Stories relay experiences for audiences to enjoy, disregard or even relish. As windows reveal the outside world, so do stories reveal the metaphysical world–or more accurately, the storyteller’s view of the metaphysical world.
Because of the Fall, our view of God and reality itself is fractured and clouded. Like squinting through a cracked and dirty window, we can misconstrue what we see outside. Attempts to clean it with our grubby hands only makes the view worse, resulting in us not even wanting to step outside because we’ve been duped to think it’s really as ugly as it seems.
This is why Christians profess Christ’s story as the ultimate solution: he opened the window, breaking the stale illusion by letting in the fresh breeze and outdoor aroma. The first disciples may have experienced this firsthand taste of God (1 John 1:1-2), but much has happened since 33 AD; the window is closed, cracked and cloudy once again. The best we can do today is clean the glass and fix its cracks to hopefully reclaim a clear view.
The Nature of “Windows”
Like windows, stories tend to leave out many important details in the process of framing the view of life, so it’s up to us, the audience, to process what’s said, what’s not, and what the discrepancies say about the storyteller’s worldview.
Consider the film Come Sunday, the biopic on Bishop Carlton Pearson who denounced the doctrine of hell and adopted universal reconciliation. As Pearson offers prolific references Bible passages to support his new view, the film only features two (Romans 10:9 and Matthew 7:13-14) in support of the opposing side (exclusive salvation). This gives the audience the false impression that exclusive salvation is unbiblical and that the Church has had it wrong all along.
Dirty windows can appear clean if we grow accustomed to the haze, and stories often make convincing cases for unbiblical convictions if we don’t examine their underlying assumptions. All it takes is a single stroke with a clean rag to see the lie.
In Hollywood Worldviews, Brian Godawa explains how most stories model redemption:
A movie takes a hero with an inner flaw, who desires something and has a plan to get it. But he is blocked by an adversary until he almost fails but finally finds a solution. This process of goal, flaw, failure and self-revelation is the process of paradigm change or conversion in an individual.
Self-revelation, he says, is where the main character “learns where he was wrong in what he had desired all along. He realizes that what he wanted was not what he needed. This is the view of the way we should or should not live that the storyteller is trying to convey to the audience.”
What matters in a story is where a character ends up and how. The main character’s flaw/opposition is presented as a type of “Fall,” while redemption is found in the character’s transformation/triumph. This process offers a glimpse into a storyteller’s view of salvation (or lack thereof if the character doesn’t transform/triumph). We then take this view and compare it to Christ.
The Thing About “Christ Figures”
We hear it all the time: “(insert sacrificial hero) is just like Jesus!”
“Christ figures” may be commonly sighted, but they are often forced to fit the Biblical portrait to accommodate our own biases. Unless deliberately allegorical, such as C.S. Lewis’ Aslan or even Siegel and Shuster’s Superman, it’s better to take characters as they are in the story and compare that profile to the person of Christ.
In other words, we map the character’s journey to redemption and then assess how it either aligns with or deviates from Christ’s.
Looking out a clean window on a beautiful day may compel one to step outside. Likewise, a positive Christ figure merely invites people to learn about Christ (what matters at this point is intentional relationships).
A Simple Admonition
Blindly letting a well-told story dictate how we think about God is like trusting a plumber with our digestive pains because he sounds qualified. But we mustn’t be blind. Fortunately, engaging the stories around us begins with simple questions:
What is the story-world like? Safe or dangerous? Meaningless?
What values are promoted within that world? Which ones are disapproved? Is the distinction fair or biased?
Does the main character desire good values? Does he/she change values? Was it a good change?
How was the main character able to change? Self-will, humiliation, or grace?
We thus pinpoint the plot elements (values, desires, character transformations, etc.) that cloud the window pane and redefine them in light of Christ, enhancing visibility to the outside where the God-who-surpasses-understanding awaits.
Christians engaged with narratives, whether on the screen, page or in conversation, must not only labor to clear the window, but welcome others to imagine what it’s like to venture outside. Indeed, the way stories inspire us to imagine metaphysical horizons is why Christians are needed wherever stories are told.