The Table Podcast

Universal Themes in Popular Movies

In this episode, Dr. Darrell Bock and Dr. Michael Svigel discuss universal themes and narratives in popular films.

Timecodes
00:43
The appeal of the science fiction genre
03:56
Theological themes in science fiction movies
06:46
Theology and narrative
08:23
The appeal of Star Wars in popular culture
11:32
Christian approaches to Star Wars
16:41
Universal themes in Star Wars
19:02
Character cycles and fantasy worlds
22:23
Universal Themes in Hacksaw Ridge
30:22
Universal Themes in Ben-Hur
37:42
Universal Themes in Pete's Dragon
42:32
Engaging popular film culture as an ambassador of Christ
Transcript
Dr. Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture. And our topic today is movies. Actually, I should say science fiction in particular and Star Wars even more specifically, which is an exciting possibility, ’cause probably one of the more popular movies ever made; certainly one of the more popular series ever made.

And to discuss this, I have a systematic theologian sitting next to me, which is normally the way these things get reviewed. And Michael Svigel, who is depart chair of systematic theology here, and a sci-fi fan. Is that true?

Dr. Michael Svigel
That’s true; that’s true. I dig it, yep.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay. So, I guess what we need to do is how long have you been feeling like this? I mean –
Dr. Michael Svigel
I think I was born this way. Yeah, as far as I can remember, I’ve been a fan of science fiction in general, but Star Wars in particular. That was my entrée into this. So, I was born – I was born in ’73. Star Wars originally the first one came out in ’77. So, I was just young enough for my parents to think that I was old enough to see it.
Dr. Darrell Bock
You saw it at four years old?
Dr. Michael Svigel
I saw it at five. We actually went to a drive-in theater and saw it at a drive-in theater. So, it was the second run, I guess, of the movie. But my interest in Star Wars – I had an older brother who was about five-six years older than me at the time. He was a big Star Wars fan. So, of course, he had the toys, had the records and all of those things back then. So, some of that kind of rubbed off on me.

He passed away when he was 11, just about a year or two later. And I inherited all of his stuff. So, I think from early on I had even more than just an interest, maybe this emotional attachment to the series. But then we were rewarded with a couple of sequels, a couple of prequels, and then they are still making these movies. So, it’s kept the fandom alive.

Dr. Darrell Bock
That’s interesting. So, I’m amazed that you could see this at four. I guess I shouldn’t be amazed that you can see this at four or five. My grandsons have responded pretty much the same way. I mean they can practically take you through the whole movie line by line.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Sure, yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah. So, in your interest in science fiction in general, is it fueled pretty much by Star Wars or –
Dr. Michael Svigel
No. You know, I started with Star Wars and kind of moved on. So, I was interested in a lot of the classic sci-for instance, as well as what’s called the Golden Age of Science Fiction. People like Heinlein and Asimov and some of these names – Arthur C. Clarke – both movies and reading. In other words, I was not a very popular kid at school. Always had a book in my –
Dr. Darrell Bock
You were a geek.
Dr. Michael Svigel
I was. I will own that title as well, yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay, all right, all right. So – and was it both the creativity of it and the futurism of it? What was the fascination?
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah, it was the possibilities. Right? You’re opening up possibilities. When you’re telling a true-to-life story, you’re very restricted in place and kinds of characters and such, even though those are tapping into universal themes.

With Star Wars and science fiction in general, you can have the same kinds of characters, archetypes, plot movements, they’re exaggerated. Right? And so, you can put things in sharp relief. You can get away with it in the Star Wars universe with bad guys have red light sabers, good guys have blue light sabers. You know, the black and white, that kind of storytelling, things tend to be exaggerated but then much more kept in contrast with each other.

So, for simple minds like mine, simple storytelling, it was fun. Plus the – it just taps into imagination and the possibilities of pursuits and goals and future, as well as some take place in the past.

Dr. Darrell Bock
M-kay. So, we move on in your life, and you become – this is the story of Michael more than Star Wars – but we move on in your life, and you become interested in theology, etcetera. But this didn’t shed your interest in science fiction.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah. For a while there, at the beginning, in my process of discipleship, I had a hard time figuring out how does science fiction fit? So, I kinda set that aside. However, as I start to see the theology and the Bible in terms of this epic narrative, which is really what it is – it’s a story – it’s a true story, but it’s a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has tragedy; it has redemption. And then I thought, as many others do, “Man, all our good stories have these elements.”

And so, a lot of people – a lot of theologians, philosophers, as well as literary experts – they’re saying, “Look, there are some universal truths, universal themes, and universal character archetypes and things that all of our great stories tap into. I call it kinda hacking the mythology.

But as a believer, I believe that there is a metanarrative, there is a story – a true story where God is the author and the producer and the director and in Christ and the incarnation – he’s the star – that is being told. And so, you can find parallels, with all great stories, all great epics, Star Wars included – you can find them with these –

Dr. Darrell Bock
Now some people would go, “Now, wait a minute. Okay, I mean the Bible is history and is a true story, and Star Wars is certainly not that.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Sure.
Dr. Darrell Bock
So, why think about one in relationship to the other?
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah. Well, part of it is – look, almost everybody you meet will have seen Star Wars. Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon. I mean it is – people are thinking in these terms – illusions, cultural illusions. It’s ubiquitous. It’s everywhere.

And so, there are ways you can – people are already thinking about these themes. Good side/bad side, light/dark, predestination, destiny, prechoice. There are all of these themes that come up, and they become points of contact, I think, in, “Hey, you’re interested in this story? Let me tell you about something else.” And entrées for the Gospel and engaging at the level of pop culture. I see a lot of opportunities for that. In fact, I’ve done that with people.

Dr. Darrell Bock
Yes, I have, too, where the storylines converge in such a way that it leads to some basic kinds of thinking.

Well, let’s turn our attention a little bit to just the theology of narrative in general. I mean you’ve already raised words that some people may or may not be familiar, like archetype.

Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah, archetypes, yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
How do we – how should we think about narrative? And this would be true, really, whether we’re talking about fiction or nonfiction. There are ways to tell stories and ways to edit them down so they have inherent structure in them. Talk about that a little bit.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Mm-hmm. That’s right. And so, what we’re used to in our culture is the basic three-act story. If you’re a writer who actually wants to sell books or movies, you’re going to follow this structure. And there are certain things, certain character types. So, you always have a hero; you have an antihero or a protagonist, antagonist.

You have certain types of characters: the wise old sage, Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Gandalf, or Yoda, or some of these characters. They’re almost predictable, almost formulaic. And so, good story tellers know how to take these archetypes and they do creative, unexpected things with them.

I really annoy my wife sometimes, when we’ll watch a movie about something. I’ll say, “That guy right there, he’s gonna die. He’s gonna give his life for them. He’s gonna –”

She’s like, “Stop doing that. Stop doing –”

I say, “It’s a formula.” You know? It’s a formula.

Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Michael Svigel
And so, the best movies toy with the formula and do things in creative ways. But Star Wars is a basic –
Dr. Darrell Bock
Good guys/bad guys –
Dr. Michael Svigel
Good guy/bad guy, typical archetypes all lined up and doing their thing. It’s pretty predictable.
Dr. Darrell Bock
M-kay. So, let’s turn our attention to Star Wars now. I’m gonna start off by mentioning something that people may or may not be aware of. Rogue One. This sounds like a rogue operation. What in the world is Rogue One, and what does it have to do with Star Wars?
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah, that’s the next Star Wars movie coming out. Now, when George Lucas first released Star Wars – what we know as Star Wars – in 1977, it was actually Episode IV, with a subtitle of A New Hope. And The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were Episode V and VI. Then he went backwards and did Episodes I, II, and III. And then now, Disney and Lucasfilm, they’re producing three more, VII, VIII, and IX. VII has come out; that’s The Force Awakens.

But what they’re also doing on the off years is producing what we might call spinoffs or going backwards in the timeline and focusing on a different character.

Dr. Darrell Bock
It sounds like a franchise to me.
Dr. Michael Svigel
It sounds like quite a lucrative opportunity.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Dr. Michael Svigel
But Rogue One, it’s gonna confuse some people. It actually takes place right before – in the time line, bf the very original Star Wars movie came out. So…
Dr. Darrell Bock
So, if it’s between – what III and IV?
Dr. Michael Svigel
Right, correct.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay.
Dr. Michael Svigel
And so, it is a story of the very first battle that the Rebel Alliance wins when they steal Death Star plans.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Oh, okay. And that’s –
Dr. Michael Svigel
And that’s the story.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And that is gonna be out when?
Dr. Michael Svigel
That’s December 16, 2016.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Oh, you know exactly.
Dr. Michael Svigel
It’s my wife’s birthday.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Do you know what hour –
Dr. Michael Svigel
It’s my wife’s birthday.
Dr. Michael Svigel
– what hour – oh, okay.
Dr. Michael Svigel
It’s gonna be a tough decision.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay. [Laughs]
Dr. Michael Svigel
I think I know what – I think I know where I’m gonna take her.
Dr. Darrell Bock
“You know what you’re doing on your birthday?”
Dr. Michael Svigel
[Laughs] Exactly.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah, so.
Dr. Michael Svigel
So, that’s the next one coming out, and then they’re rolling them out pretty much every year.
Dr. Darrell Bock
I see.
Dr. Michael Svigel
From this point on.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Interesting. So, let’s –
Dr. Michael Svigel
In other words, there’s a lot to talk about –
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah, there is a lot to talk about.
Dr. Michael Svigel
– in pop culture.
Dr. Darrell Bock
So, we’ve got – we’ve got the Star Wars movie and the sequence. Why do you think – I have my ideas on this – why do you think this particular sequence or series has struck such a nerve?
Dr. Michael Svigel
Par of it is the – well, anything’s cool with a light saber in it. You have to admit. Right?
Dr. Darrell Bock
[Laughs]
Dr. Michael Svigel
You can take a bad Star Wars movie –
Dr. Darrell Bock
Especially when you’re five years old. Right?
Dr. Michael Svigel
Exactly, exactly. You know? And then it awakens the five-year-old in all of us. You know, any kid who’s seen Star Wars is picking up any straight object and swinging it like a light saber. So, there’s that. There’s just the obvious action adventure. It’s a spectacle, and it tickles the senses.

But also there’s something there. There’s this good and evil. There are these themes that are being tapped into. Books have been written expounding on them from psychological, philosophical, and theological perspectives.

So, even though you can be a five-year-old like I was, and just see the surface level – lights and sounds and score – the music – but then you can also think about it more deeply, and you realize there’s a lot of stuff going on here to think about and to talk about and to talk about. And it tugs at you at an emotional level as well.

Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay. But I think the fact would be that someone could look at that stuff and go, “Well, yeah.”

And other people would go, “Eh, I don’t think so.”

Dr. Michael Svigel
Right. And that’s been done. There have been different Christian approaches to Star Wars as a phenomenon.
Dr. Darrell Bock
So, there are Christian approaches to Star Wars?
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah. There have been.
Dr. Darrell Bock
There have been.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yep, and still are.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And?
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah. Would you like me to tell you these?
Dr. Darrell Bock
Sure, go for it.
Dr. Michael Svigel
M-kay. I actually brought a couple of exhibits here, and this is not to pass judgment on them. And in some sense, both of them are true. But it shows you two extremes here on how Christians have approached Star Wars.

One of them is called The Force of Star Wars, and basically this author, Frank Allnutt, goes through the narrative and the characters and draws specific parallels to Christianity and to, in fact, eschatology, end times things, and ends up basically sharing the Gospel with it, trying to lead people to Christ.

Dr. Darrell Bock
Now, does he have a particular eschatology while he does this? I mean is there a –
Dr. Michael Svigel
It’s ours. It’s off the DDS eschatology.
Dr. Darrell Bock
He’s premillennial.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Pre-mil, pre-trib.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Pre-trib?
Dr. Michael Svigel
Oh, yeah. But then he says, “You need to be ready and be on the light side.”
Dr. Darrell Bock
Oh, wow.
Dr. Michael Svigel
So, it’s almost a thick Gospel tract.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay.
Dr. Michael Svigel
And the other extreme – so, this one is a very positive use of Star Wars for evangelism. The opposite approach, and very common, is – Norm Geisler co-authored this, but The Religion of the Force, which does legitimately pointed out there are a lot of Eastern mysticism, Zen Buddhism parallels as well in some of the spirituality of Star Wars, and basically says, “This is not the Gospel. This is some dangerous spirituality as well that could lead people astray.”

And so, these represent, in my mind, two, I guess, ends of –

Dr. Darrell Bock
Edges of this –
Dr. Michael Svigel
– the spectrum about how you can engage in pop culture. You know, you condemn it and point out it’s dangerous, or you can kind of embrace it and share the Gospel. And I, of course, try to find a mediating position. I do think that there are positive uses of media, pop culture, movies, where we can have these points of contact that may not exist otherwise.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Interesting. It seems to me that someone who’s designing and writing this, who has a feel for culture at large, might keep these themes rather ambiguous so that people can go in a variety of ways. Do you think that’s true?
Dr. Michael Svigel
I think that’s true, and that was George Lucas. George Lucas, who created and wrote these Star Wars movies, he really – besides basic morality, good and evil, and restoring this idea of, “Look, there is more to life than just self,” he was writing in the ’70s and decadence as well as despondence in many ways, and trying to speak into that culture.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Nothing’s changed since then.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Exactly. If anything, it got worse. But he didn’t have any particular spiritual/theological agenda. And so, really, you do see blatant borrowing from Christian imagery and themes, as well as borrowing from – anything that he could weave together to tell a story.
Dr. Darrell Bock
You know, this raises an interesting question that’s kind of a subterranean question, and that is, you know, when you look at literature as a whole, and there are – there are a lot of cosmic themes, some of which are very Christian in their origins, and some of which are not necessarily Christian but generally archetypal, to go with the general category.

And most literary people are very aware of those kinds of themes. Most very good English literature programs and university campuses and that kind of thing major in making people who take English literature familiar with this kind of background.

Dr. Michael Svigel
Right.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Especially – you know, even if they’ve never darkened the door of a church, because it’s so pervasive, particularly in Western literature. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that some of these themes come up in this kind of a way.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Correct, yeah. And they always will come up. The whole idea of the Redeemer who sacrifices himself for others, it’s almost essential in every story to some degree. It may not be a physical sacrifice, but somebody has to give himself or herself up for something. It’s almost always the case.

There’s always the story of the hero who is going from the known to the unknown and coming back again and learning something and growing from that. And so, it’s – you see parallels to the Christian biblical narrative. You also see parallels to each person’s spiritual journey and faith. And so, there are all of these themes that pop up all the time.

So, it’s funny, you see a lot of people say, “Look, this movie, The Matrix or whatever, is the Gospel, and you can have books – series of books written, The Gospel According to XYZ. And it’s not that these authors are intentionally drawing on Christian themes, it’s just that they’re tapping into these universal truths.

Dr. Darrell Bock
And those truths, because in some cases they have connections to Christian themes, lend themselves in this kind of direction.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Correct, yep.
Dr. Darrell Bock
So, we’re obviously having fun with all of this. So, someone comes along and says, “All right, so, what should I think about when I watch Star Wars, and what are some of the bridges that come out of popular culture and move in this direction?”
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah, that’s good. First of all, there’s the obvious theme of good vs. evil, and then there are always – and good storytelling characters that are not so black and white, at least on the surface. There’s a lot of social, political commentary going on sometimes in these film as – a little subtle.

But we can use these things to bring up very real-world matters of good and evil. I mean we are fast approaching a cultural situation where those – where everything’s gray, or black and white and good and evil is really a matter of perspective. And these themes – I think a classic, epic, good vs. evil story can remind us that, “No, look, we resonate with this story because deep down inside, God has written on our hearts this conscience, and we have this sense of right and wrong.” And this taps into that; we can relate to that.

So, at a very – you know, level of good vs. evil, I think that that theme is something that we can take from this. But also, this approach to the struggle, the conflict that we feel, there’s a spiritual conflict, there’s spiritual growth going on in these characters. In every great epic story, there’s growth through conflict. We can tap into those things.

There are also very obvious illustrations of redemption. Redemption is in almost every story. It’s a universal theme, and we can draw direct parallels – very easy, usually, the theme of redemption to the cross and to the resurrection and to restoration.

And so, themes of hope, themes of commitment, themes of love, themes of self-sacrifice, themes of self-control and reward. So, at the level of themes and storytelling in that regard, these are very, very rich wells of resources.

Dr. Darrell Bock
So, how should we pursue this? Should we pursue this kind of by character or by conflict? What do you – what’s the best – I mean I could think about Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo, Princess Leia. I mean there would be lots of ways to think about this.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah. Generally the way storytellers think about it is they think about it in terms of a journey or even a cycle or a circle. And so, you – and interestingly, these cycles tend to match the biblical story. You start out in paradise, and through some kind of a fall, you’re in hell or damnation or some kind of a fallen state, and then the conflict and the struggle through redemption to restore it to paradise. And every story begins somewhere on that circle.

And so, you usually have a – in Star Wars, they’re beginning in this state of oppression and darkness and this fall. You don’t know how you got there, but they’re in the process of restoration, restoring through –

Dr. Darrell Bock
“Obi-Wan Kenobi, help me; you’re my only hope.”
Dr. Michael Svigel
Exactly. Obi-Wan is coming back, exactly. Hope, right?
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah, right.
Dr. Michael Svigel
And so – and what odes Obi-Wan Kenobi do? He sacrifices himself in order to save he hero. And that is an epical, pivotal moment for Luke Skywalker. And so, we can see these things in all kinds of great narratives. Rocky. You know, he’s starting out in the inner city of Philadelphia. He meets the wise old – right? – trainer.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Right, right.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Who – and what does he do? He comes out wearing the – whatever – the – having –
Dr. Darrell Bock
The whatever? The –
Dr. Michael Svigel
Well, you gotta get – I was gonna say, “He comes out as a winner,” but everybody knows in the first one he doesn’t actually win the fight.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Michael Svigel
But you get the picture.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Right.
Dr. Michael Svigel
It’s the same cycle. And so, we think in terms of plot line and themes. But also, you can find parallels with individual characteristics and some of the struggles and conflicts. It’s a fun conversation to have, especially with doubters and unbelievers.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah, ’cause you can raise all kinds of themes. Of course, part of the – I actually think one of the attractive elements of science fiction is it makes you think about life, but it makes you think about life in a completely different lens. And so, the world that’s being portrayed is imaginative; it’s different. But the human conflicts that you’re running into are very, very similar –
Dr. Michael Svigel
They’re very real.
Dr. Darrell Bock
– and you can connect to.
Dr. Michael Svigel
They are – the stories and the universes are very, very strange but eerily familiar. And you can – and people are more than willing to talk about a movie In fact, they want to. A lot of people want to talk this out afterwards.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Right, right.
Dr. Michael Svigel
And we, as Christians who have a story that is genuinely redemptive – doesn’t make you feel good – merely feel good – it can actually change your life.
Dr. Darrell Bock
The scene that pops into my mind are the bar scenes, where you’ve got all these strange creatures, and yet it’s eerily similar to something you might see in a western.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Correct.
Dr. Darrell Bock
I mean the characters that you get are packaged certainly differently, but the emotions that they’re displaying, you know, you could have seen in the 1800s in the far West.
Dr. Michael Svigel
That’s right, yep.
Dr. Darrell Bock
We’re gonna broaden this out a little bit and go to some movies that I’ve seen recently, but that Michael hasn’t. But we’re gonna comment on some of the themes, because I think it’ll show the consistency, if you will, of the way in which stories oftentimes get told, and the way in which they can work and sometimes help us understand what’s going on and what the draw might be.

And so, the first movie I want to talk about is Hacksaw Ridge, which is a Mel Gibson-directed movie that’s slated for the latter part of this year, 2016. And it’s a true story. It’s of a fellow named Desmond Doss, who was a Seventh Day Adventist who didn’t believe in killing. Not just didn’t believe in killing, he didn’t believe you should pick up a weapon and fight.

And the interesting thing about the story is, is that he ends up being enlisted in the Army during World War II and sent to the Pacific – to the Pacific – what do you call it? – not coast, but – I’m having a blank. The Pacific region or –

Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah, the Theater or the –
Dr. Darrell Bock
The Theater; that’s what I’m thinking of. Being sent to the Pacific Theater to fight. But he’s trained in such a way, that the day they hand out the weapons, there’s a scene where they’re handing out all the weapons, and everyone walks up and grabs theirs. And he stays in line and doesn’t go pick up a rifle. And he’s in the Army. So, you know, kind of –
Dr. Michael Svigel
Awkward.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Awkward. Mega awkward.
Dr. Michael Svigel
You kinda notice that.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Exactly right. Everyone’s got a weapon; he doesn’t. And the sergeant comes up to him and says, “Is something wrong here?”

He goes, “Yeah, I don’t believe in fighting.” He said, “And I wrote the Army about this, saying I was a conscientious objector, and this is – they said it would be okay.” And it wasn’t. No one at the post knew about this. And so, it wasn’t quite so okay.

So, the first part of the movie is about how he – they try and drum him out, basically. They beat him up; they try and shame him every way possible to – this is – I guess this is a spoiler alert – to try and get him to quick. And he won’t quit. He wants to sign up to be a medic. So, he says, “I’m signing up for something –”

Dr. Michael Svigel
Save lives.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah, “I want to save lives; I don’t want to kill them.” You’ve got how the plot is developing very nicely. And so, he ends up going to war. He makes it through. He goes to war as a medic, and they go to battle, and he’s not carrying a weapon. How do you do that?
Dr. Michael Svigel
Mm-hmm, right.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And then, in the end of the story, I won’t try to spoil it too much, but he ends up being a hero in the way he handles the combat situation without ever picking up a weapon. And so, the whole thing is kind of this – let’s put it this way, it’s not your mother’s war movie – or your father’s war movie.
Dr. Michael Svigel
This isn’t a Rambo sequel.
Dr. Darrell Bock
No. That’s right.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Obviously, right?
Dr. Darrell Bock
You said how some stories play with normal what we call “tropes,” normal pictures or metaphors, and play with them. Well, this one is playing with it big time, because you’re – the whole plot is wrapped up in how does someone join the Army and never pick up a rifle?
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah. And it’s gonna be fun. I’m gonna look forward to seeing this, because in every story, every character has a weapon.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Michael Svigel
It’s not always a physical weapon, like a sword or a light saber, or a gun, but there’s something that the character wields that gives the character the strength.
Dr. Darrell Bock
In this case, it’s his moral convictions.
Dr. Michael Svigel
It’s his moral fortitude, right?
Dr. Darrell Bock
That’s right, yeah.
Dr. Michael Svigel
And that’s – and it’s always challenged. They have to learn how to wield it; they have to wield it imperfectly in various circumstances. So, that’s the – as a storyteller, you’re always saying, “What is this character’s weapon? How does he come by it, and what strength – what character conviction and strength is it actually going to illustrate?”

Because everything in a story is metaphor. If it’s not metaphor, you’re not really telling a story; you’re just – you’re taking pictures. So, it’ll be interesting to see how that works. So, that’s a very important point, that a character’s weapon or symbol of strength is not always going to be –

Dr. Darrell Bock
And actual physical weapon.
Dr. Michael Svigel
– a literal physical weapon.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Dr. Michael Svigel
So, yeah. And Mel Gibson has been really – whatever you think of him personally, he’s been really good at picking and producing and directing stories that tap in intentionally into these moral issues, moral conflicts, and spiritual truths. It’s gonna be fun.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah. Another interesting feature of this movie, and we actually do hope to do a podcast on this in the future, is the way in which the violence and realism gets depicted against the backdrop of Christian standards.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
So, how do you – how do you tell the story, tell a real story, tell a real gruesome war story and handle the violence, handle the language that comes with the event – those kinds of things – the choices that a storyteller, a writer has to make?

In this case, you’ve got a little bit of help, because you’re – this is not made up. This is something that really happened. So, they’re depicting something that’s real. But we also know that there are certain liberties that they took with that to package the story, that kind of thing. There are those kinds of choices going on which people who watch movies about real events oftentimes struggle with.

Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
They don’t give the artist the license to move around in emergency rooms of what they do.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah. And this is especially difficult for Christian writers, Christian filmmakers. Because on the one hand, you don’t want gratuitous celebration of violence. It’s not our – that’s not our value; this isn’t our worldview.

On the other hand, you don’t want to portray a world that doesn’t exist.

Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah, there’s a real world that’s fallen.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Right, there’s a real world. And one thing about the Bible – in fact, I’ve had Muslim – encounters with Muslim friends that complain about some of the realistic violence and things that are in our Bibles. You know? The pictures of depravity and people’s sin in the Bible, and that how can that be a holy book with all of this – right? – rape and incest and murder and these kinds of things.

And we say, “Look, it’s telling the way it really is. This is real life.”

Dr. Darrell Bock
Right.
Dr. Michael Svigel
“And so, we’re not sugarcoating life. We’re not creating fairytales here.”

And so, there is this balance of – you know, for me – and this is one of those gray issues where Christians are going to need to think through this – for me, if it’s gratuitous and unnecessary to the storytelling, it really annoys me. I’ll walk out of something like that. But if it is important to the story, I would imagine that, for that film, that it’s going to be an important point of his context and contrast that’s challenging his conviction and putting his –

Dr. Darrell Bock
Putting him at risk at various points.
Dr. Michael Svigel
– putting him – yeah, putting him to the test.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And immediately fighting with –
Dr. Michael Svigel
And you need to feel like the threat is real. Right?
Dr. Darrell Bock
That’s right.
Dr. Michael Svigel
And so, especially that kind of a war film – you can get by with it without being too graphic, but you still, I think, need – in order to tell the story right, you need to have some realism.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah. And I think that the issue for that film is how much is enough? How long should it go for? Those kinds of questions.
Dr. Michael Svigel
It becomes gratuitous. And that’s almost an art. And you have to kinda know, as a storyteller, how much is too much?
Dr. Darrell Bock
Well, that’s movie number one. Let’s shift to another one, completely different era. Okay? From World War II we go to the Roman Empire, and the refilming of Ben Hur.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Darrell Bock
You know, tied to Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, and we saw this one over the weekend, in part because I’ve done consultation work with them in relationship to the earlier Bible series and that kind of thing.

And this one struck me as odd, and I’d be interested to get your reaction to this. We went in, and, of course, we were thinking, “Well, this is a retelling of a classic.” So, you’re already up against it. I mean this is one of the –

Dr. Michael Svigel
Oh, yeah, right. Something to live up to.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah, exactly.
Dr. Michael Svigel
And it’s real easy to fail, yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
You’re one of the great movies of all time. I mean you can put a list of the top ten, and the original Ben Hur is probably on it. And so, you’ve got that up against. And then something hit me that I hadn’t anticipated. Of course it’s a remake, which means that it’s not in 1950s Technicolor. Okay? It’s in Super 4K. I don’t know how else to talk about it. I mean it – the cinematography was so stunning and precise that it was like I’m not seeing an ancient story. And I went – where’d that come from?
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
You know? The expectations about what a film talking about a dark and dusty past time, not looking very dark and dusty, or looking too dark and too dusty; you can take your pick.
Dr. Michael Svigel
It’s tricky. And this is the responsibility of the production designer; the producer has to figure out what tones, what color schemes. I mean these are conversations they spend hours and hours and weeks and weeks on before they even film one frame of the thing.

So, color scheme. What’s your palette? It’s art. This is not just telling a story. You know, as a – if you’re just writing a novel, you don’t have to worry about color schemes per se, but when you’re putting that on screen…

And so, you’ll – one film – it’s an apocalyptic sci-for instance kind of film called The Road. And it’s all – it’s almost black and white. It’s not, but it’s almost black and white. And that is intended to communicate this feeling of despair, of hopelessness. And then you add splashes of color into that kind of thing, and those really stand out in contrast.

So, what you’re experiencing is obviously an intentional decision by production designers to do things, film things at a certain pace, with certain colors. Maybe not the best choice; I don’t know. You know? Especially with an original Ben Hur that they’re going to be contrasting –

Dr. Darrell Bock
Compared to.
Dr. Michael Svigel
– and comparing it to.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Dr. Michael Svigel
So, what was your emotional response to those?
Dr. Darrell Bock
I mean it was a good story. It was the core story. I mean you knew where the story was going in many ways. So, it didn’t have quite the drama of how this was gonna work out that you might normally feel of a story that you weren’t quite so familiar with, that kind of thing.

So, I consider it to be a rather average movie, for lack of a better description. Entertaining. I mean worth – in one sense worth the time, if you’re just going out to the movie to be entertained. But it wasn’t – it wasn’t the experience that either Hacksaw Ridge had been, because of the way it confronts you with war and choices, or another movie we’ll be talking about shortly that I’m gonna raise.

But I do have one more thing I want to say about the Ben Hur movie that’s interesting. You know, you talked about palettes and tones. And when I’ve done this consulting work for movies, the things that strikes me are the kinds of questions I get asked. You know, when I do my New Testament stuff, I’m being asked about theology, and what did people believe, that kind of thing.

Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
What movie writers – script writers – will write me about is, “What did the crucifixion look like? What shape was the cross? What was the background? How did it go into the ground?” You know? Really, for lack of a better description, earthy kinds of questions. I mean everyday – you know, “When they sat down to a meal, what did that look like?”

I often tell people, “You know, our picture of the Lord’s Supper, kinda the Leonardo da Vinci guys at the table picture is actually not how it happened in the first century.

Dr. Michael Svigel
Right.
Dr. Darrell Bock
You know? They tended to sit in a U. If it was a very formal meal, they might not – there might not even be a table. There might not even be chairs. They’re actually reclining on the ground, at an angle, off of one able. Completely different picture than what we think of as a meal.

And a cinematographer and a director and a screenwriter have to be aware of all of that. And so –

Dr. Michael Svigel
And then make a decision about whether it’s worth trying to shock the audience –
Dr. Darrell Bock
Trying to recreate it. Exactly right. And where they go, –
Dr. Michael Svigel
Defy expectations.
Dr. Darrell Bock
“This seems so foreign. Will this really work, or do we modernize it?” Which, interestingly, another artistic choice, completely different genre, you’ve watched operas update themselves by really recasting the scene not in the original time it was written or setting, but modernize them. Tell the same story, with the same lyrics, but completely different clothes and background to give it a more modern feel.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Which goes back to our original discussion that, look, there are these themes that – whether you put ’em in World War I or the Jewish Revolt, it’s – they’re going to be these universal themes that can kinda come out in any context.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Exactly. So, it produces a very fascinating kind of set of – it always amazes me – well, two things amaze me. I’m in the habit – my wife has gotten used to this – at the end of a movie, I will sit, and I will watch the credits.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And it’s a way I remind myself of, “Look at all the people it took to make this happen.” It’s kind of my way of saying, “I appreciate the effort of all these people who went to put this together. And it’s myriads of people.
Dr. Michael Svigel
That’s right, yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
I mean it isn’t just the actors.
Dr. Michael Svigel
And especially in high stunt, high special effects, those kinds of things.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Exactly. I mean there’s technological stuff going on. There’s very physical stuff going on in certain movies. And so, it’s my way of reminding what it takes to put something like this together. It’s also another way of underscoring another thing that we like to talk about at the center, and that is the value of the variety of vocations that people undertake. You know? That there’s a way in which they contribute and service us, that sometimes we think consciously about it and appreciate, and sometimes we don’t.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
So, this is kinda the way I appreciate those things. And so, you know, the decisions that they face and have to make, both just art and technically, are sometimes very, very amazing. The creativity that goes – here I’ve got a story, but I don’t have any colors; I don’t have any clothes that are predisposed – that I’m predisposed towards there. I might have a time period, but that’s all I’ve got to work with: the story and the time period. And look at all the detail that has to be fleshed out on the screen.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yep, yep.
Dr. Darrell Bock
It’s an amazing thing to think about. Well, let’s go to the third movie. We’re jumping around. Okay, we’ve gone from Star Wars to a war film, Hacksaw Ridge. We’ve gone to Ben Hur, which takes us back into the time of the first century in a kind of depiction, in the context of the crucifixion and that kind of thing.

The last movie that’s come out recently, that’s kind of – has a completely different feel to it is Pete’s Dragon.

Dr. Michael Svigel
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Now, this is – this is yet another genre. M-kay? This is really a kid’s movie. It’s designed to celebrate, in many ways, the imagination.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And what these producer and director did with this story was rather than tell it as an animation, which is the way it’s traditionally been told. They used real actors, real settings, and they devised a – I guess a mechanical reproduction of who – of Pete Dragon and – not just mechanical, but technological. I mean it flies and etcetera.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah. It uses all the technology to get this mixture. And so, it has a very real feel to it. And, of course, part of the story is is that some people can’t believe that this kid has hung out with Pete’s Dragon and plays with you that way. And it works very hard on some core emotional stereotypes. A kid who has – who – he’s lost a mother and father in a car wreck, who ends up being nurtured by this dragon, and then gets discovered and has to reenter the real world, but he doesn’t want to leave the relationship that he’s had.
Dr. Michael Svigel
So, this plot is starting out on that cycle. It’s starting out with this kid in perdition in some sense.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Exactly right.
Dr. Michael Svigel
And he has to – it’s interesting. Usually – it’s a Luke Skywalker story. He’s starting on this desert planet, far away from everything, and is being introduced into this bigger world, and here’s –
Dr. Darrell Bock
And in one sense, he’s rescued immediately.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
You know? This dragon comes along and cares for him. It’s a healthy relationship. There’s no real tension in what’s going on between them. In fact, the early part of the movie is showing the bonding of their relationship and how comfortable they feel with one another, that kind of thing. And the tension isn’t introduced until people come back into the story –
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah, right, right.
Dr. Darrell Bock
– you know? – and try and pull this child out of this relationship that he has with the dragon; and everyone coping – I mean the bad guys are the good guys.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Are the good guys, exactly, yeah, yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And so, again, we’re back to the archetype that gets played with.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Exactly, yep. And you see the same kinds of themes in movies like E.T. Right? And the guys – the scientists, the people that – I mean that’s probably the role that we’d take. “There’s an alien – oh my gosh, there’s an alien in your closet. Run.”
Dr. Darrell Bock
Right, right.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Right? But actually, “No, he’s my friend –”
Dr. Darrell Bock
Or try and remove him or get rid of him or whatever.
Dr. Michael Svigel
“– and we have this relationship.” You know? With the –
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah, exactly.
Dr. Michael Svigel
And so, there’s this – that’s a common theme.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah. And so, we watched this play itself out, and the variety of relationships. The way in which he ends up in the movie, bonding to the – to at least a couple of people of people who try and rescue him on the one hand, but he doesn’t want to lose this relationship that he has with this dragon. But no one else is gonna tolerate his having this relationship. And that’s the tension in the story, and you watch that get resolved and play itself out.

And so, it’s a completely – you know, we’ve picked here four different films in some ways that do very different things, and yet, at the core –

Dr. Michael Svigel
Are doing the same thing.
Dr. Darrell Bock
– similar kinds of things in terms –
Dr. Michael Svigel
Very, very similar, yep.
Dr. Darrell Bock
– of the tension and choices that people have that draw them interest the movie. So, I’ve shared some of the movies I’ve seen recently. Are there any you’ve seen recently that draw your attention in this kind of a direction?
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah. I mean I’m constantly watching films, TV shows, things like this to try to keep up, to the degree that I can, in various genres. You know, obviously, Star Wars has been on my mind lately. I saw what some of the filmmakers are doing with the Star Wars series. That’s a whole nother –
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Now, I’ve been told that you can’t be a Star Wars fan and a Star Trek fan, but I’ve had no problem with that. I’ve been able to pull that off. So, Star Trek – I can’t think – on long flights, I’ll watch several different films, catch up.
Dr. Darrell Bock
I know how that works.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Some of the super hero movies –
Dr. Darrell Bock
right.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Which, by the way, super hero movies are also technically categorized as science fiction, if you think about those stories again. There’s very – usually some kind of a science element going on there, or – I mean Superman is an alien, folks.
Dr. Darrell Bock
[Laughs]
Dr. Michael Svigel
He’s come to Earth to save us. So, I’ve been watching some of those things. But yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Well, let me ask you this question, ’cause someone could be listening to this and going, “Now, wait a minute. We’ve got two theologians sitting at The Table, talking about all this stuff that doesn’t mean anything,” or seemingly might be viewed as a –
Dr. Michael Svigel
Waste of time?
Dr. Darrell Bock
– a waste of time, or a waste of energy or whatever. But there actually is a rhyme or reason to this. What is the – what is the rhyme or reason to it?
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah. So, like I said just a second ago, I said I’m trying to keep up. There is a sense in which I feel a responsibility – and I’m not gonna place this burden on others – but I do feel a responsibility to know what is going on in popular culture. What are people being bombarded with? What are they being exposed to? What are they thinking about, even if they don’t know it?
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Michael Svigel
And you would have – you would not be able to convince me that they’re not thinking about Star Wars, because they’re being constantly bombarded by this. So, things like this. And it does give me an opportunity, then, to bring things up. So, I actually use it in my teaching for illustrative purposes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
You really are strange.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Oh, yeah. No, so, illustrations, preaching illustrations.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Sure, absolutely.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Very practical things like this.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Core metaphors.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Core metaphors that every culture – the Bible does it.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Right, right.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Everyday experiences become the basis of parables. Everyday experiences in our Western culture become the basis for sermon illustrations of things to try to drive home a point. So, I use it constantly that way, but I need to k now what’s going on. I need to know how to communicate with my kids, because even if I tell them no on everything, they’re still gonna be exposed to this.

We’re swimming in it, and so, we need to know what’s going on. We can’t afford to be completely ignorant of what’s going on culturally.

Dr. Darrell Bock
And it does produce some pretty interesting potential opportunities to have some conversations that, at least initially, are nonthreatening and raise issues and themes that people do think about. I mean a really good piece of film, a really good piece of art does make you think about life core issues.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Go ahead.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Well, to go way back, The Da Vinci Code. You know a little bit about that?
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm, yeah, right.
Dr. Michael Svigel
You remember this one?
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah, exactly.
Dr. Michael Svigel
I had a friend who, when that thing came out, read the book and asked me about, “What is going on here?”
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Dr. Michael Svigel
And I hadn’t heard of it really. So, I had to pick it up, read it. And of course this – I happened to be an early Christian history –
Dr. Michael Svigel
Yeah. I’m on that. But I was able to share with him some other things, and he actually, through that wrestling, came to Christ through The Da Vinci Code – right? – the questions and issues that came up with that. And the way may be more circuitous and less direct through something like Star Wars or Pete’s Dragon.
Dr. Darrell Bock
I have – I have –
Dr. Michael Svigel
But you open those possibilities up for discussion. And if you know what you’re doing, you can lead them there.
Dr. Darrell Bock
I have a close friend – in fact, he’s been a guest on the podcast from Turkey, a Muslim background believer who’s first step into faith was watching the original Ben Hur.
Dr. Michael Svigel
Wow.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah, he saw the crucifixion, and he said, “That’s not what we were told as Muslims,” and he got curious about it, and pursued it, and that’s how he came to faith.

Well, Michael, believe it or not, we’re out of time. So, I appreciate your stopping in to give us kind of this journey through the movies.

Dr. Michael Svigel
My pleasure. Thank you.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Star Wars et al. And it’s been a fascinating conversation.

We hope you’ve enjoyed it. We appreciate your listening to us on The Table and hope you’re back again with us, soon.

Dr. Michael Svigel
Thanks.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than 40 books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Michael J. Svigel
Dr. Svigel serves as department chair and professor of theological studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is actively engaged in teaching and writing for a broader evangelical audience. His passion for a Christ-centered theology and life is coupled with a penchant for humor, music, and writing. His books and articles range from text critical studies to juvenile fantasy. Many of his written works can be found online at bible.org and retrochristianity.com. He and his wife, Stephanie, have three children, Sophie, Lucas, and Nathan.
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