E.T. phone your pastor!

I was amazed when a scholar in film criticism first brought to my attention that the movie E.T. was Steven Spielberg’s attempt to reiterate the gospel message in a fun-for-all flick about a lovable alien who befriends a boy and his family. Sure, there are similarities:

  1. An other-worldly being drops in on us lower-life organisms here on Earth (crashes the party, so to speak).
  2. He makes friends with a chosen few, especially children and those who are good.
  3. People on Earth have their own designs for him.
  4. He helps people while he is here.
  5. He makes contact with his own people while here.
  6. He suffers physically from living on Earth too long and dies an agonizing and emotional death.
  7. He recovers (or comes back to life), coinciding with those who have returned for him.
  8. He makes an amazing and emotional departure.
  9. His closest friends look forward to his return.
  10. He is forever regarded as a great person and positive influence on those he touched.

But besides these ten similarities–and perhaps a few more–why would anyone draw the conclusion that Spielberg had intentionally created his own science-fictional parallel to “the greatest story ever told”?

Photo Credit: Johnson Cameraface via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Johnson Cameraface via Compfight cc

Because he did!

And because it is a great story line! When one begins to analyze modern film motifs, it is soon clear that numerous film genres have made use of the gospel narrative as a plot design for decades. (Tweet This)

Consider some other movies which seem to have capitalized on this technique…

  1. Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973) and Pale Rider (1985)
  2. Superman (especially, 1978, 1980, 1983, 1987)
  3. Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) and Return of the Jedi (1983)
  4. Ghost (1990)
  5. Rambo: First Blood and Rocky III (both in 1982)
  6. The Matrix (1999)
  7. Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Sleeping Beauty (1959)
  8. Turner and Hooch (1989)

In past blogs I referred to the usefulness of schema theory in understanding how audiences create and re-shape their views of reality based, in part, on media messages. Schema theory explains that images and situations portrayed on television and film provide building blocks for how we, the audience, construct–and re-construct–our internal (cognitive) reality. Our reality about people, politics, tangible and intangible things, including our concept of the “the self,” are made up mostly of a curious amalgamation of information bits about the things which we have been experiencing and observing since we arrived on the planet. As we learn more about anything we adjust the schematic references in our minds, or, in some cases, we adjust the incoming information to fit into the existing realities already present there, since the latter requires fewer processing resources (and less work!). This has been demonstrated by Rumelhart (1980) and others who have done extensive research using schema theory.

In short, the construction of the original gospel message (about real events) is a schema which may provide a useful framework for constructing fictional narratives. It may be considered a very successful vehicle for carrying a message from one point to another, such as from script to director to editor to audiences. The cohesiveness of the plot mechanism allows one to creatively attach a variety of discrete–even bizarre–story elements to it and allow the plot vehicle to unify uncommon elements into a common, easily-understood, even fun to tell story line.

What’s the take away for mass comm students?

Photo Credit: 1upLego via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: 1upLego via Compfight cc

My students should understand that every media product they create has the potential (and likelihood) to be interpreted as intentionally referencing both sacred and profane texts. Thus, they should be very careful to write informative news reports, produce engaging commercials, make inspiring music, and create press releases that do not encourage insinuations, double entendres, and potentially embarrassing unintended meanings. And when producing Christian media, they should be especially diligent to faithfully represent God’s Word and truth because people will ultimately judge the producer and the product more severely if they feel s/he has taken unnecessary liberties in storytelling. Finally, conscientious Christians in the TV and film industry likely do not want to accidentally give people the wrong impression about the Bible based on the escapades of a fictional character!

Darrell Roe (Ph.D., UGA, 1998) is an Assoc. Prof. of Mass Communication at ETBU. His specialty is analyzing the content of visual media and its effects on audiences.