Go to the movies… But don’t turn off your brain.

How many of you have seen one movie in the past month (on TV or at the theater)? Two movies? Three? Ten? How many of you, like me, see so many movies on a regular basis it’s too hard to count? Do you know how many movies are made on average per year in Hollywood? Over the last ten years or so, Hollywood puts out an average of six hundred movies each year. That’s almost two a day–many many more if you include Bollywood. Movies are everywhere! They show up in abundance in our culture and in our lives. On that level alone movies are important to think about and discuss in our Christian communities as we try to help one another live more like Christ.

But movies aren’t only important because they’re prevalent. Movies are important because they communicate ideas about what is true. We’ve always used art as a way of expressing our beliefs about and experiences of reality: what is true about life and what it means to be a person, why is there evil and how can we be saved from it… “Man has always and will continue to express his hope and excitement, as well as his fears and reservations, about life and what it means to be human through the arts. He will seek to express his world through any and all available mediums, and presently that includes film.”1

So movies are important not just because they’re everywhere, but because they tell us about life and what it mans to be human. Normally, in church, when we talk about where our ideas about life and what it means to be a person and how we should live, where do we say those ideas come from? Right, the Bible.

And that’s true! But God has given us art too. And we need art and science and nature and each other and the Bible to interpret what is real, what is true. We need all of these things together to help us make sense of life; because life can sometimes be a mess. When your friend betrays you and you don’t know why. When your parents divorce. When life isn’t bad just uncertain, or confusing… or complicated because two boys like you at the same time or you’re not exactly sure where you want to go to college… Now, the Scriptures come first among all informers of reality; but we’ll come back to that.

I have to thank my friend and colleague Todd Kappelman; he works with me at Probe and he is a professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University. I’ll be pulling a lot from his lecture “Perspectives on Film: What’s in a movie?” Let me read you this quote from Todd:

“A film is able to convey an enormous range of human experience and emotions. A good film maker, script writer, director, producer, or actor can take us to places that we might never be able to see through our everyday experiences.” Can you think of some examples? Avatar. Lord of the Rings. Even movies like Saving Private Ryan or Braveheart. And because movies are able to involve us in situations that are outside of our everyday experiences, but that we can relate to, “[movies] may also show us things about our world that would otherwise remain hidden to the untrained eye.” For example, Wall-E. How many of you have seen Wall-E? So basically humanity destroys all oxygen-producing plant life and has to ship civilization out into outer space. Everyone’s on a giant cruise ship in space, lounging in these mobile recliners that take them wherever they want to go and they have these screens that pop up and they can order whatever food they want, and it comes right to them. And they’ve been living like this in space for years so everyone is super fat. There are a couple of underlying messages in this movie; they’re pretty obvious, right? Take care of the Earth our home and discipline yourself in this world of modern convenience. But because these messages are communicated to us, not directly in the world in which we live, but indirectly through a world with robots and space cruise ships, it’s a message that’s easier to swallow.

The underlying messages of Wall-E are pretty obvious; however, many movies have messages which are much more subtle. And unless we know what to look for and how to look for it we will miss it. We will miss what the movie is really saying behind the special effects and witty dialogue. Often movies communicate ideas about life and reality through symbols; it’s like code. The movies don’t often just come out and say, “This is the message about life from this movie.” So we need to learn how to interpret the code.

Movies have ideas and those ideas come from the women and men who make them. Duh. Right, I know. But we don’t always think about it. Every person has a worldview and that worldview is always in a person’s art.

My colleague Todd gives us five basic questions to ask when watching movies:

  1. How important is life to the director/writers, etc? Are tough issues dealt with or avoided? “Christian” movies come to mind when I think of this question. Sometimes these movies are really bad about candy-coating life–everything ends nice and neatly and all the bad stuff about life is kind of skipped over or neatly dealt with. This is a disservice because it isn’t true to life.
  2. Is there a discernible philosophical position in the film? If so, what is it, and can a case be made for your interpretation? How many of you saw Avatar? I saw it twice. It was awesome in 3D. I hear it’s even cooler in XD. I’ll let you in on a not so secret secret. Hollywood’s favorite and most popular worldview right now is pantheism. Think about Avatar and look at your chart (under Cosmic Humanism). See anything that rings familiar from the movie?
  3. Is the subject matter of the film portrayed truthfully? Here the goal is to determine if the subject matter is being dealt with in a way that is in agreement with or contrary to the experiences of daily reality. Let me think here… what comes to mind? Um… romantic comedies. Don’t get me wrong, I like many romantic comedies, but I also go to those movies with my brain turned on, watching the screen through my biblical worldview lenses. And it’s important we do that because those movies aren’t just fun-loving and warm-fuzzy, they also communicate ideas about romance and marriage and dating and sex. And if we go into these movies with our brains turned off, we will begin to subconsciously absorb these false ideas. If I’m not filtering the film with my biblical worldview, I can easily begin to expect my love life to be like the movies, which when I say it out loud like that sounds ridiculous. But it happens in subtle ways and more often than we think.
  4. Is there a discernible hostility toward particular values and beliefs? Does the film seek to be offensive for the sake of sensationalism alone? I think a case can be made that The DaVinci Code fits into this category. But you know, hostility toward Christianity is all over, not just movies, but TV too. When Christians are portrayed on the show Criminal Minds for example, they’re often extreme fundamentalists who hate gays and repress women. And you know, that’s a legitimate complaint against some who call themselves Christians. But when those are the only types of Christians shown time and time again on TV and in the movies, the whole picture isn’t being shown. It’s being distorted.
  5. Is the film technically well made, written, produced and acted? I confess, Transformers II was a major disappointment. It was technically well done; I mean, the special effects were awesome. But the writing… I felt like I was getting dumber sitting there listening to that dialogue. Even the plot had some holes in it, which was disappointing because I like action flicks.

Now as Christian interpreters, we have three more questions to ask ourselves:

  1. Does the interpretation of reality in this work conform to or fail to conform to Christian doctrine or ethics? Sometimes a movie will match up pretty solidly with the Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative of Scripture. Sometimes a movie will represent the complete opposite ideas about what life is like and what it means to be human. But most of the time, movies present to us ideas that partly conform to Christian doctrine or ethics. Because movies come out of the ideas in the heart and minds of the women and men who create them, and Romans 2 tells us that God has written his truth on the hearts of all people.
  2. If some of the ideas and values are Christian, are they inclusively or exclusively Christian? That is, do these ideas encompass Christianity and other religions or philosophic viewpoints, or do they exclude Christianity from other viewpoints? The case could be made that The Book of Eli presents Christian values in an inclusive way. It’s subtle, and if you blinked you might have missed it. The movie isn’t about preserving the Word of God. It’s about preserving the religious books of the world. And it is no mistake that the Bible was placed right next to the Koran in the library at the end.
  3. If some of the ideas and values in a work are Christian, are they a relatively complete version of the Christian view, or are they a relatively rudimentary version of Christian belief on a given topic? (Like Criminal Minds.)

Finally, a few cautions:

  1. Just because a movie depicts unChristian ethics or values doesn’t mean it’s bad art. Likewise, just because a movie depicts Christian values doesn’t mean it’s good art.
  2. Be careful not to allow your personal perspective to dominate the description of a particular work. Try to understand as many other perspectives as you can.
  3. Do not expect a non-Christian to agree with you, arrive at the same conclusions, or completely understand your perspective. At best we can hope to offer a clear and coherent insight into a work and thereby gain an opportunity for a Christian voice to be heard.

Okay. So movies are important. And so is the need for Christian interpretation. So if you like movies as much as I do, I hope you will go to the movies and keep your brain turned on because movies communicate messages about life and what it means to be human. And if we don’t turn on our brains, we will unknowingly begin to believe untruths about life and what it means to be human. Movies are also important because they provide a good, nonthreatening way to talk about truth and worldview—ideas about life and what it means to be human—with our friends.

______________________________________________________________

1. Kappleman, Todd, “15 Perspectives on Film: What’s in a Movie?”

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8 Responses to Go to the movies… But don’t turn off your brain.

  1. I like your first point at the end. I’m a big fan of movies that some say are a bit edgy, but I like them because the underlying truths they maintain are excellent. Take, ‘The Crow,’ for example.

  2. the bandit says:

    To me, a good movie can be on par with a good book, and can take you some places that a book can’t. One of the reasons I absolutely love the majority of M. Night Shyamalan’s films are the messages being conveyed in such a well-directed manner (which is not to say I think he has consistently well-directed). The thematic elements of Hancock caused me to greatly enjoy a film I would have otherwise had thought was just “okay.”

    And my filter was turned on so high during my first viewing of Book of Eli that I had to see it a second time just to be able to decide whether or not I liked it. (I did.)

    Which is all to say, Right on, sister, I agree wholeheartedly.

  3. reneamac says:

    Thanks guys. Those films are good examples of film as philosophical medium. And, as such, ways of minding the gap so to speak.

  4. Hiya! So question… what about not watching movies with violence/sexuality/language? Psalm 101:3 has always perked up my spiritual ears in this matter. I feel like it can become a legalistic situation, but sometimes I also think that we often want to say, “well, it’s for the sake of art” or “well I’m a Christian so I can watch this and be okay”.

    Just wonderin’.
    ~Jo

    • reneamac says:

      Great question Josmery. Thanks for bringing it up. I’m with you. I believe it is vital to our Christian calling to live as much as we can in the tension between the pulls of legalism and libertinism. The ebb and flow of this kind of living is, I believe, part of what in means to live the full, rich, abundant life of Christ. Augustine’s famous statement comes to mind: “Love God with all of your heart, and do as you please!”

      That being said, anyone who believes he or she is safe from the all the various temptations available in film is a fool. My colleague Todd wisely notes and advises, “Exercising rampant Christian freedom does not necessarily mean one is a strong Christian [referring to 1 Cor 8]. It could indicate that one is too weak to control one’s passions and is hiding behind the argument that they are a stronger brother. Examine and reexamine your motives continually!” If we choose to watch movies, we must approach them through a “framework of moderation,” as Todd calls it, that addresses our particular weaknesses, for we are all of us the weaker brother somewhere. “Teach me good discernment and knowledge, for I believe in Your commandments” (Ps 119:66).

      There is a difference between legalism and conviction. One of those differences is the legalistic compulsion to impose one’s personal convictions on others. It is possible to abstain from certain types of movies, or even all movies and television, in a genuinely free way. I love movies. And I greatly admire my friends who abstain; who don’t even have a TV. Together we add to the richness of each others’ lives by bringing perspective to one another about who God is and how we relate to him. Together we present to the world a fuller picture. It is the diversity of the Body that most beautifully represents Christ to the world.

      Thanks again Jo.

  5. connie miller says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the cautions stated above and as an avid movie fan; I have rated over 4500 movies on Netflix; I watch many diverse films.
    I saw Avatar one time, not in 3-D however; and I was sorely disappointed. It held no surprises for me, the dialogue seemed strained and I left feeling robbed…kind of a little bit.
    I was ready to leave after 30 minutes or so.
    Maybe because I am old and was around when the first Earth Day was proclaimed and have seen so many pan/polytheistic tales over my life, I am not caught off guard so easily.
    I must state, however that I adored the colors and the artists’ work that went in to making this film. Very creative and imaginative!
    My husband, T really liked it alot. “It’s not as good as Batman the Dark Knight or Pirates of the Caribbean though.”
    On the other hand I truly loved The Book of Eli. LOVED IT. I enjoyed the dark, brooding, post-apocalyptic, atmospheric feel. I didn’t even mind the violence since it was somewhat like the violence in my son’s video games. Not believable at all.
    Some of the close ups of Denzel’s face were truly art to me, I adored the theme of The Book being so sought after and valuable. Also that books of all kinds were preserved on that island whose name escapes me just now 😦
    Totally redemptive in the end.
    T asked me about 30 min. into it if I was ready to leave.
    So there you have it.
    Film and our appreciation of the media, is pretty subjective, even to married believers who USE THEIR FILTERS.

    The whole article above was very thoughtful and correct and informative. It and the comments of others have reminded me of the importance of not shutting my brain down when I pay big $$ for entertainment.
    In closing I must admit that I am a sucker for a movie just so I can see how a kitchen or whole house is decorated (Bewitched) & ( It’s Complicated )or what the Alaskan mountain ranges ( The Proposal ) look like. Hairstyles, fashion, cars, favorite movies stars are all reasons I will see certain films…shallow I know.

    addendum: please don’t critique my grammar, spelling or make my errors more significant than they have to be. I am an uneducated woman with freezing cold fingers today and probably HAVE made plenty of mistakes.

    • reneamac says:

      Thanks for commenting, Connie. I agree with you about the disappointing plot and dialogue in Avatar, but it’s too bad you didn’t see it in XD or 3D, because it really was breathtaking.

      PS. Sometimes it’s also important to be able to turn off your brain and go to the movies for “shallow” reasons; the issue really is training our minds to be able to think. 🙂

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