1395426_10202384977010376_242509230_nAn interesting “literary issue” has been lingering in the back of my head for a while, an issue of writing on hope in the midst of conflict. It involves the God machine, otherwise known as Deus ex machina.[1]

Many believe Deus ex machina to be a poor storytelling device because it does not reflect the grittiness of real life. There is merit to this criticism. We can think of a few moments in our lives when a stroke of luck saved us from trouble, but these events are rare. Most of the time when we are confronted with the consequences of our choices and the choices of others, no rope miraculously drops from the sky to pull us out of our predicament.

In stories, when we see positive twists of fate happening outside the protagonist’s control—as no result of his or her wit or strength—it seems as though the protagonist is getting off easy. As a result we can feel disconnected with that character since we may find it difficult to identify with their lucky break. Story expert Robert McKee goes so far as to state that Deus ex machina is “an insult to the audience. Each of us knows we must choose and act, for better or worse, to determine the meaning of our lives … Deus ex machina is an insult because it is a lie.”[2]

Yet if this is the case, why do I and so many others feel great elation when Aslan finally arrives to wake the stone animals and defeat the White Witch, or when Gandalf comes with reinforcements to save Helm’s Deep, or when the creatures of Pandora sweep in to save the Na’vi from the Sky People? In each of these situations, the protagonists caught in the midst of conflict have done very little (or nothing) to bring about the change in their fortunes, yet we love it when they are saved. I would argue that the reason why these moments stir us so powerfully is that we long for such great salvation to happen in our lives and in the world.[3] The flawed character of humanity has faced evil in every scene and in every act. While we have accomplished some minor victories, humanity has never defeated evil; indeed it has contributed greatly to the world’s hurt. We can all agree that humanity longs for reprieve and wholeness in the final act.

godIs Deus ex machina considered a bad story telling device because we have lost hope, because we are a cynical generation, because we are a culture that preaches a need to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and determine your own fate? Deus ex machina may not fully represent “real life” of the present where striving for one’s own good appears to be the only means of survival and success, but it does point to the hope we have for the future. There is hope that God has not abandoned us and that in the end he will make all things new. Those of us who follow Christ “are a people of countercultural hope. And we will grow in hope as we connect our lives to God’s story.” [4] The challenge then for the storyteller is to bring together gritty authenticity and impossible, glorious hope. No small task!

Therefore I believe the question is not “Is it proper to use Deus ex machina in our stories?” but “What is God doing in the world, and how can our stories reflect his work?” We read the pen strokes of the greatest Storyteller of all; we study his masterpiece where he himself entered the pages and took on our ink so that his beloved characters may be redeemed. From beholding the Storyteller’s work, we become heralds of the plot thus far and the glorious final act to come.

To use his story as our example while creating stories of our own is not to become unoriginal. Quite the contrary! The work of Christ spans an infinitely vast and intricately complex narrative.[5] Each one of us knows but a miniscule and particular part of that narrative, but we know it intimately. To share our part—whether through testimony or fantasy or any other form—is to tell of a God who is on the move in specific ways, a God who enters the grit of real life. Yes, he’ll drop us a line from time to time, but he also walks with us in the midst of conflict. And that gives me reason to hope.

This is post is not supposed to present a conclusion but to offer ideas and open up discussion.

What are your thoughts? Do you think Deus ex machina has any place in storytelling?

[1] Latin for “God in the machine;” a benevolent force—sometimes a god—that comes into the story from out of no where and saves the protagonist(s) from trouble.
[2] Robert Mckee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: Harper Collins, Inc., 1997).
[3] I would also argue that this is the reason why super hero movies are so popular today.
[4] Alan Kreider and Eleanor Kreider, Worship & Mission After Christendom (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2011), 119.
[5] See Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament & Contemporary Contexts by Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker.

 

JasonMy Bio:
Jason Link, author of The Legender, has come back to the U.S. after many years of living in Nicaragua, the tropical land where he proposed to his wife on an active volcano. This makes him sound more adventurous than he really is. Instead of cutting his way through the jungles with a machete, he cuts his way through academia with a pen. He has taught high school English and is now a student at Fuller Theological Seminary. 
The question he has been asked the most is: “Are you lost?” It may seem that he is, but he is most likely wandering while deep in thought. He dwells often on the art of story, for he sees God’s beauty in the finely crafted plot.

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