Watch Movies with Wisdom and Discernment
- Christian Hamaker Senior Editor, Arts & Culture
- 2002 15 Jan
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.
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 , The Addiction, The Mission, Tender Mercies and Chariots of Fire).
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.
"In Being There, Chance the gardener (a name chosen without coincidence) influences the president of the United States because Chance's simple-minded regurgitations of television platitudes are misinterpreted by accident as profound mysteries of genius. Forrest Gump has basically the same effect, with a simple-minded Forrest changing American history without even knowing it in a virtual exploration of the dual opposites of chance and destiny.
Pulp Fiction, with its out-of-sequence storyline, emphasis on irony and its lack of "good guys," was the first mainstream contemporary film to fully embrace Postmodernism - "the belief that there is no underlying objective reality or meaning to existence." Postmodern cinema emphasizes two perspectives of fantasy and reality: the fusion of fantasy and reality (Jumanji, Monkeybone and The Purple Rose of Cairo are lighter examples of this blending; Dancer in the Dark, The Player and Moulin Rouge are darker examples); the confusion of reality with fantasy (The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, Blade Runner and Fight Club.
A postmodern viewpoint needn't be feared; it can be healthy to question our view of reality, especially if it is built upon Enlightenment concepts that are unbiblical. But postmodernism -- a denial of reality itself -- should be rejected. "The illusion/reality dilemma is a great storytelling tool to challenge our assumptions about reality and truth, but taken to its extreme (that of denying all reality), it suffers under the weight of its own contradiction," Godawa writes.
Monism, the belief that all is one, results in the view that "all the different religions are merely masks for the same God. This pantheistic enlightenment is the redemption that is boldly evangelized in two mainstream movies with similar premises: Powder (1995) and Phenomenon (1996)." Both movies offer a Westernized version of monism: The title character of Powder "connects" a hunter with a dying deer, and he explains to another character how "oneness," not distinctions, define reality. Phenomenon's main character explains that his telekinesis shouldn't be feared because "everything is made up of living energy," and individual organisms -- human and non-human -- are joined in a "partnership."
Dinosaur "embodies the theory of evolutionary psychology that cooperation rather than competition is a trait of survival of the fittest," while Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a "sci-fi interpretation of [the] Gaia hypothesis - "the belief that the earth itself is a living organism with a feminine spirit or consciousness."
Godawa concludes, "Many movies deal with spiritual themes and issues, even those of a Christian nature. Some of these Christian elements are genuine, capturing a truthful portrait of authentic Christianity. Other spiritual elements are deconstructed or reinterpreted through countervailing worldviews, but they are not ignored. The argument could be made that movies that ignore God or the spiritual side of humanity are far more dishonest than those that attack God. For when a story attacks God or tries to redefine him, it is as least admitting that he is an issue, whereas ignoring him leaves the impression that he is a nonissue, irrelevant to our reality -- and those may be the most detrimental stories of all."
In evaluating movies with non-Christian worldviews, how does the Christian discern which films are appropriate viewing, and which are not? "Just as God permits the adult consumption of wine and strong drink (Deut. 14:26; John 2:1-11) but not its abuse (Ephesians 5:18), so many movies are for mature viewers because of their content but should not be carelessly consumed without caution or self-reflection as the unwary cultural glutton does. As viewers, we must be sensitive to our own weaknesses and negative propensities. . . . We must be careful to draw personal lines that we will not cross, based upon what particular things affect us negatively when we are exposed to them in movies."
Adapted from Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom & Discernment, copyright 2002 by Brian Godawa. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., www.ivpress.com, 1-800-843-9487.
Brian Godawa is an award-winning screenwriter who has taught and written on film and philosophy, screenwriting, and the art of watching movies.
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