Films for Thought
Dr. James Emery WhiteDr. James Emery White's weblog
- 2012 Oct 18
In a moment, I’m going to ask you to name a movie that you believe would be a conversation-starter with a non-believer.
But first things first.
If you are like me, you like movies.
Even more, you have witnessed a cultural revolution over the last 20 years. We have moved, rather decisively, to a visually-based world. The most formative influences are not books, theater, or even music.
They are films.
Throw in videos and the rise of YouTube, and you have the essence of a cultural revolution. Not to mention something of a return to the medieval. In fact, in my latest book, The Church in An Age of Crisis, I argue that our culture is witnessing a shift to a neomedieval age.
For example, during the middle ages, there was widespread spiritual illiteracy, as well as actual illiteracy. People couldn’t read. This is why pilgrimages mattered so much to the pilgrim. Beyond the relics and holy places they thought might bestow grace, the (usually) cathedrals they visited that held the relics told the story of faith in a way they could understand.
Through stained glass.
So while people couldn’t, or didn’t, read, they couldn’t help but see.
I would argue that it’s no different today. We are spiritually illiterate and are visually oriented and visually informed.
Only now, instead of stained glass, we have film.
Imagine someone who fits the typical cultural bill: somewhat open to spiritual things, but turned off to religion and theologically illiterate (or at least, theologically confused).
But they like you, and they also like movies.
As a Christ-follower who cares about their eternity, you want to watch a film with them that will open up doors of conversation and perhaps even break through some barriers.
You know it can’t be something as blatant, and now out-of-date, as the old evangelistic films that Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures used to put out (admirable and adventurous as they were for their day). And you’re not sure they’re up for some of the current efforts, such as Fireproof or Courageous (also admirable but sometimes, to our current thinking, "cheesy").
And let’s assume you already dragged them to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
What you’re looking for is something they may have heard of…
...something that isn’t primarily aiming to proselytize,
...something that is mainstream and secular enough that they won’t be defensive toward,
…something that will invite an honest, fair conversation that isn’t forced,
…something that won’t seem contrived,
…something that is gritty, real-world, earthy, and barrier-removing.
Bottom line? You want a “stealth” film that will open up a line of dialogue that is a natural for spiritual issues.
Now, let’s help each other by coming up with those films.
And as we do it, let’s drop the argument over whether Christians should watch R-rated films. My thought is sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on the film. Regardless, let’s just bracket that off … deal?
So, with that in mind, here are five that came pretty quickly to my mind that I’ll present in order of their release dates.
The Omen (1976), directed by Richard Donner, starring Gregory Peck.
This is a film that is startlingly true to the biblical text, or at least one interpretation of it, in regard to the end times and the antichrist. It doesn’t flinch from the stark evil and diabolical ambition inherent within Satan and his schemes. It raises the reality of the spiritual realm in ways that acknowledge skepticism, but suggest that very skepticism may need to be trumped by spiritual reality.
Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott, starring Harrison Ford.
Few films truly carry “cult” status. Blade Runner does. When I have taught graduate-level classes on faith and culture, I have required my students to watch this film. Whatever your definition, or even rejection, of postmodernism might be, this film is ground zero. Further, it raises enormous questions related to the doctrine of humanity which I believe is the doctrine under attack in our day. We are inundated with dystopian visions of the future, and whatever that future may actually be, it is helpful to discuss what might actually lead to it.
The Wall (1982), directed by Alan Parker, starring Bob Geldof (and largely written by Roger Waters).
If you are like me, you own the album “The Wall” by Pink Floyd. Listening to it, even on the most superficial of levels, would suggest that there is a story afoot. There is. Actually, it’s a worldview. It’s called nihilism. When someone watches The Wall all the way through, there is such a sense of despair and depression that there can’t help but be an opening for a conversation of what might have offered hope.
Minority Report (2002), directed by Stephen Spielberg, starring Tom Cruise.
Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, as many of our more creative movies of late have been (e.g., Blade Runner, Total Recall, and The Adjustment Bureau), this film unashamedly tackles Christianity, free will, evil and predestination in a way that cannot help but initiate dialogue. Really – this one can’t help but start a deep – very deep – conversation. (*However, I will say that I might sub The Adjustment Bureau in for it for the same reasons, depending on the person).
Devil (2010), directed by John Erick Dowdle, starring Chris Messina.
Since it is based on writing from M. Night Shyamalan, you can expect the usual twist at the end (see The Sixth Sense, The Village). I didn’t see this film until recently, but was shocked at how theologically sound it was. Since this is not as well-known as the other four, here is the premise: five people are trapped in an elevator. One of them is Satan. You don’t know which one until the end. One by one they are murdered; and as their pasts come to light, it is clear they are being punished for their sins. In the end, you find out who Satan is, but that’s not the point. Here is the point: Is anyone able to be saved? And if so, how? That is what you and your friend will find yourselves talking about.
And in the end, hopefully praying about.
Okay, there you have my quick, and first, five. By no means do I think they are the top five. So let me know which ones come to your mind. I have friends who need Jesus, and I’m ready to hit a Redbox or delve into Netflix to watch something with them to make Him known.
So post away on the ChurchandCulture.org site, and let’s get a list, one that some quick Googling informed me has yet to be put together. So this could really serve a lot of people.
(*And yes, in typical C&C fashion, we’ll compile your postings in a way that seems to be of most value and share it with all blog subscribers).
James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.