November 11, 2008
Beyond Pyrotechnics and Titillation
J.R.R. Tolkien once told C.S. Lewis, "Christianity works on us like any other myth, with the difference that it is actually true."
What Tolkien didn't tell Lewis was that myths also make the best movies . . . whether the myths are true or not. There is a better, even a best, way to make a film, and it starts with a great myth -- and not with an agenda.
I just read a wonderful essay by Dwight Longenecker (posted at Spero News) on this very topic, reiterating the things many of us already know to be true . . . but it's good to read the occasional reminder:
Story. Is. Everything.
Agenda is always secondary at best. Telling a great story matters most.
As Longenecker notes, "Titillation, pyrotechnics and gore only entertain [audiences] so long. If the film isn't driven by a powerful and compelling story line, even the most immature audience will yawn."
The essay notes that Hollywood story consultant Christopher Vogler has "outlined the formula for a good story . . . [b]asing his ideas on the work of the mythologist Joseph Campbell . . . a model which is as old as human communication itself. It is a structure which is woven through all the great myths, fairy tales, sagas and folk tales of humanity in every culture and every age."
He illustrates how this pattern is evident in Scripture, where "the spiritual journey requires a departure from our comfort zone to step out into a world of unknown realities. . . . This story line is reflected in all the Old Testament sagas. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joseph, and Joshua all have to step out in faith and leave their old world to follow God's promise."
Even Jesus had to step out of the comforts of heaven to walk among us, arguably the most powerful mythic story of all time -- a true myth.
Author Longenecker says that a prime example of myth-telling comes in Disney's animated The Jungle Book , which he recently watched with his young children. At the climax, Baloo the Bear sacrifices his life to save Mowgli, and as he lies seemingly dead, Bagheera the panther quotes Scripture: "No greater love has any man than he lay down his life for his friends." Of course, Baloo was faking his death, and then winks and wakes up.
Writes Longenecker, "Professional theologians and high brow Christians may throw up their hands in horror at such a trivialisation of theology, but when Baloo woke up my four-year-old said, 'That's what Jesus did.'"
Myth as truth. Truth as myth. A formula for great stories, and great movies.