Christian Actors, Christian Plots, and the Gospel Plot

The “Gospel Plot” is a combination of our beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions about reality along with God’s involvement in history and in the lives of people.

In my previous weblog, I maintained that theology is an integral dimension of Christian discipleship because it is a task that discerns ways to embody the Gospel in ways that are both authentic to the Gospel and culturally appropriate. In this piece, I develop this notion in a new way. The task of theology can be illustrated with the relationship between worldviews or cultural myths that inform film genre, film plots, and actors. Theology is similar to the process in which actors seek to bring the plot of a film, which presupposes a worldview, into a suitable expression vis-à-vis the film genre and their specific personalities and set of talents. Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005) inspired the idea of using the categories of drama and dramatic performance to illustrate the nature of theology.

The worldview or cultural myth that informs a plot is the ultimate plot.

First, central to the vision of theology presented here is the notion of a drama plot and actors. The Gospel and our particular church tradition provide a story line for us to follow much like a plot provides direction for the actors and events of a film. The plot shapes the characters and the events of the story. Although a plot steers a story, something else plots the plot. A particular film may have a specific plotline but a more fundamental worldview shapes the plot and gives the plot its sense of meaning. Christians are quite familiar with this for they can often detect a worldview that is at odds with Christianity in many contemporary films. The worldview or cultural myth that informs a plot is the ultimate plot. It is ultimate because it is that set of basic values and attitudes about the way human life should be. The cultural myth is a plot because it too is a story about the way things ought to be. The particular plot of a film is a penultimate plot because it brings that cultural myth into a concrete story line that narrates that myth through the story’s characters and events.

For example, a common cultural myth in North America that informs the plotline of many films is the ability of the individual to achieve personal fulfillment over and against their own personal shortcomings and larger and more impersonal forces (e.g., greedy corporations and power-mongering government institutions) that threaten their achievement of success and well-being. Consider the following films, all of which are quite different from each other, but nonetheless share a common plotline.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey who, with the help of a guardian angel named Clarence, realizes that his life matters and saves the Bailey Building and Loan Association and the town against all odds from the villainous Banker Mr. Potter who is the greedy, wealthy, and powerful man who seeks George’s and the townsfolk’s undoing.

Erin Brockovich, although based on a true story, is the familiar story of “rags to riches” and the little person hits back at the big and evil corporate world and wins. In the movie, Julia Roberts portrays a woman who, through grit, gall, and gumption, overcomes the difficulties of being a single mother with little education and attains spectacular personal success.

The widely popular Gladiator is a story about Maximus, a successful Roman General and the chosen successor of the ailing Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius wants Maximus to succeed him because Aurelius believes Maximus will restore the empire to a republic. In an act of political subterfuge the emperor is murdered by his son Comidus, who then orders Maximus murdered along with his family. However, Maximus, unlike his wife and son, escapes, survives, and eventually becomes a famous gladiator. The story concludes with Maximus’ killing and thus exacting revenge on Comidus (the character who represents institutional power and who seeks to prevent Maximus from achieving success), making good on his promise to his friend Aurelius and his own personal ambition to restore Rome to a republic, and journeying to Elysium (the afterworld of Greco-Roman religion) to re-unite with his wife and son.

The above three stores, although quite different in terms of genre and story, nonetheless display the myth that the little “guy” can triumph over the evil institutional forces that threaten to squash “him” and achieve personal success. Thus, these three movies share the same cultural myth and plot, but narrate it in different ways.

I propose that the Gospel and Christian traditions have a relationship to each other that is similar to the one between cultural myths (ultimate plot) and film plots (penultimate plots). The Gospel is the ultimate plot. It is the drama of the triune God’s mission to redeem human beings and restore them to the loving relationships for which they were created; hence, this redemptive mission of the triune God is the Gospel Plot. Unlike a cultural myth, at least from the perspective of the Christian faith, the Gospel Plot is not only a set of beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions about reality, but also the actual engagement of the triune God in history and the lives of people. Christians believe that God is the supreme enactor of the Gospel and ever works to redeem human beings to the loving relationships for which they were created.

Church traditions and denominations are like film genres and plots because they give the Gospel Plot a concrete expression.Gladiator is an action drama, whereas It’s a Wonderful Life and Erin Brockovich are purely dramas. These three movies give their shared cultural myth a different expression, but the different expression is not necessarily a deficiency. Some films of the same genre may portray the cultural myth better than another movie, just as some genres may naturally lend themselves to narrating a specific set of cultural myths better than others (for example, a drama may be better suited to treat issues of racism and prejudice than slapstick comedy).

Similarly, different Christian traditions are like genres. They have a unique emphasis and bring the Gospel to expression in terms of that emphasis. Differences across traditional and denominational genres are not necessarily weaknesses, but rather forms of Christian belief and practice that capture and accentuate distinct aspects of the Gospel Plot. Moreover, each traditional genre will have variations within it just as films genres admit variations. Let me illustrate this with my own Pentecostal tradition or denominational genre. Pentecostals emphasize the vital life changing dimension of the Gospel, enthusiastic worship, and spiritual gifts. But Pentecostal believers and churches are not all the same. Worship and public manifestation of spiritual gifts in some Pentecostal churches may be quite subdued relative to others. Thus, within each tradition you will find common emphases, but diverse ways of manifesting them. Furthermore, other traditions may miss something found among Pentecostals, but better manifest another aspect of the Gospel Plot. For instance, Presbyterians may give the social element a better manifestation than do Pentecostals.

The Gospel gives us the general plot motifs and we script it in our unique ways…

The final point of comparison I want to make is the relationship between individual Christians and actors. Actors uniquely enact a drama or film plot. Just as actors enact a cultural myth through a story line and film genre, Christians enact the Gospel in the script provided by their respective tradition. But actors also are active; they give the film’s plot its specific dramatic form. Although the film genre and narrative plot informs the actors’ lines and activities, the talents and personalities of the actors also give the plot a unique expression in the film. Indeed, directors often allow actors to tailor their lines and acts to reflect their styles. Thus, Erin Brockovich andGladiator would have been different movies, if say Meg Ryan played Erin rather than Julia Roberts and Clive Owen played Maximus rather than Russell Crowe. In similar way, Christians uniquely perform or enact the Gospel Plot in terms of their tradition’s version of the Gospel Plot. Each Christian is unique and so is their participation in the drama of redemption. The Gospel Plot or larger drama of redemption gives us a general script, but we enact it in a distinctive way. God and the Gospel do not woodenly script us. The Gospel gives us the general plot motifs and we script it in our unique ways and in terms of the traditional genre in which we participate—as the Apostle Paul says, “we work out [our] faith with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

Theology plays a central role in “working out our faith.” Theology comes to bear in the dynamic relationship between the Christian actors, drama plots, and the Gospel Plot. Christian actors are not passive in respect to their traditional genre or drama plot. Quite to the contrary, theology enables the Christian to evaluate whether their church and its tradition (the drama plot in which they are embedded) suitably express the Gospel Plot. In other words, theology helps us to assess our church genre (our tradition/denomination) and its story line and then transform it so that it better coheres with the more fundamental Gospel Plot.

An example of the way a director and actors can critique and transform a film genre and its traditional plot line is Clint Eastwood’s postmodern Unforgiven. Traditional Westerns reflect the long-established and modernist North American beliefs of the clear distinction between good and evil, the triumph of law and decency (the rationalizing processes of civilization), and the power of the individual to realize personal redemption and success against overwhelming odds through moral conviction, courage, and self-reliance and initiative. Unforgiven challenges these popular cultural myths through a story that portrays human beings as both perpetrators and victims of violence and dysfunctional patterns of behaviour, as unable to reform their lives and achieve their dreams, and as morally ambiguous. In many respects, Eastwood’s portrait of human life better captures a Christian perspective on the fallen human condition than does the time-honoured Western and its underlying myth of human self-mastery and self-achievement.

The relationship between screenwriters, directors, and actors is similar to Christians practicing the art of theological reflection. Theology enables us to question and re-write the plot lines and scripts provided by our denominational traditions. For example, in recent years many Evangelicals have realized that their proper emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ has led inadvertently to the marginalization of the social concern of the Gospel Plot. Many have come to appreciate that God not only seeks to save souls for heaven, but transform human life in its varied dimensions in the present world. Thus, we see Evangelical leaders taking proactive steps to address issues of ecological and social concern that have been in the past associated with “Liberal” and mainline denominations. In doing so, these Evangelicals are rewriting the plotlines of their traditions in terms of the more foundational Gospel Plot.

Theology is the task of all Christians and essential to authentic and relevant discipleship because it helps Christians to reflect on the form or version of the Gospel Plot they have received from their respective community of faith. Moreover, theology is the process in which Christians assess whether their community’s way of proclaiming and enacting the Gospel Plot authentically reflects the Gospel and effectively speaks to the culture. Just as a particular film may more accurately display a culture’s vision of reality and may do so in a film genre that is more captivating to the contemporary culture, so the Christian may achieve a more faithful and culturally appropriate enactment of the Gospel Plot.

Steven M. Studebaker, Ph.D.