Hollywood Worldviews

Dear Church Family,

I remember returning to the theatre to see the movie, The Matrix, for a second time, accompanied by another person. As we left the theatre, my friend said, “Wow! That movie strengthened my faith – I believe in Jesus more because of that movie!”

I’m sure that some who read this can resonate with that sentiment. Others are surely thinking, “Are you crazy?” I suppose your reaction is determined by where you fall on the continuum between cultural glutton and cultural anorexic. These are two distinctions that Brian Godawa makes in the introduction to his book, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment.

Cultural Glutton or Anorexic

According to Godawa, a cultural glutton is a person who consumes popular art too passively, without discrimination. A cultural glutton will be heard saying things like: “I just want to be entertained,” “You shouldn’t take it so seriously,” or “It’s only a movie.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, a cultural anorexic is a person who abstains from popular art to the point where he becomes irrelevant or alienated from the culture in which he lives. A cultural anorexic will be heard saying things like: “Movies corrupt the values of society,” “Too much sex and violence,” or “They’re worldly and a waste of time.”

Where do you fall on this continuum? Most of us have a tendency to swing from one extreme to the other. However, as Christians, because we have been called out of the world, while still living in the world (John 15:19), we have a responsibility to use biblically informed wisdom to evaluate, critique, appreciate, agree with, or oppose the messages which are communicated through popular art forms. Movies are one of the most popular, and whether we like it or not, one of the most influential art forms in our culture.

The Nature of Stories

Why is that, do you suppose? Why do human beings gravitate toward a well-told story in movie form? Well, I think there are actually two general reasons: we are sinners and we are created in the image of God. On the one hand, because we are sinners, we desire to watch the bawdy and titillating moving pictures which speak to our flesh. We want to be entertained in a way that will distract us from the real pain in our lives. Here, I want to be careful to add that just because something is entertaining or distracting, does not mean that it is sinful; however, we must be careful in where that entertainment and distraction leads us. On the other hand, because we are created in the image of God, we are drawn to stories – stories that stretch and teach us in ways that purely didactic instruction cannot. There is a reason for which the Bible is comprised of a lot of stories and for which Jesus told parables: our God who made us knows what speaks to us.

Godawa writes, “The nature of storytelling as narrative with a purpose and a view toward redemption is a presupposition of the Christian worldview. God, the author of history, tells fictional and nonfictional stories to show the meaning behind life and the possibility of redemption. Humankind, made in God’s image, has told stories in this way since creation.”

Movies as Short Stories

But, what I want to propose is that contemporary movies are not an entirely new genre. Certainly, the development of specific technologies in photography and cinematography are new in the grand scheme of history. Yet, the movie genre is rooted in the ancient art of story-telling. And (here’s my proposal), movies are cinematic forms of the literary genre known as the “short story.”

While short stories have been around for a long time, Edgar Allan Poe gave what has become the classic definition of the “short story” in his 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (http://www.eldritchpress.org/nh/nhpoe1.html). Poe uses the nomenclature or “brief tale” and there are at least two aspects of his definition that I would like to highlight – particularly as they relate to the genre of movies.

First, Poe argues that one of the critical components of the “brief tale” is that “during the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control. There are no external or extrinsic influences – resulting from weariness or interruption.” In other words, a short story or “brief tale” must be able to be read in one sitting. Novels, by their very nature, cannot usually be read in one sitting.

Second, Poe argues that “in the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.” The “brief tale” must have one driving point or one theme. And, the good short story writer will remove all other elements that do not carry or support that one point or theme. Again, the difference from the novel is clear: a novel is made better by adding various twists and turns, many plots and subplots, but the short story is made better by removing all distractions. Novels (like painting) are an additive art: they are made better by addition. Short stories (like photography) are made better by subtraction.

In both of these ways (brevity and unity of theme), contemporary movies are more like the literary genre of the short story then they are like that of the novel. [As an aside, it is also my contention that the genre of the sermon is – in these ways – more like the short story than the novel, but that’s a topic for another day.]

Examining the Story

So, the movie is like the literary genre of the short story, but I have another question: What are the criteria which we ought to use in determining whether or not a movie has a Christian worldview? Some may say that the movie must have an overtly Christian message. My personal view is that one of the primary criteria is that the protagonist must be saved, rescued, or redeemed by a source which is outside of himself. Of course, not every movie is about the redemption of the protagonist. For instance, in the classic hero story (retold in comics and movies) the protagonist is not the one being redeemed, but is, in fact, the redeemer (think Superman or Spiderman, for example). In this sense, some movies or stories point to the one true Act of redemption (Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection), or they point to the one true Redeemer (Jesus the Christ).

My point is that, as Christians, we ought to be asking thoughtful, probing questions about the popular art forms which we view (in this case, movies). Of course, there are some practical concerns which we must address first such as, how much gratuitous violence, sex, or obscene / blasphemous language does it contain? There are many Christian media critics that provide the service of reviewing movies with these criteria specifically in mind. These are very helpful.

But, just as importantly, we should be asking questions like, “What is the authorial intent?” “Is what this movie is saying true, or is it a lie?” “Does the story illustrate or help me to understand a particular aspect of God’s truth or is it simply a testimony to the depravity of man?” In Hollywood Worldviews, Godawa argues that “there is no such thing as a neutral story in which events and characters are presented objectively apart from interpretation…in a sense, movies are the new myths of American culture.”

Men’s Movie Night!

Next Wednesday, June 12th at 7:00 pm we will have a Men’s Movie Night at the church in the parlor. Thus far, we have planned for this to be a monthly event for the three months of the summer. We will see where it goes from there. The goal of each night will be to get together and watch a movie, and then discuss these and other questions. Through our interactions and discussions, I hope that we will learn and grow wisdom and discernment concerning our viewing of this popular and influential art form.

All men, of the church (and visitors: invite your friends) ages 13-113 are invited. For young men on the cusp of the lower end, we will leave it to the parents to apply discretion. For our family, my 13 and 12 year old sons will attend, but my 6 year old son will not. For the older men on the cusp of the other end, more power to you! I hope to see you all there. The June movie will be “Signs” (http://www.imdb.com/rg/em_share/title_web/title/tt0286106).

The Lord be with you!

- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch