The Leap of Faith

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You’ve all seen this trope in a movie or on TV, or perhaps encountered it in a role-playing game or video game: the leap of faith. The jump or step

Thank god his binocular vision kicked in!

off the cliff and into oblivion, hoping but not knowing that there will be something there to catch you. Made particularly famous by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, of course.

I enjoy the idea behind this–having a character lead to a point where they cannot know for certain who or what they can trust, where they have to indeed have faith and that has to be enough, is great when pulled off correctly. However, I also feel like making it a literal leap of faith has become very overdone. Frankly, I want to see someone step off a cliff and plummet to their death because they were foolish enough to think their eyes couldn’t see the walkway right in front of them.

Because standing at the edge of a cliff should be scary. Everything around you says that this will kill you–the height, physics, the lack of solid ground to keep you upright and safe. You should look down the depths before and feel terror and complete denial that this will be anything but your untimely death if you move another inch. The same should go for anyone walking the plank, especially if there are sharks in the water. The only people who shouldn’t be afraid here are the foolhardy or the crazy–not the heroes. Why not, because heroes (or main characters or protagonists, your choice) need to be relatable. And the everyday person cannot relate to someone who will step off a cliff without any proof that they’ll not die for it.

Now if you'd stop dating vampires, you solve a lot more life-or-death issues for yourself....oh, who am I kidding, like I'd say no to that!

In the most recent season of True Blood, in fact, this came up (minor spoilers for Season 4, Episode 1): Sookie is told that to return to her world and get away from some nasty fairies, she has to jump into a visually bottomless and shrinking hole in the Earth. She sure as hell does nothing of the sort, because that’s what a sane person does! She only ends up jumping (and thus returning to the normal world) because she’s pushed by someone else. No part of that leap was her choice, and I was glad that was the case. Good for you for not being suicidal (in this particular instance), Sookie!

However, I still love Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and I don’t begrudge it this particular moment in the movie despite what it may have spawned. Why? (What a fun question!) Because they build up to this. Indy spends the entire movie being a practical, logic-based, believe-my-eyes man. The legends of the Grail present facts to him, and those are what he follows–he’s a man of science here, not a man of faith. Whether or not he should be given his past is a different story altogether, but in this movie, his reliance on science (rhymes and) contrasts with his father’s focus on matters of faith. Yes, there is more nuance to it, sure, but I’m talking in overarching terms here. He’s now been put into an insane situation–his father is dying, and only getting through these trials can he save his life. He has to put his faith not only in the Grail legend, but in the results of his father’s research. The first few tests would seem to be ones of faith as well, but they are broken down into facts that Indy qiuckly picks up on. Something solid and reliable. But this last test, the leap of faith, is different: prior to committing to the test, Indy has nothing to tell him this won’t kill him, except the fact that he’s come this far and there have been reasonable ways around the previous tests. But those tests were very deadly all the same, so he could die here if he doesn’t get it right. And that’s what it comes down to: have faith, take the leap, and pray to God it works.

For the rest of us, let’s agree to stop with the cliff edges and roofs of buildings, shall we? Unless someone’s about to go splat. That’d be awesome.

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3 responses »

  1. I think part of the ‘Leap of Faith’ being acceptable has to do with how it is introduced and in what context. Leaps of Faith needn’t be literal–being asked to trust a stranger, for instance, or take that hail-mary shot to save your life or the lives of others. Also, when properly integrated in the overriding theme of a story (e.g. Last Crusade) they can be quite powerful.

    I agree, however, that too often the leap of faith is used lazily and poorly. (Actually, come to think of it, I believe I did set up a leap of faith test in an RPG once that was a trap–I actually got a PC to step to his death on the word of a lying, two-headed dragon. No one was amused except me.)

  2. Exactly! Done well, they work very well–I just feel like I’ve seen the literal translation too often, and also seen the real crux of the idea (having faith when logic tells you this will fail) taken for granted.

    So while I may not have been amused at the time if that had been my PC who died, I respect your decision to do so! 😉 Haha, and I think I’ll remember to (continue to) act with caution when you’re GMing!

    And appropos of little, you should run another Cthulhu one-shot. I’ll try to let someone else save the world this time, really!

  3. I’ve got one kicking around, but I haven’t gotten the itch to wrangle it together. Perhaps after the next Frontier mission, sometime around Halloween…

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