Even Atheists Need Godto Deliver Their Message
by Scott NehringOriginally printed in Movies & Culture Report,Mid-July 2011
Most evangelical Christians are unaware that a new and active counterattack on their efforts to reach people for Jesus Christ was deployed, or should I say screened, during Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival. On January 21, 2011, evangelical atheists premiered the new film, The Ledge, and with it launched their attempt to turn people toward their way of thinking. What atheistic filmmakers don’t understand, however, is that—in direct contradiction to their non-belief—they, themselves, must rely on God in order to deliver their god-doesn’t-exist messages.
For as long there have been believers there have been non-believers. For as long as there have been Christ-followers so, too, there have been people who repudiate belief in Jesus. Throughout a good portion of European civilization, though, anti-Christian forces have been smaller in number and relatively without broad powers.
Over the last forty to fifty years the atheist mindset has gained strength and popular standing in our society until, today, public references to religion are considered an imposition—except for non-Christian religious references or claims of total unbelief.
Today, however, atheism has left its rational stance of non-intervention. Let’s face it, if you consider Christ and God as no different than the Tooth Fairy and unicorns, there’s no reason to be overt about non-belief. If I were to tell you I worshiped a lampshade, how would you react? Chances are you would shrug and dismiss me as a kook.
But atheism has taken on a new trend. Not satisfied with simply not believing, they have assumed the offensive, as evidenced in the recent release of the film The Ledge.
The Ledge tells the tale of an atheist who seduces the wife of an evangelical Christian man. The Christian responds violently to the intrusion into his marriage. Despite the inherently negative aspects of the plot, the movie is marketed as a positive film which actively promotes atheism.
The film’s director, Matthew Chapman, is the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin. Chapman hopes his film will spark discussion, i.e. propaganda, regarding the atheist cause. He claims,
This suspicion about people whose only crime is not believing in things until they’re proven seems weird.
Watch this YouTube video and you’ll see Chapman’s opinions aren’t always so timid.
Chapman maintains an arrogant, self-assured position based on literally nothing and, contrary to his quotation above, wants no exchange of ideas. He actively holds believers in contempt. In interviews on The Blaze (Atheist Filmmaker Hopes New Hollywood Movie will Inspire Non-Believers) and on CNN (New Atheist Movie The Ledge Evangelizes Godlessness) he makes his position quite clear.
Liv Tyler (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), a star from Chapman’s film, claims the message of The Ledge is
that the world, especially now with the Internet, we’re so quick to judge people based on their clothing, sexual preference, religion, food they like. I guess I came to realize from this [film] that you really don’t know what people have been through unless you find out.
As nonsensical as Tyler’s statement may be, her remark is quickly refuted by Chapman’s dream that this film act as a Brokeback Mountain moment for the atheist movement. What he means is he believes Brokeback Mountain, a film that tells the story about two sheep herders overcome with homosexual lust, was a watershed moment for the homosexual movement in the Midwest and made gay rights worth more consideration within the slopped foreheads of Midwesterners’ minds. This is, of course, idiocy. If his thoughts were right, then gay marriage legislation would have passed in all Midwestern states, not just liberal Iowa.
Director Chapman has dedicated himself to evangelical atheism. No longer content to simply be a non-believer, Chapman wants to convert not only people who have religious questions but also doubting God-believers. The Ledge is the latest branch of his belief system.
What Mr. Chapman and other atheist filmmakers fail to understand, however, is that despite their futile attempts at non-belief, they must actually rely on God to deliver their godless messages.
As I explain far more thoroughly in my book You Are What You See: Watching Movies Through a Christian Lens (Right Line. 2010. Chapters 14, 15, 21), Christ is at the center of all stories regardless of their intent. God’s presence can be seen in almost any movie you name.
When we think of the presence of God in film, we often consider only overt displays, such as Captain Dan’s screaming fit atop the shrimp boat during the hurricane (Forrest Gump) or Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (No Country for Old Men) dismayed over his disconnect from the Lord’s grace. But God’s presence goes deeper than characters’ open discussions. Less-overt displays of God consistently appear in most films. These references are sometimes intentional, but more often they are used instinctively. You can even find these God motifs in films which try to repudiate the very God they borrow from (The Da Vinci Code, Constantine, or Hannibal).
The Death of God Image
We, humans, naturally understand common shorthand images and motifs—symbols that, when seen, deliver immediate messages. These symbols can be positive (a cross) or negative (a swastika). Many motifs transcend culture and speak to us deeply, intimately, immediately.
Filmmakers intentionally and unintentionally use shorthand images to quickly deliver messages to their audiences. Even when used by atheists, these images show our underlying belief in a God-centered universe.
Filmmakers use the Death of God Image to show us God’s governing hand has been lifted from the story’s universe and, thereby, transformed the world into hell. Great evil now fills the void left by an absent God.
- In Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, aliens attack Earth. First structure destroyed? A church.
- In Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Jim awakes to find London devastated by a zombie apocalypse. Where does Jim first encounter the blood-vomiting zombies? A church.
- Even in Dreamworks’s animated Monsters vs. Aliens, when Susan is radiated by a meteorite and transformed into Ginormica, the first thing destroyed by her transformation is, you guessed it, a church.
When evil is unleashed in film today, it is common for it to heighten its reign of terror by destroying a church, kill a member of the clergy, or defile a religious symbol. I refer to this moment as the Death of God Image.
The removal of God from the world of the story establishes the basis for all horror films, for where there is no God there can be no hope. The film’s hero is abandoned to fend for himself, truly alone to face the evil of the story.
Sometimes filmmakers employ this motif with a secular foundation. Rather than the removal of God, we’re shown monuments of the state or institutions being destroyed (the coming Rise of the Planet of the Apes; dramatic destruction of the White House in Independence Day). I believe use of governmental institutions, monuments, or other man-made structures is a perversion or morphing of the motif. Destruction of landmarks and buildings may make human governance difficult but still leave God intact. Since His will is still in play, evil does not reign supreme within the story’s universe.
The Death of God Image is not the only God-based motif readily found in our movies. Stay alert and you’ll find characters who replicate the imagery of Christ Himself. Through use of the Christ Pose, images of the cross, and the heroic resurrection, filmmakers and storytellers attempt to cast their characters or other aspect of their story in a divine light.
The Christ Pose
At Golgotha, Jesus was offered in ultimate sacrifice for the sin of mankind. The striking image of His sacrifice—outstretched arms, hands elevated higher than His shoulders, legs crossed at the ankles, head tilted—is a haunting, painful recollection of the horrors of His death. It is also an awe-inspiring reminder of the ideals of sacrifice, duty, and selfless love.
When movie characters die during moments of sacrifice, it’s common for filmmakers to place their actors into this Christ pose—intentional posing of the actor’s body to mimic the posture of Christ on the cross:
- In the final moments of Braveheart, William Wallace faces execution. He is tied to a wooden rack, arms outstretched, legs bound together. He is then brutally tortured and dies for the freedom of Scotland. Director Mel Gibson included a bird’s-eye view of Wallace on the rack. The visual connection to Christ’s sacrifice is obvious.
- Mr. Incredible is hung in the pose while a prisoner of Syndrome in The Incredibles.
- In 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the Silver Surfer strikes the pose when he sacrifices himself to save the earth.
- In Heat, the criminal McCauley walks by a large cross hanging on a hallway wall then turns the corner to find a colleague mortally wounded and lying in the Christ Pose, complete with a halo of blood pooled around his head.
When you see a character in this position, take it very seriously. The director is replicating the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Himself, and the director runs a huge risk. If the Christ Pose is used for nefarious purposes, the director is maligning Jesus’ death by using it to promote evil.
Actively look for the Christ Pose. You’ll be astonished how many films and television shows utilize it (Lost, CSI: NY, The Shawshank Redemption, The Fugitive, 300, Spiderman, U. S. Marshalls, Gran Torino, Dead Man Walking, Cool Hand Luke, and on and on).
The Use of the Cross
In film, whenever you see a cross hanging on walls, from an actor’s necklace, or from rear-view mirrors, know that both image and symbol were planned. The presence of a cross is never an accident. Someone had to find that cross, the right-looking cross, and intentionally place it in just the right location for the camera angle.
You can often see crosses in scenes where death is present. They’re also common in scenes involving sacrifice (as in the moment from Heat mentioned above).
A cross placed in the background of a shot will subconsciously connect the action on screen with the concept of Christian sacrifice.
In other instances, you may see the cross used for the opposite purpose. The cross may be in scenes of oppression and cruelty.
In the movie Monster, the heroine, serial killer Aileen Wuornos, and her lesbian lover are caught in bed together by her partner’s bigoted, Christian mother. The scorn of the mother is buttressed by the ominous cross which hangs above their bed. The vitriol of the Christian mother combined with the dark cross over the bed is an intended contrast to the lesbian lovers, showing the filmmaker’s desire to repudiate Christians’ narrow-mindedness and advocate for the homosexual lifestyle.
In all stories the hero dies, or at least he appears to die—his car explodes, he gets shot, he’s seen going over the cliff or pulled underwater until the bubbles stop surfacing. The other characters, and the audience, believe he’s dead. Then, against all odds or reason, he is reborn—someone else was in the car, he pops up from the murky depths down river, he exposes his bulletproof vest, he grabbed a vine as he went over the cliff and now hangs for dear life, literally.
After this death and rebirth, the hero is renewed and somehow more heroic. His determination has been sparked, and he has become stronger and smarter through the experience. Our hero is ready to bring this conflict to a close.
Something occurred during this death, during this low point, that reminded our hero of his first goals, rekindled his original passion. He was once lost, now he’s found—and he’s ready to get busy. He rallies his companions and heads straight for the villain.
This death/rebirth correlates to the story of Jesus Christ in an obvious way. In most storylines the hero can be segmented into two personalities, the pre-death and post-death hero. Before his death he’ll be troubled by his flaws and is fallible. Following his rebirth, his flaws are gone and he takes a more superhuman posture.
When the hero is actually killed, his demeanor prior to this sacrificial death becomes more self-assured and at peace.
Contrasting with the hero’s rebirth, the villain often attempts a resurrection, but his attempt will fail. A villain (Jason in Friday the 13th) will appear to be dead then suddenly lurch at the hero one last time; he struggles, then suddenly drops over, dead.
This false resurrection shows the villain as incapable of rebirth.
It should be noted that the difference between the deaths of both hero and villain actually track with Scriptural, Christian theology. The hero, in his rebirth, is free of his prior flaws (sins) and renewed. The unrepentant villain is denied this new life.
First Corinthians 8:6 states,
[Y]et for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
All of us, even storytellers, are created, and whether they like it or not, whether they want to or not, filmmakers reflect His image. Often this reflection is seen in the images they flicker onto the screen.
Begin to look for these motifs and discern how they’re utilized. Ask yourself if the Christ Pose gives a Christ-like disposition to an otherwise bad, evil, or deeply flawed character. Is the cross on screen used to support Biblical teaching, or are they attempting to subvert or deny its power? When you spot these, be alert; the filmmaker is telling you something he wants you to believe.
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Expanded explanations on this and related topics are available in You Are What You See: Watching Movies Through a Christian Lens.