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    All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Chapter Ten

    March 3, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    This post is a two-for-one. As I was reading Brian Godawa’s article in the latest epistula, I felt a blog post coming on. Hours later, as I was gingerly flipping the pages of Ken Myers and considering my weekly book club post, I made a decision. Why in the world would I need to critique Godawa when Myers already did it, and twenty years in advance at that!

    A Little Background

    It is important to know, if you are not reading along, that Chapter Ten of All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes is called Popular Culture’s Medium: The Entertainment Appliance. It is about television specifically, and the cultural domination of words by images in general.

    It is also important to know that Brian Godawa is the author of a book that we own and generally like called Hollywood Worldviews. More importantly, Mr. Godawa is the author of the screenplay for one of my top-five favorite films, To End All Wars.

    With that said, I completely and totally disagree with Godawa’s assertion in his epistula article {called God Loves Movies}, where he asserts:

    God loves movies. Movies are visually dramatic stories, and in the Bible, the dominant means through which God communicates His truth is visually dramatic stories—not systematic theology, not doctrinal catechism, and not rational argument. A survey of the Scriptures reveals that roughly thirty percent of the Bible is expressed through rational propositional truth and laws. Therefore, seventy percent of the Bible is story, vision, symbol and narrative. Sure, God uses words, rationality and propositions to communicate his message. But modernist Christianity has neglected to understand how much more important visual imagery, drama and storytelling are to God.

    Such poor logic really shouldn’t be allowed by folks from Veritas Press, who are supposed experts in classical education. This is a logical misstep on Mr. Godawa’s part, and I am wondering why the editors at epistula didn’t catch it.

    I love that God uses stories. I love that Jesus told stories. But we have access to those stories because they were {a} told orally and {b} written down using words. God did not use images to communicate very often at all. If I use Mr. Godawa’s reasoning, I think I could also assert {and more rightly so as far as logic goes} that graffiti might be acceptable since God wrote on a wall in the Old Testament.

    Ahem.

    Moving Pictures, a Limited Medium

    Moreover, Godawa begins to back up his claim by saying:

    Movies are a visual medium. Cinematic composition, color, light, and movement confer emotional states and embody symbolic meanings and ideas with deep effect. Consider the sense of awe at the majestic panoramic depiction of good battling evil in The Lord of the Rings.

    This is funny because, as much as I like those movies, I believe they now hold my imagination in bondage. Whereas before I imagined Frodo according to the text {forty years old, for instance}, I now only picture Elijah Wood.

    Now, I’m not about to say that God doesn’t like movies. I’m just saying that Godawa’s logic is poor.

    I would suggest that movies are almost nothing like stories told using words {either aloud or written}. Myers writes:

    Any idea of motion is much easier to communicate in pictures {especially in moving pictures} than any idea of being. The simplest verb in all human language, to be, is the hardest to present visually. Yet it is the verb that God used to define Himself as the great I AM.

    The important part here is that stories founded upon words rather than images are rooted in the reality of human existence rather than action.

    Pictures also tend to cut us off from the past. They cannot easily communicate like or dislike. They are completely subjective in nature:

    [I]mages are wholly inadequate to express what ought to be, what ought not to be, or conditions under which something will or will not happen. In images, everything is in the present tense and the indicative mood. Images are very nonjudgmental and undemanding. This poses some obvious problems for theology and ethics.

    Myers then explains the nasty result of the domination of the image:

    A culture that is rooted more in images than in word will find it increasingly difficult to sustain any broad commitment to any truth, since truth is an abstraction requiring language.

    God and Drama

    Godawa goes on, in his pitch for God loving movies, to explain that movies are dramatic in nature, and God loves them because God loves drama. Then he gave examples of God’s use of drama, relying heavily on the major prophets.

    I agree that, when times became really tough, God did choose to use dramatic intervention in human lives. But I’m not sure that God using drama as a vivid depiction of His judgment on evil, for instance, is correlated enough with drama as fun and entertainment in the form of movies to form a foundation of solid argument. Myers writes:

    Television communicates and entertains using three main forms: it tells stories, it depicts conversations, and it displays action. All three of these forms are dramatic forms, which has led critic Martin Esslin to suggest that “the language of television is none other than that of drama.” Esslin says that drama is not only a language, but a “method of thinking, of experiencing the world and reasoning about it.”

    Myers goes on to explain how drama has taken the place of true analysis when it comes to reporting of current events. As our culture relies more and more on images, news crews find one storyline for each admittedly complicated situation. They “analyze” it by telling the story of a single man on the street through conversation. What is lost culturally is the ability to analyze in a true sense of the word and make connections between the many different things which impact the situation being reported upon.

    So how is drama a “method of thinking”? Myers explains:

    [E]ven at its best, television is a means of promoting the immediate experience as the dominant way of dealing with life. Reflection, analysis, and reasonable discrimination are discouraged. Eslin argues that in dramatic communication, the “linguistic element, insofar as it is concerned with the transmission of abstract ideas, may often come very far down our ladder, after gesture and movement, after costume, even after the impact of setting.” Abstract ideas are, however, essential to the maintenance of the social order; freedom, justice, and duty, to name a few abstractions, can be illustrated by drama, but understanding the essence of them requires the analytic powers of language.

    [snip]

    Even if all of the entertainment on television was inoffensive to Christian ethics and of the highest artistic merit, its form of communication {form of knowing} encourages the aversion to abstraction, analysis, and reflection that characterizes our culture at all levels.

    Movies are a Story?

    Mr. Godawa says that “Movies are first and foremost stories.” He then explains that since the Bible is the story of God’s intervention in history, therefore God loves movies. First of all, this doesn’t logically follow. Just because God wrote a story doesn’t mean that God loves stories, nor does it mean that God loves all stories.

    But I’d actually like to debate the point of movies being a story in the first place. I’d say they are…and they aren’t. The stories of the Bible, and all stories for thousands of years had a foundation in language. What I mean is, the story was communicated using words. This created a story that was, for the most part, absolute in nature. Think of Aesop. He tells these wonderful, wise stories, but because he is using words, there is no room for misunderstanding.

    Jesus did likewise. Most of His parables are followed by explicit interpretation, which keeps us from running away with the story and using it for our own purposes.

    Movies, on the other hand, are experiences more than they are stories. They are experiences which often tell a story, but they are experiences first and foremost. I like movies. Si and I probably watch an average of three per month. I am not anti-movie. But the thing about movies is that they are completely subjective, as experiences often are. There are certain Christian movies that try to overcome this fact and preach in one way or another. And you know what? Those movies often seem like bad ones to us. This is because the medium is not meant for preaching, and it isn’t even meant for telling didactic tales. It is meant to offer an escape into another world.

    Mr. Godawa ends his article with this:

    Because of our modern western bias toward rational theological discourse, we are easily blinded to the biblical emphasis on visually dramatic stories. We downplay the visual as dangerous or irrational, while God embraces the visual as a vital to His message. We elevate rational discourse as superior and dramatic theater as too emotional or entertainment-oriented, while God elevates drama equally as part of our imago dei. We consider stories to be quaint illustrations of abstract doctrinal universal truths, while God uses stories as his dominant means of incarnating truth. God loves movies.

    Do you see the logic here? Essentially, Godawa is saying that stories are a part of what it means to be human and have a culture. Movies are a story. Therefore, God loves movies. {I might have botched the syllogism just a little.} I would debate the idea that movies are a story in the traditional sense. I would grant that movies often fill the human need for story, but I would say that they do this in a superficial way.

    Allow me to, um, tell a story. I once had a professor. She was an obviously lonely person. She was an instructor in one of my media classes, and she was up on all the latest shows. Through the course of the class, it because evident to me that one of the reasons she was up watching all of these TV shows was that it filled her need for human companionship. She was a very large woman living a painfully small life, and TV gave her a sense of intimacy and connection. {Myers talks about this in his book.} Even though TV did this for her, the fact remained that she was in reality isolated from others. She didn’t have real friends other than the cast of Friends. TV was a substitute, and a poor one at that.

    I think movies actually work in a similar way when it comes to story. We humans have a need for stories. But stories were traditionally used to pass on culture, virtue, wisdom, and so on. They ran deeply. Movies are {for the most part} a shallow substitute. We feel like we’ve experienced a story. But because it is image-based, it is as Myers says, which is to say that nothing abstract has been communicated, at least not specifically.

    My hunch is that Godawa doesn’t have a broad reading experience with traditional stories. If he did, he would know that great stories are filled with kernels of truth that are explicit in the text rather than implicit in an image. I think of Howard Pyle, great writer of fairy tales, who will say things like “the stepmother was as beautiful as she was wicked and as wicked as she was beautiful and this is often true with very beautiful women.” The story will then dramatically illustrate the extreme wickedness and the extreme beauty and then overtly teach young men to beware dazzling beauty.

    When you take away the words of the story, you are left with images which may or may not lead you to any knowledge of conniving women, depending on your disposition. The movie as a medium doesn’t naturally generalize itself. In fact, we could take Mr. Godawa’s own screenplay, which is a beautifully written tale of essentially a great books curriculum taught in a prisoner of war camp. I love his movie, I really do. But I don’t think it extrapolates itself in such a way that the viewer walks away seeing any need to enrich himself with great books. The typical viewer does not see that great books could elevate him from the prison of his own mundane life.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m not advocating total abstinence from movies. But I also think we shouldn’t be sitting around trying to pretend they are something they aren’t. They are a substitute for reading most of the time, and they are contributing to a culture that is becoming increasingly unable to reflect and analyze. Reflection and analysis automatically take place when reading a story, but this only happens deliberately when a person watches the average moving picture.

    An Exception

    I think an exception needs to be made here for LOST. LOST is interesting in that it has folks pouring through old books, studying John Locke, Rousseau, Jeremy Bentham and so on. LOST reaches back into the written world in a way that encourages us to want to understand that world because we see that it has significance within the show in a way that isn’t overt. In this sense, LOST encourages great books reading in a way that To End All Wars cannot. Because of this, I feel I can applaud LOST, and its reliance on curiosity as an engine, even though it might come to a disappointing end.

    And Finally

    I would compare Godawa’s assertions with Comenius. In a recent email from New College Franklin, the school’s rooting in Comenius’ ideal of pansophism was explained. Tenant two is where I have interest today:

    II. WORD BASED

    God reveals himself first and most particularly in words, and so literary substance is at the root of pansophism and classical education. The foundation of this principle comes from Christ the Logos-Word. Christ the Incarnate Word and the Scriptures are God’s specific revelation, and this literary prominence carries over into all other subjects and disciplines. For instance, the study of physics means reading works of physics, not solely doing experiments in labs. Reading is the core of all disciplines.

    The concept of Christ-as-Word isn’t something to be taken lightly. After all, God dramatically created the world…with a Word.

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    5 Comments

  • Reply magistramater March 6, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    “they hold my imagination in bondage” That phrase is going in my journal. That’s exactly what happens!

    I remember a young lad argued with me while I read “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” aloud because one description didn’t match the movie!!

    I also like your shallow/deep comparison with movies and books. A movie can depict emotion, some interior dialog or conflict, but only in a limited way. When two people watch a movie, but only one has read the book, the reader will get so much more from the movie.

    I like adding the visual after I’ve read. We’re currently studying WWII; seeing the landscape corrects wrong impressions I made while reading.

    No doubt a picture (whether still or moving) is powerful. But I would argue that words are even stronger.

    Thank you for a great review.

    Carol

  • Reply Brandy March 5, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    Mystie, True! I like that: “God loves storytelling.” I think that is the perfect distinction. I also like your point about reading aloud vs. reading in solitary. Early on in our home, I tried to take the Bluedorn’s advice and read aloud at least two hours per day. I suppose we average about an hour and a half. Anyhow, reading aloud has been a completely different experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, even though reading in solitude is faster (and we do a lot of that as well…).

    Also: Love the Tolkein quote!

    Cindy, I had to google to find out what Asterix was. Sounds like something that would appeal to my son, as well! 🙂 Good point about Godawa illustrating forgiveness. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you are right. Perhaps movies, then, can serve as illustrations for abstract concepts? Put feet to them, in a way. Of course, that brings us back to Myers’ point that we have to have a language-based culture first in order to have the abstract concepts.

  • Reply Mystie March 5, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    Here’s Tolkien’s thoughts on the matter:

    “However good in themselves, illustrations do little good to fairy-stories. The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that imposes one visible form. Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination. Should the story say “he ate bread,” the dramatic producer or painter can only show “a piece of bread” according to his taste or fancy, but the hearer of the story will think of bread in general and picture it in some form of his own. If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,” the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but specially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”)

  • Reply Dominion Family March 5, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Brandy,
    I think we could discuss this for days and days and days. This is an excellent post.

    I have been vaguely disturbed for sometime but the constant use of the word ‘story’ as if that was an excuse for everything. I am also a bit disturbed by the constant talk of the Bible as story, while it is a story and His story it is also much more. I don’t believe it is right to reduce the Bible to just story.

    Now I love stories and I think that is one reason why I really like watching movies but movies can never reach the depth and subtlety of reading. I always use the example of To Kill a Mockingbird. To see the movie is fine and as movies go it is a great movie with a great theme. It tells a story. But it does not tell the same story as the book in the same way LOTR movie does not tell the same story as Tolkien. I think Myers captures what it is that makes TKAM better as a book. There are abstract concepts that cannot be captured visually.

    And I love the LOST analogy.

    In Godawa’s defense he did do a great job of illustrating an abstract concept through a visual form: Forgiveness.

    Another media form comes to mind: the graphic novel which is the genre LOST was born out of. Is that a way to tie the visual to the word or is it just a further abstraction?

    My children are highly motivated to read Asterix and when they do they start using many literary allusions in their daily language. Asterixs are sprinkled with allusions. But is that a valid marriage of image to word? I don’t know.

    EXCELLENT POST

  • Reply Mystie March 5, 2009 at 12:09 am

    What a great post, Brandy! Thank you!

    I think it would be more safe to say that God loves narrative and storytelling, not image-based communication. There is a big difference between oral story-telling (which is dramatic, but with words) and a movie.

    The example of the LOTR movies was a very poor choice — or, perhaps, a telling choice. Immediately I knew this was no kindred spirit. The movie loses so much that the book communicates — just as in your Pyle example. Words can do so much more than pictures. Perhaps our disconnect with words is wrapped up in our society’s habit of silent, lonely reading. Reading silently to oneself is a modern development. Oral reading slows you down; adds drama (I don’t read with expression in my head); and makes it a shared, relational experience.

    I wasn’t very pleased with the epistula article, either. Thanks for telling me why it was I didn’t like it. 🙂

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