Novelist Eliot Peper writes, “Stories are Trojan Horses for ideas, a metaphor that proves its own point.” That it does; anyone familiar with the Trojan War knows exactly what he is referring to.
On their own, ideas are inspiring but ephemeral—aurorae in our mental skies. Stories ground them, humanize them, give them the narrative weight they need to make a lasting impact. And because the best stories are worth telling for their own sake, ideas can hitch a ride across millennia.
Stories provide an excellent medium for illustrating and contextualizing ideas that might otherwise stay in our heads rather than travel down to our hearts. That is likely part of why Jesus spoke to the crowd in parables (Matt. 13:34-35). That is why Nathan confronted David’s adultery with a story (2 Sam. 12:1-13). That doubtless is why much of Scripture itself is in the form of a story—i.e., a grand, overarching narrative. Stories are excellent vessels for carrying ideas.
Of course, stories can also carry ideas inefficiently or improperly. It all depends on the message being communicated, the motives of the narrator, and the methods employed in telling the story. As such, there are at least three ways in which stories can act as Trojan horses: unethically, accidentally, and organically.
These three categories can apply to all forms of storytelling, but for our purposes here we will focus on the medium of film.
In an interview with National Catholic Register, filmmakers Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon explain their intent behind the marketing of their Christian horror film Nefarious:
Konzelman: The [movie] poster is a Trojan horse designed to lure the mainstream horror audience into the film, nonbelievers.
Solomon: Basically, they look at the poster and say, “We want to go to that movie” because they’re drawn to the occult, which is exactly why we did the poster. . . .
Konzelman: This is the movie for your family member who has fallen away from the faith, or your friend who has never been a believer. You can take them to this film, and under the guise of entertainment, they’re going to be confronted with the greater questions.
By their own testimony, Konzelman and Solomon employed “Trojan horse” tactics: they wished to “lure” audiences “drawn to the occult” with a movie that looked like it would cater to their interests. Then, “under the guise of entertainment,” the audience would be “confronted” with something other than what they were hoping for.
C. S. Lewis once commented on this bait-and-switch tactic in his essay “Christianity and Culture.” While encouraging Christians to be involved in culture and the arts, he gave this warning: “I do not mean that a Christian should take money for supplying one thing (culture) and use the opportunity thus gained to supply a quite different thing (homiletics and apologetics). That is stealing.”1
When Christian filmmakers publicly offer one thing (“Look! Here’s a fun piece of entertainment.”), but then deceptively offer something else (“Gotcha! This is actually a sermon disguised as entertainment.”), C. S. Lewis rightly categorizes it as stealing: it is the acquiring of another’s money through fraud.
The ultimate problem with Nefarious is not the movie itself (which I found fairly decent), but the marketing of the movie. Konzelman, Solomon, and their team employed subterfuge to lure occult-happy audiences in, promising one product but delivering another.
By its nature, an entertaining plot can transport ideas past our defenses. But intentionally deceiving a potential audience is too similar to the nefarious plot of the original Trojan horse—violating trust to achieve victory.
Filmmakers are not infallible. At times, they may shoot a scene or sequence—or employ an overall aesthetic—that detracts from the point they’re trying to make in a given film. Their method complicates or overrides their intended message, which sends mixed signals to the audience. Sometimes this even leads to a film outright contradicting what it is trying to say. I’ve addressed this issue numerous times, highlighting specific cases like Cuties and The Wolf of Wall Street.
As another example, we can look at the faith-based film Redeeming Love. Designed to illustrate the redemptive power of covenantal faithfulness, the movie admirably handles most of its sexual content with a proper blend of grit and discretion. However, it inadvertently smuggles in a contradictory message through its two sex scenes between the characters of Angel (Abigail Cowen) and her husband Michael (Tom Lewis).
According to Francine Rivers, one of the screenwriters (and the author of the book on which the movie is based), the film’s sex scenes were scripted to be about “the beautiful intimacy of marriage” and “making love within the proper boundaries.” But the filmmakers chose to achieve this through the improper boundaries of softcore porn techniques.
I am far from the only one to notice the incongruence between the film’s message and its method. The A.V. Club said the film hides “kinky” and “horny” elements in the “disguise of wholesome faith-based entertainment.” Similarly, The Aisle Seat states, “The movie wants to be a faith-based tale with a hint of eroticism, but at the same time, it wants that eroticism to be wholesome, which is contradictory.” And film critic Steven D. Greydanus accurately concludes that a faith-based film which requires “an actress’s breast being hidden from the camera with an actor’s hand on it” is one that has “gone off the rails.”
Redeeming Love nobly intended to commend sexual pleasure between husband and wife. Nevertheless, an unintended message rode in on this Trojan horse: one that actually undermines covenantal love in its audience by titillating them, and in its unmarried actors by requiring sexual acts of them.
In his booklet Engaging the Trojan Horse: Watching Movies with a Christian Perspective, Dane Bundy writes the following: “Whether taking the form of a novel, personal narrative, or movie, stories have the power to slip into hearts and minds undetected, leaving their messages or perspectives on the world ‘within the gates.’”2
In this sense, every movie is a Trojan horse. Each movie carries with it certain underlying perspectives, even if they aren’t blatantly on display. With every story being told, some sort of ideological presupposition is being promoted, or at least assumed.
This third Trojan horse category shares a distinct difference from the first one: whereas the first category involves active deception, this third category simply involves a filmmaker’s work reflecting his or perspective on life. It’s not a secret, it’s just a part of who they are. They’re not doing a bait-and-switch; they’re simply crafting a narrative in accordance with the world as they see it.
Christian filmmaker Pete Doctor addressed this aspect of filmmaking in an interview at Fuller’s Brehm Center. He said a film’s message is “not something that I’m trying to shove into the movie,” and that any given project will “reflect who we are (the people that are making them). Hopefully, I will show up in the movie in an organic, natural way.”
In and of itself, this is not a bad thing. It can be positive if the perspectives being promoted or assumed are in line with reality as God has created it. As Bundy notes, “if a story sneaks past our defenses and unleashes a true and much-needed message, then the story has done well. If the message is false and destructive, then the story has wrought evil.”
An example of an organic Trojan horse is The Passion of the Christ, which focuses on the literal climax of the gospel story. Moments of teaching within the film—such as the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper—are naturally woven into the script in flashbacks. The mix of narrative and theology flows naturally, as attested by agnostic film critic James Berardinelli: “…at no time did I feel as if Gibson was preaching. That’s the common trap that The Passion of the Christ avoids.” Indeed, the movie does what films do best: communicate primarily through visuals, with words and speeches supplementing (not supplanting) the images.
Putting the Cart Before the (Trojan) Horse
A film with a “true and much-needed message” (to borrow Bundy’s words) doesn’t need to be a sermon in story’s clothing. Instead, it can simply be “true to life.” As English professor Leland Ryken points out, “Truthfulness to life…is a category of truth that is not on most people’s radar screen.” This category of truth is employed when a storyteller remains faithful to human experience as it exists in a moral order where right and wrong, good and evil are acknowledged.
Thus, a story can carry within it the seeds of absolute, biblically-grounded truth without ever mentioning the Bible, or Christianity, or any religious topic. In stories, truth can act like yeast. To quote screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi, “Yeast does its work by vanishing. It doesn’t make the lump turn into yeast. It gets lost in the lump, which then becomes a different kind of lump, a better lump.”
So it is when a story acts as a Trojan horse. The wooden structure (the story) does not morph into a heaping pile of Greek soldiers who contort themselves in the form of a horse (a sermonizing narrative). Rather, it uses the wooden structure to transport the message covertly, stealthily, and surreptitiously.
That is the best kind of story. And that is also the best kind of Trojan horse.
1. C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (1971), 20-21.
2. Dane Bundy, Engaging the Trojan Horse: Watching Movies with a Christian Perspective, 3.