“I made Jesus Lord of my life.” Jay Austin in Flywheel
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right to my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was lying in the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been.” Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader after Aslan had torn off his dragon skin.
These are just some initial thoughts on metaphor and fiction in the Christian life. I am not criticizing the movies listed. I am just asking do they give me the vision of the Gospel that they claim to?
I just finished watching the movie Flywheel. I also just finished reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. After watching Flywheel, I asked myself why do I learn more about my redemption and salvation from a fictional story about a British boy who turns into a dragon than I do from a real story, set in a real place with a “real conversion?” Why does Flywheel seem less real? I am not talking about production values or acting. I understand that the men who did Flywheel are creating a path for Christian movies. Their subsequent movies have improved greatly in almost every way. And I am grateful for those movies. But even with movies like Fireproof or Courageous the point would still stand. Why do movies that preach an overt Christian message seem less realistic, less true to real life, than movies that don’t, but have an underlying Christian message? Is my perspective too shaped by fiction and metaphor? Have I departed from a biblical view of true religion and conversion because I empathize with Eustace and not with Jay Austin?
I do not believe so. I think C.S. Lewis understood how to convey the Christian message better than the men who did Flywheel. And that is not because C.S. Lewis was a better writer, but rather because C.S. Lewis understood metaphor. C.S. Lewis understood that painting a picture with words was how God often told us who we are and how we were saved. He wasn’t against propositions. But he understood that propositions need flesh and that flesh was metaphor and symbol and fiction.
We have come define or describe conversion in ways that are foreign to the Bible. We have tried to describe conversion in ways that the Bible on rarely does. Thus when we put a conversion on screen it rings hollow to someone whose mind is filled with biblical imagery. It may come as a surprise to many Christians, but the Bible does not talk about conversion in terms that most evangelicals use. Never are we told to “Ask Jesus into our hearts.” Never are we told to “make Jesus Lord of our lives.” Never are we told to “Accept Jesus.” Never are we told to even kneel down and pray a prayer to be saved. These pictures which almost completely define evangelical thought on conversion are absent from the Bible. Even the term “born again,” which is standard fare in evangelical circles is only used in two places. (John 3 and I Peter 1:23) So most evangelicals have come to describe and define conversion by words and phrases that are not even in the Bible. We are supposed to be people of the Bible, but when it comes to conversion we talk in unbiblical language. That is why Jay Austin’s conversion is not as convincing as Eustace’s.
The Bible describes conversion almost entirely by metaphor, not by what the person actually does. The Bible tells us what happens at conversion, not what we are supposed to do at conversion. For example, the Bible does not say that the converts at Ephesus knelt down and asked Jesus into their hearts. It says, “You were dead, but now you are alive.” (Ephesians 2:1) The converts at Thessalonica became “followers of [Paul, Silvanus and Timothy] and of Jesus.” (I Thess. 1:6) They also turned from idols to worship the living God. (I Thess. 1:9) Christians are described as those who have left darkness and come into the light. (Ephesians 5:8, Colossians 1:13, and I Peter 2:9) Paul describes conversion as reconciliation in Romans 5:10. We were enemies of God. Now we are his friends. In II Corinthians 5:17 Christians are described as a “new creation.” In the Gospels, Jesus uses pictures like a feast or a son coming home or sheep being rescued or a man taking up his cross or finding a pearl or choosing a narrow way or listening to the words of Christ. We do not talk about conversion the same way the Bible does. There is nothing wrong with using the phrase “born again.” But there is a problem when that becomes the primary way of describing conversion. Why not describe conversion as being brought out of darkness into light or turning from idols to worship God or being raised from the dead?
So when we end up putting conversions on the screen we try to make it real by using real people, really repenting. But we might be better served, especially since movies are visual, to use metaphor to tell the story of a conversion instead of trying to picture a true conversion. C.S. Lewis fires our imagination as he describes the dragon skin being torn off of him. That is me in all my sin. He describes the pain of my sin being torn off. He even describes my pathetic attempts to deal with sin outside of Christ. We need more men like Lewis. They do not have to be as skilled as he is, but they need to have the same understanding of metaphor that he did. We should preach in the pulpit and in our homes and evangelism. But we should use movies and books of fiction to picture the Gospel. A movie that shows two men who hated each other deeply and then are reconciled is a movie that pictures the Gospel. A long lost son who returns is a picture of the Gospel. A beautiful bride who prepares and longs for her husband is a picture of the Gospel. A slave being set free is a picture of the Gospel. Even a movie where the ending is bitter can be a picture of man outside of Christ.
So as Christians we must develop a sanctified imagination. We must learn to think and write in pictures and metaphor. We need to make more movies that do not try to preach the Gospel, but instead give our imagination a true picture of who we are and what happened when Jesus saved us.