The alternate-reality plot device has been utilized for well over 100 years, including such diverse examples as the 1884 novel Flatland, C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and the Choose Your Own Adventure series—and those are only examples from the world of literature. In the realm of film, multiverse stories are multiplying like rabbits. The newest addition to this particular cinematic subgenre is the faith-based film The Shift.
Many will be encouraged to hear that The Shift is “groundbreaking,” and that it represents “a promising step” for faith-based movies. Indeed, the Christian film industry generally appears to be slowly moving in the right direction, nearing the goalposts of high-quality art with each successive step.
Nevertheless, there are still flags on the field. In his review of The Shift, Daniel Blackaby writes, “There’s a lot to appreciate about this film, but if there’s one element that holds it back, it’s the filmmaker’s lack of trust that the audience will ‘get’ the message without explicitly stating it.” He then illustrates what he means:
For example, one doesn’t need to be a Bible scholar to perceive that The Shift is a retelling of the biblical book of Job. That’s because the film puts title cards with quotes from Job on screen, and when Kevin (the protagonist) is asked to recount a Bible story from memory, you can probably guess which story he tells (hint: it’s Job). Likewise, when Kevin or Gabriel (Sean Astin) struggles with doubt, grief, or a crisis of belief, the filmmakers often fall back on having a character verbally articulate the issue rather than communicating this tension visually. The viewer is told about the characters’ internal tension more often than they are shown it.
That is a key factor affecting—and even sabotaging—many a Christian filmmaker’s work: they take a visual medium like film, which is designed to show rather than tell, and craft a story that tells rather than shows. It’s as if these filmmakers imagine themselves in an alternate reality, where stories really are nothing more than glorified sermon illustrations. In this parallel universe, narratives are morally worthless—unless and until they can explicitly spell out What We Have Learned.
During a recent devotional reading of mine, I came across a passage in which God instructs the prophet Ezekiel to act out a mini-play in front of his fellow Israelites:
As for you, son of man, prepare for yourself an exile’s baggage, and . . . bring out your baggage by day in their sight, as baggage for exile, and you shall go out yourself at evening in their sight, as those do who must go into exile. In their sight dig through the wall, and bring your baggage out through it. In their sight you shall lift the baggage upon your shoulder and carry it out at dusk. You shall cover your face that you may not see the land, for I have made you a sign for the house of Israel. (Ezekiel 12:3-6)
Ezekiel does as he is commanded, leading the Israelites to ask him, “What are you doing?” (v. 9). Obviously, the message of the prophet’s symbolic acts wasn’t readily apparent.
This is just one example among many of a prophet of God giving a theatrical performance to illustrate a prophetic word. In and of themselves, these performances were ambiguous and confusing. The explanation of the story often came after the performance was over.
Ezekiel 12 is a good example of how visual stories are supposed to work: they are different modes of communication than, say, expositional sermons. Stories can help enhance sermons, for sure—but sermons rarely enhance stories.
As such, visual stories (like the films and television shows of our day) speak a different language than sermons do, communicating primarily with pictures rather than words. The storyteller might explain the nature of the story afterwards (as Jesus did sometimes with his parables), or he may not publicly explain it at all (as Jesus often didn’t after his parables). In either case, the explanation is a separate event from the story itself.
In contrast, Christian filmmakers have a tendency to meld a narrative and its explanation together, ignoring the fact that stories and sermons are categorically different. Blackaby explains how this botched approach affects aspects of The Shift: “By using such an explicit approach, the message is stripped of some potency. The viewers sit back and passively listen rather than actively wrestling with the concepts in a more personal way.”
In a parallel universe, it might make sense that a story is stronger when the message is on-the-nose, reinforced with didactic dialogue. However, in this universe (i.e., the one which God actually created), such messaging often works against the story, attempting to apply “Sermon Prep 101” rules to “Filmmaking 101” scenarios.
Andrew Barber notes that “movies simply are not good carriers for complex propositional ideas.” One of the reasons why, he says, is that, if we try to “package our most important propositional truths, usually explained in 40-minute sermons, into a film, we will either make a bad movie or dilute the message. Probably both.”
Imagine if Ezekiel had paused several times during his mini-play in Ezekiel 12 to say, “Now, here’s what this means,” and again a little while later, “Now, here’s what this act means,” and again a little later, “Now here’s what this part means.” Such mid-story explanations often get in the way of telling a good story: they ruin the flow, effect, and purpose of the performance. Rather than enhancing a story’s efficacy, sermonizing can actually minimize or dilute the message.
If a preacher faithfully exposits a particular passage of Scripture, it is still possible for his hearers to walk away with different impressions: one person might be convicted of sin, another might be strengthened in the midst of a trial, while still another might be equipped to minister to a neighbor. That each person learned something different is not a sign that the preacher failed; it’s merely a sign that God’s truth strikes different people in different ways. The preacher’s job is to faithfully exposit, while the Holy Spirit’s job is to work in each individual human heart.
When filmmakers clutter their stories with didactic material to make sure their message isn’t lost or misunderstood, they’re not just trying to imitate the role of a preacher (a goal which is itself misguided)—they’re also trying to substitute the work of the Holy Spirit, as if through their overreaching effort they can ensure that all audiences walk away from their story having learned the Exact Same Thing™.
Such a scenario—where the filmmaker has near godlike abilities to control the understanding and responses of all audience members—is both impossible and unnecessary. The filmmaker’s goal needn’t be to create a sermon in story’s clothing:
Instead, it can simply be “true to life.” As English professor Leland Ryken points out, “Truthfulness to life . . . is a category of truth that is not on most people’s radar screen.” This category of truth is employed when a storyteller remains faithful to human experience as it exists in a moral order where right and wrong, good and evil are acknowledged.
When a filmmaker tells an engaging story that remains true to life, he or she can let that truth stand on its own two feet. Adding additional feet just to get the point across doesn’t make the story more effective; it just makes it look and act clumsy. (Imagine what dancing with four left feet would look like.)
As Christian filmmaker Pete Docter once said, a film’s message is “not something that I’m trying to shove into the movie.” Rather, his faith and worldview and personality as an artist “will show up in the movie in an organic, natural way.”
Docter’s filmography as a director (not the least of which is Inside Out) is just one example of an artist working not in some imaginary parallel universe, but in the world in which God has placed us, and in which we live and move and have our being. It shows how we can better engage the world with the art that we make, glorifying God through natural—rather than arbitrary—means. It shows that we can reject a utilitarian impulse to “fix” stories by turning them into sermons, and instead create and enjoy stories as the gifts from God that they already are.
Why would we want to pretend to exist in any other universe?