Should the Artist Embrace Formula?

Susan Isaacs

Several years ago I attended Socrates in The City, a literary salon hosted by author Eric Metaxas (Bonhoeffer, Amazing Grace) and featuring many great Christian thinkers. The guest that evening was Rev. John Polkinghorne, a British theologian and physicist who was knighted for his role in discovering the quark.

Talk about physics and my eyes glaze over, but Polkinghorne said something that stuck with me:

When an equation is correct, mathematicians call it ‘beautiful.’ A true equation is beautiful because it is elegant and uncluttered with mistakes or unnecessary steps.

True math is beautiful.

*Photo by Lynn Friedman, Creative Commons

I wondered if there was a corollary in art. Did true art have a math to it? For example, was there a form evident in a good story? Now, I knew this already on some level. I studied screenwriting in graduate school, and we were drilled on the importance of structure. Successful movies have a similar, discernible structure. But Polkinghorne’s statement stirred something deeper than how to write a good screenplay. I wondered if there was common journey to the stories I found inspiring? Were there steps a character must take to elevate that story from entertaining to transformative?

A couple years later Donald Miller took it a step further in A Million Miles in A Thousand Years: The elements that make a good story also make a good life: a main character wants something and must overcome conflict to get it. Conflict is part of the story. Conflict is the tool God uses to shape our character.

I don’t know about you, but that takes a huge weight off of me. If I’m struggling to realize a dream, it isn’t necessarily because God doesn’t think that dream is worthwhile. Conflict is part of the story. It might even be the catalyst that shapes my goal into something bigger than it was when I started. This is definitely true of a good movie. At the beginning of Casablanca, all Humphrey Bogart wants is to be left alone. By the end he’s rejoined the French resistance.

Growing up I heard a very different message about conflict: “Don’t try to force open a door; wait in God to open it. Want something too much and you make it an idol. Seek the kingdom of God first, and all these things will be added unto you.” Which I interpreted as: “Go to church five nights a week and God will bless your acting career.” Church made me a better Christian, or at least a churchier one, but not a better artist. Looking back, I realize I used church as a way to hide. Look: God will love you if you live a small life or a big one. He will love you whether you are an Olympic gold medalist or a file clerk. But don’t kill off your dreams for fear you want them too much. That’s not Christianity. That’s Buddhism. “Desire is the atomic energy of the soul,” said Henri Nouwen.

What’s the fire in your heart? What’s keeping you from pursuing it?

-Susan Isaacs

Susan Isaacs

Susan Isaacs

Susan is an actor, author and comedienne with credits in film and television, including Planes Trains & Automobiles, Scrooged, Seinfeld, Parks & Recreation, et al. Susan’s memoir, Angry Conversations With God: A Snarky But Authentic Spiritual Memoir, was named a top religion book of the year by Publisher’s Weekly and Relevant Magazine. Susan performs and speaks at leading conferences, she taught graduate screenwriting at Pepperdine University, and teaches myriad writing and performing classes at Azusa Pacific University. Susan is married and pet-friendly. Make sure to follow along on Twitter (@susanisaacs) for regular updates.

  • Wow. Great post, such truth in there. We need conflict in our lives in order to tell great stories with them. I’m only now beginning to realise the pain I have been through in my life may well have been a literal blessing in disguise, that I was given conflict and pain younger because God thought I was up to it, and because God wants to use it now to serve others. Thanks for reminding me of this.

    • James, you’re absolutely right, that God allowed (or even caused) the conflict in your life because he thought you were up to it… or that going through it would make you up to it.

  • In my own life I’ve found that I have “waited on God” for more than a decade. I’ve sat still waiting for guidance, and come to the conclusion that He has been waiting for me to move. By refusing to make any of my decisions I’ve been avoiding responsibility. How can I give account of my life to Him at the end when I never made my own choices. He guides feet that move. One last thing “God finds our desires not too strong, but rather too weak.” -C.S. Lewis The Weight of Glory.

    • RosePearl

      I’m not the type to say ‘amen’, ever. But, ol’ Jack, amen to that.

    • Absolutely, David. I’ve had to remind myself of that often. Just because God has a plan doesn’t mean our action isn’t part of it. In fact, most of the time it’s the opposite.

    • So many people fall into this, David. It’s a luxury created by middle class capitalism and antibiotics… one hundred years ago, no one would wait around because they might die of influenza or starvation.

      I did it ALL THE TIME: refused to make a decision because I didn’t want to take responsibility.

      The good news is, you recognize it. And you’re on the storyline blog, wanting to write a better story in your life.

  • Gretchen

    Susan Isaacs: THANKS SO MUCH! If we lived in the same State, I’d ask if you could be my big sister/mentor! This is great, and I appreciate you sharing this (plus your book).

    • You’re so welcome, Gretchen!

  • Alex Thaxton

    There is actually a mathematical formula to good art: the Golden Ratio. Da Vinci gets the credit for it with his Vetruvian Man…

  • Nice, Susan. Well said.

  • Jackson Sharpe

    This is pretty much exactly (even though I hate to say exactly talking about two people’s independent struggles) what I’m going through right now. Five minutes ago I was thinking how before Jesus changed somebody’s life he said follow me, which we all know, but sometimes I find myself not going anywhere. Sometimes that’s perfectly fine. I have to get my Writing degree, but I have to get over thinking I’m not worthy for an adventure. So much of my time is spent trying to resist conflict before it begins instead of working through it. So I see you.

    • Courtney Nicole

      “So much of my time is spent trying to resist conflict before it begins instead of working through it.”

      Whoa. This describes exactly what I do all the time, and often am not even aware of. I’ll be thinking about this.

  • Colin

    One day last winter, after several years avoiding conflict, I read a sermonette that encouraged me to do the hardest thing that was on my heart. For once I responded immediately, without further deliberation or counsel or putting it on the prayer chain. What I did put my job, my home, and the tranquility of my family life on the line. It was the first step of a move from secular work to a position in ministry. It was intensely painful, opening up old wounds of rejection and feelings of inadequacy. The process moved slowly, dotted with intense moments of neck-snapping speed and days when the dream seemed dead. When, after ten weeks of up-and-down emotions, I was finally offered the position, my first reaction after hanging up the phone was to burst into tears of relief. Not joy, not rejoicing, not victory. The whole process was a burden, ten weeks of expecting a blow to fall on my ego and my faith. Ten weeks of internal conflict… which led to an incredible story.

    • Colin

      Or not. 😀

  • I’m struggling with this formula thing. About a month ago I finished Don’s book Searching for God Knows What(you can read my review on my blog)and I absolutely loved it because Don proposes that the Gospel is not formulaic nor should we use “bullet-point” theology to grow closer to Jesus. I’ve really grasped this idea and have applied this anti-formula attitude to many facets of my work, study, and relationships. Even in sharing the Gospel. But I’m a little confused because now we’re talking about using formulas to live better stories. I just got my Storyline guide and the second sentence is “Storyline is based on the formula screenwriters and novelists use to create stories.” This doesn’t disinterest me in the least, I was just a little surprised.

    I love people. I love being with people, talking with people, living with people, eating with people. I love to identify with people because it doesn’t matter who we are or where we come from, we’re all bleeding on the edge of a war. I guess I take comfort in collective suffering. I know what it feels like to be rejected and hated for being a certain way. I know what it feels like to be trampled by the church and bogged down with theological doctrine. I know what it feels like to hate myself and think I’ll never make it as a Christian. I know all these things and feelings and I don’t want anyone to feel the way I’ve felt. I have this burden for people’s souls because let me tell you, I’ve felt completely soulless.

    So Susan, when you ask what burns in me, what fire is in my heart? This is what I can’t ignore and this is the fire inside me: the Gospel of the all loving Jesus that so many people set aside for their formulas and religion and doctrine and tradition. He set us free. Should the artist embrace formula? I’ll ask a different question. Does the artist need formula? I’ve been so encouraged by Storyline and when I come here, I don’t feel the need to hide behind formulas or mask my love for Jesus. Storyline is blossoming into a wonderful little community. Thank you for your provoking words, Susan.

    Grace and Peace

    • Nathan: Thanks for your comment. I think you bring up a great point. Artists and Christians should not embrace a formula. There’s a difference between formula and form. Formula becomes formulaic. But noticing the pattern and form in your story helps you to see what God is doing. Of course no one’s journey through life is the same. But what Don expressed in A Million Miles about screenwriting structure, goes way back. Before Robert McKee’s story conference, or Christopher Volger’s book, “The Writer’s Journey.” A lot of these ideas trace back to Joseph Campbell, who wrote “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.” Campbell studied all sorts of myths, religions, cultures and stories, and found the common thread of the Hero. The Hero must go through trials to gain his goal, and return to his community changed for the better, bringing back something of value. This is a terrible synopsis.

      But when I talk about artists needing to embrace a form, I mean they need to honor the genre of their work. Christians need to honor the form of the story God has us in.

      You’re right, that people end up making up a formula for God: do this X times a week, say this prayer, think this thought, and all will be added unto you. That’s formulaic.

      Personally I’ve returned to a liturgical church, because I find mystery and depth in the traditions and sacraments. But as CS Lewis said, symbol is the avenue to the real. I have to pay attention and allow God to speak to me when I focus my mind on the form.

      I think this is true in art and in faith. take whatever steps you need to take to get in the presence of God, whether it’s prayer, meditation, the sacraments. Sitting in silence. Working, spending time with people. Do whatever activity brings you close to God. And then listen and observe.

      If you’ve got a fire in your heart for people to know that all-loving God, don’t let someone tell you what formula you should apply to it. What makes you come alive? Do that. Thanks again for your post, Nathan.

  • RosePearl

    Wow, another great Storyline post! I feel like everything that’s been posted recently correlates directly to things that are going on in my life. It’s uncanny!

    … A few years ago, I asked God to kill my dreams. Mostly because I was too afraid to go after them. Back then, I would have told you it was because I wanted to give God everything that I had. Looking back, I don’t even know how that made sense! It doesn’t make sense that we should give up the dreams and the talents that God’s given to us — because through them, we glorify and bring honor to Him. Our dreams are at the heart of who we are… it’s the least (and most!) we can do to give our dreams — our heart — to Him.

    I vividly remember the feeling that came over me after I prayed that prayer. I suddenly felt… gray — like the color and life had been sucked out of me. I remember sensing a great disturbance in the Force. I understand now that God was severely displeased by my request. I’d rejected Him, and everything that He’d given to me, which is CRAZY because I was a professing Christian!

  • Susan

    I definitely think mathematical formulas can be considered when writing but I don’t think you would want to be bound completely or beholden to them. I think we often overlook the behavioral science connection to mathematical formulas. Game theory, neuroscience, all general economics implement exact formulas for behavior. If you know the rules, it makes it more fun to break them in creating our stories. Aren’t miracles God breaking His own rules?

  • More and more, I think the fire in my heart is disciple-making. Not in a pastoral role, or at least not yet, but more in coming alongside people to help them grow in Christ. That includes things like writing, teaching, and continuing education.

    I’ve already started working on some of these things with my church. What’s holding me back now is nothing, really. I have a full time job outside of ministry that takes up most of my time, but that may change to be more in line with my fire.

    Thanks for the reminder that while God is the lead in our story, we still play a big supporting role.

  • teresa

    yes, yes, and did i say yes? so many little “proverbs” like “Wait for God to open a door” are actually overspiritualizations that take away responsibility from ME. God wants me to grow up in Christ, not sit and wait for all the decisions to be made for me.

  • This couldn’t have come at a timelier time! It is like a word from God to me–addressed right to my heart. I almost killed a dream yesterday (wrote about it today at

    Wow! Going to soak this in.

  • Jared B. Sharpe

    i would say I am in the same boat as you, but I’m paddling a little behind you, so this was encouraging to read. I feel like this pulled me ahead in my thinking so now I don’t have to come to this conclusion on my own. Thank you for sharing, and I wish you well.

  • Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
    C. S. Lewis

  • Thank you Susan, I’ve already quoted you on twitter – “Conflict is the tool God uses to shape our character.”

    Also, I believe I’ve been hiding in the church as well while trying to “seek first the kingdom,” hoping to magically discover my dreams and goals. I may be a better Christian because of it (on paper??) but I’m definitely a “churchier” one… And I don’t think that’s a good thing. IN this season God is removing me from my church (leaving town for business til February) and I’m believing it’ll be a time in my life where he shapes me in ways I never expected. I’m looking forward to it.

    I’m starting to develop dreams, aspirations, and goals for the first time since my salvation ten years ago that aren’t directly related to the church, and it feels fantastic. What’s more, is I think God wants to be a HUGE part of it. What a great God we serve, that he doesn’t confine our dreams and goals to what we can conjure up within the four walls of the church building.

    Thanks again.

    • Mike that is such great news, that your dreams and goals are waking up again, and that God wants to participate!

  • I’m so tired of being “religious”! I was talking to a friend of mine about certain secular music, Adele, and certain secular shows, Downton Abbey.. she had no idea what I was talking about. She told me she was too busy doing ministry that she didn’t have time for these things. How am I going to relate to people in the “Real” world if I’m not in touch with popular culture? Is this a conflict? Yes! I was an atheist for my first 30 yrs. and I love Jesus, but I can’t be put in a box. I can listen to Beyonce, OK maybe not everything, and watch secular movies & still witness I love Jesus. Is this making sense?

  • Awesome post! I think people often fail to realize that we learn through conflict. The scriptures say that even Jesus learned obedience through the things he suffered. Sometime conflict involves suffering. In this way God set it up for our soul’s to mature over time.

  • Susan, great post. I’m hoping you will press into the first question you raised: does true art have a math to it? Maybe a true story is beautiful because it illuminates human experience, helping us understand the shape of our lives. Maybe in its most elemental form, transformation is embedded in the moment of “aha” at the center of any story.