Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film

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In a postmodern age, life is often perceived in terms of difficult paradoxes and contradictions, which seem irreconcilable with a Christian understanding of human existence. In Useless Beauty, Robert K. Johnston uses film criticism as a medium of dialogue between the ancient and the postmodern, analyzing how both the Book of Ecclesiastes and such contemporary films as American Beauty, Magnolia, and Run Lola Run present life's beauty despite its pain and apparent futility. He argues that there should be a two-way ...
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Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film

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Overview

In a postmodern age, life is often perceived in terms of difficult paradoxes and contradictions, which seem irreconcilable with a Christian understanding of human existence. In Useless Beauty, Robert K. Johnston uses film criticism as a medium of dialogue between the ancient and the postmodern, analyzing how both the Book of Ecclesiastes and such contemporary films as American Beauty, Magnolia, and Run Lola Run present life's beauty despite its pain and apparent futility. He argues that there should be a two-way dialogue between Christianity and film, one informing the other.

Through its recognition that both Ecclesiastes and today's movies understand something of the hard reality of life, this book presents a challenge to the common assumptions that the Bible is too heavy-handed to be applied usefully to movies and that cinema is dangerous to faith. Rather, Johnston argues that Christians ought not shrink from the fact that life and the life-like material presented in movies are not always neat and tidy.

Unlike many contemporary Christian film critics, Johnston employs a "reverse hermeneutical flow," beginning by using popular culture as it is presented in film to achieve a better understanding of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Only then does he turn the argument and use the biblical text to see more clearly what movies present to the public. Johnston uses this form of criticism to explore the themes of life and death, chance and choice, loneliness and connection, and God's presence and absence as they are presented in Ecclesiastes, modern films, and human life.

Students and professors of the Old Testament, theology, and film will find Useless Beauty an invaluable resource for their studies.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Drawing the title from a line in an Elvis Costello song about "all this useless beauty," Johnston, Fuller Seminary professor of theology and culture, invites us to consider connections between biblical wisdom literature and film. In particular, he compares Ecclesiastes with films such as American Beauty, Magnolia, About Schmidt and Signs. "Useless beauty" refers to the paradox described in Ecclesiastes (and in many of the selected films) of beauty in the midst of a life filled with vanity, futility and absurdity. Although the title promotes Ecclesiastes through the lens of film, it is really a treatment of film through the lens of Ecclesiastes, as Johnston intersperses key biblical passages in italics next to his rendition of film plots and characters showing us the dynamic analogies. Johnston's hope is that this will create a "two-way dialogue" that starts with the film but moves back and forth between the film and scripture. Narrowing in on Ecclesiastes-a book embraced by many different religious traditions-exposes Johnston to a wide audience, one that includes Christians, Jews, Muslims and even New Age hybrids. That's good for everyone, because Johnston's forte is helping us think more deeply about how God is revealed in popular culture, so that our notion of God is expanded even beyond our traditional understandings. (Nov.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801027857
  • Publisher: Baker Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/1/2004
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert K. Johnston (PhD, Duke University) is professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author or editor of over twelve books, including Reel Spirituality and Finding God in the Movies. A past president of the American Theological Society and the recipient of two major research grants from the Luce Foundation, Johnston is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church.

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Table of Contents

1 A battered optimism : Ecclesiastes and our contemporary context 17
2 The existentialist alternative : Akira Kurosawa and Woody Allen 35
3 Death and life : Alan Ball and American beauty 57
4 The saddest happy ending : Paul Thomas Anderson and Magnolia 73
5 Chance and fate : Tom Tykwer and Run Lola run 93
6 An ambiguous joy : Marc Forster and Monster's ball 113
7 Can God be in this? : M. Night Shyamalan and Signs 127
8 Confessions of a workaholic : Alexander Payne, Election, and About Schmidt 147
9 Humanity at full stretch : let the "preacher" respond 169
App. A Ecclesiastes' history of interpretation 179
App. B Christian film criticism 183
App. C Biblical criticism and Useless beauty 187
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