The Theology of Cinema: Faith

“Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going but going anyway. A journey without maps.”

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As many of you may know, I have a background in the academic study of theology, a B.A. in religious studies from the University of Virginia and a Masters of Divinity degree from Yale. So it is only natural I bring that perspective to how I view and understand movies and screenwriting.

Let me be clear, when I say theological, I mean it — in this context — in a secular way. How does that make sense?

The word “theology” is a combination of two Greek words: “theos” which means God and “logos” which means word. So theology is words about God. What if for this series we think of God as a metaphor for an explanation for the big questions of life? Thus, theology as words about the meaning of life. Broadly speaking that is one dynamic movies hit on consistently, characters forced to confront their values, behaviors, and world views related to who they are and how they should act.

In this respect, movies and theology wade in very much the same thematic waters. As Andrew Stanton noted about Lawrence of Arabia in this TED Talk, how the central theme of that story is the question asked of the Protagonist “who are you,” that issue exists at the core of perhaps every movie, an existential exploration of a character or characters’ self-identity. So, too, with theology.

Also, movies tend to be about characters at critical junctures in their lives, facing a journey from the Old World into a New World where through a series of challenges and lessons they undergo a significant metamorphosis. Sounds an awful lot like a conversion experience to me.

Thus, it is only natural there will be a lot of crossover of theological themes in movies. But while a theological theme in a movie may have a religious or spiritual connotation, I am more interested in exploring such themes metaphorically to find the widest value possible for screenwriters at large.

By working with this non-religious take on the concept, we can avail ourselves of numerous powerful theological themes in screenwriting regardless of whether our stories are secular or non-secular.

Consider the concept: Faith.

Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I would guess that would work for most people, whether we used the word in a religious or secular context.

It’s confidence or trust in a person or thing. A belief not based on proof.

I prefer this articulation by theologian Frederick Buechner:

Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going but going anyway. A journey without maps.

Isn’t that a fantastic way to think of story?

For our characters — and in particular Protagonist — there is some sort of call to adventure, some type of event or moment which propels the narrative out of the Ordinary World and into the Special World.

The Call to Adventure in ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’

The Protagonist may have a destination in mind, a goal, but how to get there? Even if they have a map, the very nature of story — at least good ones — mucks things up, creating complications, roadblocks, detours and reversals.

Yet with all that, the Protagonist keeps going. And that dynamic, that movement, that keeps going is an act of faith.

Faith as an ongoing process fits like a hand in glove for story because the Protagonist — again in good stories — is continually challenged by events. Each test, each challenge represents the opportunity to lose one’s faith, to turn back, to reverse the process.

But as the stuff of the Authentic Self emerges, the Protagonist’s faith can be empowered. It’s no longer a leap of faith, as it was when crossing the first threshold, but becomes over time in middle of the journey acts of faith.

Verb. Not noun.

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Ripley gets in touch with her Inner Mother in saving Newt’s life in ‘Aliens’

Inevitably the Protagonist confronts their stiffest challenge, a Final Struggle in which their faith is put to a major test. In some ways, this moment is the whole point of the journey: to determine if the Hero has grown in faith to such a degree they have the self-confidence to prevail.

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Clarice’s faith in action in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’

More often than not, faith prevails.

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Andy’s faith prevails in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’

The ironic thing is that like so much of what transpires with our characters, we — as writers — experience something similar. Consider again Buechner’s words in terms of writing a story:

Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going but going anyway. A journey without maps.

The very idea of writing a story is itself an act of faith. The entire process from concept to final draft is a process of faith, on-again-off-again, a constant challenge at every step. We may not be sure where we’re going, but we go anyway.

Every day, every scene, every line we write is an act of faith.

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