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Jun 2011

Why Film and Theology?

The Bible tells a story that is the story, the story of which our human life is a part. It is not that stories are part of human life, but that human life is part of a story. – Lesslie Newbigin in The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission.

My wife and I sat down the other evening after the kids had gone to bed and decided to pop in a favorite movie of ours, The Book of Eli. The movie explores some very rich themes, including offering some key points on the nature of man, the power of religion, and the sovereign will of God. In the tradition of all great movie and television dramas, it does not oversimplify tough questions. It leaves plenty of room for debate. It shows us men who fail, men who become selfish animals when put to the test, and it shows us men who heed the call of conscience even at great risk to themselves. This is a truly remarkable film, and as I watched the movie credits begin to roll at the end, I was once again in awe of the power of film.

Film is probably the reigning art form of the twenty-first century. Not only is it accessible, but it embodies a collaborative creation, and ends up being the result of a diverse community coming together in the attempt to create something beautiful. Our desire to tell stories comes from being made in God’s image, and movies inevitably express truths related to the One True Narrative. Whether it’s the nature of God, the consequences of sin, or a multitude of other issues; filmmakers, either directly or indirectly, often touch on these themes.

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton says that for many years he believed there was no connection between “the world and the Christian tradition,” they were “two parts of two machines.” Then he began to see that every story he covered actually fit inside a larger story that only the Word could explain the world:

When once these two parts of the two machines had come together, one after another, all the other parts fitted and fell in with an eerie exactitude. I could hear bolt after bolt over all the machinery falling into its place with a kind of click of relief. Having got one part right, all the other parts were repeating that rectitude, as clock after clock strikes noon. Instinct after instinct was answered by doctrine after doctrine.

On the surface, it seems as if movies have replaced religious groups as the place where significant encounters with the “transcendent” takes place. It is in this temple of the theater where meaning is preached; where, this weekend alone, millions of people will take in a movie or rent a DVD, and passively absorb dramatized life lessons, morals, and worldviews from directors, producers, and screenwriters. We, as a community of believers, should be engaging this art form, and pointing out where these narratives ring true and where they ring false. What does the movie say about human existence, the supernatural, life, the afterlife, and our need for redemption? Why do certain narratives evoke certain emotions in us?

The reality is that sometimes we are often far too shallow, flippant, and unduly critical when it comes to engaging film. For most people there is little discussion following a film beyond simple conclusions such as, “That was a good movie!” or “I didn’t like it” or “That was okay.” Every film contains ideas, and those ideas are related in turn to worldviews. Consequently, learning to exegete film in a manner that is relevant will help us engage others in discussions about faith, truth, and more.

The Church’s cultural relevance in reference to engaging film, however, must not sacrifice biblical truth. In other words, while the Christian worldview should adapt to the influence of film and its penetration in our cultural milieu, it should not sacrifice essential Christian doctrine and ideas when seeking meaningful and engaging ways of interacting with individuals. In addition, while there are times for direct critical analysis that thoughtfully responds to erroneous ideas in films, we also need to learn to be far more tactful in our assessment of films. Like Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), it’s possible to intelligently engage cultural ideas in a manner that is both forceful when necessary, and yet cordial and even complimentary at times of the positive aspects of non-Christian culture.

The Church has a vital role in promoting critical thinking skills that will inform viewers how they watch movies. That is why on August 5, Redemption Hill Church will continue to provide a venue for healthy discussion, which thereby enables us to become wiser in our dialogue regarding different worldviews and philosophies that are preached using the medium of film. This venture will be entitled Film and Theology, and will aim to help people understand our responsibility to mindfully engage the media that we enjoy. It will be an exercise, a tutorial if you will, for people who normally don’t think that film, and culture in general, has anything to do with God. We will be kicking off a Superhero Summer where we will be looking at two of the most iconic comic book characters (and Christ figures) in both literature and film: Superman and Batman.

If you are looking for a way to introduce the gospel to someone, bring them to our second Film and Theology event on Friday, August 5th, and be prepared to have some great conversations around the worldview that the superhero genre presents. Films have the intentional or unintentional ability to tap into the aspects of the One True Narrative that make them more than simple action movies, but gives them a depth that will endure long after the heroes fade. If we approach a movie like this with these things in mind, we will stop underestimating the power of narrative and engage it in meaningful ways, finding the seed of metanarrative and uncovering how these stories point to, or distract from, the incomparable tale of Truth Incarnate, who has the story on His lips, creation in his hand, conflict under his foot, and resolution in His blood.

imagrs

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