• Brian Godawa

Incarnation & Worldviews



Editor's note: This post is the first installment in a series titled, "The Power of the Imagination and the Christian." Brian Godawa serves as an advisory board member at Stage & Story.

 

Images are concrete expressions of abstract ideas, the existential embodiment of the rational word. Images, whether they are stories, pictures or music, are incarnations of ideas—words made flesh. Image is the personification of logic, the enfleshment of proposition.


C. S. Lewis valued myth because in it “we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction…. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely.”[1] Theologians Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart admit that the narrative nature of biblical revelation allows us “vicariously to live through events and experiences rather than simply learning about the issues involved in those events and experiences,” because “the Bible is not a series of propositions and imperatives; it is not simply a collection of ‘Sayings from Chairman God’ as though he looked down at us from heaven and said, ‘Hey you down there, learn these truths.’”[2] Narrative imagery incarnates truth.


Incarnation is one of the most powerful means of communication. Whether we relate to a character in a story, enter the world of a painting, feel the heart of a song or embrace the joy of a dance, we are making a connection with truth or ideas through existential experience of what is otherwise an abstract proposition. People are rational beings, but more so, we are personal beings. We are incarnate.


Movies are one of the modern world’s strongest examples of storytelling. When you watch a movie, you are watching a story that is an incarnation of a worldview. The hero embodies the superior worldview; the villain, the inferior worldview. The drama of the story comes from the conflict of their opposing worldviews, which drive their actions to conflict with each other. By the end of the story, the hero’s worldview is proven superior to the villain’s in his victory over the villain. Robert McKee sees story as


humanity’s prime source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience. In the words of playwright Jean Anouilh, “fiction gives life its form.”[3]

Story incarnates the abstract concept of dialectical argumentation: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. And it is through incarnation, through the embodiment of worldviews and their resultant human behavior that story connects so deeply with the human psyche. As we identify or sympathize with the hero, we enter into his worldview, and experience the dialectic with him.



A good example of the power of image to embody otherwise rational argumentation is the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Writer and director Scott Derrickson tells the story of a Roman Catholic priest on trial for criminal negligence in the death of a college girl named Emily Rose. Emily had come to the priest because she believed she was demon-possessed. In the midst of a laborious exorcism ritual, she died from self-inflicted wounds.


The protagonist of the story is Erin Bruner, a spiritual agnostic who serves as the priest’s defense attorney. Throughout the trial the prosecutor mocks her attempt to prove the possibility of demon possession. Such superstitious arguments, he argues, are unbecoming of legal procedure in a modern scientific world. Emily had epilepsy, he attempts to prove, which required medication, not “voodoo.”


The movie presents both sides of the argument so equally that the story leaves Bruner still an agnostic. But the viewer is left with a strong openness toward the legitimacy of a spiritual world, having been shown the raw experience of demon possession in contrast to the rationalizing tendency of scientism. Derrickson uses the story as a metaphor for the stranglehold of modernity on the western mind, and the inadequacy of rationalism and the scientific method in discovering all truth.


Story is persuasive because it embodies worldview in a narrative. In the same way that logic may follow a rhetorical structure, so story—and really all art forms—follows a structure that leads the audience to a conclusion. Most traditional stories as well as mainstream movies trace the redemption of the protagonist (or “hero”), a process used similarly by the apostle Paul in his testimony before King Agrippa (Acts 26). Here is the summary of this outline:[4]


  1. Goal: What the hero wants

  2. Plan: How the hero will get what he wants

  3. Adversary: Keeps the hero from getting what he wants (external)

  4. Flaw: Keeps the hero from getting what he wants (internal)

  5. Apparent Defeat: Circumstance that suggests the hero will not get what he wants