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Person of Interest
Article originally appeared in
Brian Godawa is interested in stories and pictures, words and images, intellect and imagination. He's put his interests to work as a screenwriter (To End All Wars), an author (Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdomand Discernment and Word Pictures: Knowing God Through Story and Imagination), a documentary writer and director (Wall of Separation: The Phrase That Divided America, PBS), a graphic designer, and an advertising copywriter.
During his interview with Salvo he talked about the importance of imagination for Christians, what he considers the weirdest verses in the Bible, and his new book, Noah Primeval.
Salvo: Why do you choose to work on or create projects that are not overtly Christian?
Brian Godawa: Until I read Francis Schaeffer, I didn't know how to integrate my Christian worldview with my art. Incorporating your worldview into your art isn't the same as propaganda or sermonizing. And I don't mean those terms in the negative, because, of course, there can be good propaganda. As I studied the history of art and of storytelling, I came to understand how to integrate my worldview into my storytelling. The very structure of storytelling is a means of communicating redemption. I'm not that interested in what might be called the genre of Christian movies or Christian stories. There's a legitimate place for it, but it doesn't tend to be as influential on me spiritually. If you look at the movie, To End All Wars, you'll see a very explicit spirituality.
You've spoken about the importance of imagination. Do you think sometimes Christians fail to appreciate imagination?
I do think imagination is often a neglected element in our relationship with God, particularly in the Evangelical churches in America, the tradition that I come out of. In my book, Word Pictures, I chronicle some of my personal journey in that area. I pursued a very intellectualized faith, heavy on the apologetics and heavy on the intellect. At some point, I realized I had so intellectualized the pursuit of God that I had neglected the imagination. The intellectual and rational pursuit of God is important, but it's only half the equation. I had to rediscover how much God uses imagination in the Bible to communicate truths to us.
I eventually came to realize that the Bible is actually a story, and the doctrines are embedded within the story. I had to learn how much God communicates himself through images, through metaphor, through poetry. There are some ways that imagination communicates God's truth that rationality cannot.
What do you mean exactly? Do you have an example?
There are limits to our reason. So when Jesus teaches a parable, it's not just that he's using an illustration to communicate a doctrinal truth. Without the parable you're going to miss something that the parable embodies that touches our humanity in a way that rationality does not. Reason and imagination connect to our humanity in different ways. So, to the extent that the church has neglected the imagination, we have missed out on understanding God in his fullness. It's a serious thing to neglect the imagination when it comes to faith.
Along those lines, do you think Christian parents sometimes over-protect their children from the culture?
In my book, Hollywood Worldviews, I describe feeling that, within the church, there are two extremes. One is what I called the cultural gluttons—the Christians who say, "Hey, it's just entertainment, it's not going to hurt us." And they imbibe it without discernment. As a result, they're affected by it in ways they don't even realize.
But what I think is far more prevalent is the opposite, what I call the cultural anorexics. Those are the Christians who are so fearful of the negative aspects of the media or art—and there are negative aspects—that they cut themselves and their children off entirely from the media. In so doing, they alienate themselves from the dominant world culture. That means they're not only unable to communicate the gospel effectively as a result, but they themselves miss out on a lot of truth and goodness and beauty that is in the media and in the arts.
But the dominant culture is pretty scary when it comes to children.
The world we live in is a fallen world. It's imperfect and it's often a messy mixture of good and bad. And that's what movies and the media are, too. Of course, parents should try to protect their kids and draw their lines. My goal in writing the book [Hollywood Worldviews] was to help people figure out how to discern the good from the bad and draw limits in a biblical way. There's a lot of sex and violence in the Bible that wouldn't meet the standards modern Christians apply to television. In the Bible there's every sin known to mankind, from incest to human sacrifice.
So how do you draw that line? There's plenty of sin committed in movies, but it's not always to glorify it; it's often to show what's wrong with the person. Often the purpose of the story is that, as the hero grows, he learns what was wrong with the way he saw the world and that the way he was living was wrong. So I talk about some principles for figuring out what a particular story is actually communicating. Just because there's sin depicted in it doesn't mean it's glorifying it. Often it's the first step on the road to redemption. It's important to interpret what the worldview is that's being conveyed. Jesus said to be in the world but not of it. He didn't say to stay away from the world. So if we want to be able to reach the world around us with the gospel, we have to be acting redemptively with that world.
What do you think about the popularity of vampire books and movies?
I think there's a lot of negative perception of the vampire genre from Christians right now. Whether it's vampires, horror, or fantasy, those are all genres of storytelling. In and of themselves, they're not evil. They can be used for evil, just as romantic comedies can be used for evil. Let's take the genre of horror. If you're going to condemn it, you're going to be condemning the Bible. The Bible uses horror in many different places, whether it's the Book of Revelation or the visions of Daniel or some of the prophetic utterances of Isaiah and Ezekiel. They all use horror to communicate spiritual truths. Horror is not inherently evil.
Take the Twilight series, for example. [Godawa has read the first book in the series, and seen all the movies.] The books' author is a Mormon, and she communicates her moral values through her writing. There are very strong metaphors for sexual abstinence before marriage, which is also a Christian value. The last movie had a very pro-life message. It was actually one of the most pro-life movies I've seen in years. So here's an example of a vampire genre communicating biblical values.
Tell me about your new book, Noah Primeval. Would you describe it as Christian fiction? And what drew you to write about Noah?
Yes, I'd call it religious fiction. My goal was to re-tell the biblical story of Noah for a new generation. I particularly like the story of Noah because every major religion—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and others—has a Noah story. And virtually every culture has a flood myth or legend. I think there's a true story there that they're all referencing, and I think that true story is in the Bible. Researching it made me realize there's a story to be told here.
When we think of Noah, most of us probably think of an old guy with a white beard. Maybe we picture him as a farmer. What the Bible does say is that the time in which he lived was a wicked, evil time. So I thought that to survive in that kind of environment, he might have to be a warrior. So I took some creative license, bearing in mind that the Bible never specifies what Noah did for a living.
The other thing that inspired me was what I consider to be the weirdest verses in the Bible, Genesis 6:1–4. That's the story of the sons of God coming down from heaven and cohabiting with the "daughters of men," bearing them giants or Nephilim. Based on my research, I came to the conviction that the most biblical interpretation of that is that these sons of God are actually divine beings of God's heavenly council. You might call them the highest form of angels. The word Nephilim is also controversial, but having studied it, I'm of the conviction that they're giants, not just mighty warriors. There's a whole theological thread that goes through the Old and New Testaments. The book of Jude and First and Second Peter make reference to these sons of God, these angels who came to earth. They violated the distinction between heavenly and earthly flesh.
My story has some fantasy elements in it, but everything that happens is based on biblical imagery. For example, I have Noah going down into the underworld of Sheol.
How do the Nephilim interact with Noah in your book?
Without giving it all away, when these rebel angels came down to earth, they violated the separation of earth and heaven. They understood the prophecy that the Messiah would come from the line of Noah. They wanted to pollute the human race to stop the bloodline of the Messiah. I think it's related to the first messianic prophecy that the seed of the serpent will war with the seed of the woman. I think it has to do with their corrupting and trying to fight the seed line of the Messiah. God is wiping out the fruit of their violation with the flood, but he doesn't wipe it out totally. So there's an ongoing battle between the sons of the serpent and the sons of Eve.
What's your next project?
This book is one of a series of four. I'm already writing the prequel, Enoch Primordial.
Getting back to your screenwriting sensibilities, what's your favorite movie?
Braveheart and Chariots of Fire. •
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