Paradox or Hidden Truth: The Enigma of Christian Motifs in Secular Film

By Ben Konuch

Film and television are a medium uniquely suited for effectively telling stories that move us with a fusion of underlying themes with emotional weight through visual performance. 

We feel the weight of Tony Stark’s sacrifice in “Avengers: Endgame” because of the multiple movies that we spent watching this character come to life. The high-quality writing and an outstanding performance instilled an emotional attachment and connection with us. When films or television use that connection to tie into a belief or a theme instead of a particular character, such as how the 2014 horror film “The Babadook” instills a message about grief and letting go of the past through its use of fear and horror imagery, the message resonates with us far more than in other mediums. The motifs and imagery that these films use mean something, and are utilized for a specific effect.

So what does it mean when film and television from filmmakers with secular worldviews repeatedly feature Christian motifs and imagery?

Throughout the history of film, movies and television alike repeatedly showcased Christian motifs, imagery, allegory and elements drawn straight from the Bible. You may think that it only makes sense due to older Hollywood productions when Christianity was more positively viewed in America, but motifs of Christianity still appear in films and television today. Films as recent as 2023’s “The Creator” or Zack Snyder’s interpretation of Superman in the DCEU feature the use of a narrative “Christ-figure,” which is a character whose life and actions primarily follow the pattern of the gospel account of Christ’s life. The “Christ-figure” is very much not a picture or representation of Christ, but rather is a character who follows a similar narrative path in their journey as Jesus’s own life, death and resurrection.

One of the best examples of Christian motifs and a “Christ-figure” in modern cinema comes from 2018’s “A Quiet Place.” Many of the presuppositions of the film actually fit very well with a Christian worldview, such as the importance of the family, the sacredness of human life and the value of sacrificial love. Its use of the “Christ-figure” is abundantly evident in the father’s life and his relationship with his eldest daughter. She goes throughout the film thinking her father hates her rebelliousness, only to learn that he’s loved her by witnessing the greatest act of love: sacrificing his life to save his children. This film showcases a picture of redemptive sacrifice that very strongly echoes the theme of Christ’s sacrifice for us, despite the fact that writer, director and lead actor John Krasinski does not believe in Christianity.

Dan Clark, who serves as a professor of English at Cedarville University and teaches a class on Christian motifs in film, explained why this may be.

“The tropes that we see in many films, especially action films, reiterate the familiar element that at some level rings true to us – that we are weak and that we are in need of a hero or a savior because we can’t save ourselves,” said Professor Clark. “This is why you’ll often have a hero go into a community to bring them a calling to a different kind of life, and whether that be in films such as “The Matrix” or even most modern superhero films, there’s something in that that I think we as an audience recognize at a basic level.” 

“We daydream about being the hero,” Professor Clark said, “but on a more serious level, we realize our own weakness and our own frailty.”

Much of our Western storytelling heritage was influenced by faith-based values. Although America as a culture is shifting away from embracing Christianity as prevalently as it once did, the centuries of impact that faith has had on our culture’s narratives still remain strong. 

While our culture may no longer recognize the Biblical significance of these values, audiences still resonate with many of the themes and principles in our Western storytelling from our Biblical foundations. Many of these themes and values still evoke a response in us and stand as a testament to God’s truth that can shine through from even the most unlikely of places.

Perhaps it is due to the secular nature of Hollywood or the often anti-Biblical messaging, but it seems these heavily used motifs and their importance get overlooked.

Many Christian films are notorious for having their values obnoxiously shoved in the face of the viewer, whereas films like “A Quiet Place” actually propose these themes like the sanctity of human life and the impact of sacrificial love in a better way than many Christian films do. 

“As Christians, when we watch films and it’s so abundantly obvious that the underlying worldviews are openly hostile to Christian thought, it’s easy to recognize it” Professor Clark said.  “Yet when we watch a film that has those underlying worldviews that can parallel Christianity we may not notice their nuances, but instead recognize them as truth without really even noticing them.”

So in the end, how do we make sense of these Christian motifs that appear in stories that may even be antithetical to the Christian faith? 

For one, we can acknowledge there is something within the story of Christ, within the idea of a redeemer, a savior or a hero saving us that appeals to us even when our culture so readily tells us that we are to save ourselves. It stands as a testament to the eternal significance of Christ’s story that even when it’s used unintentionally, its truth in a way still shines through.

In addition, this concept also serves as a charge for Christians to use the God-given gifts of writing, acting and filmmaking to create meaningful stories through film that convey these themes and motifs of Christianity in a way that resonates with audiences. What makes a good sermon often does not make a good film, and a Christian film doe no’t have to preach to an audience to get them to recognize the truth as the truth. 

As an audience member, I should not have to turn to “A Quiet Place” to see a better representation of sacrificial love than in “God’s Not Dead.” We should take heed of the ways Hollywood uses these motifs in their works and do so in a way that is intentional yet tasteful to convey gospel truth that resonates emotionally while also telling a great story. Christian films should reflect the greatest story ever told, not distract from its impact due to our inability to properly tell a story while conveying a message.

Ben Konuch is a junior Strategic Communication student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and swing dancing in the rain.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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