This assignment asks students to deal with the main ideas of Christian allegory by writing a short paper exploring the characters and plot of renowned Irish/Anglo playwright and Oscar winner Martin McDonagh’s first full length film, In Bruges as a contemporary Christian allegory. Lecture, discussion and handouts provide support for this assignment, which is challenging given the different levels of knowledge students bring about foundational Christian concepts.
Background and Context
This assignment asks students to deal with the main ideas of Christian allegory by writing a short paper exploring the characters and plot of renowned Irish/Anglo playwright and Oscar winner Martin McDonagh’s first full length film, In Bruges as a contemporary Christian allegory. Lecture, discussion and handouts provide support for this assignment, which is challenging given the different levels of knowledge students bring about foundational Christian concepts. It could be used in many English, Humanities, and Arts and Media Courses.
The Ideas Behind the Assignment
Students: All students understand Personal Values conveyed through Artistic Narratives, and all find the great archetypes of Good, Evil, and Personal Temptation, (as well as the catharsis experienced), to be present in stories in which the moviegoers vicariously experience some of the suffering of the protagonist, feel pity and terror at the climax, and relief or sorrow at the falling action of the final moments.
My Experience: The great ideas within this interpretation of stories make for excellent student essays. Students enjoy discussing the meaning of a film within an interpretation that is very simple to comprehend. Most great films deal with human choice and error; it is rewarding to follow movie plots because the episodes end with a resolution of the film’s conflicts and show the character’s rewards or sacrifices that are the end result of the events in the film.
Use for Other Teachers: Most English and Humanities teachers are educated to see the universal nature of great fictional narrative plots. Most stories involve protagonists who make choices and suffer temporary consequences. Were there no suffering, only reward, Art would be too far removed from reality, indeed would become mere Fantasy or Romantic Comedy, far more limited genres within Narrative. Thus, deeper Narratives involve the protagonist at sea in an ocean of murky morality, and the audience, in wanting to know how it all ends up, is waiting for the main character’s ultimate fate to be revealed. Everyone wants to know of any movie, So, what happens? How does it end? How does it all turn out? Students enjoy learning that the stories they view have universal meaning, and many film viewers reflect upon their own lives by watching entertaining and meaningful movies.
Instructor’s notes/background Information for Students
It’s always an intellectual pleasure for students of narrative arts to learn a few of the patterns that provide storytellers with some skeletal structures that make their particular tales universal. The most common narrative template is the arc of rising dramatic interest and plot complications leading to a climax, resolution, and hints at the after-effects, so it is no coincidence that the greatest human story in Western culture follows this pattern for audience involvement: the Christian Allegory.
Simply put, Christian Allegories were at the foundation of European stories, and the narrative of Everyman (and his later embodiment, Christian) follows a storyline with the moral and religious meanings the Medieval playgoers needed to hear. Christian Allegory is the main story that audiences were prepared to understand by Church doctrine and social values.
Everyman, (or Christian, John Bunyon’s protagonist in Pilgrim’s Progress), is born into a world of original sin, the Fallen condition of Mankind. After the Edenic bliss of innocent childhood, the main character enters the treacherous world of Experience, and has to journey through various compelling temptations represented by The World, The Flesh, and The Devil. The plots of most Christian Allegories depict for the audience how the surrogate hero has his desires and values complicated by a series of decisions, choices made within his Free Will. The main character’s bad actions and incorrect choices threaten his successful completion of his intentions and his ultimate outcome, his happiness, and, ultimately, his soul’s salvation or damnation.
Along this mythic path, the story’s main character meets embodiments of Sin and Misdirection that provide the conflict, tension and suspense. However, the storyteller also shows how God is always present to assist each human along this treacherous path. Often unrecognized by the audience’s surrogate character are representatives of the better angels of our nature, Guides and Spirits of Angelic and Human form who offer help to the hero. Throughout the story, there are also always hints of ultimate spiritual blessings in the form of unmerited help, or Grace.
As the hero falls farther into Evil and Chaos due to poor choices, the plot’s arc of interest rises to a key moment of the conflict’s resolution, often one in which Satan and God finally come to battle directly for the character’s eternal Soul. For mortal man, Death is the final plot point. The story of the after-life is of central religious concern in a Christian allegory, so the resolution is often the revelation of the protagonist’s salvation or damnation, and the final falling action shows us what the character’s eternity will involve: Bliss or Punishment.
For 2000 years Christian Allegory portrayed the same story: a main character has a tragic flaw (original sin) that makes the person human, and that drives the central character into a series of episodic choices (featuring potentially grace-filled moments ignored for selfish temptations towards power or money or other deadly sins), ending in Death and a summary Judgment.
This storyline is still useful to contemporary cinematic storytellers: a movie begins with a backstory involving a choice; we watch as the protagonist moves forward on a path to a goal; complications with opposing people arise; a companion or two try to assist; the plot comes to a dramatic head; the result of the whole story, the denouement, is revealed; and we get a hint of the character’s ultimate future fate outside the boundaries of the scenes in the movie’s ending.
This type of assignment is useful for college freshmen and sophomores since it helps students become educated about universal ideas that they are familiar with but have not formally articulated. With a decline in reading novels and short fiction, students get most of their fictional stories from film and television, outside of school, and, without a formal education in narrative theory, most of their sense making about stories has to rely on their random experiences and their individual subjective interests in various genres of entertainment. This assignment shows the value of acquiring an educated understanding of one instance of what makes fictional plots so engaging.
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