The Theology of Screenwriting, Part 4: Salvation

September 20th, 2012 by

This week, I am exploring theological themes in relation to screenwriting, considering them metaphorically because in my view, we see these themes in movies all the time. By understanding them, we can use these theological themes to enhance the meaning and depth of our stories.

For background on the general subject, you may read my introductory comments in Part 1 here.

Today in Part 4: Salvation.

Depending upon which sidewalk proselytizers you happen by, salvation can mean many things. Receiving enlightenment. Deliverance from Evil. Or accepting a religious figure as your personal savior.

No matter what the specific iteration, they all share one common idea: For an individual to  achieve salvation, they have to get right with God.

Yet there are two seemingly contradictory dynamics at work with the concept of salvation.

The root of the word is the Latin salvare which literally means “to save.” So in this sense, it is not about being saved, but saving someone or something else.

Then there is this per the words of one of my favorite theologians Frederick Buechner who talks about salvation in his book “Wishful Thinking”:

“You give up your old self-seeking self for somebody you love and thereby become yourself at last… You do not love God so that, tit for tat, he will then save you. To love God is to be saved. To love anybody is a significant step along the way. You do not love God and live for him so you will go to Heaven. Whichever side of the grace you happen to be talking about, to love God and live for him is Heaven. It is a gift, not an achievement.”

Thus on the one hand, salvation is directed toward saving someone else. On the other hand, it is a gift, not an achievement.

Strip away the God-talk and what do we have in terms of screenwriting?

Regarding the first meaning of the word, there have been tons of movies in which one character takes on saving someone or something else [literally or symbolically] such as The Lord of the Rings, True Grit, Star Wars, Seven Samurai, The Matrix, Casablanca, Aliens, Léon: The Professional, WALL-E, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Princess Bride, The Exorcist, and Saving Private Ryan.

“That’s my mission.” To save someone or something. A specific goal. Externalized. Not you, but them. Take action. Save them.

But then there is another form of salvation. Personal salvation. Where the journey is about the hero’s psychological metamorphosis. Movies like The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, Schindler’s List, Inception, Casablanca, It’s A Wonderful Life, American History X, American Beauty, Rain Man, and A Beautiful Mind:

Discovering the core of who they are, their God Within, self-understanding so they are transformed from an old way of being into a new way.

We want to believe we would help others if given the chance.

We want to believe we can get our act together.

Both of these desires speak to salvation. We save. We are saved.

Use the theme salvation to imbue your stories with emotional power.

What do you think? Salvation as a lens through which to look at and analyze the stories we write. See you in comments to discuss.

For Part 1: Sin, go here.

For Part 2: Conversion, go here.

For Part 3: Predestination, go here.

Tomorrow: Another theological theme in screenwriting.

8 thoughts on “The Theology of Screenwriting, Part 4: Salvation

  1. Bryan Colley says:

    These theological posts have been fascinating and provide an opportunity to discuss one of the most profound religious films I’ve seen in years, “A Serious Man,” and address one theological issue you didn’t bring up: Doubt.

    The problem with storytelling is that it is inherently God-affirming. A story is constructed by an all-knowing writer, who predetermines the fate of the characters. There’s an assumption that everything happens for a reason, and that ultimately there is meaning to be drawn from the actions of the characters. This meaning is usually derived from the conclusion of the story; when the character is either heroic, redeemed, destroyed, or banished by their actions. This is the reason the Bible and other religious texts are full of stories. Stories imply there is a higher power that will judge you and determine your fate – the storyteller is God. It makes us judge real life in the same way – a series of actions and consequences that must therefore have some meaning because then it becomes a story.

    “A Serious Man” features a character that questions his belief in God, but the question is never answered because none of the multiple storylines in “A Serious Man” have a resolve. From the opening scene to the act-of-God conclusion, everything is left hanging in a way that evades didactic finality. The movie refuses to give meaning to Larry Gopnik’s life and expresses doubt and uncertainty in the most profound way.

    Of course, constructing a story that refuses to give conclusion has its own meaning – that the real truth or meaning is unknowable, and unknowable is also God-affirming, because God is unknowable. Many might argue the final shot is conclusive, because it brings God into the story. Without a solid conclusion, I remain in doubt.

    It’s unlikely that any form of storytelling can be entirely secular. The whole purpose of telling a story is to give order to the world, and any imposed order implies a higher power. Some might say that man gives order to the world, but you could counter that man merely discovers the order in the world.

    It’s ironic then that “A Serious Man” is based on the story of Job from the Bible, but it’s Job without the meaningful conclusion. It’s Job without God’s hand, a test of faith that Larry Gopnik will never know if he passes or fails, because that knowledge is only gained in stories, not real life.

    At the very least, “A Serious Man” shows the Coen brothers masterful grasp of how stories work and how simply bending the rules of storytelling can make a profound statement. Is there a God? Will Larry Gopnik ever get his life in order? Does he die at the end? The movie doesn’t provide answers, only questions.

    If you look at other Coen brothers films, you’ll find their reluctance to neatly conclude a story is one of their greatest weaknesses. Most of their films fumble in the final act – most arguably in “No Country for Old Men” and most obviously in “Burn After Reading.” It’s almost as if they’re avoiding giving their films too much meaning, lest they be mistaken for gods, but this is betrayed by their other noted weakness, a tendency to look down on their characters from a superior, God-like position. Like it or not, the storyteller is God.

    1. Scott says:

      Excellent analysis of A Serious Man, one of the best Coen brothers movies IMHO. And not just because [personally] I have an interest in big existential questions. The movie, as you note, embraces the power and importance of not knowing, the uncertainty of existence.

      It reminds me of a comment one of my teachers at Yale said: “A person’s willingness to doubt is a sign of their faith.” It’s easy to hide behind a set of beliefs, literalism becoming a kind of exercise in idolatry. But to go beyond the realm of metaphors and experience God, the Ultimate, or whatever one chooses to call that which is ‘beyond’ us, we have to be willing to embrace the enigmas of existence. And that is a terrain rife with uncertainty and doubt.

      Do you mind if I use your comment as a blog post? I think it definitely deserves a wider reading.

      And thanks for taking the time to dig into A Serious Man.

      1. Bryan Colley says:

        Use it as you will! and Thanks.

  2. Bryan Colley says:

    Immediately after writing the above, I found this on IMDB:

    In his argument with the Columbia House records employee over the phone, Larry Gopnik repeatedly rejects the album Abraxas by Santana. Abraxas is a Gnostic term for God, particularly a God who encompasses all things from Creator of the Universe to the Devil, and an etymological root for “abracadabra”. It is thus implied that Larry Gopnik is vehemently rejecting God and magic.

  3. David Joyner says:

    Thanks for another great post Scott.

    I think another view of salvation is a collective one, as contrasted with a personal one, in the sense that that God delivers the Israelites from bondage (as in the Tanach, or Old Testament). This view is exemplified in the films “Star Wars,” “Seven Samurai,” and “The Matrix,” for example, so fits in well with what you are saying.

    An important perspective to keep in mind while writing a screenplay.

    1. Scott says:

      David, good point. Collective salvation. Let’s see: Independence Day, War of the Worlds, sci-fi examples. How about Apollo 13, saving the lives of the astronauts?

      1. Debbie Moon says:

        One of the things that fascinates me, both as a Christian and as a writer, is the way the idea of the saviour-figure is hardwired into so many cultures, and particularly into their fiction.

        We all respond instinctively, or so it seems, to the slightly-more-than-human figure who sacrifices themselves to save the people at their time of greatest need. And no matter how cynical societies become about real-life ‘saviours’, religious, political, or in any other sphere, we all still long for and respond to that saviour-hero in fiction…

  4. [...] Part 4: Salvation Depending upon which sidewalk proselytizers you happen by, salvation can mean many things. Receivi… [...]

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