Box-office prognosticators are saying 2002 is on track to be a record-breaking year for film revenues. Audience attendance - and prices, of course - are up, as movie after movie rolls past the $100 million barrier separating the blockbusters from the also-rans.

Christians are called to do more than plunk down their money at the ticket counter. They're called to be discerning in their film selection, and in interpreting the films they choose to watch.

Are all films with violence verboten? How much cussing is too much? Is nudity ever appropriate? Are "R"-rated films acceptable for any Christian, much less those under the age of 17?

Screenwriter Brian Godawa tackles the tough issues Christians face in their movie viewing choices, examining the redemptive emphasis of storytelling, the competing worldviews expressed through today's cinema, and spirituality in the movies. Using several recent films as examples, Godawa's analysis offers a contemporary perspective on an important focal point of cultural dialogue: the language of movies.

  • Excess and abstinence. Godawa first establishes the dangers of excess, both in movie consumption and movie-avoidance. "Cultural abstainers often end up in irrelevance and alienation from others. I call these artistic teetotalers cultural anorexics. . . . The arts (of which movies are a part) are a God-given means of expressing our humanity. The creation of art, though flawed or imperfect, reflects the creativity and beauty of our Creator. To reject any of the arts in toto is to reject the imago Dei, the image of God in humanity."

    Godawa also rejects the widely held view that only films made by other Christians are appropriate viewing for believers: "Sometimes the most egregious lies are expressed though so-called Christian culture. For instance, dramatic pulpit oratory too often is infected by heresy, and public testimony too often panders to sensationalism. Christian movies, though well intentioned and sincere, often suffer from heavy-handedness in their desire to convert the unbeliever through art. Rather than being true to the ambiguities and difficulties of reality, rather than wooing the viewer with the right questions, an emphasis on answers often results in preachiness and a tendency toward platitudes. Authenticity and integrity can suffer because of manipulation. Which is more to be avoided: a pagan movie that rings true or 'Christian' propaganda that rings false?"

    The cultural anorexic's polar opposite, Godawa writes, is the cultural glutton: Someone who thoughtlessly devours any movie and lumps them all under the umbrella of "entertainment." "Cultural gluttons prefer to avoid analyzing movies beyond their entertainment value," Godawa says. "They just want to escape and have fun for two hours in another world. When challenged by cultural critics to discern the messages within the movies, these moviegoers balk at such criticism as being too analytical or 'reading into things.'"

    The key to all stories, according to Godawa, is their redemptive core. "They narrate the events surrounding characters who overcome obstacles to achieve some goal and who, in the process, are confronted with their personal need for change. In short, movie storytelling is about redemption-the recovery of something lost or the attainment of something needed."

    Storytelling is the engine that drives movies, and redemption is central to most stories, although humanistic forms of redemption, not Christian redemption, are usually expressed in the movies (exceptions to the rule include Les Miserables [1998], The Addiction, The Mission, Tender Mercies and Chariots of Fire).

  • No story is neutral: Every film expresses a worldview, one that is determined by the story's author and conveyed through the "dramatic interaction" of society's values, similar to ours. Thus, movies are a new form of mythology, a term that need not carry the negative connotations so many Christians assign to it. "We should not tremble at modern scholarship that sees historical fabrication in mythical origins," Godawa writes. "Just because there is similarity in myth between Christianity and other religions does not mean that Christianity is on an equal playing field with these religions or subordinate to a more generic Monomyth. Christianity is itself the true incarnation of the Monomyth in history, and other mythologies reflect and distort it like dirty or broken mirrors." Or, as C.S. Lewis has noted, "Christianity is myth which is also a fact. . . . By becoming fact, it does not cease to be myth: That is the miracle.'"

    Christianity's own mythology is unique in its inclusion of substitutionary atonement and unmerited grace. The Green Mile is one recent film with a positive Christ myth, while Hannibal is an anti-Christ myth - "the Christ myth turned upside-down by giving the villain, the infamous Hannibal Lecter, the Christ role," Godawa writes.