The Theology of Screenwriting, Part 15: Grace

December 7th, 2012 by

This week I continue to explore 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 15: Grace.

My first two years at Yale, I lived on the Sterling Quadrangle:

As a night owl, I would study until 2, 3, even 4AM. And often I would take a walk onto the Quad. Stare at the stars. Contemplate big questions like… why am I here?

On the Quad directly below Marquand Chapel [the tall building in the photo above], there was a spot where the sidewalks converged. And on that spot was some stone work, a distinctive circle within a circle. I visited it often in my late night wanderings. I called it The Navel of the Universe, feeling as if standing there, gazing up into the night sky, was an appropriate center point for all my existential questions.

One evening I was standing on The Navel, peering up into the heavens, pondering Big Issues when I heard a voice.

“Scott?”

Startled I shifted my gaze from the sky to see Don. I didn’t know Don all that well, so it was a bit awkward, him catching me outside in spiritual sojourn. Don was a Lutheran, studying for the ministry, a solid fellow on a clear path. I was a wanderer, scrambling both philosophically and theologically.

So we started to talk. About life. Existence. Faith.

At some point, Don asked me about the concept of grace. I don’t remember my response, but it must have been a pretty poor answer because I do recall Don wagging his head – with a smile – at my words.

“Scott,” he said, “There is nothing we can do to merit God’s love. Nothing. Here’s how I look at grace: We are all fucked up. But God loves us anyway.”

This moment was  – and is to this day – one of the most revelatory experiences in my life. Having been raised a Southern Baptist, then a Methodist, I had always assumed my status with God was dependent upon my actions, my worthiness. Don’s simple assertion, his interpretation of Martin Luther, blew my assumptions completely out of the water.

Here is what theologian Frederick Buechner has to say about grace:

Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.

The grace of God means something like this: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

Okay then. What if we look at Grace metaphorically in relation to a Protagonist in our story universe. Think about these words where the “I” is you – the writer:

“Here is your life. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

Doesn’t that describe the relationship a writer can have with their story’s central character? The story universe we create with and around them? The beautiful and terrible things that can happen the events of the plot? Our love for them an expression of acceptance of who they are, no matter how flawed and broken they may be?

Now let’s pivot the point-of view and think about these words where the “I” is the Authentic Self of the Protagonist, their Core Essence which yearns to come into consciousness, their Inner Need.

“Here is your life. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

In other words, Grace is tied to the Destiny of the Protagonist — to become who they are.

One of my favorite questions to ask about a Protagonist is this: Why does this story have to happen to this character at this time?

Because Grace requires it. Grace engenders it. Grace creates it.

So when you write your next story and contemplate the Protagonist’s role in it, how they start out in a state of Disunity…

Well, that’s them being “fucked up.”

And as they go through the trials and tribulations of the plot…

Those are the “beautiful and terrible things” that happen.

And when they end up in a state of Unity…

That is a sign that “God loves us anyway,” enabling their Authentic Self to break forth into the light of day, to become who they are.

As characters, that is their gift to us, providing a compelling journey to tell.

As writers, that is our gift to them, crafting a story that enables them to complete that journey.

Next week: More in this series on the Theology of Screenwriting.

4 thoughts on “The Theology of Screenwriting, Part 15: Grace

  1. David Joyner says:

    IMHO you hit a home run with this post, Scott. Home run.

  2. God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.

    As a pastor, I’ve had to explain this many times. One example was just as simple: when Jesus shoved me out of the way from a speeding bus and took the hit that I had coming. Later when I visited Him in the hospital…I spit in His face.

    Of course I didn’t do that. How ridiculous! I thanked Him for saving me and promised to follow Him (repent of my selfish life) and imitate His example of going after those in the bus headlights too, despite their actions or attitudes of indifference or antagonism.

    I got what I didn’t deserve to do the same as He did for me for others.

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