Jonathan Edwards Goes to Movies: What Story Structure Teaches Us About Religious Affections

Part IV of 2017 Lenten Series: Why Lent is a More Like Moana than Monty Python
The inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life, or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

by Gary David Stratton 

Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her own children.
Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley.

If by some miracle of time-travel you could suddenly transport 18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards into the audience of your local cineplex tonight, he might very well declare the entire motion picture industry a work of witchcraft! (And he may very well be right.) Yet, a careful reading of America’s greatest theologian’s most important work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, reveals insight into both the craft of screenwriting and the purpose of Lent. Both point to the importance of paying attention to “inciting events.”

The Inciting Event

Whether in real life or a work of fiction, most stories begin with a hero[1] pursuing largely self-centered goals designed to help them survive in their current circumstances. In Gladiator (2000) Maximus just wants to go home to his family and farm. In Star Wars (1977) Luke Skywalker desires only to get off the planet to be with his friends at school. Erin Brockovich (2000) seeks nothing more than a salaried job to feed her kids. Each lacks both the understanding and the desire to pursue anything beyond the struggles of their day-to-day life.

Then something happens; something screenwriters refer to as the inciting event. Suddenly, a new and bigger story crashes in upon the hero’s carefully constructed world. As John Truby notes in The Anatomy of Story, “At the beginning of the story, when weakness and need are being established, the hero is typically paralyzed in some way. You need some kind of event to jump-start the hero out of his paralysis and force him to act.”[2] Luke accidentally triggers a hidden distress video in the memory of a droid. Erin Brokovich discovers that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is poisoning Hinkley’s small town water supply.  Caesar unexpectedly commissions Maximus as protector of Rome in order to re-establish a true Republic. In each case, the inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

The entire story turns when (and only when) the hero makes this difficult choice. In fact, we don’t even have a story without such a decision. For instance, in The Blind Side (2009) hundreds of “Christian” parents drove past homeless teenager Michael Oher one cold November evening. Any one of them could have stopped to help. Only one did. Everyone faced the same event, yet only Leigh Anne Tuohy was incited by it. We tell her story because she acted.[3] This is why most screenwriters refer to the hero’s decision to act in response to the inciting event as plot point one.  Why? Because without that decision you don’t have a plot. You don’t have a story at all.


This is where Edwards’ thought becomes helpful. According to Edwards, our soul is composed of two primary parts: our mind (including both our perceptions and our understanding of those perceptions), and our heart. Our heart is that aspect of our inner being that attracts us toward some people, ideas, or actions and repels us from other people, ideas, and actions.

When our heart’s attraction towards a particular person, idea, or action is particularly strong, Edwards labels these powerful inclinations as our affections. To Edwards, affections are “the moving springs in all the affairs of life, which engage men in all their pursuits; and especially in all affairs wherein they are earnestly engaged, and which they pursue with vigour.”[4] They are the hidden internal reasons why we choose to love some people and not others, to believe some ideas and not others, and take some actions but not others.

Victory in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm, until Caesar's inciting event changes everything.
With victory for the empire in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm . . . until Caesar’s inciting event changes everything.

This makes our affections an extremely important element of any great story. When the hero answers their story question in the affirmative it reveals something deeper in the their soul than any casual observer could notice. Something in Erin Brokovich (compassion? justice?) compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her children (for whom she originally took the job.) Something in Maximus (duty? nobility?) drives him to accept Caesar’s commission, even though it means delaying a comfortable retirement with his wife and son.

Something in the inciting event reveals the hero’s genuine affections. While this single experience never completely transforms the hero–numerous temptations to give up or turn back will come later–something in the inciting event causes them to take their first step of their journey away from a mere longing for comfort and convenience and into something deeper. They want something more and are willing to take action to pursue it.

Awakening or Transformation?

This motivating drive could be an affection that was always present, but “woke up” only when confronted with the inciting event. For instance, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo’s inciting event is an unexpected party of singing Dwarves inviting him to join their quest:

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”[5]

It takes a bit no longer for him to act, but soon he is running down the road without so much as a handkerchief in his pocket.

Other times, something in the inciting event itself changes the hero’s heart. For instance, in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a chance encounter with an alien spacecraft implants Roy Neary with both vivid images of The Devils Tower in Wyoming as well as the insatiable desire to go there.[6] In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, God not only incites Moses to return to Egypt to free his people, he transforms Moses’ affections (and even his appearance) as well.[7]  Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, is perhaps the ultimate inciting event in the New Testament. His zeal for God is both revealed and transformed by the voice from heaven.

In both inciting event types the hero is confronted with a choice before the story can even begin. As über screenwriting guru Robert McKee declares:

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

Obviously, the inciting event is only the beginning of this revelation and transformation, but it is crucial to writing (and living) a great story.

We Are What We Do

This is where Edwards’ thought becomes interesting not only for screenwriters, but for anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God. Edwards rejects the commonly held notion that our affections and our will are two separate components of our inner being, so that our affections might want one thing, but our will chooses another. Not so, says America’s greatest theologian. “Such seems to be our nature, and such the laws of the union of soul and body, that there never is in any case whatsoever, any lively and vigorous exercise of the inclination, without some effect upon the body…”[8] In other words, while we often profess belief in one direction and act in another, or feel we ought to act one way and then do the opposite, our actions alone reveal the true affections of our heart and mind. We do what we love.

Edwards therefore insists that genuine faith . .

“[C]onsists, in a great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart. That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference. God, in his word, greatly insists upon it, that we be in good earnest, fervent in spirit, and our hearts vigorously engaged.”[9]

Lenten Examination

"Then something Tookish woke up inside him..."
“Then something Tookish woke up inside him…”

This is why Lent can be so transformative. The season is designed to help us examine the gap between our professed faith and our lived belief, between our creed and our lifestyle, between the things we tell ourselves we are passionate about and our true motivations revealed by our actions. Jesus instructed his followers, “You will know them by their fruits.”[10] And Edwards reminds us that Jesus viewed most important fruit as a love of God expressed in sacrificial service on behalf of others. “This is my command that you love one another as I have loved you… For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give us life for others.”[11]

The practice of (and not the mere tip of the cap to) sacrificial service reveals the presence of the greatest and highest affection of all: love of God and others for God’s sake. Why? Because much of what passes for religion seems motivated by little more than a self-centered desire to survive in our current circumstances. However, the decision to give up your life in sacrificial service of others is rarely motivated by anything except genuine spiritual affections. In essence, Edwards is saying, if you want to see who the true heroes are around you, don’t look for the most religious, or the most famous, or the most published. Look for those who love

Lent then is a season for honestly asking myself if I might be missing inciting events to love and serve that are happening all around me: a homeless teenager who needs shelter, a town that needs an advocate, a political system that needs reforming, a social injustice that needs a champion. Perhaps they are more than the mere random events. They could be God’s call to wake up and enter our true story. Our true affections are revealed only in our responses to these inciting events that dare us to ask: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

Any screenwriter could tell you that.

Next: The Volcano in Your Backyard: Micro-Worldviews and the Honeymoon from Hell


[1] Or, ‘Main Character,’ as some main characters are clearly not heroic.

[2] 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (p. 276). Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition. (2008-10-14).

[3] This is not to say that sometimes a hero requires numerous inciting events to jar them into action. For instance, Luke learning that a beautiful princess needs rescue, that his father was really a Jedi fighter pilot, or even that a Jedi master needs his help, isn’t enough to overcome his earth-bound (er, Tatooine-bound) inertia. It is only after imperial Stormtroopers kill his aunt and uncle that he finally decides to go with Obi-wan to Alderaan and, “Learn the ways of the force like my father.”

[4] Edwards, Jonathan (1745) A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (In Three Parts) (Kindle Edition, 2011) Locations 332-333.

[5] The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Mariner books, 2012), p. 83. (Italics mine.)

[6] This same alien transformation motif is also subtly evident in Spielberg’s more famous E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial  (1982).

[7] Actually, in this nearly four-hour long epic, one could argue that Moses transformation is the midpoint of the film. However, in the biblical account, Moses’ encounter with THWH at the burning bush is clearly the inciting event for his personal journey at the Exodus itself.

[8] Affections, 270-271.

[9] Ibid., 297-300.

[10] Matthew 7:16

[11] John 15:12, Mark 10:45

What’s Your Cause, by Marc Erlbaum curates thousands of uplifting Hollywood movies and donates to charity every time you watch.

It used to be that activism demanded significant energy and time. With the advent of the internet, however, we do not have to travel to the other end of the globe, or venture into dangerous situations closer to home, to witness the plight of those who need our help.

by Marc Erlbaum • Founder at eflixir, President at Nationlight Productions

If someone walked up to you on the street and asked you “what is your cause”, how would you respond?

You might ask for clarification. “Are you inquiring about my origin, or my purpose? Where I came from or what I’m pursuing? What caused me, or what cause I am passionate about?”

If it’s the former – what caused you – then that’s a pretty deep question, not to mention a personal one, and depending on your ontological perspective, your response may range from the scientific to the divine.

If it’s the latter – what cause are you passionate about – then you may be one of those people who is heavily involved with a particular cause, perhaps a disease or condition that effects you or someone you love(d); or you may be the type who is involved in a variety of causes, who rallies to the aid of anyone (or anything) disenfranchised or vulnerable; or you may be too busy for any cause other than providing for those who rely on you to pay the bills and keep food on the table.

And of course, regardless of the intent of the question, the answer may simply be “I don’t know. I don’t know how I got here or what I’m supposed to be doing.” And not knowing is okay. Not asking, however, is unacceptable.

How can we be alive and not wonder why we live? And not just wonder about life, but wonder at life – marvel at the enormity of it, the complexity, the profundity. Good or bad, life is awesome. It is full of possibility and opportunity, and it demands from us to know how we will utilize this life that we have been granted (whether by chance or by providence) to do something productive and purposeful. “What is your Cause?”

Of course, once you start to delve into the question of your cause, it isn’t long before you will start to wonder about your effect. Am I effectively fulfilling my purpose? Am I affecting any positive change in those causes that I have chosen to pursue? Can I ever really succeed in doing all that needs to be done? And not succeeding is okay. Not attempting, however, is unacceptable.

It is particularly unacceptable today, when there are so many ways to be cause-conscious and to make a difference. It used to be that activism demanded significant energy and time. With the advent of the internet, however, we do not have to travel to the other end of the globe, or venture into dangerous situations closer to home, to witness the plight of those who need our help.

In addition to this greater exposure and awareness, we are also granted endless ways to participate from our own living room – donating, volunteering, signing petitions, etc. This type of “clicktivism” has been derided by some in the activist community, but while it may not replace the need for more committed engagement, it can assure that every single one of us is doing something positive, rather than just those zealots who are willing to devote themselves completely.

Cause-consciousness does not have to be an all or nothing proposition. Rather, it can be the infusion of thoughtfulness and generosity into every mundane activity that we perform. With an increasing number of “Social Enterprises” surfacing daily, we are now able to purchase a wide array of products and services that promote sustainability and provide a portion of proceeds to organizations and individuals in need. is one of these new social ventures, the first which curates thousands of uplifting Hollywood movies and donates to charity every time you watch. In addition, every film is linked to a handful of thematically related causes so that viewers can immediately act upon the inspiration they get from watching. eflixir is based on the incredible power of film to inspire people and on the notion that we can be cause-conscious at all times, even when we are simply kicking back to be entertained.

What is my cause? Encouraging people to constantly think about, and act upon, their cause. What is my effect? That depends, in part, on whether you share this article and help spread the good word.

Check out

See also: Hollywood’s Fault and ‘The Fault in Our Stars,’ by Marc Erlbaum With a spate of teen fantasy films transporting us from reality over the past several years, TFIOS is a welcome return to the world that we actually inhabit.

The Future of Faith in Film? Youth and Evangelicals Outstrip All Other Movie-going Audiences, by David Kinnaman

Part 2 in series The Future of Faith in Film and Television.  We asked observers in and around the entertainment industry to share their perspective on where faith is (or should be) headed in film and TV. Here’s what they said:

No one is surprised that 18-28 year-olds watch twice as many movies as any other age group.  What is surprising is that the average number of movies self-identified ‘evangelicals’ saw in 2012 is larger than followers of any other religion.  If Hollywood is listening then the future of movies could be greatly shaped by tastes of young Christ-followers. 

by David Kinnaman • President, The Barna Group

607-superheroes-presidents-and-a-girl-on-fire-2012-at-the-moviesOn the heels of massive box office performance from The Hunger Games and The Avengers, 2012 ended up setting a record for total box office sales (a staggering $10.8 billion), and also saw an incredible 1.36 billion tickets sold. With this weekend’s Academy Awards broadcast—the pinnacle of the film awards season—the cultural obsession with movies is at its peak. Viewership for the Oscars is still one of the larger of the year, and—in a year when most of the best picture nominees garnered over $100 million—arguments over who is (or isn’t) nominated and who should win are in full force.

But what are Americans’ true attitudes toward movies? Who sees them? Are Americans still going to the movies? Do Christians see more or less movies (or the same) as non-Christians? And, what do believers think of the movies they see?

Who Goes to the Theater?

If you’re a moviegoer, you might assume everyone goes to the movies. If 1.36 billion movie tickets sold in 2012, that means there were more than four movie tickets sold for every American. But, in actuality, a full 35% of the American population says they didn’t see a single movie in theaters in the last 12 months. And of people ages 67 and older, respondents report they’ve only seen, on average, 0.4 movies in the last year—meaning less than half of Elders set foot in the movie theater in 2012.

So who bought all those tickets? As you might expect, it was mostly young adults (i.e., Mosaics, ages 18-28) filling the darkened venues. Of that age group, the average Mosaic saw 3.4 movies in the theater over the last year—double the national average for all adults, which was 1.7 movies per person.



Does Faith Affect Viewing Patterns?

How does a person’s faith affect their movie watching habits? Well, in terms of the amount of movies seen at the theater, evangelicals saw 2.7 movies at the movie theater in the last year, a full movie more than the national, adult average. In fact, the average number of movies evangelicals saw is bigger than any of the age groups except for Mosaics. The only faith group that saw more movies than evangelicals were people who didn’t identify with any faith—that segment saw an average of 3 movies per person in theaters over the last year.

Which movies did evangelicals see? The year’s biggest film, The Avengers, was also a big hit among evangelicals. Over the last 12 months, 42% of evangelicals saw the film. That’s the highest rate except for people with no faith—43% of those surveyed who don’t identify with any faith saw The Avengers. Evangelicals also flocked to The Hunger Games (36% of them saw it in the last year) andThe Lorax (24%).



The biggest difference in movies between people of faith and people with no faith exists in movies like Skyfall and Argo. While 21% of people claiming no faith saw Skyfall, the most recent James Bond blockbuster, only 12% of evangelicals and 16% of non-evangelical born again Christians witnessed 007’s latest romp. And the highest group of people of faith who saw Argo—the story of a group trying to escape Iran during the 1981 U.S. embassy hostage crisis—were Catholics, at just over 4.5%. At the same time, 17% of people with no faith identification saw Argo.

Much has been made about how Hollywood influences the values and spirituality of Americans. And movies do affect how people think about faith and spirituality, but in smaller numbers than religious leaders might expect. For all the concern about the degradation of cultural values and Hollywood’s lack of a moral compass, just 1% of respondents say they saw a movie that changed their beliefs over the last year. Whether this is a perception or a reality is hard to say—but at the very least, people don’t think Hollywood is influencing their values and beliefs. In fact, only 11% of people say they saw a movie in the past year that made them think more seriously about religion, spirituality or faith.

However, 32% of evangelicals say they would seek out movies that dealt with more religious or spiritual themes. And with movies like Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe’s upcoming Noah adaptation and the ratings success of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s The Bible TV mini-series, it seems audiences might be getting their wish.

Or will they?

Next:  Vikings vs. The Bible: Why History Channel Won’t/Can’t Market Faith? by Craig Detweiler, PhD

See Also:

The Future of Faith-Based Filmmaking: What is a Christian movie? by Screenwriter Mike Rinaldi

Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories

Why Most “Christian” Movies Suck, by Screenwriter Brennan Mark Smith

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories, by Gary David Stratton

Christians in Hollywood: A Mission Impossible Writer Offers a Treatment, by TV Writer Ron Austin




david-kinnaman-picture-smallDavid Kinnaman is the President of Barna Group and author of the best-selling books, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith, and unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity (with Gabe Lyons). Since joining Barna in 1995, David has designed and analyzed nearly 500 research projects for clients including Sony, NBC-Universal, World Vision, and Compassion International.  As a spokesperson for the firm’s research, he is often quoted in major media outlets such as USA Today, Fox News, New York TimesLos Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal).

© Barna Group, 2013. Used by permission. For more info from Barna Group study, click here.

Film Technology Fails: The New Wilhelm Scream, by Scott Hanselman

Wonderful movie-clip-filled exploration of Hollywood’s failure to understand the world of technology we purport to portray

Hollywood seems determined to make the technology-aware jump up from their seats and scream NO!!!  A technical error pulls me out of the story like a slap in the face. It almost physically hurts. I’m not just nitpicking here, either. These aren’t hard things to fix. One just needs to care.

by Scott Hanselman • Computer Zen

There’s no other explanation. It must be a tradition like the Wilhelm scream.

What, haven’t heard of the Wilhelm scream? Well, once you do it’s impossible to not hear it in every film. It’s in freaking Lord of the Rings, and it grates. It’s THE go-to person screaming sound effect and has been for over 50 years. Here’s a compilation of dozens of movies – including every George Lucas movie – that uses the Wilhelm scream.

In a notable exception to Hollywood's normal patter, the "hack" in The Matrix features real commands in its hack..
In a notable exception to Hollywood’s normal patter, the “hack” in The Matrix features real commands.

Hollywood and TV seems determined to make the technology-aware jump up from their seats and scream NO!!! at the screen.

I can only imagine what a doctor or nurse must feel like when watching ER or a dramatic surgery.

A technical error pulls me out of the story like a slap in the face. It almost physically hurts. I’m not just nitpicking here, either. These aren’t hard things to fix. One just needs to care.

Now, often they’ll use internal IP addresses to represent external addresses and a lot of folks argue that using these addresses is the “555 Phone Number” equivalent. I can see that a little, but even if they used the IP Address of the studio it wouldn’t be so jarring.

It’s debatable who is worse between TV and Movies, but it’s clear that CSI has the #1 spot locked down with this classic.




Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. I am a failed stand-up comic, a corn-rower, and a book author.
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Special thanks to our technology aware webmaster, Chris Friesen, for finding Scott’s article.

It’s a Wonderful Life and the Courage to Live (and Create Art) Idealistically

Part 3 of 3-part series on It’s a Wonderful Life: Click here for Part 1.

Capra’s Christmas story came into my life just when I needed it most.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

In the fantasy tale Crow and Weasel,  Badger declares: “If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”[1]  It’s a Wonderful Life has been just such a story for me.

George Bailey experiences his personal “triumphal entry” into Bedford Falls

Sue and I were spending Christmas Eve far from family and friends, holed up in a downtown hotel in Kansas City, MO on one of the coldest nights on record. We had just made some of the most momentous decisions of our life. We would not return to China where we had thought we would spend our entire careers. We would not accept a prestigious internship that may have launched my career, but would have kept Sue and I apart for nearly a year. Instead, we would devote our lives to serving God as missionaries, not to a foreign country, but to a generation—young intellectuals, artists, and leaders who would shape the world for good.

To say that it was an idealistic decision is a gross understatement. We were going, “All in” to pursue a dream of cultural transformation that was hard to articulate without sounding crazy. Many friends, family members, bosses, and mentors simply didn’t understand. Frankly, we weren’t we sure we understood. Yet we were certain we were following God’s leading (at least as certain as two doubting idealists living in a physicalist culture can be.) So we talked our idealistic talk over a marvelous dinner in a famous KC steakhouse, prayed our idealistic prayers, and climbed into bed.

Enter It’s a Wonderful Life

Mindlessly, I flipped on the TV. A black and white image of two constellations talking to each other slowly materialized on the screen. Why we didn’t change channels I’ll never know, but slowly the magic of Frank Capra’s film drew us in. Instantly we identified with George and Mary Bailey and their struggle to live out their idealism in a world that seemed determined to beat it out of them. We were transfixed. It was our story. Here was a couple who kept taking punch after punch on the chin, but also kept pursuing their idealistic dream for the benefit of others, all the while wondering they were actually making any difference at all.

It was a holy moment. We wondered aloud if God wasn’t somehow using Capra’s story to communicate something of the kind of life our decisions would lead to. Boy, were we ever right.  Since that cold Kansas City night our long and winding journey from Big Ten universities, to Christian schools, to the Ivy League, and now Hollywood has proven to be even more of a challenge than we could have ever imagined. And when things have been their darkest, we have returned to the story of It’s a Wonderful Life again and again.

I know it is a bit melodramatic, but I’m not sure we would have made it this far without George Bailey’s example of self-sacrificing idealism vindicated by God’s direct intervention in the physicalist world. George and Mary Bailey were true two-handed warriors. Watching how their small idealistic decisions added up to the profound cultural influence fills my heart with strength to do the right thing on a day-to-day basis.  And in our darkest hours, just knowing that there is a God and his angels and a great cloud of witnesses looking on, helps us pray, “Lord, help me live again.”

So what lessons can modern day two handed warriors draw from Capra’s tale.  Let me propose three.

Don’t lose your idealist nerve.

The first lesson is just for filmmakers aspiring to both culture-making and faith-building, and it is this: Don’t lose your idealist nerve. By rooting his film in present-day America (at least it was present-day in 1946), Capra went against the trend of his day to express a theistic worldview only in “Bible films.” By portraying a clear and unmistakable (if comic) divine intervention, Capra went against the trend of his day to limit modern-day religious faith to the private subjective realm.[2] (See, Capra’s Saga of a Depressed Idealist.)

In an era when “magical” intervention in the physical world was established as a Hollywood staple, divine intervention is nearly completely missing. This is not to say that filmmakers of faith should never set their films in a physicalist worldview, or resort to a historical, fantasy, and even horror genres to convey their themes,[3] only that Capra’s courage to root George Bailey’s idealism in the radical repudiation of skeptical physicalism through the supernatural in-breaking of God is what is so desperately lacking in today’s films.  If filmmakers of faith won’t make divinely supernatural films, who will?

Certainly this kind of two-handed filmmaking will require remarkable wisdom and audacity. Wisdom, because physicalist Hollywood will automatically categorize any film with a supernatural element as “Fantasy.” (In fact, AFI now lists It’s a Wonderful Life as a “Fantasy Film.”) Physicalist (especially nihilist) films are held in such high honor in this town that nearly everything else is often viewed as “sentimental hogwash” (except when it is time to balance the budget.)  Making films that are both excellent and idealist and even theistic will be an incredible challenge, but I believe it can be done, because it has been done. Gladiator is a recent idealist example, even if it was a period piece.[4]

The truly audacious thing will be if someone follows Capra’s lead and manages to make a critically-acclaimed and commercially-viable theistic idealist film set it in present-day America. It will have to be a spectacular, genre-bending effort, but as Flannery O’Conner put so eloquently:

“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”[5]

It will take the kind of courage Capra demonstrated in making Wonderful Life, and like Capra, it might take years for such courage to be vindicated on the earth, or in heaven. But is that any reason not to try?

In my life journey, I NEEDED a story like Capra’s “more than food to stay alive.” I don’t think I’m alone. But who will make the films that will sustain the next generation of two-handed warriors?  Only filmmakers like Capra with the courage to live idealistically. Is that you?

Don’t rely on Idealism alone

The second lesson I’d like to draw from Capra’s classic is for those of us–like Ricky Gervais–who are stuck between idealism we intuit to be “true” and physicalism we face with our senses everyday. (See, Ricky Gervais and Sentimental Hogwash.) Let’s be honest, some of us are way too idealistic.  We ground our faith in the unseen realm in such a way that our faith is little more than an existential and/or postmodern personal preference. Then, when someone criticizes or critiques our faith with data from the world of sense perceptions we defensively label them an “enemy of the faith.”  Perhaps they are. But isn’t it more likely that they are simply a skeptical physicalist waiting for us to provide a demonstration of the in-breaking of the idealist world into this “present evil age.” Maybe they aren’t rejecting our faith so much as the shallow level of experience we’re basing it on.

Jesus never asked his followers to judge the truth-claims of his message based upon “pie-in-the-sky bye-and-bye” idealism. He asked them to base it upon the ideals of the kingdom of God breaking into the physical world through the “miracles” of supernatural answers to prayer (John 14:12).

Until Christ followers live lives marked by supernatural power and sacrificial love, I’m afraid that the Ricky Gervais’s of the world are going to have a very hard time taking our truth claims very seriously. Roman Emperor Julian despised the Christ followers of his day, yet he could no escape the reality of their faith in their lives when he confided in a friend:

“…the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause… these impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own… outdoing us in good deeds while we ourselves are disgraced by laziness.”[6]

Sounds like a perfect description of George and Mary Bailey to me. Yet, I mean no disrespect when I say that many of the “media leader Christians” I encounter today remind me more of Mr. Potter than George Bailey. In their preoccupation with wealth and political power, their lives and their careers seem just as dominated by “me, me, me” as any other (nihilistic) physicalist. Is it any wonder that the Ricky Gervais’s of the world have a hard time believing the message we preach?

Co-labor with God

The third lesson I’d like to draw from It’s a Wonderful Life is for all two-handed warriors—whether you labor in the Ivy League, Hollywood, Wall Street, or Main Street—Don’t allow the story of skeptical physicalism to deter you from seeking to co-labor with God in the in-breaking of his kingdom in the world. Follow George Bailey’s lead and grow a pair. We might just live to see our work transform our own culture every bit as much George and Mary’s self-sacrificing idealism transformed Bedford Falls.  But even if we never see the full result of our idealistic actions on earth, we must live our lives the way we will wish we had lived them on that day when we finally will see our life from God’s perspective—because someday we will.

It’s highly unlikely we’ll ever get a George Bailey-esque  ‘advance screening’ of our life’s work. Yet Paul of Tarsus assures us that we will “all appear before the viewing seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). To be a true two handed warrior is to live for that heavenly red carpet affair, more than for its pale imitation at the Kodak theatre each year.

That day is the one when we want the Lord himself (and not some mere angel) to declare, “Well done, you good and faithful servant! You’ve really had a wonderful life.”

Merry Christmas!

Gary & Sue Stratton

Next: Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s 

Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Journey to Life-Interpreting Story

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece




[1] Barry Holstun Lopez, Crow and Weasel (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990).

[2] Look for a future post on the fascinating relationship between worldview and film genre.

[3] Such as Academy Award nominees, The Robe (1953), and The Ten Commandments (1956), and Oscar-winner Ben-Hur (1959).

[4] Look for a future post on Gladiator.

[5] Flannery O’Connor, Robert Fitzgerald, and Sally Fitzgerald, Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961). Italics mine.

[6] Julian Caesar, “Letter to Arsacius,” Based in part on the translation of Edward J. Chinnock, A Few Notes on Julian and a Translation of His Public Letters (London: David Nutt, 1901) pp. 75-78 as quoted in D. Brendan Nagle and Stanley M. Burstein, The Ancient World: Readings in Social and Cultural History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Prentice Hall, 1995) pp. 314-315. Introduction and e-text copyright 2005 by David W. Koeller All rights reserved.

Capra’s Tale of a Depressed Idealist: It’s a Wonderful Life, Part 2, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

Part 6 of: Hollywood & Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

From a worldview perspective, George is asking God–who has never been more than an otherworldly ideal to him–to directly intervene in his physicalist world.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

The depressed idealist at home: “You call this a happy home? Why do we have to have all these kids?”

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) provides a wonderful expression of the complicated interplay between the macro-worlviews of Physicalism and Idealism as life-interpreting stories in the life of its main character, George Bailey. At the outset of the film George is caught in the vice between these two warring worldviews. He is an idealist at heart, anxious for freedom from the physicalism of running the family business where his father is trapped “spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe.”  However, after his father’s untimely death, his own idealistic commitment to save the Bailey Building and Loan locks George into an ongoing struggle between these two powerful worldviews. Day after day he labors in the physicalist world of dollars and cents, while steadfastly maintaining his idealistic commitment to honesty, compassion, and justice.

George is a typical modern in that he simply cannot resolve the tension between physicalism and idealism. While the intuited ideals passed to him by his family’s worldview are strong enough to shape his own life, the dualistic skepticism imparted to him by his broader culture is dissolving his confidence that his ideals are actually making any difference in the physical world. Even a lifelong romance with his ever-ebullient wife Mary (Donna Reed) isn’t enough to stem George’s growing angst.

Physicalism at its worst

It is important to recognize how Capra sets up the conflict between George Bailey and the main opposing character, Mr. Potter: “the wealthiest man in town.” Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is the very incarnation of physicalism in its most devastating form—nihilism. To him, there is no meaning in his universe save his own will to dominate others through the power of his wealth.  Early in the film, George contrasts his father’s idealist view of human beings with Potter’s nihilistic perspective:

George: People were human beings to him, but to you, 
 a warped frustrated old man, they're cattle.

To Potter, men like Peter and George Bailey and their “so called ideals” are simply poor businessmen unwilling to dominate those around them for self-gain. Their idealism is nothing but “sentimental hogwash!”

George the idealist is able to smell out and resist Potter’s financial temptations

Potter will stop at nothing to get his hands on the Building and Loan—coercion, intimidation, seduction.  Yet, nothing succeeds. As a “steadfast main character,” George holds onto his ideals despite of the growing physical proof that his ideals have failed him.

The film’s defining moment arrives when George’s business partner, Uncle Billy, loses a $8,000 bank deposit. (Actually, Potter steals it.) Crushed between the physicalist realities of “bankruptcy and scandal and prison.” George chooses the idealist value of self-sacrifice and takes the blame for the shortfall. Finally surrendering to Potter’s domination, George asks his wealthy enemy for a loan.  Seizing the moment, Potter not only refuses to help, he swears out a warrant for George’s arrest. But before he does, he trashes George’s entire life story in a devastating radical physicalist appraisal of the failure of George’s ideals:

Potter: You once called me a warped, frustrated old man. 
What are you but a warped, frustrated, young man? 
A miserable little clerk, crawling in here on your hands 
and knees and begging for help. No securities––no stocks––
no bonds––nothing but a miserable little $500 
equity in a life insurance policy. [laughs] 
You're worth more dead than alive.
George the depressed idealist pleads with Potter for his financial life.

With nowhere else to turn, George makes the ultimate Idealist leap and turns to the one person in Bedford Falls he hopes might be more powerful than Mr. Potter: God. For the first time we see that George’s ideals are rooted not just in his family’s story, but in the broader Christian story of a theistic worldview.  While he is “not a praying man,” George reaches out to the God whose story undergirds the ideals he lives by.

Idealism Breaking In

Don’t miss the courage of how Capra sets up the solution to George Bailey’s dilemma. From a worldview perspective, George is asking for the God–who has never been more than an otherworldly ideal to him–to intervene in the physicalist world.  He is not asking for strength and courage to live out his ideals through this dark hour (as noble and important as such a prayer might be), he is asking God to reach into the physical universe and change it. He is asking God to reach out of the circle of heaven and break into the box of the earth.

With nowhere else to turn, George prays for divine intervention

George’s prayer is the very essence of Biblical theism wherein idealism and physicalism are reconnected and redeemed. George is not asking for the subjective private truth of his ideals to prevail, he is asking for objective public proof that God is alive and active in the world. In the pre-dualistic language of Jesus, he is asking for a God to exert his rulership on the earth so that “his will is done on ( the physicalist) earth as it is in (idealist) heaven.”

What’s more, Capra has insured that the audience already knows what George doesn’t: God is listening! The movie opens, not only with George’s prayer, but also the countless prayers of his family and friends flooding heaven with petitions on his behalf. While the corny constellation graphics are a bit over the top and his human-turned-angel theology flawed, Capra makes certain that audience knows that the world he has constructed in his film is inhabited not merely by physical human beings, but God, and angels, and human souls.

It is NOT a merely a physicalist world. It is an idealist one as well. They are interconnected. When a despondent George drives to the bridge to end his own miserable failure of an idealistic life, the world of ideals breaks into the physical world in the person of one very star-crossed angel–Clarence.

Clarence: You've been given a great gift, George -- 
A chance to see what the world would be like without you.
God’s inbreaking? Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class

Needless to say, the rest of the film is slow and certain vindication of George’s idealist worldview in the physicalist world of sense perception. One-by-one, Clarence reinterprets George’s idealistic decisions on an even deeper level than George ever imagined.  George was just trying to the “right” thing. As it turns out, he was also doing the “world-changing” thing. Not only is God willing to break into the physical world by his actions; George Bailey is changing the outcome of the physical universe in the direction of the will of God by his own idealistic actions.

Capra’s vision expresses the heart and soul of Christian theistic idealism: the possibility of the knowledge of God being manifest not only in the private realm of subjective knowledge, but also in the public world of sense perception. Jesus taught his disciple to pray for the “public” manifestation of the compassion and power of God, because “through answered prayer Jesus’ students experienced God as alive and active in the physical world.” He not only proclaimed the reality of the unseen (idealist) kingdom of God, he demonstrated its reality in the (physicalist) world through supernatural answers to prayer. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.)

Divine “in-breaking” is a key element of  Capra’s film. Just as people could “know” that the kingdom of God was “breaking into” the kingdoms of this world through supernatural answers to prayer in Jesus’ ministry, George Bailey (and vicariously, Capra’s audience) “knows” (in Hebraic language, understands by experience) that God has broken into his world. Just as Jesus called for his followers to bet their lives on the “unseen” ideals of the kingdom on the basis of the “seen” supernatural interventions of God (John 14:11), so George Bailey reaffirms his commitment to his unseen ideals because of God’s physical intervention in his life. As Clarence concludes:

Clarence: You see George, you've really had a wonderful life. 
Don't you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?
George’s second prayer is the movie’s transforming moment

Capra’s moral premise is clear: despite strong physical evidence to the contrary, living in the light of idealism is “a wonderful life,” because those ideals are rooted in God himself. It is worth being an idealist even in a world dominated by physicalism, because as important as the physical world is, it is not all there is. They are interconnected in ways that George’s dualism (and skeptical hold upon his idealism) prevented him from ever imagining.  [1]

Next: It’s a Wonderful Life #3: The Courage to Live (and Create Art) Idealistically



[1] I am fairly confident that, like most artists, Capra intuited these worldview issues and expressed them in his art far beyond what he could have explained philosophically. For more insight into the concept of a “moral premise,” see, Stanley D. Williams, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006).

It’s a Wonderful Life: Frank Capra’s Worldview Masterpiece

Part 5 of:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

Like George Bailey and Ricky Gervais, we all eventually find ourselves wondering: Is there a reward for knowing and trying to do the right thing? (Either in heaven or on earth) Or, is it all a waste of time?

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

“Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer.” – Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais’s God jokes as host of  the last two Golden Globe Awards and his Wall Street Journal essay, “Why I’m An Atheist” provide perfect backdrops for examining one of Hollywood’s most famous attempts to defend Theism–It’s a Wonderful Life.  (Plus, it is one of my All-Time Favorite Christmas Movies.)

Hollywood legend Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life specifically to, in his words, “combat a modern trend toward atheism.” [1] This certainly appears to make Gervais his ideal target audience. Yet, Capra’s approach to combating atheism was in no way as simplistic as one would expect. It’s a Wonderful Life is not only one of the best Christmas movies of all time, it is also a remarkable example of using worldview conflict to construct a compelling story… and live a wonderful life. Students seeking to understand worldview and filmmakers seeking to make culture-influencing movies would be wise to pay careful attention.

Currently #20 on the presitigious American Film Academy's Top 100 All Time Movies
Currently #20 on the prestigious American Film Academy’s Top 100 All Time Movies

Ironically, much like its main character, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), It’s a Wonderful Life entered midlife as an apparent failure.[2] Before its release, Capra believed it to be his greatest film. However, after a disappointing box office, and a complete shut out at the Oscars,[3] Liberty Films didn’t even bother to renew the copyright for “Capra’s masterpiece” when it expired in 1974.

This lapse in judgment proved to be precisely the angelic intervention It’s a Wonderful Life needed. Television networks turned to the now public domain (i.e. “free”) film to fill their desperate need for cheap programming in the slow holiday season. Soon “a whole new generation of movie-lovers fell in love with the previously-obscure release.” [4] Capra had the last laugh when the film grew to become a beloved classic, now regarded by the American Film Institute as one of the 20 best films ever made.

Much of the greatness of It’s a Wonderful Life stems from Capra’s deliberate use of worldview conflict in the film. (Don’t worry, I won’t ruin your Christmas buzz with a bunch of philosophical mumbo-jumbo, but this first part is important). When philosophers speak of a “worldview” they actually mean more than one thing: micro-worldviews and macro-worldviews.[5]

At the micro level, a worldview is a description of the stories that shape the principles that support the conventions that an individual uses to make their daily decisions. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview). The problem is, nobody’s worldview is actually “personal.” While we each have unique experiences that form the backbone of the “story of our life,” we interpret these experiences through the stories transmitted to us by our larger cultures.[6] (See, Crash Goes the Worldview). Our personal micro-worldview rests within concentric circles of larger and larger macro-worldviews. In other words, (1) my (micro) worldview rests mostly within, (2) my family’s (slightly less micro) worldview, which rests mostly within (3) my sub-culture’s (even less micro) worldview, and (4) my current society’s (more macro) worldview, and (5) my historic civilization’s (macro) worldview.

While it is a gross oversimplification, you could say that the history of Western civilization has been comprised of the interplay of two key macro-worldviews: what I will call physicalism and idealism.

The ‘Box’ of Physicalism

Legendary Physicalist, Carl Sagan, “The universe is all there is and all there will ever be.”

Physicalism is a macro worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the physical world.[7] Physicalism starts with what you can see, feel, touch, and taste as the only “really real” things in the world.[8] If you can measure something’s length, weigh its mass, or quantify it in some way, then it is a reliable source of knowledge.

The worldview of physicalism can best symbolized by a BOX, because in physicalism the “closed system” of the material universe is pretty much all you can rely on. You can extrapolate from sense perceptions of the visible universe to a “spiritual” world, but every effect in the physical universe owes its existence to a cause within the physical universe. As cosmologist and the original host of Cosmos (PBS) put so eloquently, “The universe is all there is and all that there will ever be.”

This makes physicalism perfect for scientific experimentation. A laboratory technician wouldn’t be able to maintain a proper relationship between experimental variables if they had to account for factors from outside the physical universe messing with their data.  A medical researcher who used ‘angelic intervention’ as a factor in studying the effects of an antibiotic on staph infections would be laughed out of the scientific community. Good experiments require the “closed box” provided by physicalism.

Ricky Gervais’ Wall Street Journal essay is a beautiful example of using the logic of scientific physicalism to defend a broader philosophical proposition-namely atheism. Ricky explained the rationale for his lack of faith by asserting, “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe… (Science) bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence…” By “hard” evidence, Ricky means things you can touch, taste, see, and measure.  If there is no “hard” physicalist evidence for God, then he won’t believe it. It is a common position for modern physicalists (more below.)

The ‘Circle’ of Idealism

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) the transcendental idealist: "All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.”
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) the transcendental idealist: “All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.”

Idealism is a worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the world of ideas, values, spirits, and/or gods. Idealism starts with what you cannot see, touch, taste, see or feel as the only “really real” things in the world. You can’t weigh a pound of love, or measure a mile of justice, or put a soul in a beaker, yet idealists view these intuited unseen ideals as what really matters. As Immanuel Kant asserted, “All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.”

The worldview of idealism is best symbolized by a CIRCLE. Normally this circle surrounds the box of the physical universe, because in idealism the physical universe exists within the broader field of unseen realities.[9] This makes idealism perfect for, say, artists and lovers. Everyone “knows” that beauty and love are what make life worth living, even if you can’t quantify them. To reduce love to mere chemical reactions, or art to the properties of sculptor’s materials is neither romantic, inspiring, nor “real.”

Idealists look beyond the hard realities of the physical world and point to something they view as much more “real.” When the Beatles sing, “All you need is love,” or Jean Valjean declares in Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God,” they are giving voice to an idealist worldview. They are not appealing to hard physical evidence, but to an ideal so ‘intuitively true’ they need no “proof.” When Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” or MLK declared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” they were appealing to truth claims beyond the physical world and calling others toward them as ultimate realities.

A 2500-Year War

The struggle between these two worldviews is at least as old as the study of philosophy. Plato (and later Augustine and Kant) advocated for idealism, while Aristotle (and later Aquinas and Hume) sided with physicalism.  Neither side ever scored a decisive victory, yet the philosophical underpinnings of each era of Western history can often be described by the relationship between the two at a given cultural moment.

George Bailey: The young idealist years

For over 2000 years, Muslims, Jews, and Christians used both Idealism and Physicalism to support their faith. For Christians, the Hebraic worldview Jesus inherited from his Jewish heritage was more or less free from the dualism of having to choose between these two sources of knowledge. Truth was found both in the invisible God and in his visible creation. Faith-building and culture-making were therefore two sides of the same coin.

However, as the early church became less and less Jewish and more and more Greek, dualism began to plague the church. Idealism held the upper hand in ancient Greco-Roman society and nearly overwhelmed early Christianity with a radical form of Idealism known as Gnosticism. Augustine and other key thinkers restored sanity through a more moderate form of Idealism that helped salvage Christianity when the Roman empire fell. Physicalism began to gain serious traction in Middle Ages when both Muslims and Christians (such as Aquinas) began to use Aristotle’s physicalist philosophy to defend their faith. While increasingly disconnected by the “either-or” dualism of Greek thought, both idealism and physicalism remained key elements of both a God-centered view of the world as well as a number of attempts to support atheism.

The Rise of Radical Skepticism

Unfortunately, the Enlightenment gave birth to a “pervasive and astringent skepticism” that began to “dissolve” both Physicalism and Idealism (and any hope of reconnecting them.) [10] Physicalists lost confidence first in their sense perceptions, and then in their ability to extrapolate from the physical world into the spiritual. Idealists began to doubt that their own thoughts and intuitions were anything more than their own inventions (or the inventions of their community) so that there was no spiritual world “out there” only my own ideas and perspectives “in here.”

To skeptical Physicalists like Mr. Potter, the Idealistic world is nothing but, “Sentimental hogwash!”

Skepticism quickly demoted Idealism to the ranks of second class truth, enthroning a weakened and highly dualistic form of Physicalism at the center of Western thought. When a modern Westerner says that something is objectively true, we mean that it is true from a Physicalist perspective. It is something that can be verified with the physical senses.

By contrast, when we say that something is subjectively true we mean that it is “merely” an ideal–something that an individual subject (person) holds to be true, but which cannot be physically verified. Ideals are therefore second class citizens in the world of truth. Idealist (subjective) knowledge has been assigned to the back of the bus as “private” knowledge. While physicalist (objective) knowledge is driving the bus of “public” knowledge.

A Comedian’s Circular (Logic) Dilemma

Whether he realizes it or not, this is exactly why Ricky Gervais, like many physicalist moderns, has to so much trouble with Theism–it simply doesn’t make any sense from his starting point of skeptical physicalism. When Gervais exclaims, “People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence, and they certainly don’t want evidence to the contrary,” he is giving voice to an extremely common view of faith.  Those damnable believers are appealing to knowledge derived from outside the realm of physical verifiability. Gervais continues,

“Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer.”

And he’s right, of course, at least from a skeptical physicalist perspective.  Which is precisely the problem. He’s right back to where he started.

He begins with the presupposition that your physical senses are the only thing you can only trust, and ends up right thinking that anyone who believes in something you can’t access with your physical senses is crazy. As Gervais explains, “I don’t think there is a god, but belief in him does no harm. If it helps you in any way, then that’s fine with me.” In skeptical physicalist thinking, ideals might be personally helpful to some, but as truth-claims they are, “Sentimental Hogwash!

George Bailey ponders his failure at Gervais’s ideals, “It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life.”

However, even Gervais has to resort to idealism to guide how he actually lives his life. The same skeptical physicalism that can be so helpful in a laboratory, can be an extremely unsatisfying way of life. As James Davidson Hunter explains, “radical skepticism leading to radical nihilism is, of course, rare… for the simple reason that it is unlivable.”  Even Gervais resorts to very Idealist and Intuitive (and therefore unprovable) concepts of ‘right’ and ‘good’ in order to direct his life: “My reward is here and now. It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life.”

Enter George Bailey

Which is, of course, exactly what George Bailey is striving for in It’s a Wonderful Life. Like Gervais, George Bailey only wants to live a good life here and now. However, like most of us in the postmodern world, the crushing realities of skeptical physicalism are squeezing the life out of our weakened idealism.

Like George Bailey (and Ricky Gervais), we all eventually find ourselves wondering: Is there a reward for knowing and trying to do the right thing? (Either in heaven or on earth) Or, is it all a waste of time? Like Gervaise, we simply cannot reconcile belief in God with the ideals of truth and honesty we strive for. Like George Bailey, we simply cannot reconcile the ideals for which we live with the harsh realities of our day-to-day existence.

Caught in the vise between nihilistic physicalism and sentimental idealism there seems to be nowhere to turn.  Which is, of course, exactly where Capra wants us.

Next: Capra’s Tale of a Depressed Idealist, It’s a Wonderful Life, Part 2

See also

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s 

Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Journey to Life-Interpreting Story

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Deep Culture: Is Winning an Oscar a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

If you Live it, They Will Come: The Blind Side and Better Faith-Based Filmmaking


Related Posts

Using Zombie Movies to Teach Politics, by Daniel W. Drezner

The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles Bellinger

Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese: Scapegoats and Redemption on Shutter Island, by Cari Myers

Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in The Wrong Man, by David Humbert



[1] Stephen Cox, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Memory Book (Nashville, Tenn: Cumberland House, 2003), p. 27.

[2] Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich, James Stewart, Donna Reed, et al, It’s a Wonderful Life (Hollywood, Calif: Paramount Home Entertainment, 2006).

[3] Failing to win even a single Oscar despite nominations in the five categories

[4] James Berardinelli,

[5] Or rather, two ways of looking at the same thing.

[6] These society-wide macro worldviews exert a tremendous influence on our daily lives, even when we aren’t aware of them.

[7] How we know things, or “epistemology.”

[8] James W. Sire identifies nine macro worldviews currently influencing Western culture: predominantly physicalist worldviews, such as Naturalism, Nihilism, and Post-modernism; Predominantly idealist worldviews such as, Christian Theism, Islamic Theism and Eastern Pantheistic Monism, and hybrids, such as Existentialism, Deism, and the New Age movement. The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog(Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

[9] In worldviews such as Monism, the circle actually subsumes the box.

[10] See James Davidson Hunter’s masterful take on “dissolution” in To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 205-210.

Shutter Island: Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese, by Cari Myers

Scapegoats and Redemption

The closer the relationship between the people competing for the same object, the more potential exists for a violent outcome

by Cari Myers • Iliff School of Theology

Part of 3 series: René Girard: Greatest Christian Intellectual You Never Heard of


Summary of René Girard’s Theory

The mimetic model begins with human need – an inherent “lack” within an individual and the search to meet that need.[1] When faced with an initial need or lack, the individual selects a model to imitate in order to gain what the individual requires. At this point, a person has two choices: to imitate God or to imitate another. Put plainly, why would a human choose to follow another human and not God in order to fill this void? Is this not a clear choice?  Charles Bellinger gives a persuasive answer:

The deeper, truer, more mature form of selfhood is a possibility toward which God is always drawing the individual. But insofar as the individual is actively resisting the call of creation, he is existing in a state of inner conflict. He loves himself and seeks to maintain control over his own selfhood, and he hates the pressure that is being placed upon him to become a more mature person…. the sinful human being becomes immensely frustrated at his inability to prevent his creation. In his anger over his inability to kill his deeper self, he develops a need to kill other human beings. He subconsciously construes the other person as a representation of that which he is trying to kill within himself….To attack the Other, the Enemy, becomes a psychological need for the sinful person, as he seeks to avoid becoming another to himself, that is, a new self. The most basic root of ill will toward others is ill will toward the self that one is in the process of becoming.[2] (See also, Bellinger’s The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight)

‘Shutter Island’ (2010) starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo was Martin Scorsese’s second highest-grossing film ($128M), behind only Oscar-winner, ‘The Departed.’

Humans are never completely formed, finished, and perfected. The path of humanity is one of growth and progress. Only Yahweh can say, “I AM.”[3] The rest of us may only say, “I become.” How humans respond to their unformed nature determines their path. We may turn to God and allow God to form and shape us or we may turn to others and look for what they have that we have not in an effort to seek our own completion. If we choose to turn to another human as the model for the next step in our own personal evolution, we seek someone who seems to encompass what we lack. What remains is the question about our perception of our own lack – how do we know we are missing something?

Are these needs natural innate needs all humans share, or are these socially constructed “needs,” things that a human does not physiologically or emotionally need, but only perceives to need? Is the difference really significant? Perhaps there is a preliminary step required in which we examine how we perceive our needs, and how we distinguish between needs and wants. For now, let us simply begin with the observation that all humans have needs, and we may either choose to follow God and allow God to form us or we may turn to other humans and seek to obtain what they have that we have not. Beginning the mechanism at this point answers the question, “Why do we copy the desires of others?” The inner emptiness of each human inspires the mimetic process.

From Comparison to Rivalry

Mimesis is the awareness that someone else has something that I believe I need and begins with a game of comparison. I examine my situation and my state of being to assess what I believe is missing. I then see another person and compare her situation and my perception of her state of being, and assess what she has that I need. I will then take steps to obtain what she has or wants, and imitate her in some way in order to obtain it.[4]

Mimetic desire is a “pharmakon” – both a medicine and a poison that can either create illness or cure it.

This portion of the theory describes the driving force behind the effectiveness of advertising and much of the social construction of trends, fashion, technology, education, romance, and friendships. If a famous and stylish celebrity is photographed carrying a designer lunchbox, one may be sure there will be a waiting list for that very lunchbox the next day. One needs only step in the halls of a local school or turn on the TV to see the mimetic desire at work.

Mimesis may be either positive or negative, depending on the being one imitates. If one chooses to imitate Jesus, mimetic desire may be very positive: “What Jesus advocates is mimetic desire. Imitate me, and imitate the father through me….the only way to avoid violence is to imitate me, and imitate the Father.”[5] Girard declares that mimetic desire is a “pharmakon – a medicine and a poison”[6] and can either create illness or cure it. When a person chooses another to imitate, he or she must choose wisely or come to ruin.

Two Types of Rivalry

When more than one person desires an object, a rivalry is born. This rivalry for the same object leads to envy, competition, and conflict. A mediator is the person with whom I am in mimetic relationship. This person, my rival, mediates reality to me. This makes us “interdividuals;” our identity is construed by the other or model, and we are a conglomerate of mimetic relationships.7

There are two types of rivalry at work here: internal and external. External mediation exists “when the distance is sufficient to eliminate any contact between the two spheres of possibilities of which the mediator and the subject occupy the respective centers.”8  External mediation exists when an eighth grade girl idolizes a pop star and copies the star’s wardrobe, haircut, and mannerisms. The possibilities for contact, or even actual awareness, between the girl and the star are minimal. Internal mediation exists when “this same distance is sufficiently reduced to allow these two spheres to penetrate each other more or less profoundly.”9

The closer the relationship between the people competing for the same object, the more potential exists for a violent outcome.

Brotherhood and Violence

In both secular and biblical literature, the theme of warring brothers or twins is rampant.10 Perhaps because the relationship is more intimate and has greater value for each participant, the dissolution of a close relationship would necessarily require greater violence. At some point in a relationship of this nature involved in a mimetic rivalry, the members must decide whether the object of their desire is more important than the relationship with the other. Perhaps this is the greatest act of violence – that break with the other and the replacement of an object where a person once stood. Girard goes on to clarify that “the distance between mediator and subject is primarily spiritual,”11 and while geography may be one factor, it is not the sole factor in rivalry. Expanding the relational dimension to the spiritual plane creates an even greater arena for rivalry – and introduces the concept of rivalry with one’s self.

In both secular and biblical literature, the theme of warring brothers or twins is rampant.

Eventually, mimetic rivalry leads to acts of violence, and peace may only be restored through the use of a scapegoat. In a real rivalry, both sides are both aggressor and victim, and the violence escalates to become all-encompassing. In order to stem the cycle of violence, the rivals, be they individuals or communities, must find a victim to carry the responsibility of the conflict: a scapegoat. Girard describes the function of the scapegoat within the mimetic process as follows: “The desire to commit an act of violence on those near us cannot be suppressed without a conflict; we must divert that impulse, therefore, toward the sacrificial victim, the creature we can strike down without fear of reprisal, since he lacks a champion.”12 The scapegoat must exhibit some weakness or vulnerability, or bear some marker that sets him or her apart from the rest of the culture.

The sacrificial scapegoat has several functions within the rival communities, but primarily the scapegoat serves to “restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric.”13 The sacrifice must “quell violence within the community to prevent conflicts from erupting.”14 Through the use of a scapegoat, societal violence may be avoided because “the sacrifice serves to protect the entire community from its own violence; it prompts the community to choose victims from outside itself.”15 The community is united through the establishment of a common enemy.

The Innocent Victim

In a hospital for people society thinks are beyond saving, Teddy is the scapegoat and the most violent of all the patients who have ever visited Shutter Island.

The actual guilt or innocence of the scapegoat is inconsequential. The community must perceive the victim as potentially guilty, and the community must remain ignorant of its establishment of a sacrificial victim. The community must believe that the scapegoat carries the responsibility for all the community conflicts so that the destruction of the scapegoat will bring peace. If members of the community recognized that they themselves were responsible for the conflict and violence as a result of mimetic desire, violence would overlap all Girard recognizes that the Bible reveals mimetic desire and scapegoating, and that God sides with the innocent victim. Satan is the scapegoat mechanism16 and serves as a skandalon,17 or stumbling block, an idea that will become critical later.

Jesus became God’s instrument against violence to save us from our own faulty system. Girard declares that “the Gospels tell us that to escape violence it is necessary to love one’s brother [sic] completely – to abandon the violent mimesis involved in the relationship of doubles.”18 Jesus is the only human who ever achieved this goal and was “the only man who has nothing to do with violence and its works.”19  Therefore, Jesus was not a sacrifice killed on the cross because a blood-thirsty God demanded death to appease God’s wrath. Instead, “Jesus has to die because continuing to live would mean a compromise with violence.”20 Mark Heim takes up this hopeful idea and further states,

Blood is not acceptable to God as a means of uniting human community or a price for God’s favor. Christ sheds his own blood to end that way of trying to mend our divisions. Jesus’s death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our [humanity’s] equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours. God used our own sin to save us.21 The long-held misunderstanding of the wrathful violence of God and the victimization of humanity is corrected as the wrathful violence of humanity and the salvific victimization of God. It is not God’s blood-lust that must be appeased by sacrifice, it is ours. And only the Son of God can save us from ourselves.


Echoes of Girard in the films of Martin Scorsese

Scorsese saw two career options before him, “organized crime and the church.”

Martin Scorsese was born and raised in New York City to two Sicilian immigrants. Both parents worked in the garment district and raised their children surrounded by Italian American family and friends. The cohesion of family and community was of utmost importance, as was a shared faith through the Catholic Church. [22] Many elements of Scorsese’s childhood inspired his interest in film. In addition to his faith and community, primary among these early influences was his poor health and his lack of contact with books. [23]

Young Scorsese’s daily life involved gangs and gangsters, priests and nuns. This social situation created a specific foundation from which all of Scorsese’s movies would stem: “Growing up in this neighborhood exposed the young Scorsese to two different, indeed opposite, kinds of role models – that is, men who had power – whom he could strive to emulate: the petty criminals on one hand, and the priests, on the other.” [24] Scorsese saw two career options before him, “organized crime and the church.” [25] Scorsese chose the priesthood but flunked out of seminary after one year, disillusioned and frustrated by the hypocrisy, intolerance, dogma, and moral ambiguity he claims he experienced in the Catholic Church. [26]

Scorsese still declares himself a Christian, but one on a “quest for non-institutionalized religious experience.” He believes that “living the good life is practicing the tenets of Christianity through love, rather than making Mass on Sunday. You don’t make up for your sins in church, you make up for them in the street.” 27 Due to this formative environment, the themes of power, corruption, the outsider, the sacred, violence and redemption would permeate his films.

Girardian Themes

Enemy brothers Jake (Robert De Niro) Joey (Joe Pesci) LaMotta in ‘Raging Bull.’ (United Artists, 1980)

Martin Scorsese is a revisionist like the best directors, and he reworks preexisting themes with fresh insight.28 Intentional or not, the constructs of Rene Girard seem to occur frequently in the films of Scorsese. Indeed, “the value of Girard’s schema to Scorsese’s Italian American films is that their religious, social, and cultural values… provide an especially rich and dramatic breeding ground for the phenomena Girard describes.”29

While Girard and Scorsese share many themes, primary to this study are the portrayal of the social value of rituals and scapegoats, close brothers or twins, and mimetic violence. Girard describes the function of the ritual of sacrifice as “a collective action of the entire community, which purifies itself of its own disorder through the unanimous immolation of a victim, but this can only happen at the paroxysm of the ritual crisis.”30 For Girard, the ritual serves to temporarily reconcile and reorder the community, to “’trick’ violence into spending itself on victims whose death will provoke no reprisals,”31 but eventually the community will collapse back into mimetic rivalry and require another scapegoat.

Scorsese makes sure to draw distinctions between ritual mimetic violence and the church, often contrasting the sacred and the violent: “Mediated by priests, ritual is the controlled mimesis, in disguised form, of the crisis that issued in peace and harmony,”32 which in the end fails to control the spread of violence in the community.33 For both Girard and Scorsese, ritual is important for negotiating social order but in the end only serves to perpetuate the cycle of violence.

Girard and Scorsese both give emotional weight to the cost of mimetic violence through an examination of the motif of feuding brothers or twins:

The proliferation of enemy brothers in Greek myth and in dramatic adaptations of myth implies the continual presence of a sacrificial crisis, repeatedly alluded to in the same symbolic terms. The fraternal theme is no less ‘contagious’ qua theme for being buried deep within the text than is the malevolent violence that accompanies it. In fact, the theme itself is a form of violence.34

Enemy Brothers

Again, a closer relationship between the rivals provides the opportunity for greater potential violence. “Enemy brothers” may be here a symbolic term for people in a close mimetic relationship such that “in their repetitive, unacknowledged imitation of each other, the rivals have unwittingly become each other’s doubles. As their envious rivalry intensifies, they forget the original objects of their desire and become absorbed in the mimetic conflict to the point of actual violence.”35 Scorsese examines this fraternal internal mediation in several films. To name a few, in Raging Bull there are Jake and Joey, in Mean Streets there are Tony, Michael and Charlie, and in Casino there are Ace and Nicky. Within the Scorsese collection, “these feuding fraternal ‘doubles’ symbolize the collapse of familial, social, and ritual order through undifferentiated violence.”36

Often, these fraternal groups are childhood friends if not actual relatives, and in more recent movies, such as The Departed and Shutter Island, Scorsese has begun to explore even more intimate conflicting doubles: dual identities, such as the conflict between the undercover cop embedded in the mob (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the police detective on the mob’s payroll (Matt Damon) in the The Departed clip below. (Warning: STRONG language.)


The Nature of Violence and the Cross 

In almost all of his films, Scorsese asks very difficult questions about the nature of violence, and mimetic phenomena and undifferentiated violence are very common in Scorsese’s films:

As Lucifer challenged God, his model, for his possessions, so in Scorsese’s films those who pretend to god-like autonomy are bound to attract not only imitators but violent rivals. Just as the rivalry between God and Satan caused the angelic host to divide themselves into factions, so in Scorsese’s cinematic world such rivalries draw other people within their violent orbit…. With the spread of random undifferentiated violence, more and more people are endangered, formerly accepted limits and boundaries collapse, and a small scale example of sacrificial crisis, complete with doubles of violence, comes into being. This situation typifies the climactic moments of several of Scorsese’s films.37

A Scorsese film is ripe with violent rivalries and doubles, and the violence increases into ever-widening circles throughout the film until the climax where, finally, the violence is “resolved” in one final great act of violence. With the ease of cinema, this final act brings resolution to the cycle of violence, rolling the credits over the real-life consequence of an even greater violence coming to life in response: “Their (Scorsese films) essential rhythm is that of a world which, beginning in comparative order however precarious and threatened, gradually spins out of control through violence and desire.” [38] Because of this rhythm, one of Scorsese’s primary totems, among many, is the wheel or circle, representing this cycle of violence. [39] Other Scorsese symbols of violence include the mirror or reflective surfaces and twins or close brothers to point to the mimetic rivalry or double mediation. [40]

A Non-Girardian Conclusion

In ‘Shutter Island’ the feuding brothers theory from Greek mythology has reached a point of extremes so that the dualities have collapsed in on themselves and have become feuding identities within one person.

The gulf between Girard and Scorsese opens in this violent climactic moment of Scorsese films. In the Scorsese library, violence solves violence. There is good violence and bad violence, and the good drives out the bad.41 In some films, “when violence has been allowed to proliferate, its increasing scope and randomness paradoxically hold out the possibility that the next victim will be the last, and that the seemingly uncontrollable crisis will then miraculously come to a halt.” [42] The scapegoat in the film has served its purpose, for the time being, but once the cycle has begun, Scorsese illustrates that “expulsive violence of whatever type cannot pacify society in the long run, so that the violent cycles must begin again.”[43] As Girard so clearly explains, “the culture born of violence must return to violence.”[44]

It seems that Scorsese still believes in a blood-thirsty God who destroyed bad violence with good violence on the Cross and professes redemptive violence is the answer:

Violence can be redeemed from senselessness to purpose, and can have a redemptive effect on others, both the perpetrators and recipient. It does, and must, always function like a parable, to shock and subvert our preconceptions, not for mere effect, but to change our perceptions and reactions, in particular those which many religious traditions often offer us and leave is simply comfortable. [45]

Therefore, most of the Scorsese library includes a Christ-figure of some kind, who disrupts the cycle of violence, at least temporarily. Scorsese, a man fundamentally formed and surrounded by violence, does not understand the Girardian Christ: “To recognize Christ as God is to recognize him as the only being capable of rising above the violence that had, up to that point, absolutely transcended mankind. Violence is the controlling agent in every form of mythic or cultural structure, and Christ is the only agent who is capable of escaping from these structures and freeing us from their dominance.”46 For Scorsese, all are trapped in the cycle of violence, especially Jesus. The best we can hope for is for more good than bad violence.


Shutter Island (***Spolier Alert***)

What first appears to be a classic horror film (voted #7 on Business Insiders Highest Grossing Scary Movies of All Time), turns out to be so much more. A story of violent scapegoating of Girardian proportions.

While it is unlikely that Scorsese intentionally includes Girardian themes, it is reasonable to suggest that Girard and Scorsese drew their themes, tropes, and constructs from the same canon. In the opening scenes of Shutter Island, [47] one of the guards (John Carroll Lynch) describes the psychological and medical rituals on Shutter Island. Normally, the criminally insane are “treated” with shock therapy, sensory deprivation, lobotomy, pharmacology, and ice water baths. On Shutter Island however, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is trying something different. As the guard explains, Ashecliffe is unique, the “only facility like it in the world. We take the most damaged, dangerous patients. The ones no one else can manage. It’s a hospital for people our society normally thinks are beyond saving.”48

“I have this radical idea that if you treat a patient with respect, listen to him, and try to understand him, you might just reach him.” -Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley)

Dr. Cawley believes that where mental illness is concerned, what should be a last resort has become a first response. “I have this radical idea,” he explains to Marshalls Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Aule (Mark Ruffalo), “that if you treat a patient with respect, listen to him, and try to understand him, you might just reach him.”49 Therefore, the new rituals at Shutter Island surrounding the mentally disturbed include the prohibition of chains indoors, mandatory small group sessions and private therapy with a primary care giver, strict schedules, productive work assignments, and medication only when absolutely necessary. Also, staff and visitors are to address the residents as patients, not prisoners.

The End of Scapegoating

Dr. Cawley is trying to revolutionize psychological treatment for the criminally insane and is attempting to interrupt the scapegoating mechanism of larger society. Shutter Island is a three-fold community of scapegoats. Ashecliffe hospital is on an island about 11 miles from the mainland and is accessible only by one ferry controlled by the authorities on the island. The entire island is populated only by those who are too unsafe to mingle with the general population, those who are trying to cure them, and those who keep law and order on the island.

Unlike Dr. Cawley, Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow) believes Teddy is irredeemable, a monster who must be stopped.

The island is an autonomous police state, where the warden is the supreme authority. Within Ashecliffe, there are three residences for the patients. Complex A is for the men, Complex B is for the women, and Complex C, an old military fort, is the home of the most violent offenders, who serve as scapegoats of this community. The patients in Complex C are the most violent among the violent, those who cannot be trusted within the limited larger populace of the facility, and therefore never leave their cells unless accompanied personally by a guard. The Complex C patients are those largely responsible for the dim reputation of Ashecliffe, and as the “worst” patients they experience the “worst” conditions. While Complexes A and B are a hospital, Complex C is a prison. Of these patients in Complex C, Teddy is the scapegoat of even these and is the most violent of all the patients who have ever visited Ashecliffe.

The Role Play to End All Role Plays

Dr. Sheehan (Mark Ruffalo) agrees with Dr. Cawley and helps construct a remarkable role play to help Teddy face the truth about himself and violence.

Because of this reason, the elaborate role play developed by Drs. Cowley and Sheehan (Mark Ruffalo) is Teddy’s last hope of survival. Drs. Cowley and Sheehan believe that Teddy is not a hopeless case because as Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) clarifies, Teddy is a man of violence, not a violent man. They are two very different things. [50] Teddy is a man of violence because of trauma he has experienced and witnessed, not because he enjoys violence. The trauma is Teddy’s fundamental wound, his “lack.” The initial events that wounded him occurred because he fell under the wheels of a violent cycle – war and mental disease. After watching the camp commandant at Dachau botch his own suicide and die slowly, Teddy killed the camp guards because he was ordered to. Teddy confesses that this act “wasn’t warfare, it was murder.”51

His wife killed their children by drowning them in a lake, so he killed her because she asked him to. He lacks peace and absolution, and he is so burdened by guilt and pain that he creates an elaborate fantasy to escape. Teddy’s reality clashes with his fantasy in his dreams, when he speaks with his dead wife and children, wet from lake water, and relives the liberation of Dachau. As Dr. Naehring, a German doctor at Ashecliffe, describes it:

“Did you know that the word ‘trauma’ comes from the Greek for ‘wound’? Hm? And what is the German word for ‘dream’? Traum. Ein Traum. Wounds can create monsters, and you, you are wounded, Marshal.” [52]

Dr. Naehring believes Teddy is irredeemable, a monster who must be stopped, a monster whose death or immobilization will once again bring a measure of peace to Shutter Island, at least for the time being.

Dr. Naehring : “Do you believe in God?”

Teddy:  “You ever seen a death camp?” 53

 The intersection of the sacred and mimetic violence

The iconic “violence speech”of Shutter Island’s warden (Ted Levine) could be inserted into any number of Scorsese films with only minimal changes.

The prison warden is the only person on the island who might be a match for Teddy. The warden (Ted Levine) is a menacing presence throughout the film but only has two minutes of dialogue, all in one scene. The “violence speech” of the warden is iconic and could be lifted out of Shutter Island and inserted into any number of Scorsese films with only minimal changes. The conversation between Teddy and the warden takes place after a hurricane hits Shutter Island and has apparently sent a tree into the warden’s living room. The warden finds Teddy walking down a road, having been missing from the facility over night and lost his partner, Marshall Chuck Aule, who is in reality Dr. Sheehan. I include the conversation in total here as it describes the intersection between the sacred and mimetic violence as a major theme not only for Shutter Island but for Scorsese’s entire film collection as well:

Warden: Did you enjoy God’s latest gift?

Teddy: What?

Warden: God’s gift. Your violence. When I came downstairs in my home, and I saw that tree in my living room, it reached out for me… a divine hand. God loves violence.

Teddy: I… I hadn’t noticed.

Warden: Sure you have. Why else would there be so much of it? It’s in us. It’s what we are. We wage war, we burn sacrifices, and pillage and plunder and tear at the flesh of our brothers. And why? Because God gave us violence to wage in his honor.

Teddy: I thought God gave us moral order.

Warden: There’s no moral order as pure as this storm. There’s no moral order at all. There’s just this: can my violence conquer yours? You’re as violent as they come. I know this, because I’m as violent as they come. If the constraints of society were lifted, and I was all that stood between you and a meal, you would crack my skull with a rock and eat my meaty parts. Wouldn’t you? Cawley thinks you’re harmless and that you can be controlled, but I know different.

Teddy: You don’t know me.

Warden: Oh but I do. We’ve known each other for centuries. If I was to sink my teeth into your eye right now, would you be able to stop me before I blinded you?

Teddy: Give it a try.

Warden: That’s the spirit. [54]

Can Violence be Harnessed?

Because both the warden and Teddy have witnessed great violence and committed great acts of violence, they are men of great violence. Perhaps no one on Shutter Island can understand Teddy the way the warden can, but the warden has chosen the path of embracing his violence as a gift from God. Because the warden can be the most violent man in his community, he believes he is the most blessed man. This characterization calls to mind the gangsters and organized violence Scorsese was surrounded by as a child.55 Those who were the most violent had the most privileges and prestige.

But the warden does not recognize that he has become defined by his violent nature; he believes he has harnessed his violence to serve him. The warden is a violent man. Teddy is still struggling within this distinction set by Dr. Neuring and sees himself as only a man of violence. As Dr. Cowley describes it:

“In your story you’re not a murderer but a hero. Your crime is terrible. One you’ll never forgive yourself for, so you’ve invented another self.” [56]

Teddy is lacking absolution and forgiveness – this is what he seeks. The warden is no longer concerned with forgiveness as he has embraced his violence to the point of fundamental identity.

The mimesis then occurs because Teddy knows of no other way to function than through violence. Violence is his mimesis, which only leads to more violence. Because of his experienced trauma, Teddy labors in a cycle of centripetal violence that has finally turned in against himself in the dual identities he has created. In Shutter Island, the feuding brothers theory from Greek mythology has reached a point of extremes so that the dualities have collapsed in on themselves and have become feuding identities within one person. In his hatred of himself and the violence both he and his wife committed, he has created a twin, an alternate personality for both himself and his wife; Andrew Laeddis is an anagram of Edward Daniels, and Rachel Solando is an anagram of Dolores Chanal. In fact, Shutter Island is itself an anagram for Truth and Lies as well as Truths/Denials. Scorsese consistently points to these dualities by means of reflective surfaces – bodies of water, glass, and even a flask. Scorsese also keeps the air around Teddy full of objects for the first two thirds of the movie, with rain or dripping water, snow, ash, papers, and sparks, perhaps to reference the illusion within the cluttered, confused mind of Teddy.

Breaking the Cycle of Violence?

When Teddy witnessed the piles of frozen bodies at Dachau, the pure evil existing within the holocaust “rubbed off” on him.

The cycle of violence is one of the guiding questions of the film – how does one break a cycle of violence? Can one break a cycle of violence? Who is the greatest victim of violence – the victim, the aggressor, or the witness? Was it only after the war, the liberation of Dachau, and the death of his family that Teddy began responding violently, or was he always like that? Is there transference of violence taking place within the close contact of evil? Mark Heim associates Satan with the “parasitic activity” of the evil of sacrifice and the “disease of human conflict.” 57 These images of Satan define how the cycle of violence is perpetuated among humans – it is contagious via mimetic desire. Evil can be transferred via contact with a violent act, however we define it. Teddy himself jokingly references this possibility when he first arrives on Shutter Island: “You act like insanity is catching.”58

Is Insanity is Contagious?

When Teddy witnessed the piles of frozen bodies at Dachau, the pure evil existing within the holocaust “rubbed off” on him, so that when he witnessed the deaths of his children at the hands of his wife, his response was to kill her. Would it have been possible for Teddy to witness such evil and to participate in such acts of violence but not become a violent person? It is no surprise that a human who has experienced violence in any respect will, thereafter, instinctively respond to threat or conflict violently. It becomes inherent – we catch the disease. Is this idea of vampiric violence universal and unavoidable? Heim believes there is another way:

Is evil automatically transferred (i.e., we become violent) whenever we are victims, perpetrators or observers of violence? All of these have powerful contagious effects, but they are not automatic or inevitable. There are powerful, contagious positive models and contagions also. Christ and the Holy Spirit are such. But without such countervailing forces, it is very easy to catch the disease.59

Teddy’s problem is that he has had so few counteracting positive forces. For many soldiers returning from a war, perhaps an intact, healthy family, or a strong faith community of some sort, would have been sufficient to fight this transference of evil. Teddy’s family failed to be a “positive contagious model” for him and therefore served only to push him further into the evil disease of violence.


Dolores (Denise Williams) becomes Teddy’s ‘skandalon’ (Satan) who keeps appearing to him in hallucinations and dreams encouraging him to embrace the illusion he has created for himself.

Throughout the film, Dolores keeps appearing to Teddy in hallucinations and dreams, encouraging him to leave the island, to search for Laeddis, to search for Rachel, and to embrace the illusion he has created for himself. These actions are significant as Delores serves, in the Girardian sense, as Teddy’s skandalon in the film. Girard defines skandalon as a Greek word used in the Gospels often synonymous with Satan, or “the living obstacle that trips men up, the mimetic model insofar as it becomes a rival that lies across our path.”60 Girard goes on to say that “the skandalon designates a very common inability to walk away from mimetic rivalry which turns it into an addiction. The skandalon is anything that attracts us in proportion to the suffering or irritation that it causes us.”61 In almost every scene with Dolores and Teddy, Dolores is wet with lake water and begins to bleed from the stomach or burn into ashes, even as Teddy holds her and weeps over her loss.

As the person Teddy has loved the most, she is now the being who helps him the least, and keeps sending him back into the cycle of violence with instructions to kill Laeddis,62 to keep searching for Rachel,63 and to avoid the lighthouse64 (where the truth lies). Dolores’s power over Teddy is directly proportional to his love for her and his guilt over her death, and over his failure to help her with her own mental illness, which led to the deaths of their children. Teddy’s visions and dreams of Dolores are both wish fulfillment and penance, as it tortures him and appeases him to see her, even as she asks him to let her go.65

Remember us, for we too have lived, loved and laughed.


The penultimate scene of Shutter Island leaves us with hope that Teddy has recovered. He recognizes his real identity and can describe the world and personalities he has created. He asks for help, and confesses his crimes. But in the last scene, he is back to addressing Dr. Sheehan as Chuck, and declaring that something is amiss on Shutter Island and they must find out what it is. Sheehan turns to Drs. Cawley and Naehring and the warden, barely shaking his head, thus giving the signal for Teddy to receive a lobotomy. As the orderlies approach Dr. Sheehan and Teddy, Teddy turns to Dr. Sheehan and asks, “Which would be worse – to live as a monster? Or to die as a good man?”67

Scorsese leaves the possibility open that Teddy has chosen to sacrifice himself, thus casting Teddy as a sort of Scorsesian “Christ-figure” who sacrifices himself to save others, even if he is saving them from himself. Perhaps Scorsese would argue that this sacrifice is a form of “good violence,” which answers the warden’s question, “Can my violence conquer yours?” with a resounding “yes” as Teddy inflicts the violence upon himself. If this conclusion is in fact Scorsese’s position, then Scorsese is still missing Girard’s point that violence, particularly institutional violence, only satisfies society for a time and then begins the cycle again. Violence only begets violence. There are always more violent offenders.


Next post in the series: Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in ‘The Wrong Man’



Cari Myers received a BA in English Literature from Pepperdine University, an MA in Youth and Family Ministry from Abilene Christian University, and an MTS from Brite Divinity at Texas Christian University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Religion and Social Change at the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology. Her research focus is in Latino/a studies, specifically in Latino/a youth culture.  A version of this essay first appeared in The Journal of Religion and Film. Used by permission.



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Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Graham, David John. “Redeeming Violence in the Films of Martin Scorsese.” In Explorations in Theology and

Film: Movies and Meaning. ed. Clive Marsh, Gaye Williams Ortiz. 87-96. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997.

Heim, Mark. Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross. Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006.

Miliora, Maria. The Scorsese Psyche on Screen. Jefferson, N. Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004.

Shutter Island. DVD. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Hollywood: Paramount, 2010.


[1] Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977,) 145.
[2] Charles Bellinger, The Genealogy of Violence, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 67.
[3] Exodus 3:14, NRSV.
[4] Rene Girard, The Girard Reader, (New York: Crossroad Herder, 1996) p. 39-42.
[5] Girard, Reader, p. 63.
[6] Girard, Reader, p. 63.
7 Girard, Reader, 291.
8 Girard, Reader, 39.
9 Girard, Reader, 39.
10 Girard, Reader, 74, 146.
11 Girard, Reader, 74, 146.
12 Girard, Reader, 83.
13 Girard, Reader, 78.
14 Girard, Reader, 83.
15 Girard, Reader, 77.
16 Girard, Reader, 161,
17 Girard, Reader, 198.
18 Girard, Reader, 189.
19 Girard, Reader, 186.
20 Girard, Reader, 187.
21 Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006) xi.
22 Maria Miliora, The Scorsese Psyche on Screen, (Jefferson, N. Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004) 12.
23 Robert Casillo, Gangster Priest: The Italian Cinema of Martin Scorsese, (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2006)
24 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 15.
25 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 93.
26 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 96-97.
27 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 97.
28 John David Graham, “Redeeming Violence in the Films of Martin Scorsese,” In Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning, ed. Clive Marsh, Gaye Williams Ortiz (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997), 89.
29 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 108.
30 Rene Girard, The Girard Reader, 11.
31 Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 37-38.
32 Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 105.
33 Girard, Violence and the Sacred 212.
34 Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 64.
35 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 103-4.
36 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 254.
37 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 114.
38 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 120.
39 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 120.
40 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 118, 157, 254.
41 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 121.
42 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 121.
43 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 122.
44 Rene Girard, The Girard Reader, 150.
45 John David Graham, “Redeeming Violence in the Films of Martin Scorsese,” 93.
46 Rene Girard, The Girard Reader, 193.
47 Shutter Island, “Scene 2”.
48 Shutter Island, “Scene 2”.
49 Shutter Island, “Scene 5”.
50 Shutter Island, “Scene 4”.
51 Shutter Island, “Scene 7”.
52 Shutter Island, “Scene 15”.
53 Shutter Island, “Scene 4”.
54 Shutter Island, “Scene 14”.
55 Miliora, The Scorsese Psyche on Screen, 15.
56 Shutter Island, “Scene 16”.
57 Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, 149.
58 Shutter Island, “Scene 2”.
59 Mark Heim, email response to author, July 27, 2011.
60 Girard, Reader, 161.
61 Girard, Reader, 161
62 Shutter Island, “Scene 9”.
63 Shutter Island, “Scene 5”.
64 Shutter Island, “Scenes 15 and 16”.
65 Shutter Island, “Scene 5”.
66 Shutter Island, “Scene 2”.
67 Shutter Island, “Scene 19”.



Sony Strips Most Christian References from ‘The Vow’: Artistic Decision, or Biased Filmmaking?

Real-life couple from ‘The Vow’ says it ‘would have been nice’ to see Christian references in film


#1 Box Office Surprise THE VOW "Inspired by true events" curiously stripped of their Christian context

Based on the love story of two devout Christians, the movie version of “The Vow,” starring Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum, strips the tale of its overt religious themes, which has some Christian reviewers concerned.

The film is based on the true life story and book, “The Vow” by Kim and Krickitt Carpenter, which draws heavily on that couple’s Christian beliefs and the power of God to heal and shepherd a marriage through difficult times.

The book tells the story of  Kim and Krickitt, who met and fell in love over a long distance phone call in 1992, bonded over their Christian faith, and were married a very short time later. Just 10 weeks into their marriage, the couple survived a terrible car wreck that left Krickitt in a coma with severe head trauma. Upon waking, Krickitt experienced amnesia and was essentially married to a stranger, forgetting the last 18 months of her life.

Throughout the book, it is the couple’s religious belief in the unbreakable vow of marriage that keeps them together.

“You make a promise before God with your wedding vows,” Krickitt Carpenter told “You have to take that seriously.”

The studio version of the Carpenter’s marriage, however, strips the couple of their Christianity.

“The movie doesn’t talk about faith significantly. It would have been nice to see more of it,” Kim Carpenter told “The first book we wrote was extremely embedded in our faith, but I think the movie does depict the inspiration of the battle to hang in there. I think the audience realizes we are a people of faith.”

Some movie critics would have liked to see more overt references to the couple’s faith as well.

“It was a sweet story but it didn’t have any power to it,” said Ted Baehr, the publisher of, a Christian family guide to movies. “Making it more secular diminished the power of the movie. It didn’t make sense that it was so sublimated to secular values. The real world consists of the 82 percent of Americans who believe in god who want faith and values in their films.”

The movie version of “The Vow,” rated PG-13, was a huge hit over the weekend, raking in over $40 million, and another $11 million on Valentine’s Day alone. But it is hardly family friendly fare. There are innuendos that the couple in the movie, named Paige and Leo, engages in premarital sex. One of the characters in the film has an extramarital affair. The couple’s wedding is non-denominational. They also get a divorce in the movie, something that the Carpenters vowed not to do in real life.

Sony Pictures did not respond to a request for comment.

Hollywood has not been a stranger to Christian themes in recent years. The movie “The Blind Side” was largely propelled to success because of, and not in spite of, the Christian values that it embraced.

So what made “The Vow” different?

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Acting School Aims to Make Hollywood More Like Holywood

Following the Actors Calling from God

by Cathleen Falsani in The Huffington Post

Aspiring actor and future Pope, Karol Jozef Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II)

Years before he was known as Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla hoped to become an actor.

The late pontiff studied drama in his native Poland at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University. Later, while preparing for the priesthood at a clandestine seminary, he also was a member of the underground Rhapsodic theater company.

“Artistic talent is a gift from God,” John Paul once said. “And whoever discovers it in himself has a certain obligation: to know that he cannot waste his talent, but must develop it.”

The Holy Wood Acting Studio in California is following the beloved pope’s direction by helping aspiring actors develop both their artistic and spiritual gifts.

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Female Filmmakers Need Not Apply: USC Study Reveals Staggering Hollywood Gender Gap – Response by Screenwriter Cheryl McKay Price

Industry Lip Service to Equality Pales in Comparison to Actual Ratios

“Nobody knows a woman like a woman. We should get to write, direct and produce for ourselves more than we apparently do. Where do I sign up to help make a change?” -Cheryl McKay

by Two Handed Warriors Editors

n 2010 Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Directing in over 80 years of filmmaking (The Hurt Locker). Given the odds against women in the industry, is it any wonder that it took so long?
In 2010 Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Directing in over 80 years of filmmaking (The Hurt Locker). Given the odds against women in the industry, is it any wonder that it took so long?

A recent study by USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism reveals the tremendous odds Kathryn Bigelow overcame to become the first woman to win the 2010 Oscar for Best Director (The Hurt Locker).

USC researchers focused on the 100 top box office hits of 2008, evaluating the 4,370 speaking characters and 1,227 above-­the-­line personnel in these films. The study revealed that, despite Hollywood lip service to the contrary, the industry is still characterized by staggering gender inequality. In the 5,000 most influential roles of 2008, men outnumbered women nearly five-to-one.

Cheryl McKay Price, screenwriter for The Ultimate Gift (2006) and the upcoming Never the Bride and The Ultimate Life comments: “The results of the USC study are quite abysmal.

Onscreen, only 32.8 percent of speaking characters in the top 2008 films were female. Rather than a one-year anomaly, researchers determined that 2008’s two-to-one ratio was actually the “highest percentage of females in film we have witnessed across multiple studies.”

The situation behind the camera was even worse. Astonishingly, only “8% of directors, 13.6% of writers, and 19.1% of producers are female.”  (See chart below).

McKay notes: “Given that both men and women are talented and have a voice in this world, I’d like to see those ratios even out in the film industry.”

Lack of Leadership Leads to Lack of Female Roles and Opportunities

The study also indicated a significant relationship between these two levels of inequality. Lack of female leadership positions behind the screen contributes to the lack of women onscreen (as well as the overt sexualization of those who do appear). Conversely, increased female creative leadership leads to increased female roles. “(T)he percentage of female characters jumps 14.3% when one or more female screenwriters were involved in penning the script.”

The USC Annenberg researchers Stacy Smith and Marc Choueiti concluded: “Our findings reveal that motion picture content is sending… consistent and troubling messages… that females are of lesser value than are males. This is evidenced by their on screen presence and the lack of employment opportunities behind-­the‐camera.”

McKay Price concludes: “Nobody knows a woman like a woman. We should get to write, direct and produce for ourselves more than we apparently do. Where do I sign up to help make a change?”


See Also 

Sex Objects: USC Study Reveals Hollywood’s Role in Sexualization of Teenage Girls

2011 Annenberg update: Hollywood Hooked on Sexualizing Teenage Women and Teen Girls


Biola Media Conference CBS Studios April 30: with Wired’s Kevin Kelly, LOTR’s Sean Astin


Hollywood’s Premier Faith-Based Entertainment Industry Event

The Biola Media Conference has a rich history of advancing the integration of faith and the arts. Born in 1995 out of a desire to expose Biola University film students to working media professionals, it has grown to become a significant professional resource for Christians in the entertainment field.

The goal for the Biola Media Conference continues to be an impassioned desire to gather the collective wisdom from people of faith who have been working successfully in Hollywood and impart that wisdom to the next generation. Plenary sessions, workshops, panel discussions, a resource fair, and networking lunches fill one of the most rewarding days in the entertainment industry.

Beyond Digital: What Now?

Kevin Kelly, Author and Co-founder of Wired Magazine

Plenary speaker, Kevin Kelly will launch the 2011 Conference theme, Beyond Digital: What Now? Kelly is Senior Maverick at Wired magazine, which he co-founded in 1993 and served as its Executive Editor from its inception until 1999. He is also editor and publisher of the Cool Tools website, which gets half a million unique visitors per month. From 1984-1990 Kelly was publisher and editor of the Whole Earth Review, a journal of unorthodox technical news. Kelly authored the best-selling book New Rules for the New Economy, Out of Control and his latest release, “What Technology Wants.”

Top industry insiders teach a variety of workshops on topics as diverse as Entertainment Law to Church Media to Screenwriting to Acting Visual Effects. Story consultant extraordinaire Bobette Buster will lead a workshop entitled: ‘Hollywood Economics 101,’ Soul Surfer producer Noah Hamiliton will be part of a panel discussing the process ‘Bringing Films of Faith to Screen.’ Scott C. Smith, Academy award-winning digital artist (Pirates of the Caribbean 2), will be part of a workshop on ‘Off-the-shelf Visual Effects.’ (Click here for a complete list of workshops.)

“Access Lunches”– roundtable discussions with industry insiders — add a new element to this year’s conference. Access lunch table leaders include:

Dean Batali – Writing
Brian Godawa – Writing
Travis Mann – Entertainment Law
Scott Smith, Tim Naylor – Visual FX
Charlie Matz, Bub Kuns – Church Media
Dawn Baldwin, Marc Harper- Branding & Marketing
Mark Clayman – Producer
Arthur Anderson – Director
Korey Pollard – Director
Simon Swart – Distribution
Jon Bock – Marketing
Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' (Flashdance, Basic Instinct, Showgirls) recounting of his journey to faith, Crossbearer,' was the tear-jerking highlight of BMC 2009.

A closing plenary session orchestrated by BMC favorite Phil Cooke (Cooke Pictures) rounds out the day. Phil will mc an inter-active conversation with industry executives Tom Halleen, (Senior VP of Programming, AMC), and DeVon Franklin (VP of Production, Columbia Pictures). A special conversation with actor Sean Astin (Sam in the LOTR trilogy) caps what should once again prove to be a remarkable day. (See Speaker Bios.)

Register Today

The Biola Media Conference is one of the most rewarding faith-based media events in the world. In keeping with BMC’s original vision, it is the involvement of currently practicing Hollywood professionals that makes all the difference in the world. Whether you are an industry pro looking for a day of rich community with peers, or a Hollywood newcomer exploring a calling to the entertainment industry, the Biola Media Conference has something for you!

Sunday is the final day for discounted registration.

Don’t miss it!




Register Today