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” (Acts 17:23), and claimed that God has determined human lives so that they should perhaps “feel their way toward him” (Acts 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.
2. Happy endings
Movies aren’t just about good fighting evil; they’re about good defeating evil. Movies are searching, not only for a moral framework, but for an eschatological one. Once again, this is so common we don’t even think about it. But a “happily ever after” is an essential part of every good story.
In other words, whether good defeats evil is never a matter of indifference to the viewer. You never think, “Well, either Jim Braddock or Max Baer will win—who cares?” No, when good triumphs at the end, it always restores some happiness and harmony that was disrupted during the struggle. You could summarize most plots in three phases:
- loss of happiness
- restoration to some greater and more permanent happiness
Sometimes there’s the idea that everything is set back to normal, particularly in time-travel films like Back to the Future and X-Men: Days of Future Past. The whole world falls apart, but it becomes okay in the end.
But why is this so common? Does the idea of a “happily ever after” connect to anything in the real world, the Story each of us inhabits? Once again, in a naturalistic worldview the answer is no. The universe will ultimately wind down and run out of energy.
But for the Christian, harmony → tension → resolution is the basic paradigm of reality. We call it creation → fall → redemption. If Christianity is true, in other words, the reason the endings of movies make us feel the way they do is because it’s going to happen one day.
3. Suffering and sacrificial love
In almost every film, good not only fights against and triumphs over evil, but does so by means of suffering and sacrifice. How lame would a story be if the good guys won easily and without cost? That never happens.
Take Rudy, for instance (one of my personal favorites). That scene where he’s sitting at the park and discovers he gets into Notre Dame—it never gets old to me. I could watch it over and over. But how lame would it be if Rudy was 6’ 5” with a 140 IQ? It would never make a good movie. The struggle it took him to get there is what makes his story powerful to us: we all sense there is some great meaning, not only to the triumph, but to the struggle it takes to get there.
Or take the suffering John Nash endures in A Beautiful Mind (another personal favorite). The depth of his suffering throughout that film, the way his whole world is turned upside down, makes the speech at the end all the more beautiful—the way his wife sticks it out with him also. What makes the story tick is that he triumphs, not over Soviet spy codes, but mental illness; it’s a story not just about achievement, but love and redemption.
The motif of sacrifice almost always accompanies that of suffering. How many times have we seen one of the good guys give up their life, or think they’re giving up their life, or give up something else important, in order to save the day? The choice of sacrificial love is the key trigger in so many plots, from The Adjustment Bureau to Beauty and the Beast to Stranger than Fiction, and on and on we could go. Someone gives up their life, sacrificing themselves for someone else, only to find their life return to them.
Once again, this aspect of movies is difficult to account for on evolutionary grounds. Naturalists scratch their heads over the problem of altruism. But for the Christian it makes perfect sense that sacrificial love and suffering are the key to good’s triumph over evil, and that you always get back what you truly give up.
After all, this is the great center of our faith: Jesus, the cross, the empty tomb. It’s what we sing and hear about every Sunday. It’s what we believe will one day renew the universe. And it’s what we believe the whole world is searching for—in our movies, and in our lives.
Gavin Ortlund is an associate pastor at Sierra Madre Congregational Church and PhD candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary in historical theology. He and his wife, Esther, live in Sierra Madre, California, with their son and Daughter. Gavin blogs regularly at Soliloquium.