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11.09.2020

Tenet: Trusting the Storyteller

Tenet is the movie industry’s hope to draw us back to multiplexes and reinvigorate one of our culture’s very own religious gatherings: communal catharsis by way of morality, music, and associated sacred food and drink.

It will be up to audiences to decide whether or not Tenet is worthy of this mantle. Christopher Nolan has made a film that brings us to the edge of our understanding. And then it invites us to step over that edge. For this reason, it will surely divide audiences as it already has done critics.

The essence of the divide seems to be whether the incomprehensibility of the plot frustrates or delights. When one character tells another to ‘stop thinking linear’, he’s also inviting us, the audience, to trust in something we cannot comprehend.

I will probably never comprehend Tenet’s ‘inverted entropy’. Nor will I ever fully comprehend the Trinity or the Incarnation. But it comes down to this: do we trust the storyteller, even when we don’t understand the whole story?

This is not to say that we should not try to understand complex films or theological mysteries. There is a worshipful instinct in using our intellects to unravel the stories we enjoy, whether on cinema screens or those narratives we live by.

If Tenet does succeed, it is because Nolan has convinced audiences they can indeed trust him. In doing so he might help us realise that our experience of a story can be an even greater thrill than merely understanding it.

Trusting the storyteller is something Christians know how to do: we live by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). The story told in the Bible and played out in the world often stretches the limits of our human comprehension.

And yet the author – God himself – is weaving together a plot that does much more than baffle or entertain us. Its mysteries are not down to poor storytelling. By faith we experience it, while holding our understanding confidently, if not completely.

Tenet offers a taste of what that feels like, even if cinema experiences are a one-way relationship between storyteller and audience. The gospel story, on the other hand, involves a two-way relationship. We are not merely spectators of God’s story so much as participants in his sweeping epic: the renewal of all things, spanning from creation to new creation. That’s a thrill cinema can never offer.

Tim Yearsley
Emerging Generations – Programme Lead, LICC

Author

Tim Yearsley

Comments

  1. Really stimulating read, and great angle, Tim!

    A friend, after reading this piece, shared an interesting review perhaps highlighting the limits of paralleling God and Nolan as directors, however great his aspirations to play with the fundamentals of existence, like time and memory. This article from Unherd claims Nolan has confused confusion for tension and needs to relearn from the masters like Hitchcock. https://unherd.com/2020/09/theres-nothing-thrilling-about-over-complicated-plots/?=frlh. (Thanks Jen Logan for the send.)

    I particularly liked this: “surprises can help build tension. But what’s even better is the opposite of surprise: *anticipation*. This can arise from a particular situation — for instance Alfred Hitchcock’s famous example of a bomb under a table. The characters don’t know it’s there: will it go off? Or it might come from the audience’s knowledge of a fatal flaw in a character’s makeup. In this way, tension and characterisation are intertwined.”

    It’s an interesting angle when it comes to the parallel Tim draws, of not just watching but ‘living’ the biblical story, participating in the mission of God.

    Robert Alter’s magisterial work on “The Art of Biblical Narrative” (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Biblical-Narrative-Robert-Alter/dp/046500427X) and other works of canonical theology (e.g., https://www.amazon.co.uk/Drama-Scripture-Finding-Place-Biblical/dp/0281073473/) seem to strike this balance perfectly … there are plot twists a plenty, rivalling movies like ‘Knives Out’ or anything Agatha Christie ever wrote … but the naming of characters, tropes, echoes and advance warnings mean we’re invited into a story with enough sense to ‘faithfully improvise’, yet without becoming either ignorant pawns or fatalists who can hardly bother as we know how the plot ends. Anticipation is ever present.

    Apologies for the wordy comment, here, but all this reminded me of the wisdom offered by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his framing of Scripture (in Theo-Drama, vol. 2, 91-115 at p112) … this story is not an epic that disabuses us of human agency. Its internal canonical diversity, pluralism of genres, and open-ended narratives function as a safeguard against forms of totalitarianism and idolatry. Like the parables of Jesus, we are invited to identify with the characters, and faithfully improvise as part of its ongoing story. As von Balthasar qualifies, the Christian Scripture is “a word that journeys with us”, thus refuting “the superficial idea that, in theo-drama, Scripture plays the part of a somehow uninvolved spectator and reporter who can survey the whole process and can ‘tell in advance who the murderer is’. In all its aspects, Scripture is something quite different: it is part of the drama itself, moving along with it.”

    I’m thankful God’s story is appropriately complex, under-defined yet assuring of a good ending, with space to invite our meaningful actions as actors who can partially anticipate what’s coming next and yet still be stopped in our tracks with wonder at the inventiveness of our Creator.

    By Dave Benson - 11th September 2020
  2. Fantastic post, thanks Tim. Looking from different perspectives and encouraging the reader/viewer to think differently is definitely something i hadn’t realised the bible and Christopher Nolan films have in common!

    The virtues of leaving things mysteriously vs having everything neatly tied up in a story is always a source of debate (see Prometheus for example).

    By Stephen Hadad - 13th September 2020

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