaping story of Scripture: from the beauty of creation, through the tragedy of self-destruction, to the wonder of restoration.” (Into The Dark, 257) One could easily say that “The essence of storytelling in movies is about redemption,” and, “Movies are finally, centrally, crucially, primarily only about story. And those stories are finally, centrally, crucially, primarily mostly about redemption.” (Godawa, 86, 89)

Stories are “universally perceived as the best way of talking about the way the world actually is.” (Wright, 40) This in turn implies something about reality itself: “Storytelling is meaningless gibberish unless reality itself is narratable. And reality is unnarratable in a universe without a transcendent narrator.” (Godawa, 70) In other words, the prevalence of storytelling across cultures is an apologetic for the existence of God. Without a being who fits the description of the biblical God, there is no unity that makes sense of the diversity of storytellers, nor is there a unity of world history itself. Assuming a grand narrator, it would make sense that there is also a grand narrative of which all the individual narratives told by human storytellers are analogical reflections.

Joseph Campbell, who formulated the idea of the Monomyth underlying all mythologies, was certainly on to something, but in the absence of a Christian perspective, he failed to notice that “Christianity is itself the true incarnation of the Monomyth in history, and other mythologies reflect and distort it like dirty or broken mirrors.” (Godawa, 70) This being the case, the story of redemption as exemplified in the Christian gospel is the ultimate story of redemption that the redemptive storylines in the movies analogically reflect. The individual redemptive stories that are displayed in the movies follow the same trajectory as the grand narrative of redemption told in Scripture. They are situational reflections of the divine norm of how redemption really works.

As the blueprint for all other redemptive storylines, “The Bible narrates the story of God’s journey on that long road of redemption. It is a unified and progressively unfolding of God’s action in history for the salvation of the whole world.” (The Drama of Scripture, 12) This is not to suggest that film-makers are consciously modeling their stories after God’s story of redemption. It is simply to observe that the prevalence of redemptive stories found in movies indicates not only that this type of story is the most satisfying, but that there is an innate human desire for redemption that leads to the creation of “gospel stories” that mimic the Gospel. (Frame,902)

To see this clearly, consider the stages of Christopher Vogler’s adaption of Campbell’s Monomyth that is used by numerous screenwriters. In the first act, called Separation, there are several stages. They are:

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the Threshold
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach

In the second act, which can be split into two parts itself, Descent and Initiation, there is the single stage:

  • Central Ordeal.

In the last act, called Return, the stages are:

  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • Resurrection
  • Return with Elixir

In his analysis of story, Vern Poythress breaks the story of redemption accomplish by Christ into three acts as well. (206-208) In the initial act (Challenge), Christ is in heaven (his Ordinary World) and is sent by the Father to redeem the world, which is a Call to Adventure that lacks a Refusal of the Call (Galatians 4:4-5; 1 John 4:14). At the outset of Christ’s public ministry there is a Crossing of the Threshold (Matthew 4:1-11). From there Christ makes Allies (the disciples) and Enemies (Satan, the Pharisees) and amidst the many Tests (challenges from Pharisees and demons) he breaks away often to meet with his Mentor (God the Father). All the while, Christ has set his face to Approach Jerusalem (for this emphasis, see Luke’s Gospel). In the second act, it is not a stretch at all to see Jesus’ crucifixion and death as the Central Ordeal of the gospel story (Matthew 26-27). In his death which is the start of the final act, Jesus was vindicated and received the Reward, completed the Road Back and was Resurrected from the dead. He then returned to his Ordinary World (heaven) having accomplished redemption and made the Elixir available to all who would believe (1 Timothy 3:16; Philippians 2:8-11; Romans 4:24-25). From a Christian perspective, even though it happened in the middle of history, the Gospel is the archetype for all stories with a redemptive trajectory. Film is no exception.

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 (Ephesians 1:10-11; 1 Corinthians 15:28; Revelation 21:1, 22-27). In a more specific sense though, God does not just act randomly in history, but as stated before, acts to accomplish redemption. This redemption “is at the heart of God’s purposes for the world, it is the one central story.” (Poythress, 206) 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.” 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.

All stories then image the Christian story of redemption, which is another way of saying all stories are reflections of the gospel. This is not to say every movie has a gospel presentation. Rather, all stories, including those told in movies, are following a pattern that is woven into the fabric of storytelling by the Original Storyteller. That pattern is chiefly displayed in the Christian Gospel, and is imitated by every well told story in or out of the theater. The Gospel is the universal redemption story of which any given movie is a particular redemptive story. This means that almost any movie can be a starting point for sharing the gospel since it will connect in some way. Making that connection is difficult, and so that’s what I’d like to spend the summer sketching out.

Author: Nate

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!

2 thoughts on “The Shape of Redemption in The Gospel and The Movies”

  1. Will you be distinguishing US movies from other cultures’ movies?
    Aren’t there movies that are sometimes lumped into the category of redemption story that are what Horton calls, following Barth, an “overcoming estrangement” story, with nothing redemptive in the story, having only one crucial agent?

    1. If the movie has a discernible plot, then it fits this analysis. Even if it doesn’t, it’s because the screenwriter is consciously trying to deviate from the typical “script.”

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