Encountering God through metaphor in film



Let me ask you a question – “why are you here today?”. Don’t respond verbally but just think about that?

Is it because it’s a spirituality day? Or perhaps because you like film? Or you felt the two couldn’t possibly go together so you were curious – or have come wanting to give me a hard time?

But what is this stuff that enables us to see a meaning beyond what is physically and literally in front of us? What is the stuff of creativity and how is that linked to us being “made in the image of God” – a God who is Creator?

The field of natural theology which is based on reason and experience tells us that we can discern much about God simply from observing the world around us and from reflecting on it. Even observing one another.

So when we encounter things like story, music, art in all its forms, we encounter an invitation to explore God, what God means to us and our relationship to God.

Without  a frame information is simply information and has no real meaning. If I say “Large black rainclouds gathered and partly obscured the sun” that is an almost meaningless statement – you can of course visualise it, compare it to previous experience, even draw it and embellish it, but with putting a frame around it – without giving it a context it is meaningless.

In identifying metaphors we need to put a frame both around the context in which we see the metaphor and also around our own interpretative context so that we might be able to translate understanding and meaning into our world.

The best stories and metaphors might be quite simple and capable of seemingly only one interpretation – but I would like to suggest the richest source of discovering new meaning are stories and situations that are complex and have layers which make possible a number of interpretations. Ambiguity is an important thing.

The story of the Quarryman - The Magic of Metaphor p43.

Metaphors are not simply rhetorical devices but can serve as mechanisms that allow us to reshape our perception and our experience – they allow for the possibility of new understanding and growth.

If we were to choose a different metaphor to express and idea we would be changing its frame which would enable us to understand the idea in a new way. Changing perspective in this way allows us to see ourselves, others, the world and God in new and sometimes challenging ways.

Metaphor also allows for quite complex and possibly obscure concepts to be communicated in a way that makes them accessible and more concrete. As Nick Owen says “Metaphor allows us to externalise abstract thinking and translate it into a sensory-based tangible representation”[i] – through metaphor we can give shape, form and substance to our thoughts and understanding.

In the spiritual journey these encounters can help us like way markers along the path of pilgrimage. When we look back we can gain confidence and discern the hand of God guiding and leading us – it gives us confidence to take the next step. We may not be able to see even the next way marker and almost certainly not our destination – but at times all we need is to be able to take that next step.

Story is important – ask any child. They like the same stories over and over again and even though they are completely familiar with the words they want to hear them. Their mind’s eye placing them within the story as they live out their fantasy and drift comfortably off to sleep.

Stories are important because of their narrative nature – human existence is a narrative, a story. It is a series of events that can be narrated – retold as story. We view our life not a series of disconnected random encounters but as series of events that lead one to another – not always in expected ways, but usually linked in some way.

Our stories intertwine and weave a web with the stories of others. Often we can understand our story – even if we only choose to do so at an superficial level. Sometimes we need others to help us make sense of where we are. We stretch out towards God and through God’s word – both written and embodied – we endeavour to make meaning of our situation, our circumstances, the things we have discovered and learned.

The literal meaning of metaphor in its original Greek is transfer – to carry over, in this case usually our understanding. Metaphors have this capacity to illustrate transformation which surely is what the Gospel is all about. Becoming more Christ-like is the goal of discipleship and along the pathway we undergo transformation after transformation.

When we find a medium that presents stories to us in a way that allows us to build a bridge to the stories we see and hear, and connect our story to the other story, we delight. But best of all, when we find that God’s story and our story collide and interact we discover that we are able to make meaning at a deeper level. I would like to suggest that movies can enable us to do that.

If we have eyes to see and ears to hear the story that brings God into our experience, we can engage in movie-watching in a whole new way. A way that can deepen our sense of connectedness with our interior world, humanity, the world in which we live and with God. As Anderson and Foley tell us, “Stories are privileged and imaginative acts of self-interpretation.”[ii]

Whilst I have a particular interest in film and how we can read film as a theological text drawing us into God, I realise that other areas of the Arts have equal ability and capacity to mediate to us something of the transcendent. If music is more your thing, have a look at the Jeremy Begbie clip on youTube.

Metaphors, stories, archetypes and myths are all capable of embodying the common identity of a people – their history, culture, values and customs. They are a form of social glue that bond a people together.

The Church – the community of God’s people have a shared story. A story empowered by love that inspires to continue to search for a sense of meaning in this world to equip us for life in the world beyond.

So as we gather today, we are open to help one another to find meaning and so deepen our understanding of self, one another and God. We are going to have another space to reflect shortly and then I’d ask you to ensure you are back here at 15:40 to share in an act of worship together. There will be no compulsion.

Everyone is invited to share, briefly, something that has come freshly to them today through our reflection on metaphor. It might be something about you, or a situation you are in or about God – or even about the value of watching films in this way.

Before we go into that time of reflection (beware there is a wedding in the Cathedral this afternoon) one more story:

The Chicken and The Eagle - The Magic of Metaphor p126.

Are you a chicken or an Eagle? What is God calling you to become?

[i] The Magic of Metaphor, p xvi (Introduction)
[ii] Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals p5.

Books cited

Plato, (380BC), 1955, Tr H.D.P. Lee, Plato The Republic, The Penguin Classics, London.
Owen, N, 2001, The Magic of Metaphor, Crown House Publishing, Carmarthen.
Anderson, H & Foley, E, 1998, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Films used:

Patch Adams, 1998
The Matrix, 1999
Chocolat, 2000
Babette’s Feast, 1987
The Red Balloon, 1956

YouTube Clips

Plato’s Cave

Jeremy Begbie

Duncan Strathie’s movie blog

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