Pagan Myth, Film Myth and Parables

Redemptive Film

Let us say hypothetically that a church ministry gets inspired by the story behind the recent film release, Facing the Giants, and offers me the opportunity to direct a feature film for them, with the stipulation that it be a redemptive film. How would I go about convincing them that the film will be redemptive? That question leads to a deeper question; what makes a film redemptive?

These questions are open to a plethora of interpretations but for the sake of this paper I will attenuate my response to two possible solutions. This paper will show how several communication scholars and theorist would conclude that mostly all films are inherently redemptive. The paper will show this by focusing on the universal imagery that evokes the redemptive feelings a church ministry would hope to see in a film production.

Thesis

This paper will make the claim that mostly all fictional narratives are inherently redemptive. To define what makes films redemptive it would behoove us to use the terms Pagan Mythology, Parables and Film Mythology interchangeably.

Past Pagan Myth = Past Christian Parables

We can all agree that the parables Jesus told were inherently redemptive, even the admonishing ones ended with hope for the one who believes. Where people differ is in the aforementioned subheading. Several churches would object to the idea that pagan myths encompass a narrative fidelity that could elevate them to status of parables. But Christian author J.R.R. Tolkien did argue for the narrative fidelity in pagan myths. Pearce notes in his book Man and Myth that Tolkien said, “Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we would call real things” (Pearce 60).

Christian Missionary Don Richardson chronicles in his book Eternity in Their Hearts how practical Tolkien’s theory becomes. When Richardson traveled the world he noticed how the Gospel resonated with these pagan myths in very concrete ways. For example he recounts his experience in the southern lowlands of Irian Jaya saying, “The Sawi had a unique way of making peace and forestalling outbreaks of treachery. If a Sawi father offered his son to another group as a “Peace Child” not only were past grievances thereby settled, but also future instances of treachery were prevented – but only as long as the Peace Child remained alive. Our ready made key to communication, then, was the presentation of Jesus Christ to the Sawi as the ultimate Peace Child, using Isaiah 9:6, John 3:16 and others as the primary scriptural correspondents of the Peace Child analogy” (Richardson 112).

This bridging of “pagan myth” into a Christian parable is very similar to how the Apostle Paul talked to those in Athens on Mars Hill. When Paul spoke about an alter to the unknown God, he was telling a parable that was centuries old. Hundreds of years ago there were three symbolic alters set up to the one unknown God and the leaders of Athens sacrificed to this “unknown God” which resulted in their society being delivered from a plague.

Over the last two decades the most polarizing example in Christendom of using old pagan myths was JK Rowling’s attempt to borrow from old pagan myths to make a new myth/parable currently known as the Harry Potter phenomenon. Several books came out claiming these films were seductively satanic and represented a divergent view to the LOTR films. One such book is Frodo and Harry: Understanding Visual Media and Its Impact on Our Lives by Ted Baehr.

I must also mention that J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) has professed to be a Christian while Peter Jackson (LOTR) did not make a profession of faith when rewriting Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Rowling has come out publicly saying that she believes in God and not magic.

Narrative Fidelity in LOTR

Tolkien uses several myths to draw us into a world where one person, Frodo, literally and figuratively takes on the sins of the world (the ring) in order to save everyone. This is the Gospel meta-narrative that has the ring of truth Fisher talks about in Human Communication as Narrative. There are other examples of self sacrifice in this series: Sam, Boromir, and Gandalf.

C.S. Lewis and Ancient Parables

Does this approach of ancient myth as Christian allegory work on the non-believer in Western society? Yes. C.S. Lewis was not a believer until Tolkien conveyed this narrative paradigm to him.

Lewis, a nonbeliever at the time, was reading The Golden Bough. The author of this book, James Frazer, was an atheist fascinated with the recurring motif of a god whose death and resurrection saves people. In The Golden Bough he documents this trend in several pagan religions and their connection to the cycle of nature. For example, the nature of a plant is that it becomes broken, the seed is buried, and then life springs forth from the ground. Tolkien used these dying god myths to witness to C.S. Lewis about the true dying god myth.

Narrative Fidelity in Chronicles

After Lewis’ transformation, he began a fantasy book series called The Chronicles of Narnia. With these seven volumes he was able to re-tell the Christian story – from creation to the apocalyptic battle between good and evil. There are several examples of meta-narrative symbolism combined with past pagan mythology:

Aslan dies to save someone’s life, he comes back to life, Aslan sings/speaks the world into existence. As Christians, we can all identify with this narrative as having the ring of truth.

Film Mythology = Christian Parables

Picture a film like Titanic. A hero dies to save the woman he loves. This film, directed by admitted atheist James Cameron, evokes the dying God myth. And during Valentine’s Day, several girls went to see this film and came out saying “how romantic! I wish someone loved me enough that they would risk their life for me.” This is how film mythology becomes a new bridge for new Christian parables. This is what makes filmmaking inherently redemptive. A Christian standing next to her could easily say “someone does love you enough to die for you… someone did.”

Furthermore, Cameron’s new blockbuster Avatar is an attempt to rival the Star Wars universe and both Lucas and Cameron admit to borrowing from pagan mythological structures to find their redemptive imagery. Avatar in particular evoked a yearning to return to Eden. What they are doing is creating new myths/parables because myths/parables are inherently redemptive.

People have committed suicide after watching Avatar because they desperately wish to return to the Edenic world described in the film. This creates a similar bridge where we can say this Edenic paradise really does exist and we can return to it.

Vogler and the Film Mythology

In the 1980s, Christopher Vogler wrote a seven page pamphlet based on Joseph Campbell’s theories of mythic structure. His pamphlet, A Practical Guide to the Hero with a Thousand Faces, almost became required reading while he worked at Disney. He has since published three versions of the book, spanning from 1992 to 2007 and covering some of the most popular films that have come out of Hollywood.

What he found was that he not only influenced several filmmakers to re-examine their modern myths but that deep within us we naturally gravitate towards a meta-narrative. He does not claim this meta-narrative to be the Gospel but Christian film theorist can and should easily make this connection. Other than having a huge impact on the film mythology at Disney, this book has had an impact on James Cameron, George Lucas and several successful filmmakers.

Vogler’s Narrative Fidelity

One of the key signifiers mentioned in his book is “the road back.” In this chapter he recounts how our hero on the mythic journey will inevitably desire to return home. Eliade, author of The Sacred and Profane, dedicates a chapter in his book to a similar concept called sacred origins.

The idea is that the beginning or the center/point of origin is the sacred place we are all trying to reach. This theory coincides with Fisher’s ring of truth. As Christians we use terms like returning to “paradise” being “reborn” or “going home.” There are several examples in scripture but the clearest would be in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal’s journey home. There are a couple of films that employ this mythology perfectly: Up and The Polar Express.

In Up our protagonist desires to return to a sacred/mythic place called “Paradise Falls”. In the Polar Express we have a lot of imagery with “hero boy” on a magic train that is headed to the center of the North Pole; this city on a hill. It is at the center where he is reborn and symbolically given the gift of faith by “the big guy.” While on the train, a spirit that calls himself “the king” saves his life by telling hero boy to make it to the “heart” of the train; “if you make it to the heart, then you’ll make it.”

Vogler names another chapter in his book “resurrection.” This chapter plays heavily on the dying God myth mentioned by James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough. This is the idea that the hero will sacrifice his/her life to save people but he/she will come back to life in the end. We recognize this narrative in the Gospel also because our God (Jesus Christ) died on the cross to save us and returned from the dead in the end. Some clear examples are E.T. and Neo from The Matrix. Both of these heroes literally died and rose from the dead in order to save others.

Kozlovic and the Film Parable

Anton Kozlovic, film theorist, was one of the first to embrace film mythology as modern day parables. One of the most intriguing signifiers mentioned in his work is the outsider imagery. He expounds on Christ-Figures appearing from outside of the normal world (ie Superman) and he also talks about how they eventually ascend back into the heavens, so-to-speak. He refers to scripture verses like John 1:14, the idea of being in the world but not of the world. With Superman, he was the only begotten son sent to a place called hope. And his name is Christopher. There’s also a passage saying Jesus Christ came down from the heavens (NASB, John 3:13).

He also sites in The Green Mile a man named John Coffey (or J.C.) is referred to as someone who “fell out of the sky.” Kozlovic mentions at least two other films where J.C.’s come from other worlds to save humanity: Twelve Monkeys and the Terminator series. One could even make the argument that because of their knowledge they both exist outside of time.

Kozlovic doesn’t just stop with a Christ-figure coming down from the heavens; he points to their ascensions too. Two good examples of leaving us gazing into the heavens at a savior would be Powder and Armageddon. Some other examples would be when E.T. is telling his disciple to “be good” and then he takes off into space. In The Truman Show, our main character signs off saying “good morning, good afternoon and good night” then he walks up a stairwell of clouds and disappears into the sky.

Conclusion

So, how would I convince the church that our film will be redemptive? I would suggest that by blending past and present parables we have the ability to entertain and enlighten the audience about the “true myth.” Some would argue that all films are not innately redemptive; take for example The Golden Compass. The intention of the novelist was to directly attack the Christian themes in Chronicles and Christianity as a whole.

I will not deny that those perversions of narrative are out there. There are several possible responses to this, but I will share two: 1) These films, that lack what Fisher calls narrative fidelity, ultimately fail at the box office and 2), as Christians making films; we have the innate ability to attenuate these kinds of perversions.