Aspiring Christian filmmakers take note: Brian Godawa says storytelling is bound up in God-given rules of redemption, providence and predestination. The author of Hollywood Worldviews and the screenwriter ofTo End All Wars is currently adapting two Frank Peretti novels for the screen, and he continues to publish articles on the art of screenwriting, most recently in Script magazine.
Godawa spoke with RELEVANT about his approach to storytelling, and how his Christian worldview informs the themes within his work.
[RELEVANT Magazine:] How have you managed to immerse yourself in the film culture, but not succumb to worldliness?
[Brian Godawa:] The most helpful thing is to be informed and educated on the nature of storytelling and how worldviews are communicated through stories. If you know exactly how a worldview isbeing communicated and what is being communicated, you are more capable of being objective about your viewing and less likely to be manipulated. It would be more like interacting with ideas than consuming them indiscriminately.
[RM:] How strong a role does apologetics play in this? How has your view of Scripture and of God aided you in your calling to be a screenwriter?
[BG:] Storytelling has structural rules, just like other art forms. If you do not have certain things in the story, it will be unsatisfying for the viewer. Structure within a story means that everything that occurs within the story follows a preexisting plan, that is, an order with a purpose. One of the rules in effective filmmaking is that everything that happens in a movie has to have a purpose. From what a person eats to what is going on in the background—all are precisely ordained by writer and director to communicate character, plot and theme. There can be no arbitrary events. Anything that does not advance the story must be thrown out.
In this way, the act of storytelling itself denies the notion of a chance universe without purpose. In order to communicate an idea about mindless indeterminacy, a writer would have to intelligently determine all the instances of "chance" occurrence in his story. He would be assuming as true what he is trying to prove false. So a determined universe is inescapable in the art of story. Yet a determined universe makes freedom, history and change philosophically impossible. Proposing that both chance and destiny are ultimately true is contradictory and self-refuting.
So where's the balance? What kind of determination is true? The answer is in the storytelling. The biblical view of determination is that a personal God—as opposed to impersonal fate—created the universe, and He sovereignly controls and providentially destines all things that come to pass without forcing human beings against our wills or negating our responsibility.
Think of Romans 9. Storytelling reflects the Christian God and His providential determination of the free acts of human beings. A screenwriter providentially creates characters based on the kind of story he or she desires to tell. Authors determine every single word, every single act, good and evil, of all their characters, down to the jot and tittle, sometimes working for hours on just the right turn of a phrase or subtle plot twist. Even events that seem like chance occurrences in a movie, like a freak car accident or the lucky throw of dice, are deliberately written in by authors to direct the story exactly where they want it to go. Yet when an audience watches the movie, we see characters freely acting and morally accountable for their actions in a world where some things appear to happen by chance. Our knowing that the characters and their stories are predestined by an author does not make them any less valuable or their stories any less meaningful. But this apparent free will and chance are shown by the end of the story to be parts of the ultimate self-revelation of the main characters and others—and that revelation was what the storyteller predestined in his orchestration of all the events. There is a plan to it all, even if the characters don't know it at the time. Thus storytelling reflects the ultimate storyteller of all history, God Himself. In this way the act of storytelling itself becomes an apologetic.
Examples of movies that deliberately depict this providential purpose of deity behind chance occurrences would be Pulp Fiction, Magnolia, Amadeus, Pi and The Lord of the Rings. Movies that portray a universe of chance and randomness without God would include The Man Who Wasn't There, Being There and Grand Canyon. And movies that attempt to strike a balance between the two, often capitulating to an impersonal "fate," would be Forrest Gump, Serendipity, Cast Away, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Go, Twelve Monkeys, Snatch and Final Destination.
[RM:] What challenge would you give to the culturally timid person? What challenge would you give to the person who indiscriminately indulges in popular culture?
[BG:] I call the person who avoids culture a cultural anorexic, and the one who consumes too much culture indiscriminately a cultural glutton. I would suggest several things for each. First, to the cultural anorexic, I would ask, "Do you have trouble finding any point of commonality with unbelievers in discussions or even sharing in life? Do you have any unbelieving friends in your life at all, or are you spending all your time with Christian friends and family?"
Our call is to share the good news with unbelievers and disciple the nations, and that's not going to happen if you are so alien to them that you can't make a cultural connection. Since culture is a part of our humanity, when we retreat into subcultures of our own, we alienate ourselves and become irrelevant. Nothing in this life is perfect, including movies. If we avoid all movies simply because some of them are bad, then we are throwing the baby out with the bath water, because there is much good in movies as well. The best approach is to be educated and able to discern the good from the bad, and to use that understanding to share your beliefs with others.
To the cultural glutton, I would ask, "Do you think movies and television are only entertainment without any real messages?" If so, then you are a victim of manipulation because you are unaware of the messages that are being communicated to you. Ignorance does not protect us, it opens us up for manipulation. "How many hours a week do you spend on entertainment? Now compare that with how many hours a week you read the Bible or other spiritual growth material. How many times have you enjoyed a movie that you later came to realize was offensive to your beliefs or worldview"?
Again, the answer is education and understanding of movies, storytelling and worldviews. The ability to discern what worldview a movie is communicating makes one more objective, but also more appreciative of the good, and capable of rejecting the bad. Our knowledge then becomes a means of interacting redemptively with culture. We draw out the good, reject the bad and share our insights with others.