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The Message Behind the Movie
How to Engage with a Film without Disengaging your Faith
By Douglas M. Beaumont, Christopher Reese
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2009 Douglas M. Beaumont
All rights reserved.
Can Anything Good Come Out of Hollywood?
HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD?
Do you sympathize more with Mike or Nita? Both had good reasons for their perspectives on the subject of movies, but who was right? The fact that you are reading this book suggests that you perceive some value in movies. But perhaps, like many Christians, you are uncertain how to think about movies as they relate to your Christian beliefs.
Like Nita, some Christians choose to simply dismiss nearly everything that comes out of Hollywood as pure evil. These abstainers usually watch very few movies and are extremely critical when they do, often focusing on the style elements of movies more than anything else. While this position is not difficult to sympathize with, given the content of many movies these days, it does have negative consequences. Movies often provide us with new words, phrases, or references that can be very helpful for connecting with others. By avoiding movies altogether, Nita and others may be unaware of shifts in current popular-level thinking, thereby limiting their ability to connect with the people they go to school or work with.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who have an almost careless affinity for movies. These folks are more concerned with entertainment than style. "It's just good fun," they will say. "Don't take things so seriously!" These people will watch practically anything, tolerate practically anything, and view most films uncritically. They will often ignore offensive style elements so long as they are entertained. Perhaps worse, they may not think they are being affected by the films they watch. Because they don't think critically about movies, these viewers are often unable to say anything more about a movie than whether or not they enjoyed it. Unlike the movie abstainers, movie lovers may be able to make more inside cultural references, but they often cannot connect movies to deeper issues.
In the dialogue above, Mike represents yet another approach to movies. People like Mike recognize the cultural importance of movies and may be inclined to celebrate anything with a spiritual theme, whether real or imagined. In their desire to see movies used for spiritual purposes, movie advocates sometimes ignore the clear message of a movie and impose a spiritual message upon it. Advocates may even be glad to see that there were no overt Christian elements in a movie as long as there were, at some allegorical level, spiritual themes. The danger of this approach is that movie advocates sometimes fail to see the actual message of a movie in their quest for spiritual relevance and, consequently, may champion a film with a message that is antithetical to their beliefs.
As this brief survey shows, there is little consensus among Christians concerning how to think about movies.
THE CHURCH'S PLATONIC RELATIONSHIP WITH MOVIES
It may encourage you to know that this debate is nothing new. Disagreement over movies is in many ways a contemporary version of a debate about the influence of art that has raged since long before the first moving picture was ever conceived.
Historically, there have been two competing positions regarding the purpose of art and the proper way to judge its worth, positions which originate with philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Both men admitted to delighting in art, but they had very different ideas about art's ultimate effects. Most important for us, their differences help explain why Christians can disagree about the value of film.
To put it simply, Plato viewed art as largely useless and, oftentimes, even harmful. This assessment was based on the philosopher's understanding of virtue and goodness. Plato believed that to be virtuous, a person must have true knowledge. If art only imitates truth—but is not actually true—it cannot make a person truly virtuous. He also believed that the highest good is also the most real. Because all art is essentially an imitation of reality (and often a faulty imitation), it is not morally neutral, but is actually bad. Finally, art can be dangerous, because its "language" (whether music, poetry, painting, or something else) is emotionally provocative. When the passions are aroused, the soul's balance is disrupted and a person becomes irrational. For these reasons, said Plato, people should only be exposed to art that strongly and clearly communicates ultimate truths.
Plato's student Aristotle thought of art differently. While he agreed that art imitates reality, he did not consider this a problem. Artistic imitation is one way humans distinguish themselves from the lower animals, and that makes it a good thing for humans to do. Art is also useful for learning, even when it depicts immoral behavior. For example, a comedy depicting fools and their folly is useful because it can teach us to avoid foolishness (which is good) without our having to make foolish decisions (which is bad). Aristotle also noted that art has cathartic value; that is, it can help us release the very emotions that it arouses, so that we ultimately achieve the balance Plato thought was lost when the passions are inflamed. For example, viewing violence may make us more compassionate toward the victims of violence.
Finally, Aristotle recognized that art can actually describe ultimate reality more effectively precisely because it is not bound by mundane reality. As we all know, examples of virtue are sometimes hard to find in the real world. The virtue of courage, for instance, can often be more easily taught by watching a movie like The Lord of the Rings than by watching politicians on CNN. In other words, art can communicate profound truths about reality.
When it comes to movies, it appears that many Christians have agreed with Plato. We want films that communicate truth clearly without displaying anything bad. We want movies that have a strong, easily discernable moral message that does not arouse our "lower" passions. So when a film comes along that presents the dark side of life, asks more questions than it answers, portrays sinfulness, or excites our emotions, Christians may judge it as immoral. As I will argue, that's not always the correct response—we often must look deeper to discern the underlying message of a film. Think, for example, if movies were made of every book in the Bible. Some of these films would include portrayals of sinful behaviors and attitudes. How might film versions of Ecclesiastes, Job, Judges, Psalms, Song of Songs, or Revelation be produced?
Instead of following Plato exclusively, I think Christians would do well to recognize the merits of Aristotle's perspective. An Aristotelian approach to movies needn't condone sinfulness; instead, it can recognize how central storytelling is to human experience and seek to accurately critique the messages that stories in films are communicating.
Today more than ever before, popular culture may have a bigger impact on people than their family or church. Consider this: one study reported that teenagers spend about ten hours per day consuming media of various kinds. This means that even if teens were to spend two hours per day with their parents, by the end of the week they would have spent five times as much time immersed in media. By the time a person in America reaches the age of eighteen, they've spent about forty thousand hours consuming media versus about eight thousand with parents and four thousand hours at church, if they attended regularly.
As early as the 1930s, one theater critic wrote, "Theaters are the new Church of the Masses—where people sit huddled in the dark listening to people in the light tell them what it is to be human." In other words, movies encourage community by creating shared experiences that unite people as they try to make sense of the world—which means movies serve a function similar to that of religion. That is to say, for better or worse, movies can shape the way we think about the world. This can be a good thing. For example, and to echo Aristotle's observations about art in general, movies serve as a vicarious means of experiencing life. We can encounter things through movies that we might not otherwise get a chance to explore. This goes beyond mere entertainment. Movies provide a way to experience a myriad of situations with a measure of detachment that is impossible in real life. Rather than being shocked and ill-equipped to deal with these situations when they arise, it can be beneficial to safely explore these issues through cinema before being faced with them in real life.
Because movies explore issues central to human experience, they can provide an excellent means of engaging people in conversation about the Christian faith. Much of my experience and training is in apologetics, the art of defending and explaining the Christian faith to non-Christians. So one of the primary ways I have found to integrate film into my life and ministry is to understand movies as communicators of current thought that can aid my understanding and conversing with contemporary culture.
Any relationship requires common ground, whether that is speaking the same language, living in the same neighborhood, or sharing a work environment or common interests. Sometimes this common ground has to be cultivated. Certainly we must avoid associating with non-Christians in an ungodly way that blurs our distinctions (2 Corinthians 6:14) and ruins our witness. But the best evangelists know that finding common ground means meeting people right where they are. In Acts 2, for example, Peter spoke to the crowds in Jerusalem using Old Testament prophecies to prove that Christ was the Messiah. But in Acts 17, when Paul was at Mars Hill, he used Greek philosophical arguments from creation to lead the pagan philosophers to Christ. In both cases, the success of the evangelism was directly related to the speaker's ability to make use of cultural connections through the power of the Holy Spirit.
More often than not, these cultural connections can be found in a culture's stories. Ursula K. LeGuin writes that "story ... is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there are no societies that did not tell stories." In the same way that we can investigate ancient cultures through their stories, we can learn much about our own through films. Movies make us conversant with the great stories of our time. Like tales spun around the campfires of our forefathers, movies draw us together and give us a common story. At a time when religion is distrusted as a source for ultimate truth, movies allow us to collectively reflect on our own stories and share our reflections with other viewers.
In order to successfully integrate movies into our spiritual lives, though, we first need to learn how to evaluate movies, so that we neither miss the good nor uncritically accept the bad. It may sound like a tough job, but with some basic guidelines, anyone can make objective judgments of a movie's worth. When this process becomes natural, you will begin to see things you might never have noticed or appreciated in films before. You might find that this training helps you enjoy movies more, in the same way that musicians often have a greater appreciation for music than do those of us who don't play an instrument. Even so, increasing our pleasure in movie watching is not our primary goal. Rather, we are concerned primarily with learning to evaluate a movie in light of our Christian beliefs. So we will learn to discern a movie's message or significance as revealed by its story, including how that story is told (its style) and what worldview it assumes (its suppositions). Whether a movie presents a strong Christian, non-Christian, or anti-Christian worldview, we need to be prepared to address its worldview in our conversations. Therefore, the second part of this book will feature basic lessons in message evaluation and response.
SHOULD CHRISTIANS BE INVOLVED IN SECULAR ENTERTAINMENT AT ALL?
Even if we acknowledge the possible positive influence of movies, we may still wonder whether we should consume products created by non-Christian culture. If we follow the example of the apostle Paul, the answer appears to be "yes." Consider the following Scripture verses:
"Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats."
"Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."
"Bad company corrupts good character."
"Cretans are always liars."
"It hurts you to kick against the goads."
"In him we live and move and have our being ... for we too are his offspring."
In order, these quotations are from 1 Corinthians 6:13 (KJV); 15:32 (KJV); 15:33 (NIV); Titus 1:12 (NIV); and Acts 26:14 (NRSV); 17:28 (NRSV). What may surprise you is that in each of these verses, the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to quote pagan writers! In fact, in its original form, the last quote refers to Zeus! Yet God saw fit to use the statement to communicate the truth of the gospel when Paul spoke to the Greeks, whose authors penned those words. It seems, then, that Christians can utilize truth communicated in non-Christian culture to further God's kingdom.
WHY DO YOU CALL IT "GOOD"?
"Is that a good movie?" can be a dangerous question. We use the word "good" to refer to pizza, dogs, books, and God. Clearly, we don't always use this word in the same way. If two people do not agree on what makes something "good," they will surely reach different conclusions. This is especially true for movies. There are any number of elements that people judge movies by (artistic styling, acting quality, storytelling, special effects, musical score, a moral message, etc.). In addition, nothing on this earth is perfect, so anything we evaluate will be a mixture of good and bad. For this reason, movies that some consider "good" should not necessarily be viewed by all people. The Exorcist (1973), for example, ultimately portrays the triumph of faith, which is a good message. Yet the film's depictions of evil are so horrific that they might not be worth enduring for the sake of the film's good message. There is often a fine line between the good a film contains and the objectionable elements one must endure to get to it. This topic is covered in more detail in chapters 4 and 11.
In light of these considerations, we need to keep in mind that saying a movie is "good" can mean that a film is well-done, or that it affirms a biblical worldview, or simply that a viewer enjoyed it. Throughout the book, I will sometimes make positive comments about movies for the skill with which they use various elements to tell a story and convey their overarching message. Please understand that I am not attempting to provide a guide for which specific movies are acceptable for you to watch. Rather, I will present principles that can help you make informed and Christ-honoring movie-watching decisions.
In either case, my purpose in this book is to show how we can all better interact with our culture by understanding the movies that shape and reveal it. In order to do this well, I will cite a wide variety of movies as illustrations of various points. However, unless I specifically state my overall evaluation of these movies, my use of them as examples should not be understood as either a general recommendation or condemnation.
I hope that this book will help you avoid careless affinity, unnecessary abstinence, and overzealous advocacy of films by focusing on how movies communicate their message. This will allow us to evaluate films more objectively. Then we can appreciate and utilize movies for what they are, even when they are not what we might like them to be. Author Stephen Lawhead once wrote, "Those who reject popular culture wholly or in part tend to see the devil as extremely active in the world, so terrible in his power and influence that the best defense is retreat." His advice, and mine, on the subject is neatly summarized in the quote below.
Excerpted from The Message Behind the Movie by Douglas M. Beaumont, Christopher Reese. Copyright © 2009 Douglas M. Beaumont. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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