For some time now, our church has viewed and discussed films that have something to say about spirituality. Film and Spirituality, as it has come to be called, has been an interesting way to engage the culture around us, by giving us an avenue for discussing the way that spirituality is expressed in media. Personally, I find this a proactive way of connecting with the culture around us in potentially redeeming ways.
Modern western evangelicalism, with its Platonic separation of the sacred and secular, has dictated to the church what are and what are not acceptable acts of worship. I have been discovering that this was not always the case. Other cultures have understood and exemplified that all of life is worship. Ancient Celtic Christians, for example, acted to sanctify their day-to-day activities by having prayers for milking a cow, bathing, etc. There is even Biblical precedent: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
Back to movies. Films are one of the major ways our culture expresses itself: its wants, fears, hurts and desires. Films have the power to change public perception, to educate, to entertain. They open our eyes to a wider reality; they show us a world that is bigger, brighter, darker, more full of life, beauty, and danger than our everyday experiences. They are a primary medium for our generation’s mythology. Almost anything that we (as a culture, a nation, a society, a generation) believe about ourselves, God, and our world can be found in our movies.
What a pity that the church has widely regarded movies as problematic, something to be either shunned altogether or dissected on an arbitrary decency scale. I empathize with those who wish to protect society’s children from overexposure to sexuality, violence, coarse language, and occultism. However, I believe that isolationism, opposition and denial are not the best alternatives that Christianity has to offer. I think that the challenge to Christians is to be a prophetic witness to culture. Just as Daniel interpreted the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar, so I believe that we as the church will be able, with God’s help, to provide meaning to the often meaninglessness of contemporary art forms, such as movies (even when such meaning was unknown to the creator at the time of its creation).
I would go further. Beyond saying that we Christians, the Bible, God, or simply our worldview has something to say regarding film, I would contend that the conversation can and should go two ways – namely, that film can and should influence our reading of Scripture. Something that has been missing from the Church’s movie-watching, if it has done any, is the allowance for the film to speak to us in a worldview-shaping way.
In his book Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film, Robert K. Johnston attempts to do that with the specific subject matter of the book of Ecclesiastes. He juxtaposes some of the book’s major themes: “life’s vanity, death, amorality, our existence’s inscrutability” (p. 185) with several modern films, allowing them to illustrate these topics and provide a fuller picture of what the writer said. Not surprisingly, in light of the subject matter, many of the movies Johnston covers are rated R (Magnolia, Monster’s Ball, and American Beauty, among others). According to Johnston, several scholars have lately entered the arena of film, seeking to “reverse the hermeneutical flow,” or allow the conversation between faith and culture to be two-way.
This is a call for the community of faith to get involved, to get our hands dirty, to be actively engaged with our society – not just to have something to say to culture, but to listen for the voice of God in our circumstances, no matter how unlikely the source.