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.” 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.’” 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.”
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:
Goal: What the hero wants
Plan: How the hero will get what he wants
Adversary: Keeps the hero from getting what he wants (external)
Flaw: Keeps the hero from getting what he wants (internal)
Apparent Defeat: Circumstance that suggests the hero will not get what he wants
Self-revelation: Realization of the hero’s flaw (internal)
Final Confrontation: Face-off between the hero and the adversary
Resolution: The change to the hero reflected in his life
Theme: What the hero learns through his story
A story’s hero seeks out his goal. An adversary seeks to stop the hero, but the hero is also confronted by an internal flaw. The obstacles in the story build to the point where it appears that the hero will never get what he wants. At the end of his rope, the hero has some kind of revelation about himself and his internal flaw—what he really wants is not what he really needs. By confronting that internal flaw, the hero finds what he needs to overcome his adversary and achieve what he really needs, and oftentimes also achieves what he originally wanted as well. That structure is the very same structure of conversion or persuasion.
In fact, take a look at Paul’s testimony of conversion to Agrippa in Acts 26. It incarnates these same points of the hero’s journey:
Goal: To attain the hope of the promise made by God to the forefathers.
Plan: To achieve that promise by persecuting Christians.
Adversary: Christians (and by extension, God).
Apparent Defeat: The Christian Church grew faster than Paul could persecute them.
Self-revelation: He has actually been fighting against God, who he claimed to serve.
Final Confrontation: Damascus Road experience. God wins.
Resolution: Paul ends up on trial for convincing people of what he used to fight. But he is free.
Theme: Submission to God leads to freedom, self-righteousness leads to slavery.
The drama of a story is the clash of worldviews, with one worldview—which the storyteller wants us to consider superior—arising as victor. Some protagonists, of course, don’t change; these become the catalyst for others around him to change. In Braveheart, William Wallace is resolute in his determination to fight the king of England to the death for Scotland’s freedom. Despite his death, his unyielding conviction becomes an inspiration to Robert the Bruce, who rises up to take Wallace’s place.
But most protagonists emerge from their story changed. The character arc—the hero’s journey from beginning through middle and on to the end—reflects the change in the hero’s worldview. At the beginning of the story, there is a flaw in the her