Reel Spirituality: Film and Faith

Everyone loves a good story. Jesus knew this, and he himself was a masterful storyteller as he used parables, the storytelling medium of his day, to communicate truth and values, ethics and morality. He communicated the truth of the Kingdom of God and its requirements by appealing to people in the form of storytelling. Today, the storytelling medium in our culture is movies. People love to go to the movies, to relax with friends, to escape the complexities of life and get swept along in a story and amazed by the artistic milieu. Yet, like all good stories, movies have an agenda; a truth or value that its author wants to communicate to their audience. As Van Gelder says about the medium of movies, “It is not a neutral medium that simply entertains. Movies help us reflect on the world as they hold it up to our view, and they help shape the very way we see the world.”[1] The question is, are we really aware of what we are absorbing and assimilating in the name of entertainment?

The other day I observed a discussion on Facebook about the upcoming movie, 50 Shades of Grey, set to come to theatres this week. I was horrified at the enthusiasm of some, whom I consider strong Christians, to see this movie. My horror turned to solemn introspection at what the church is doing to equip people. Have these “strong” Christian women really been given the Biblical tools to understand and interpret culture Biblically, or have we compartmentalized our Christianity from the culture we live in? What we need in our churches is to encourage a theology of culture that will help our churches be able to frame these types of issues Biblically. In 1 Corinthians 16:13-14, Paul encourages Timothy to, “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.” I want to encourage a discerning posture towards movies by emphasizing four exhortations:

1) Be on Your Guard: Everything, including movies, informs our values.

We cannot be so naïve to think that values are only formed through studious reflection. Our values are formed by everything in life, whether we are cognizant of it or not. The danger of viewing movies as strictly entertainment is that we let down our intellectual guard and we begin to absorb different values uncritically.

The power of movies and storytelling is that the author draws the audience into the story through artistic representation, and as the audience begins to identify with the protagonist, we are compelled to sympathize with their plight and assumed to agree with their solution. If we are not aware, we can walk away from the cinema sympathizing or identifying ourselves with worldviews that are in conflict with Christianity. If left unchecked, we can develop skewed values informed by humanism, atheism, pantheism, postmodernism, fatalism, moral relativism and a whole lot of other “isms” that are prevalent in recent movies.

Movies are not safe for an uncritical mind and so as Christians, we need to be on guard as to not absorb anything passively, but rather engage movies and culture with discernment. The first thing we need to do is be aware; be on guard.

2) Stand Firm in the Faith: Keep our spiritual eyes open

Secondly, we need to stand firm on our Biblical foundation and view things from the firm foundation of the Bible. When we are watching movies we need to be asking, “What values are being assumed here?” We can enjoy movies as entertainment and appreciate them as art, but not at the expense of closing our spiritual eyes. I wonder if we are aware of some of the paradigms that are communicated through popular movies? Here are some examples:

The iconic movie, The Matrix, is a primer on postmodernism questioning what is actually real and the tension between modernity and post-modernity. Modernity is equated to the systems for understanding our world that bind and enslave the human mind. Yet, as Mr. Anderson discovers, reality is the boundless free mind that the red pill gives you. The movie is a virtual syncretism of worldviews from Christianity to Buddhism and Gnosticism.

Another interesting movie is Forrest Gump. This is a movie about a lovable guy, but is steeped in existentialism and fatalism. Forrest is the epitome of the existential man’s interaction in a fatalistic world where his many successes turn out to be meaningless. The famous quote, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get,” illustrates this underlying motif in the movie.

As fun and interesting as movies are, we need to be aware of what’s being said and communicated so we can stand firm on a Biblical worldview. Our posture in movies and all cultural texts should be to ask the questions: a) Does this line up with Biblical teaching and b) If not, what does the Bible say about our attitude to this issue? c) What affect will/should this have on my faith and behaviour.

3) Be Courageous and Strong: Do not compromise

There seems to be a great push in our evangelical churches to become more relevant, to engage culture and contextualize the Gospel. My fear is that too many Christians are using contextualization as an excuse to indulge in worldliness. There is a balance between assimilation and isolation, and I believe it takes a lot of wisdom to navigate that street so as not to fall in either ditch.[2] One ditch involves the upcoming movie, 50 Shades of Grey. The movie is an example of a sickness in our culture that explores and glorifies deviant sexual practices such as BDSM[3]. Is this an aspect of culture that Christians should engage in? What motivates a Christian to want to watch this movie? I believe the problem is that people are attracted to movies like this not because of its entertainment value or because they want to be relevant, but because of their lust for sin.[4] Their search for relevance is a search not to quench their thirst for contextualization but to feed their justification for the compromise of holiness.

I appreciate the perspective of Trevin Wax as he comments on 50 Shades. He asks if Christians are a better witness by going to the movies with your friends or rather are you “being a faithful witness precisely because you withdrew?”[5] So what then is our standard? Where do we draw the line? Again, I think Wax hits it right on the head when he says, “our pursuit of holiness must be the mark against which our pursuit of cultural engagement is measured.”[6] Some of the questions we can ask ourselves are: “why do I want to see this movie?”, “Is this something that I should expose myself to?”, “What would I be compromising by watching this movie?” In the end, a good measure would be “No matter how much artistry may be involved in this film, it uses copious amounts of sewage to get across its point. Stay away, for your own health.”[7]

4) Do everything in love: Engage Evangelistically

We are called to be faithful witnesses in our world, not to judge the world but to lovingly introduce Christ into the everyday mix of life. In some instances that is withdrawing and refusing to participate and so reflect the holiness of Christ, other times it is an opportunity to engage culture with the truth of the Bible. Movies are powerful and engaging conversation starters. Some movies have great redemptive stories that can be paralleled with Christ’s ultimate redemption. Other movies present moral issues that we can speak into with Biblical truth as in the movie, Seven Pounds, where the choice is between morality and empathy and the issue of Euthanasia is brought to the forefront. Or perhaps the tension of choosing between morality and law as is depicted in the startling conclusion of Gone Baby Gone. In both of these movies the audience is left to decide for themselves what the right decision is. These offer great opportunities for Christians to speak into these types of current issues and offer a Biblical response. While much in movies is questionable, most of it is worthy of discussion.[8] We have a tremendous opportunity as Christians to engage the world with the love of Christ and the truth of the Gospel using the medium of movies.

As Paul said, we need to be on guard, be strong and courageous and to love our world through careful and discerning interaction with it. Our goal in our interaction with culture should be as vessels of the message of Jesus Christ in a way that people understand, while guarding our hearts and minds. While movies provide a great medium for engagement with culture, we must be wise and discerning in our interactions with them and never compromise the veracity of the Gospel on the altar of contextualization.

 

[1] Craig Van Gelder, Confident Witness-Changing World: Rediscovering the Gospel in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), Kindle Locations 672-673.

[2] Brian Godwa in his book Hollywood Worldviews compares two sorts of people: Cultural gluttons who consume popular art passively and indiscriminately and cultural anorexics who avoid culture and end up in irrelevance and alienation. Both extremes are dangerous and a balance needs to be struck between the two extremes. I believe we need a healthy diet of culture balanced in the Word of God. Brian Godwa, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom and Discernment 2nd Ed. (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2009), 19-20.

[3] BDSM stands for: bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism. This type of sexual behaviour is ultimately destructive and in violation God’s intent for healthy sexual expression.

[4] In an article on the movie John Piper is quoted as saying, “We are sinful not because we’re victims of darkness, but because we’re lovers of darkness.” Marshall Segal, Fifty Shades of Nay: Sin Is a Needle, Not a Toy. February 11, 2015. Desiringgod.org http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/fifty-shades-of-nay-sin-is-a-needle-not-a-toy. Accessed on February 11, 2015.

[5] Trevin Wax. “Christians and Movies: Are we contextualizing or compromising?” January 29, 2014. http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2014/01/29/christians-and-movies-are-we-contextualizing-or-compromising/

[6] Kevin Wax. “Evangelicals and Hollywood Muck.” January 6, 2014. http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2014/01/06/evangelicals-and-hollywood-muck/

[7] Trevin Wax. “Christians and Movies.”

[8] Godwa, 26.