Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Watch Movies with Wisdom and Discernment

  • Christian Hamaker Senior Editor, Arts & Culture
  • 2002 15 Jan
Watch Movies with Wisdom and Discernment
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.

  • Two dominant worldviews. Contemporary cinema is awash in both Existentialism and Postmodernism. "Existentialism accepts the Enlightenment notion of an eternally existing materialistic universe with no underlying meaning or purpose. [God] ceases to be relevant because, without meaning behind the universe, the concept of God is unnecessary." Movies that reflect a universe of chance events, without purpose, include Forrest Gump and Being There.

    "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.

  • Additional worldviews. Movies also reflect fate, monism, neo-Darwinism and neopaganism. "Cast Away (2001) . . . is an example of fate as a God substitute. . . . This survivor relives the so-called evolutionary 'stages of humankind' as he learns to find shelter, create tools, build fire and ultimately seek companionship. God is conspicuously absent from the entire search."

    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."

  • Christ-affirming films. Although Hollywood often portrays Christians as psychopaths and villains, some Christ-affirming films have emerged in recent years. But complex, thoughtful Christ-affirming films such as Sling Blade (a simpleton who believes in God), The Addiction (vampirism as metaphor for humanity's addiction to evil and inability to become good) and The Apostle (self-deception disguised as faith, but without repentance) struggle for an audience alongside such films as Best Picture winner Gladiator, with its vision of pagan spirituality.

    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.,, 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.

    What struggles do you have in deciding which movies are appropriate for you and your family? How has a recent film made you think more about God and how people relate to Him? Discuss this topic in Crosswalk's forums by clicking on the link below.

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