Hollywood. Few words can spark such strong and wide-ranging reactions among believers.

Shakespeare introduced the famous line, "To be, or not to be?" into the theatre. Today, Christians bring a similar question with them to the movie theatre—"To see, or not to see?" For many believers wanting to stay true to their beliefs while they stay up with culture, that dramatic dilemma is the question.

When it comes to Hollywood's latest offerings, most of us fight an inner battle between ethics and entertainment. Douglas M. Beaumont addresses this very issue in his new book, The Message Behind the Movie:  How to Engage with a Film without Disengaging Your Faith (Moody Publishers), as well as why movies matter and the role faith should play at the box office.

A Different Approach

For Beaumont, film and faith met at a place you'd least expect—a preaching class in seminary. When his sermons needed improvement, his professor suggested Beaumont look outside the Bible for inspiration. "I started reading all these different books on screenwriting," he reflects, "and started realizing that a lot of the techniques that we use to study the Bible can be used to understand movies better."

Studying apologetics in seminary and as a professor at Southern Evangelical Seminary, Beaumont has come to terms with the fact that, like it or not, Hollywood is "the primary mover of cultural worldview in the West." Understanding how movies are put together—and what they're trying to accomplish—can be very useful for Christians as we look for ways to understand and interact with our world. "Culture and media are such a big part of apologetics and worldview training today." Beaumont explains. "I thought that there should be a resource out there that helps Christians deal with movies the way Hollywood deals with movies."

Christians need the help. Statistics show that Christians' movie viewing habits are about the same as the population at large. "That was my jumping-off point for the book," he says. Most books written for Christians on the topic of movies deal strictly with the ethical concerns of what we choose to view. "Usually, all Christians want to talk about is, ‘What should I see? What should I not see?'" he says. "I wanted to take a different approach."

Movie on Play, Mind on Pause

Since most believers are deciding to go to the box office on a regular basis anyway, Beaumont wants to move past the issues involved with deciding whether or not to watch films and start talking about how to watch films in light of our faith. According to Beaumont, measuring a movie based on its rating or by tallying profanities is often a less useful yardstick than breaking down a film and thinking about its core messages.

As we watch, he challenges us to think about how the meaning of a film is communicated through its style, its story, and its worldview. "I've tried to focus more on the interaction between me and the film," Beaumont says. "What is it saying to me? What can I say back to it in the form of evangelism and apologetics as I'm talking to people about it?" In other words, many of us as Christians need to learn how to watch a movie.

When it comes to movie watching, though, many of us think that the only equipment required is a ticket, a bucket of popcorn, and a pair of eyeballs. Beaumont says those aren't the only things we need when we step into the cinema—we also need to learn how to think critically and objectively about what we're experiencing. Once the movie starts playing, it's tempting to let our minds go on pause. But, he argues, if we keep our mind and our faith engaged as we view a film, good things can happen. We'll end up enjoying the viewing experience more and we'll be better able to dialogue with friends and family about what the film means and how it relates to our beliefs.

In The Message Behind the Movie, he takes us backstage for a look at how screenwriters and producers think as they construct their stories. He also demystifies how all the components of a film—things like style, sound, and story structure—work together to convey a filmmaker's message. Armed with an understanding of what goes into making a film, Christians can engage a film on multiple levels. We can appreciate a film's artistic achievements without neglecting how it relates to our faith.

So, can anything good come out of Hollywood? "Like most things in life, Hollywood is a mixed bag," he remarks. "It's pretty easy to say that at least some good things have come out of Hollywood. No one can watch Schindler's List—which was made by a major Hollywood producer—without it gripping your soul. And yet it is this incredibly transformative and amazing film." Beaumont admits that all films are not created equal. "Yeah, there's a lot of falsehood. There are films like The Da Vinci Code and a number of politically charged films" that are well-crafted but don't convey a good message. "At the bottom of the spectrum there are some films that are artistically and morally worthless."

With so many films scattered across this spectrum, how do we measure a particular film's worth? Is there a point where the good in a movie can outweigh the bad? Beaumont thinks there are two matters at play here:  What makes a movie good versus what makes a movie good for me to view. "We have to make a real strong distinction between talking objectively about what makes a movie good and a completely different question—should I go watch it?"

Take the ‘70s film, The Exorcist, for example. "There's probably not a scene in the movie that a Christian can comfortably sit through. And yet, it has a very good message that I think is strongly amplified by all those heavy, often disgusting, style elements. I can objectively say that the movie is good, but that doesn't mean that I think that anyone should watch it."

As we think about these questions, he reminds us to consider the Bible itself and how it relates its message. "There's a lot of communication in the Scripture that is a lot more descriptive and a lot more harsh than it has to be just to communicate the message," he points out. "Why did God do that? Why does God describe, in detail, people being killed? There are a lot more dimensions [to the Bible] than just factual meaning." God often constructs his stories for emotional impact and sometimes uses graphic elements to drive a point home. And that's not a bad thing.

To See or Not to See?

Beaumont doesn't see Hollywood as the enemy. "Hollywood is just a place where movies get made," he remarks. "There are a lot of Christians working in Hollywood—people like Ralph Winter who's behind most of the superhero movies that have come out lately along with TV's House, M.D. If Hollywood were 100% anti-Christian and anti-truth, guys like him wouldn't be able to survive." On the other hand he admits, "Hollywood is also more than willing to make movies they know won't make money just to be artistic and push the boundaries."

Ultimately, "To see, or not to see?" is a question each believer must answer on his or her own. Rejecting every box office offering robs us of important insight into our culture. But, failing to apply the guidelines Scripture and our conscience provide can harm our souls. Sharpening our eyes to see what films are communicating and sharpening our consciences to respond appropriately to those films takes maturity and insight. The Message Behind the Movie offers help on developing both.


For more information about The Message Behind the Movie:  How to Engage with a Film without Disengaging Your Faith, please visit Moody Publishers.

Douglas Beaumont is pursuing a Ph.D. at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews, NC.  He teaches Bible and philosophy at Southern Evangelical Bible College and speaks around the country on various topics related to Christianity.  His work has been published in The Christian Apologetics Journal, The Baker Dictionary of Cults and World Religions, and he was one of the only Protestant writers to be included in The Best Catholic Writing 2006.  He lives with his wife, son, bird and dog in Charlotte, North Carolina.  For more information, please visit his personal site here.

**This interview first published on September 23, 2009.