Storytelling is making a comeback. With the influence of postmodernism on our cultural landscape, rational argumentation and empirical observation are being questioned in humanity’s quest for meaning and truth. They only go so far. There are equally effective means of reaching the spiritual part of people in a way that abstract reasoning or mere scientific measurement may not. Storytelling is one of those means. Stories wholistically engage our body, minds, and emotions through dramatic narrative. The ancients knew this, which is why there are so many myths, parables, fairy tales, and other stories in history that helped reinforce the values and worldviews of their respective cultures, and find meaning in their existence.
Daniel Taylor writes of the desire for meaning as the originating impulse of our storytelling:
We tell stories because we hope to find or create significant connections between things.…Our stories teach us that there is a place for us, that we fit. They suggest to us that our lives can have a plot. Stories turn mere chronology, one thing after another, into the purposeful action of plot, and thereby into meaning.… Stories are the single best way humans have for accounting for our experience.1
Famous psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim writes in The Uses of Enchantment, his classic study of the meaning and importance of fairy tales, “Myths and fairy stories both answer the eternal questions: What is the world really like? How am I to live my life in it? How can I truly be myself?”2
The concept of “mythology” has a bad rap in many Christian circles. It has come to be synonymous with “falsehood” or “lies.” But this was not always so. Christopher Vogler, accomplished educator of screenwriters echoes his mentor, famous mythologist, Joseph Campbell, by explaining that myths are not untruths or fanciful exaggerations, but metaphors for a mystery beyond comprehension. “It is a comparison that helps us understand, by analogy, some aspect of our mysterious selves. A myth,in this way of thinking, is not an untruth but a way of reaching a profound truth.”3
So one way to define mythology is simply as the incarnation of a worldview within the narrative framework of story. Though Campbell erroneously promoted a relativistic metaphysic and a bigoted prejudice against Christianity, his study of mythology demands some respect from Christians in its encyclopedic scope and in some of his insights into the nature of myth. Like Paul on Mars Hill, we must not be afraid to agree with pagan authors where they are correct, while refusing to endorse the totality of their worldview.
Lights, Camera, Action
Love them or hate them, movies have become one of the dominant forms of storytelling in our society and therefore carriers of cultural mythology (television,even more so). Modern man may pride himself in his scientific rejection of ancient mythologies and pagan gods and goddesses, but he has not rejected mythology in principle. He has merely replaced one mythology with other mythologies. The myths of Odysseus and Hercules that taught Greeks and Romans courage, honor, strength, and fate have been replaced with movies like Gladiator and Braveheart that teach Americans and Europeans very similar values. As most moviegoers know, movies about historical people are more often legend and myth than actual history.
X-Men, the 2000 movie about an assembly of comic book heroes with “mutant” powers who fight each other over the skyline of Manhattan, is the same kind of scenario as the Greek pantheon of deities who fought it out over mere mortals below Mount Olympus. In fact, many movie heroes played by actors like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Tom Cruise, and others are larger-than-life protagonists who achieve their goals through Herculean-like labors. Deity is not a prerequisite for mythology. Francis Schaeffer pointed out that the gods of Greece and Rome were actually amplified humanity,not divinity.4 Are not movie stars and the characters they play given the same amplification in their social status because of their “big screen” persona?
A good example of American movie mythology is the western genre. The values which many of us take pride in, like rugged individualism, the pioneer spirit, vigilante justice, outlaws as heros, restlessness of spirit, and love of outdoors run deep in many American hearts and many American westerns. A typical western movie reinforces the “bootstraps” lone righteous man against a savage world, carving his way through the wilderness of harsh rugged terrain, burly outlaws, and “uncivilized, wild Indians” in order for “civilization” to find its roots. With a six-gun on his hip, and a warrior code of honor, the cowboy hands out posse justice to outlaws who endanger the growth of the village. The western movie embodies many of the values (and mythology) of American culture.
The recent movie based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is another example of the mythic nature of movies. It is a story that not only incarnates values like courage, sacrifice, and pity, but also embodies a deep underlying essence of the average person’s search for significance. Frodo is an everyman in his universe, as we are in ours. Like most of us, he is not famous or especially gifted with talents or powers that place him above other men, or rather, other hobbits. His journey is one of self-discovery where he learns that, as the Lady Galadriel tells him, “[E]ven the smallest person can change the course of the future.” Isn’t this what each of us desires in our innermost being? Most of us are not larger than life in our social, political, or economic status, yet we long for significance in our own existence. The Lord of the Rings as mythology, reaches deep within our universal need because it incarnates the truth that significance is not achieved through power, but through humility. God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
The Lord of the Rings also illustrates the point that there is such a thing as a Christian mythology. Stories that communicate such values as self-sacrifice, loving one’s neighbor, or even ultimate justice are in essence expressing a Christian mythology or worldview. For example, the screenwriter Randall Wallace has expressed his intent behind Braveheart as being a reflection of the gospel. In the same way that William Wallace’s martyrdom became the apparent loss that won Scotland’s freedom, so our own spiritual freedom is wrought from the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ. One man dies that many may be set free and “really live.”
Certainly,not all movies are epic mythology. Some may be more like parables or fairy tales. But all of them are stories, and as stories, they incarnate the values of a worldview. Campbell discovered an underlying universal pattern in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies. He called it “the hero’s journey” from separation to initiation to return,5 and that journey incarnates redemption in a way we will discuss in part two of this article. It is difficult to deny this common thread between diverse cultures. But the Christian need not fear facing such facts. God is the God of story. The cliché that history is His story is certainly accurate as the Bible itself indicates through its own storytelling. The fact that all stories contain common elements should be expected if our Creator created us in His image. Even the most reprobate pagan myth reflects that image, fallen though it may be, and suppresses that truth, twisting it to idolatrous purposes (Rom. 1:18-25).
C.S. Lewis explained well the relation of myth and Christianity in his article, “Myth Become Fact ”:
The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact...by becoming fact, it does not cease to be myth: That is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other... We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “Pagan Christs”: they ought to be there — it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome.6
In part two of this series, I will examine the redemptive nature of storytelling in the movies and how the very structure of that storytelling is an apologetic for worldviews.
1. Daniel Taylor, The Healing Power of Stories: Creating Yourself Through the Stories of Your Life (Dublin,Ireland: Gill and Macmillan,1996), pp.1,2,5,6.
2. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Random House,1989), p.45. Unfortunately, Bettelheim’s analysis of fairy tales suffers the excesses of a myopic Freudianism.
3. Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions,1992), p.vii.
4. Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview (Westchester,IL:Crossway,1982), p.85.
5. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton, NJ: Princeton,1949,1968,1973), p.30. Also, see Vogler, Writer’s Journey, p.3.
6. C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed.Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,1970), p.66-67.
- Brian Godawa
Brian Godawa is the screenwriter of the award-winning feature film, To End All Wars (www.toendallwarsmovie.com). Most recently, he has been hired to adapt best-selling author Frank Peretti’s supernatural thriller, The Visitation, for producer Ralph Winter. Mr. Godawa’s articles on movies and philosophy have been published in magazines around the world. His scripts have won multiple awards in screenplay competitions. He travels around the United States teaching on movies and culture to colleges, churches and community groups. His book, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (InterVarsity Press) is in its 7th printing. His website, www.godawa.com, contains more of his cinematic, theological and philosophical musings.